StoryScout 2024

Documentary Business

Peter Hamilton Consultants, Inc

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

ChannelProgram‘000 P4+Share
1BBC 1Antiques Roadshow7,84629.0
2BBC 1The Repair Shop6,88528.9
3BBC 1Countryfile6,88334.4
4ITVBradley Walsh & Son: Breaking Dad5,79927.0
5BBC 1Top Gear5,77026.7
6ITVLong Lost Family: Born Without Trace5,65724.6
7BBC 1Who Do You Think You Are?5,27423.1
8BBC 1Ambulance4,94624.8
9ITVAnne: The Princess Royal at 704,90423.9
10ITVBradley Walsh: Happy 60th Birthday4,84820.6
11ITVThe Real ‘Des’: The Dennis Nilsen Story4,73524.1
12ITVWelcome to HMP Belmarsh with Ross Kemp4,45718.3
13BBC 1Extinction: The Facts4,37422.4
14ITVThe Virtual Grand National4,28027.4
15BBC 1Dame Vera Lynn: We’ll Meet Again4,25625.5
16BBC 1Primates4,21116.8
17BBC 1Garden Rescue4,19021.5
18BBC 2Inside Monaco: Playground of the Rich4,17817.8
19BBC 1DIY SOS4,16019.9
20BBC 1Planet Earth: A Celebration4,10921.7
21BBC 1Eat Well for Less?4,02918.7
22BBC 1Blue Planet Revisited3,94223.2
23BBC 1Sue Perkins: Along the US-Mexican Border3,91318.6
24BBC 1Reported Missing3,87220.8
25ITVCilla: The Lost Tapes3,84417.7
26CH424 Hours in Police Custody3,82414.6
27BBC 2A House Through Time3,81617.5
28ITVAbsolutely India: Mancs in Mumbai3,80717.0
29ITVPaul O’Grady: For the Love of Dogs3,80117.7
30BBC 2Gardeners’ World3,79816.1
31ITVHeathrow: Britain’s Busiest Airport3,77419.2
32ITVPaul O’Grady’s Great British Escape3,75117.3
33ITVThe Diana Interview: Revenge of a Princess3,74916.0
34ITVPaul O’Grady for the Love of Dogs3,67919.6
35BBC 2Cornwall with Simon Reeve3,56514.5
36ITVLong Lost Family: What Happened Next3,54615.4
37BBC 1A Tribute to Dame Vera Lynn3,52219.9
38Channel 5Our Yorkshire Farm3,50717.6
39ITVThe Greek Islands with Julia Bradbury3,50116.9
40ITVLong Lost Family Born Without a Trace3,49717.6
41CH4Escape to the Chateau3,44017.4
42ITVRose West, Myra Hindley: Their Untold Story3,43116.2
43CH4Murder in the Outback3,42116.6
44ITVPrince William: A Planet for Us All3,41818.0
45BBC 1My Family, The Holocaust and Me3,41314.9
46BBC 1True North3,38217.0
47ITVMadeleine McCann: The Hunt for the Prime Suspect3,36318.0
48ITVJoanna Lumley’s Hidden Caribbean: Havana to Haiti3,34114.7
49BBC 1Easy Ways to Live Well3,32615.7
50ITVBritain’s Best Walks with Julia Bradbury3,32519.3


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.


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.


  • 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).


  • 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

51ITVThe Savoy3,31915.3
52BBC 1Sir David Jason at 803,29320.3
53ITVTyson Fury: The Gypsy King3,17814.1
54ITVSt David’s: Britain’s Smallest City3,17012.2
55BBC 2Nigella’s Cook, Eat, Repeat3,16515.3
56ITVLove Your Garden3,16415.8
57BBC 1RHS Chelsea Flower Show3,15721.8
58BBC 2Inside the Factory3,14613.0
59 (Error)  
60BBC 1Idris Elba Meets Paul McCartney3,12118.0
61ITVJohn Bishop’s Great Whale Rescue3,11514.3
62BBC 2Springwatch2,97116.2
63ITVGriff’s Great Australian Adventure2,96915.4
64CH4Lose a Stone in 21 Days with Michael Mosley2,95314.1
65BBC 1Our Lives2,94815.0
66ITVGrow Your Own at Home with Alan Titchmarsh2,94515.2
67BBC 2Mortimer & Whitehouse: Gone Fishing2,94312.5
68ITVManhunt: the Raoul Moat Story2,90913.1
69ITVCaptain Tom’s War2,87614.4
70BBC 1The Truth About…2,87015.5
71ITVJoanna Lumley’s Unseen Adventures2,86913.5
72BBC 1Rio and Kate: Becoming a Stepfamily2,86812.8
73BBC 1Spy in the Wild2,86211.3
74ITVMichael Palin: Travels of a Lifetime2,85713.0
75ITVThe Millennium Dome Heist with Ross Kemp2,83112.8
76ITVDes O’Connor: The Ultimate Entertainer2,82813.8
77BBC 1Surviving the Virus: My Brother & Me2,82713.6
78BBC 1Blue Planet II2,81418.2
79BBC 2Murder 24/72,80810.8
80ITVHarbour Cops2,80514.2
81ITVDeath Row’s Women with Susanna Reid2,79313.3
82ITVFor the Love of Britain2,73214.8
83ITVBritain’s Busiest Motorway2,70914.2
84CH4Barrymore: The Body in the Pool2,70814.0
85BBC 1Bargain Hunt2,69529.1
86ITVRoss Kemp: On the NH5 Frontline2,66512.6
87ITVInside the Crown: Secrets of the Royals2,65910.5
88CH424 Hours in the A&E2,65312.2
89ITVLong Lost Family2,62312.9
90ITVRock on, Tommy: The Bobby Ball Story2,61214.0
91ITVThe Metro: A Rail Life Story2,61213.9
92ITVThe Station: Trouble on the Tracks2,60611.7
93BBC 2Back in Time for the Corner Shop2,60012.7
94ITVThe Village2,56012.2
95CH4Devon and Cornwall2,55212.5
96ITVRoss Kemp: Living with…2,54814.3
97BBC 1Football, Prince William and Our Mental Health2,50914.7
98ITVLondon Zoo: An Extraordinary Year2,50512.8
99CH4Location, Location, Location2,50310.7
100Channel 5The Great Plague2,4828.8