Top 100 UK Documentaries in 2020: The Land & Country theme comforts viewers in a troubled year

This week’s post covers the UK’s highest-rated documentary and unscripted programs for the year in which COVID struck.

My ratings snapshot for 2020 is comprised of:

  • The Top 50 in the combined Documentary and Lifestyle / Hobbies categories.
  • My Takeaways.
  • Then #51-100.

The challenging landscape

The wonderfully inventive UK Factual industry is enduring the triple disruptions of:

  • COVID, bringing a drop in ad revenues and disruptions to the production pipeline.
  • The meteoric rise of Netflix with its $17-20 billion to spend on all genres worldwide, plus competition from other streaming platforms.
  • And a reactionary government that is deeply hostile to the BBC.

For the broadcasters, this dramatic shift translates into a shrinking and ageing audience, senior executive turnover, and waves of budget cuts.

I’m watching closely to see if this pressure cooker of negativity:

  • Drains the creative energy out of the UK broadcast community, OR
  • Inspire wonderful new ideas for singles, series and formats, as in past decades.

Scroll down for the Top 50…

Notes on the Data

  • The ‘000 P4+’ column refers to viewers 4 years and older in thousands.
  • Share refers to the program’s share of television sets in use at that time.
  • The data refers to highest single episode in a series.
  • The categories come from BARB, and titles are sometimes incomplete.
  • Ratings for Netflix and other streamers are not available.

UK Broadcast Audience
Documentary & Hobbies Category
Top 50
2020

Channel Program ‘000 P4+ Share
1 BBC 1 Antiques Roadshow 7,846 29.0
2 BBC 1 The Repair Shop 6,885 28.9
3 BBC 1 Countryfile 6,883 34.4
4 ITV Bradley Walsh & Son: Breaking Dad 5,799 27.0
5 BBC 1 Top Gear 5,770 26.7
6 ITV Long Lost Family: Born Without Trace 5,657 24.6
7 BBC 1 Who Do You Think You Are? 5,274 23.1
8 BBC 1 Ambulance 4,946 24.8
9 ITV Anne: The Princess Royal at 70 4,904 23.9
10 ITV Bradley Walsh: Happy 60th Birthday 4,848 20.6
11 ITV The Real ‘Des’: The Dennis Nilsen Story 4,735 24.1
12 ITV Welcome to HMP Belmarsh with Ross Kemp 4,457 18.3
13 BBC 1 Extinction: The Facts 4,374 22.4
14 ITV The Virtual Grand National 4,280 27.4
15 BBC 1 Dame Vera Lynn: We’ll Meet Again 4,256 25.5
16 BBC 1 Primates 4,211 16.8
17 BBC 1 Garden Rescue 4,190 21.5
18 BBC 2 Inside Monaco: Playground of the Rich 4,178 17.8
19 BBC 1 DIY SOS 4,160 19.9
20 BBC 1 Planet Earth: A Celebration 4,109 21.7
21 BBC 1 Eat Well for Less? 4,029 18.7
22 BBC 1 Blue Planet Revisited 3,942 23.2
23 BBC 1 Sue Perkins: Along the US-Mexican Border 3,913 18.6
24 BBC 1 Reported Missing 3,872 20.8
25 ITV Cilla: The Lost Tapes 3,844 17.7
26 CH4 24 Hours in Police Custody 3,824 14.6
27 BBC 2 A House Through Time 3,816 17.5
28 ITV Absolutely India: Mancs in Mumbai 3,807 17.0
29 ITV Paul O’Grady: For the Love of Dogs 3,801 17.7
30 BBC 2 Gardeners’ World 3,798 16.1
31 ITV Heathrow: Britain’s Busiest Airport 3,774 19.2
32 ITV Paul O’Grady’s Great British Escape 3,751 17.3
33 ITV The Diana Interview: Revenge of a Princess 3,749 16.0
34 ITV Paul O’Grady for the Love of Dogs 3,679 19.6
35 BBC 2 Cornwall with Simon Reeve 3,565 14.5
36 ITV Long Lost Family: What Happened Next 3,546 15.4
37 BBC 1 A Tribute to Dame Vera Lynn 3,522 19.9
38 Channel 5 Our Yorkshire Farm 3,507 17.6
39 ITV The Greek Islands with Julia Bradbury 3,501 16.9
40 ITV Long Lost Family Born Without a Trace 3,497 17.6
41 CH4 Escape to the Chateau 3,440 17.4
42 ITV Rose West, Myra Hindley: Their Untold Story 3,431 16.2
43 CH4 Murder in the Outback 3,421 16.6
44 ITV Prince William: A Planet for Us All 3,418 18.0
45 BBC 1 My Family, The Holocaust and Me 3,413 14.9
46 BBC 1 True North 3,382 17.0
47 ITV Madeleine McCann: The Hunt for the Prime Suspect 3,363 18.0
48 ITV Joanna Lumley’s Hidden Caribbean: Havana to Haiti 3,341 14.7
49 BBC 1 Easy Ways to Live Well 3,326 15.7
50 ITV Britain’s Best Walks with Julia Bradbury 3,325 19.3

TAKEAWAYS

Land & Country

  • The hit breakthrough of the COVID year is the folksy, sentimental Repair Shop (#2) in which damaged family treasures are brought back to life by accomplished craftspeople.
  • The series is led by the relatable and expert host, furniture restorer Jay Blades.
  • Antiques Roadshow returns to #1, and Countryfile rides at #3 — a trifecta that confirms the British audience’s appetite for nostalgia in a hard time.
  • The Channel 5 hit Our Yorkshire Farm (#38) is one of many British nostalgia and rustic travel shows found further down the list.

Natural History / Pets

  • The Natural History genre is led by David Attenborough’s challenging Extinction The Hard Facts (#13).
  • Otherwise the genre relies mainly on visits to the archive (Primates, #16), and to strong franchises, notably Blue Planet Revisited (#22), Springwatch (#62) and Spy in the Wild (#73.)
  • ITV’s long-running Paul O’Grady: For the Love of Dogs (#29) leads in the Pets category.

History

  • A House Through Time (#27) is a standout for BBC2, and ticks the “homey” COVID mood of the year.
  • Another History notable at #69 is Captain Tom’s War. I was saddened to read today that this inspiring hero had passed away of COVID complications at 100.
  • Darker stories from the past are less prominent.

Talent Tops Crime

  • Great British crimes and criminals are on the list, but are less present than in previous years: There’s enough dark and edgy outside already.
  • The Top 50 is more populated with comfortable and often loveable talent of today and yesterday.
  • See: Bradley Walsh, Cilla, Vera Lynn, Attenborough, Paul O’Grady, Nigella, and many more.
  • Crime meets Talent in Welcome to HMP Belmarsh (#12), where the relatable Ross Kemp leads us inside a notorious maximum security prison.
  • C4’s Murder in the Outback (#43) somewhat bucks the trend by delivering death in an exotic destination.

Royals 

  • The Windsor family becomes more present as the year progresses, maybe because HRH Andrew‘s troubles faded a bit
  • There were fewer royal births, baptisms, weddings, birthdays, anniversaries and funerals that could be covered in COVID.
  • That said, Princess Anne’s 70th Birthday ranks #9 (who knew so many cared!).
  • The Diana Interview: Revenge of a Princess (#33) received a boost from The CrownDiana In Her Own Words on Netflix.
  • Prince William follows the Attenborough path in A Planet For Us All (#44), and tests a football / mental health genre blend (#97).

COVID

  • The pandemic makes rare appearances on the list (Surviving The Virus: My brother and Me #77), perhaps because Britain’s COVID tragedy is well-covered by Current Affairs producers.
  • Looking outside the Factual category, The Queen’s Covid Address attracted more than 14 million viewers and an astounding 45.8 share.

Those are my Takeaways for the moment. I glossed over so much. LMK if you disagree.

Final thought: Tens of thousands of new and repeated Factual programs are offered to UK viewers each year. Making it to the Top 100 is no mean feat!

Here are #51-100:

UK Broadcast Audience
Documentary & Hobbies Category
Top 51-100 1H
2020

Channel Program ‘000 Share
51 ITV The Savoy 3,319 15.3
52 BBC 1 Sir David Jason at 80 3,293 20.3
53 ITV Tyson Fury: The Gypsy King 3,178 14.1
54 ITV St David’s: Britain’s Smallest City 3,170 12.2
55 BBC 2 Nigella’s Cook, Eat, Repeat 3,165 15.3
56 ITV Love Your Garden 3,164 15.8
57 BBC 1 RHS Chelsea Flower Show 3,157 21.8
58 BBC 2 Inside the Factory 3,146 13.0
59 (Error)    
60 BBC 1 Idris Elba Meets Paul McCartney 3,121 18.0
61 ITV John Bishop’s Great Whale Rescue 3,115 14.3
62 BBC 2 Springwatch 2,971 16.2
63 ITV Griff’s Great Australian Adventure 2,969 15.4
64 CH4 Lose a Stone in 21 Days with Michael Mosley 2,953 14.1
65 BBC 1 Our Lives 2,948 15.0
66 ITV Grow Your Own at Home with Alan Titchmarsh 2,945 15.2
67 BBC 2 Mortimer & Whitehouse: Gone Fishing 2,943 12.5
68 ITV Manhunt: the Raoul Moat Story 2,909 13.1
69 ITV Captain Tom’s War 2,876 14.4
70 BBC 1 The Truth About… 2,870 15.5
71 ITV Joanna Lumley’s Unseen Adventures 2,869 13.5
72 BBC 1 Rio and Kate: Becoming a Stepfamily 2,868 12.8
73 BBC 1 Spy in the Wild 2,862 11.3
74 ITV Michael Palin: Travels of a Lifetime 2,857 13.0
75 ITV The Millennium Dome Heist with Ross Kemp 2,831 12.8
76 ITV Des O’Connor: The Ultimate Entertainer 2,828 13.8
77 BBC 1 Surviving the Virus: My Brother & Me 2,827 13.6
78 BBC 1 Blue Planet II 2,814 18.2
79 BBC 2 Murder 24/7 2,808 10.8
80 ITV Harbour Cops 2,805 14.2
81 ITV Death Row’s Women with Susanna Reid 2,793 13.3
82 ITV For the Love of Britain 2,732 14.8
83 ITV Britain’s Busiest Motorway 2,709 14.2
84 CH4 Barrymore: The Body in the Pool 2,708 14.0
85 BBC 1 Bargain Hunt 2,695 29.1
86 ITV Ross Kemp: On the NH5 Frontline 2,665 12.6
87 ITV Inside the Crown: Secrets of the Royals 2,659 10.5
88 CH4 24 Hours in the A&E 2,653 12.2
89 ITV Long Lost Family 2,623 12.9
90 ITV Rock on, Tommy: The Bobby Ball Story 2,612 14.0
91 ITV The Metro: A Rail Life Story 2,612 13.9
92 ITV The Station: Trouble on the Tracks 2,606 11.7
93 BBC 2 Back in Time for the Corner Shop 2,600 12.7
94 ITV The Village 2,560 12.2
95 CH4 Devon and Cornwall 2,552 12.5
96 ITV Ross Kemp: Living with… 2,548 14.3
97 BBC 1 Football, Prince William and Our Mental Health 2,509 14.7
98 ITV London Zoo: An Extraordinary Year 2,505 12.8
99 CH4 Location, Location, Location 2,503 10.7
100 Channel 5 The Great Plague 2,482 8.8

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