After a 2020 dedicated to being stuck in our living rooms, things vaguely started returning to normal in 2021 (don’t mention the ‘O’ word) and there was plenty of time for breakout hits and established ratings giants.
Here, Deadline takes you through the five most-watched TV episodes of the year in the UK (excluding news and sport), with consolidated seven-day Barb ratings data supplied by overnights.tv. While drama and mainstream entertainment dominate as ever, there is also an appearance for that royal interview. Read on.
Line of Duty – 15.2M (BBC1 – Sunday May 2)
It may have been the most hotly-anticipated TV drama of the decade. The sixth-season finale of Jed Mercurio’s police thriller epic was admittedly met with a mixed reception from critics and viewers alike but the show had been watched by around one-quarter of the British population by the following weekend, guaranteeing it first place in the most-watched list. Bucking the trend of numerous shows that have lost viewers as the seasons roll on, Line of Duty’s popularity has grown series-by-series since it launched on BBC2 with Thandiwe Newton leading AC-12 a decade ago. World Productions’ show is that rare thing: a Sunday night drama that families still gather around the TV to watch at 9PM before inspiring ‘watercooler moments’ in the office the next day (well, ‘Zoom watercooler moments’). The finale may have disappointed, as quiet oaf Buckells was revealed to be the answer to the agonizing question of “Who is H?,” but Mercurio is yet to completely dismiss the idea of a seventh series. There’s no reason to think another run would be any less impactful than this one.
Oprah With Meghan and Harry 13.9M (ITV – Monday March 8)
A furious bidding war broke out when CBS announced it would be airing an Oprah Winfrey sit-down with Prince Harry and wife Meghan Markle just months after the pair made the explosive decision to move to the U.S. and ditch many of their royal duties – a move seen by some as the biggest act of royal deceit since the abdication of King Edward VIII. ITV won out ahead of the likes of Sky and Discovery and the network’s circa-$1M ($1.3M) gamble was richly rewarded as almost 14M tuned in for the bombshell interview – the year’s second most-watched TV show. The interview was irresistible, with revelations such as an unnamed royal questioning son Archie’s skin color emerging, news that is still dominating the UK press agenda almost one year on. Meanwhile, viewers were given an inside look at Meghan’s relationship with sister-in-law Kate Middleton, discovered she had experienced suicidal thoughts during her time in Buckingham Palace (which sparked a chain of events that led to Piers Morgan storming off the set of ITV’s GMB) and peaked into her and Harry’s hip new L.A. lifestyle. UK broadcasters will be keeping a keen eye on the next big interview to come from across the pond.
Strictly Come Dancing 12.2M (BBC1 – Saturday December 18)
This BBC blockbuster talent show has been an established part of the UK TV winter schedule for nigh on two decades and this year’s show touched the nation’s hearts in ways most unexpected. The December 18 finale showcased the best of UK diversity, contested between Strictly’s first ever deaf contestant, debut all-male couple and an up-and-coming Black presenter (although, sadly, AJ Odudu had to pull out due to injury). In the end, EastEnders actor Rose Ayling-Ellis took home the crown with partner Giovanni Pernice, ahead of John Whaite and Johannes Radebe. Ayling-Ellis lit up the competition week-by-week, dazzling viewers with the likes of her and Pernice’s 30-second ‘silent dance,’ which became a viral hit. The whole series once again acted as a welcome antidote to dark times and there was of course the regular mix of stunning performances, outrageous judges’ comments and guest appearances that have turned what may seems a niche hobby format into one of the BBC’s brightest shows (and one of BBC Studios’ most sellable formats) of the millennia. Long may this camp talent show wow audiences and smash societal taboos.
I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here! 10.8M (ITV – Sunday November 21)
Owing to a series of unfortunate events, I’m A Celeb did slip a bit this year in the ratings but it’s testament to the Ant and Dec-hosted stalwart that some episodes still managed to top 10M consolidated viewers and the opener ranks fourth on the most-watched list. As with Strictly, a soap actor took home the crown, with Emmerdale’s Danny Miller winning first prize having struck up an unlikely bromance with former football star David Ginola. While, as ever, ITV Studios’ series was highly entertaining, not least due to Ant and Dec’s regular political outbursts, the year’s 21st season was beset with problems. The destructive Storm Arwen caused four consecutive live shows to be cancelled as the contestants were whisked to a safe place and popular contestant Richard Madeley had to leave early due to poor health. After two years in a Welsh castle, a move forced upon ITV Studios by the Covid-19 pandemic, producers now need to decide whether next year returns to its more expensive but established Australian home.
Vigil 10.4M (BBC1 – Sunday September 26)
Sneaking in just ahead of ITV’s Masked Singer is this submarine thriller from the makers of, you guessed it, Line of Duty. The claustrophobia-causing procedural from Crown writer Tom Edge grew its audience significantly through the run – no mean feat for a debut series – and was injected with plenty of anxiety-inducing moments lifted straight from the World Productions/Jed Mercurio playbook. Vigil stars Doctor Foster’s Suranne Jones as DCI Amy Silva (pictured) of the Scottish police service, who is called to investigate a death on board a fictional submarine, bringing her into conflict with the Royal Navy and MI5 and leading to a set of devastating discoveries. Having sold to Peacock in the U.S., more international deals will likely be forthcoming in 2022, while Edge has already teased a second series.
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