Top 100 UK Documentaries in 2021: Attenborough and familiar talent stand out in a 2nd troubled year of Covid

The BBC dominates the Top 10 most viewed Factual programs in the UK for 2021.

The mix of documentary and lifestyle programs is led by the Attenborough-narrated A Perfect Planet, with more than 7 million viewers and nearly 30% share.

Storm Clouds:

This week, the troubled Boris Johnson government announced an ominous overhaul of the BBC’s funding streams, implying a long-term threat to the provider of Britain’ most popular programs as well as to audiences worldwide through the Beeb’s web of copro and sales agreements.

Snapshot

My ratings snapshot for 2021 is comprised of:

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

A Perfect Planet

UK Broadcast Audience
Documentary & Hobbies Category
Top 50 
2021
(Highest-rated episode of series)

Title Channel Genre Genre Share 000’s
1 A PERFECT PLANET BBC One Documentaries Natural History 28.9% 7,001.6
2 ANTIQUES ROADSHOW BBC One Hobbies/Leisure Buying & Selling 37.4% 6,722.6
3 COUNTRYFILE BBC One Hobbies/Leisure Pursuits – Lifestyle 31.8% 6,324.5
4 TOP GEAR BBC One Hobbies/Leisure Pursuits – Auto 27.4% 6,288.9
5 THE REPAIR SHOP BBC One Hobbies/Leisure DIY 25.7% 6,070.0
6 KATE GARRAWAY: FINDING DEREK ITV Documentaries Human Interest 23.5% 5,749.0
7 BRADLEY WALSH & SON: BREAKING DAD ITV Documentaries Travel 24.4% 5,726.0
8 BRADLEY & BARNEY WALSH: BREAKING DAD ITV Documentaries Travel 24.1% 5,707.1
9 THE PEMBROKESHIRE MURDERS ITV Documentaries Crime 22.3% 5,666.1
10 ATTENBOROUGH’S LIFE IN COLOUR BBC One Documentaries Natural History 27.5% 5,641.4
11 LONG LOST FAMILY: BORN WITHOUT TRACE ITV Documentaries Human Interest 22.7% 4,995.1
12 WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE? BBC One Documentaries Human Interest 24.1% 4,897.5
13 PRINCE PHILIP: ROYAL FAMILY REMEMBERS BBC One Documentaries Modern History 22.5% 4,824.3
14 LONG LOST FAMILY ITV Documentaries Human Interest 21.6% 4,651.6
15 PAUL O’GRADY: FOR THE LOVE OF DOGS ITV Documentaries Natural History 21.0% 4,597.4
16 24 HOURS IN POLICE CUSTODY C4 Documentaries Fly on the Wall 18.1% 4,454.8
17 PADDY & CHRISTINE MCGUINNESS BBC One Documentaries Human Interest 21.3% 4,376.7
18 DNA JOURNEY ITV Documentaries Human Interest 20.6% 4,314.1
19 9/11: INSIDE THE PRESIDENT’S WAR ROOM BBC One Documentaries Modern History 21.8% 4,205.5
20 JOANNA LUMLEY’S HOME SWEET HOME ITV Documentaries Travel 18.3% 4,092.4
21 OUR YORKSHIRE FARM C5 Documentaries Human Interest 17.2% 3,980.2
22 THE MATING GAME BBC One Documentaries Natural History 22.0% 3,930.0
23 KATIE PRICE: HARVEY AND ME BBC One Documentaries Human Interest 16.9% 3,888.0
24 DIY SOS BBC One Hobbies/Leisure Pursuits – Lifestyle 16.1% 3,883.9
25 GRAND DESIGNS C4 Hobbies/Leisure Pursuits – Lifestyle 14.9% 3,771.5
26 HEATHROW: BRITAIN’S BUSIEST AIRPORT ITV Documentaries Fly on the Wall 17.2% 3,769.4
27 LOVE YOUR GARDEN ITV Hobbies/Leisure Gardening 16.7% 3,731.9
28 REMEMBRANCE SUNDAY: THE CENOTAPH BBC One Current Affairs Special Events 48.2% 3,702.3
29 GREAT POTTERY THROW DOWN C4 Hobbies/Leisure Pursuits – Lifestyle 14.0% 3,702.3
30 EARTHSHOT PRIZE: REPAIRING OUR PLANET BBC One Documentaries Natural History 25.2% 3,691.9
31 AMBULANCE BBC One Documentaries Fly on the Wall 18.9% 3,644.4
32 CRAIG & BRUNO’S GREAT BRITISH ROAD ITV Documentaries Travel 22.5% 3,627.7
33 CORNWALL AND DEVON WALKS ITV Documentaries Travel 17.0% 3,592.2
34 INSIDE CHERNOBYL WITH BEN FOGLE C5 Documentaries Modern History 17.3% 3,584.4
35 MARTIN LEWIS EXTREME SAVERS ITV Documentaries Human Interest 18.7% 3,565.7
36 RESPONSE BY OPPOSITION (Peter”s sorting error) ITV Current Affairs Political/Eco/Social 22.5% 3,459.1
37 DANCING ON THIN ICE / TORVILL & DEAN ITV Documentaries Natural History 14.1% 3,434.1
38 RHS CHELSEA FLOWER SHOW BBC One Hobbies/Leisure Gardening 25.5% 3,372.8
39 FRIENDS: THE REUNION Sky One Documentaries Arts, TV, Film & Music 45.6% 3,370.6
40 MARY BERRY’S FESTIVE FEASTS BBC One Hobbies/Leisure Cookery 20.2% 3,356.9
41 BRADLEY AND BARNEY: BREAKING DAD ITV Documentaries Travel 16.5% 3,351.2
42 FAKE OR FORTUNE? BBC One Documentaries Arts, TV, Film & Music 17.1% 3,336.5
43 THE MARTIN LEWIS MONEY SHOW: LIVE ITV Current Affairs Consumer Affairs 18.9% 3,188.4
44 INTERIOR DESIGN MASTERS / ALAN CARR BBC Two Hobbies/Leisure Pursuits – Lifestyle 13.0% 3,129.0
45 CAROLINE FLACK: HER LIFE AND DEATH C4 Documentaries Celebrity 13.9% 3,104.7
46 LONG LOST FAMILY: WHAT HAPPENED NEXT ITV Documentaries Human Interest 17.3% 3,093.1
47 GARDEN RESCUE BBC One Hobbies/Leisure Gardening 17.2% 3,066.9
48 FORENSICS: THE REAL CSI BBC Two Documentaries Fly on the Wall 13.1% 3,020.4
49 BRITAIN’S BEST WALKS / JULIA BRADBURY ITV Hobbies/Leisure Pursuits – Lifestyle 14.0% 3,010.0
50 UNDERCOVER BIG BOSS ITV Documentaries Fly on the Wall 15.1% 3,008.9

Read more below…

HRH Queen Elizabeth at her husband’s funeral service.
The audience was comparable to Attenborough’s Planet and twice the share.

Quick Takeaways

  • In the 2nd year of Covid, UK viewers sought out programs, formats and talent that are familiar and comfortable.
  • David Attenborough‘s towering appeal is even further amplified as viewers turned to his hallmark natural history series at #1.
  • The 2020 Top Takeaway theme of Land & Country continues in 2021 with the success of the nostalgic Antiques RoadshowCountryfile, Repair Shop,
  • And Our Yorkshire Farm (#21) is a triumph for underdog Channel 5.

Documentaries

Among the ‘tough topic’ documentaries in the Top 50 are:

  • 9/11: Inside The President’s War Room, a BBC /Apple TV+ project built on unique access to president Bush’s inner circle.
  • Kate Garraway Finding Derek: BAFTA winner captures the  suffering and care demandd by long term Covid.
  • Earthshot Prize was Prince William’s showcase for innovative climate change solutions.

Royals

  • I see fewer History and Royal Family programs than in past years’ Top 50’s.
  • However, I cross-checked the Current Affairs category to find huge audiences for broadcasts of the Queen’s Christmas greetings and for Prince Phillip’s funeral:

  • A friend writes: “The image of the Queen sitting alone at Prince Philip’s funeral is regarded as one of the most poignant and representative of the pandemic in the UK.”

Natural History

  • The genre remains popular and endearing, with both blue chip and popular (Love of Dogs) shows ranked among the top 100.

Best of British 2021
#51-100

Title Channel Genre Genre Share 000’s
51 MILLION POUND PAWN ITV Documentaries Fly on the Wall 13.1% 3,005.7
52 WHAT ARE WE FEEDING OUR KIDS? BBC One Documentaries Science/Medical 16.9% 2,995.2
53 JOHNNY BRIGGS: CORONATION ST LEGEND ITV Documentaries Celebrity 14.6% 2,988.7
54 GARDENERS’ WORLD BBC Two Hobbies/Leisure Gardening 13.3% 2,961.1
55 ATTENBOROUGH / MAMMOTH GRAVEYARD BBC One Documentaries Natural History 18.3% 2,952.4
56 THE REAL MANHUNT: THE NIGHT STALKER ITV Documentaries Crime 14.1% 2,912.2
57 SEVEN WORLDS, ONE PLANET BBC One Documentaries Natural History 17.4% 2,903.9
58 THE QUEEN UNSEEN ITV Documentaries Modern History 12.5% 2,901.2
59 THE DETECTIVES: FIGHTING ORGANISED CRIME BBC Two Documentaries Crime 13.2% 2,900.1
60 QUESTION TIME BBC One Current Affairs Political/Eco/Social 14.3% 2,898.1
61 ALAN TITCHMARSH: SPRING INTO SUMMER ITV Hobbies/Leisure Gardening 14.8% 2,895.2
62 LOUIS THEROUX BBC Two Documentaries Human Interest 12.3% 2,893.5
63 WINTERWATCH BBC Two Documentaries Natural History 14.3% 2,892.0
64 ELECTIONS 2021 BBC One Current Affairs Political/Eco/Social 16.2% 2,885.0
65 RETURN TO DUNBLANE / LORRAINE KELLY ITV Documentaries Modern History 14.0% 2,872.6
66 PARKINSON AT 50 BBC One Documentaries Arts, TV, Film & Music 20.9% 2,867.2
67 THE DAY WILL AND KATE GOT MARRIED ITV Documentaries Modern History 12.6% 2,841.2
68 THE BIDDING ROOM BBC One Hobbies/Leisure Buying & Selling 13.7% 2,834.4
69 RIP OFF BRITAIN BBC One Current Affairs Consumer Affairs 19.1% 2,829.0
70 THE LAKES WITH SIMON REEVE BBC Two Documentaries Travel 13.9% 2,826.4
71 MY YEARS WITH THE QUEEN ITV Documentaries Modern History 13.2% 2,820.8
72 JAMES MARTIN’S ISLANDS TO HIGHLANDS ITV Documentaries Travel 15.5% 2,809.2
73 THE QUEEN AND HER COUSINS ITV Documentaries Human Interest 12.7% 2,787.6
74 BRITAIN’S TIGER KINGS – ON THE TRAIL ITV Documentaries Human Interest 12.4% 2,774.5
75 EAT, SHOP, SAVE ITV Current Affairs Consumer Affairs 17.8% 2,750.9
76 INSIDE THE FACTORY BBC Two Documentaries Fly on the Wall 13.0% 2,747.3
77 DEC AFGHANISTAN CRISIS APPEAL ITV Current Affairs Special Events 18.6% 2,728.8
78 SPRINGWATCH BBC Two Documentaries Natural History 15.5% 2,728.2
79 THE TRUMP SHOW BBC Two Current Affairs Political/Eco/Social 12.1% 2,727.3
80 HRH DUKE OF EDINBURGH REMEMBERED BBC One Documentaries Modern History 16.7% 2,703.5
81 ACCUSED OF MURDERING OUR SON ITV Documentaries Crime 14.2% 2,702.6
82 I CAN’T SAY MY NAME: STAMMERING BBC One Documentaries Human Interest 13.7% 2,690.5
83 MANHUNT C5 Documentaries Crime 13.4% 2,674.8
84 BARGAIN HUNT BBC One Hobbies/Leisure Buying & Selling 32.6% 2,665.8
85 NO BODY RECOVERED ITV Documentaries Crime 13.8% 2,665.0
86 THIS TIME WITH ALAN PARTRIDGE BBC One Current Affairs Magazine 12.2% 2,660.7
87 AMAZING HOTELS: LIFE BEYOND THE LOBBY BBC Two Documentaries Travel 13.0% 2,657.5
88 SOUTH AFRICA WITH GREGG WALLACE ITV Documentaries Travel 13.1% 2,654.2
89 SAVILE: PORTRAIT OF A PREDATOR ITV Documentaries Crime 13.3% 2,652.4
90 DIANA ITV Documentaries Celebrity 16.1% 2,633.2
91 9/11: LIFE UNDER ATTACK ITV Documentaries Modern History 13.3% 2,623.1
92 MARTIN CLUNES: ISLANDS OF AUSTRALIA ITV Documentaries Natural History 12.6% 2,607.8
93 ESCAPE TO THE CHATEAU C 4 Hobbies/Leisure Pursuits – Lifestyle 13.1% 2,606.3
94 STONEHENGE: THE LOST CIRCLE REVEALED BBC Two Documentaries History 11.0% 2,598.7
95 KIRSTIE AND PHIL’S LOVE IT OR LIST IT C4 Hobbies/Leisure Pursuits – Lifestyle 11.8% 2,578.9
96 THE ANDREW MARR SHOW BBC One Current Affairs Political/Eco/Social 37.9% 2,563.3
97 THE CRASH DETECTIVES BBC One Documentaries Fly on the Wall 12.0% 2,551.2
98 LOVE YOUR GARDEN THEMED SPECIALS ITV Hobbies/Leisure Gardening 15.1% 2,540.0
99 BEYOND THE LINE: N. WALES TRAFFIC COP ITV Documentaries Fly on the Wall 13.5% 2,537.2
100 MORTIMER & WHITEHOUSE: GONE FISHING BBC Two Hobbies/Leisure Pursuits – Lifestyle 12.2% 2,536.2

Netflix Factor

  • Ratings for Netflix and other streamers not yet regularly available at the genre/programme level.
  • But BARB indicated SVOD/AVOD in December taking 15% share of overall total viewing

Notes on the Data

  • The ‘000’ 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 data and categories come from various ratings agencies, and titles are sometimes incomplete
  • #36 RESPONSE BY LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION — my mistake: accidentally included in Docs/Lifestyle

Genre Pie Chart
(Thx Vijay Mavjee)