Documentary Business

Peter Hamilton Consultants, Inc

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’s most popular programs as well as to audiences worldwide through the Beeb’s web of copro and sales agreements.


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 
(Highest-rated episode of series)

1A PERFECT PLANETBBC OneDocumentariesNatural History28.9%7,001.6
2ANTIQUES ROADSHOWBBC OneHobbies/LeisureBuying & Selling37.4%6,722.6
3COUNTRYFILEBBC OneHobbies/LeisurePursuits – Lifestyle31.8%6,324.5
4TOP GEARBBC OneHobbies/LeisurePursuits – Auto27.4%6,288.9
5THE REPAIR SHOPBBC OneHobbies/LeisureDIY25.7%6,070.0
6KATE GARRAWAY: FINDING DEREKITVDocumentariesHuman Interest23.5%5,749.0
7BRADLEY WALSH & SON: BREAKING DADITVDocumentariesTravel24.4%5,726.0
8BRADLEY & BARNEY WALSH: BREAKING DADITVDocumentariesTravel24.1%5,707.1
9THE PEMBROKESHIRE MURDERSITVDocumentariesCrime22.3%5,666.1
10ATTENBOROUGH’S LIFE IN COLOURBBC OneDocumentariesNatural History27.5%5,641.4
11LONG LOST FAMILY: BORN WITHOUT TRACEITVDocumentariesHuman Interest22.7%4,995.1
12WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?BBC OneDocumentariesHuman Interest24.1%4,897.5
13PRINCE PHILIP: ROYAL FAMILY REMEMBERSBBC OneDocumentariesModern History22.5%4,824.3
14LONG LOST FAMILYITVDocumentariesHuman Interest21.6%4,651.6
15PAUL O’GRADY: FOR THE LOVE OF DOGSITVDocumentariesNatural History21.0%4,597.4
1624 HOURS IN POLICE CUSTODYC4DocumentariesFly on the Wall18.1%4,454.8
17PADDY & CHRISTINE MCGUINNESSBBC OneDocumentariesHuman Interest21.3%4,376.7
18DNA JOURNEYITVDocumentariesHuman Interest20.6%4,314.1
199/11: INSIDE THE PRESIDENT’S WAR ROOMBBC OneDocumentariesModern History21.8%4,205.5
20JOANNA LUMLEY’S HOME SWEET HOMEITVDocumentariesTravel18.3%4,092.4
21OUR YORKSHIRE FARMC5DocumentariesHuman Interest17.2%3,980.2
22THE MATING GAMEBBC OneDocumentariesNatural History22.0%3,930.0
23KATIE PRICE: HARVEY AND MEBBC OneDocumentariesHuman Interest16.9%3,888.0
24DIY SOSBBC OneHobbies/LeisurePursuits – Lifestyle16.1%3,883.9
25GRAND DESIGNSC4Hobbies/LeisurePursuits – Lifestyle14.9%3,771.5
26HEATHROW: BRITAIN’S BUSIEST AIRPORTITVDocumentariesFly on the Wall17.2%3,769.4
27LOVE YOUR GARDENITVHobbies/LeisureGardening16.7%3,731.9
28REMEMBRANCE SUNDAY: THE CENOTAPHBBC OneCurrent AffairsSpecial Events48.2%3,702.3
29GREAT POTTERY THROW DOWNC4Hobbies/LeisurePursuits – Lifestyle14.0%3,702.3
30EARTHSHOT PRIZE: REPAIRING OUR PLANETBBC OneDocumentariesNatural History25.2%3,691.9
31AMBULANCEBBC OneDocumentariesFly on the Wall18.9%3,644.4
32CRAIG & BRUNO’S GREAT BRITISH ROADITVDocumentariesTravel22.5%3,627.7
33CORNWALL AND DEVON WALKSITVDocumentariesTravel17.0%3,592.2
34INSIDE CHERNOBYL WITH BEN FOGLEC5DocumentariesModern History17.3%3,584.4
35MARTIN LEWIS EXTREME SAVERSITVDocumentariesHuman Interest18.7%3,565.7
36RESPONSE BY OPPOSITION (Peter”s sorting error)ITVCurrent AffairsPolitical/Eco/Social22.5%3,459.1
37DANCING ON THIN ICE / TORVILL & DEANITVDocumentariesNatural History14.1%3,434.1
38RHS CHELSEA FLOWER SHOWBBC OneHobbies/LeisureGardening25.5%3,372.8
39FRIENDS: THE REUNIONSky OneDocumentariesArts, TV, Film & Music45.6%3,370.6
40MARY BERRY’S FESTIVE FEASTSBBC OneHobbies/LeisureCookery20.2%3,356.9
41BRADLEY AND BARNEY: BREAKING DADITVDocumentariesTravel16.5%3,351.2
42FAKE OR FORTUNE?BBC OneDocumentariesArts, TV, Film & Music17.1%3,336.5
43THE MARTIN LEWIS MONEY SHOW: LIVEITVCurrent AffairsConsumer Affairs18.9%3,188.4
44INTERIOR DESIGN MASTERS / ALAN CARRBBC TwoHobbies/LeisurePursuits – Lifestyle13.0%3,129.0
45CAROLINE FLACK: HER LIFE AND DEATHC4DocumentariesCelebrity13.9%3,104.7
46LONG LOST FAMILY: WHAT HAPPENED NEXTITVDocumentariesHuman Interest17.3%3,093.1
47GARDEN RESCUEBBC OneHobbies/LeisureGardening17.2%3,066.9
48FORENSICS: THE REAL CSIBBC TwoDocumentariesFly on the Wall13.1%3,020.4
49BRITAIN’S BEST WALKS / JULIA BRADBURYITVHobbies/LeisurePursuits – Lifestyle14.0%3,010.0
50UNDERCOVER BIG BOSSITVDocumentariesFly on the Wall15.1%3,008.9

Read more below…

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.


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.


  • 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

51MILLION POUND PAWNITVDocumentariesFly on the Wall13.1%3,005.7
52WHAT ARE WE FEEDING OUR KIDS?BBC OneDocumentariesScience/Medical16.9%2,995.2
53JOHNNY BRIGGS: CORONATION ST LEGENDITVDocumentariesCelebrity14.6%2,988.7
54GARDENERS’ WORLDBBC TwoHobbies/LeisureGardening13.3%2,961.1
55ATTENBOROUGH / MAMMOTH GRAVEYARDBBC OneDocumentariesNatural History18.3%2,952.4
56THE REAL MANHUNT: THE NIGHT STALKERITVDocumentariesCrime14.1%2,912.2
57SEVEN WORLDS, ONE PLANETBBC OneDocumentariesNatural History17.4%2,903.9
58THE QUEEN UNSEENITVDocumentariesModern History12.5%2,901.2
60QUESTION TIMEBBC OneCurrent AffairsPolitical/Eco/Social14.3%2,898.1
61ALAN TITCHMARSH: SPRING INTO SUMMERITVHobbies/LeisureGardening14.8%2,895.2
62LOUIS THEROUXBBC TwoDocumentariesHuman Interest12.3%2,893.5
63WINTERWATCHBBC TwoDocumentariesNatural History14.3%2,892.0
64ELECTIONS 2021BBC OneCurrent AffairsPolitical/Eco/Social16.2%2,885.0
65RETURN TO DUNBLANE / LORRAINE KELLYITVDocumentariesModern History14.0%2,872.6
66PARKINSON AT 50BBC OneDocumentariesArts, TV, Film & Music20.9%2,867.2
67THE DAY WILL AND KATE GOT MARRIEDITVDocumentariesModern History12.6%2,841.2
68THE BIDDING ROOMBBC OneHobbies/LeisureBuying & Selling13.7%2,834.4
69RIP OFF BRITAINBBC OneCurrent AffairsConsumer Affairs19.1%2,829.0
70THE LAKES WITH SIMON REEVEBBC TwoDocumentariesTravel13.9%2,826.4
71MY YEARS WITH THE QUEENITVDocumentariesModern History13.2%2,820.8
72JAMES MARTIN’S ISLANDS TO HIGHLANDSITVDocumentariesTravel15.5%2,809.2
73THE QUEEN AND HER COUSINSITVDocumentariesHuman Interest12.7%2,787.6
74BRITAIN’S TIGER KINGS – ON THE TRAILITVDocumentariesHuman Interest12.4%2,774.5
75EAT, SHOP, SAVEITVCurrent AffairsConsumer Affairs17.8%2,750.9
76INSIDE THE FACTORYBBC TwoDocumentariesFly on the Wall13.0%2,747.3
77DEC AFGHANISTAN CRISIS APPEALITVCurrent AffairsSpecial Events18.6%2,728.8
78SPRINGWATCHBBC TwoDocumentariesNatural History15.5%2,728.2
79THE TRUMP SHOWBBC TwoCurrent AffairsPolitical/Eco/Social12.1%2,727.3
80HRH DUKE OF EDINBURGH REMEMBEREDBBC OneDocumentariesModern History16.7%2,703.5
81ACCUSED OF MURDERING OUR SONITVDocumentariesCrime14.2%2,702.6
82I CAN’T SAY MY NAME: STAMMERINGBBC OneDocumentariesHuman Interest13.7%2,690.5
84BARGAIN HUNTBBC OneHobbies/LeisureBuying & Selling32.6%2,665.8
85NO BODY RECOVEREDITVDocumentariesCrime13.8%2,665.0
86THIS TIME WITH ALAN PARTRIDGEBBC OneCurrent AffairsMagazine12.2%2,660.7
87AMAZING HOTELS: LIFE BEYOND THE LOBBYBBC TwoDocumentariesTravel13.0%2,657.5
88SOUTH AFRICA WITH GREGG WALLACEITVDocumentariesTravel13.1%2,654.2
89SAVILE: PORTRAIT OF A PREDATORITVDocumentariesCrime13.3%2,652.4
919/11: LIFE UNDER ATTACKITVDocumentariesModern History13.3%2,623.1
92MARTIN CLUNES: ISLANDS OF AUSTRALIAITVDocumentariesNatural History12.6%2,607.8
93ESCAPE TO THE CHATEAUC 4Hobbies/LeisurePursuits – Lifestyle13.1%2,606.3
94STONEHENGE: THE LOST CIRCLE REVEALEDBBC TwoDocumentariesHistory11.0%2,598.7
95KIRSTIE AND PHIL’S LOVE IT OR LIST ITC4Hobbies/LeisurePursuits – Lifestyle11.8%2,578.9
96THE ANDREW MARR SHOWBBC OneCurrent AffairsPolitical/Eco/Social37.9%2,563.3
97THE CRASH DETECTIVESBBC OneDocumentariesFly on the Wall12.0%2,551.2
98LOVE YOUR GARDEN THEMED SPECIALSITVHobbies/LeisureGardening15.1%2,540.0
99BEYOND THE LINE: N. WALES TRAFFIC COPITVDocumentariesFly on the Wall13.5%2,537.2
100MORTIMER & WHITEHOUSE: GONE FISHINGBBC TwoHobbies/LeisurePursuits – Lifestyle12.2%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
(Thanks to Vijay Mavjee)