Revealed! The biggest programmes on UK television in 2021

Line of Duty
Vicky McClure, Martin Compston and Adrian Dunbar star in ‘Line of Duty’ (Image credit: BBC)

Beginning 2021 in extended lockdown with home entertainment never more important to us, the year will go down as a big 12 months for the UK television industry, with massive terrestrial audiences showing that the appetite for mainstream, weekly viewing is far from under the thumb of box-set streaming services like Netflix.

The top 10 programmes illustrate ongoing demand for quality dramas that require some focus and patience, while the perennial popularity of iconic entertainment programmes hasn’t dwindled in the slightest. The big winner of 2021 was the return of Jed Mercurio’s thrilling investigation of police corruption, Line of Duty, while the most notable declines were on I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here! (peaking at 12.1m in 2020, down to a peak of 10.8m this year) and The Great British Bake Off, slipping from 10.4m viewers in 2020 to 9.3m this year.

Let’s look more closely at the UK TV’s top 10 programmes of 2021.

Line of Duty (BBC One, May) – 15.2m

The sixth series finally revealed the identity of ‘H’, the puppet-master at the heart of police corruption and while some were disappointed it was revealed to be DSU Buckells (Nigel Boyle), the crime drama delivered consistently tense narrative.

Oprah with Harry and Meghan (ITV, March) – 13.9m

Whether you are Team Meghan or Team Windsor, this interview was compelling, albeit lengthy viewing and showed the sheer pulling power the couple have, which persuaded Netflix to sign them up for a £100m production deal.

Strictly Come Dancing (BBC One, December) – 12.2m

The nation found a new sweetheart in the shape of EastEnders actress Rose Ayling-Ellis, who could not only dance like a professional but had to overcome her deafness and count steps to keep in time to do it. Extraordinary.

I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here! (ITV, November) – 10.8M

Gwrych Castle was particularly uncomfortable in the 21st series of the entertainment classic, buffeted as it was by Storm Arwen, but the show had to go on and at the end of it the down-to-earth charm of Emmerdale’s Danny Miller won him King of the Castle over Frankie Bridge and Simon Gregson.

TV tonight Suranne Jones as Amy Silva.

Suranne Jones as Amy Silva in 'Vigil' (Image credit: BBC)

Vigil (BBC One, September) – 10.4M

Suranne Jones played a Glasgow-based detective with a complicated personal life in this hugely ambitious Trident submarine thriller that took espionage and global conspiracy to the bounds of credulity. Then went a bit further…

The Masked Singer (ITV, January) – 9.9m

Who could say no to a little mid-winter insanity in the shape of series two of this kooky Korean-born singing extravaganza?

The Pembrokeshire Murders (ITV, January) – 9.5m

Luke Evans played DSU Wilkins in this drama about two unsolved cases from the 1980s.

The Great British Bake Off (Channel 4, Septembe) – 9.3m

Giuseppe Dell'Anno became the 12th winner of Bake Off in a classically hard-fought series.

Call The Midwife (BBC1, April) – 8.7m

BBC One's period drama showed no signs of diminishing power when it returned for series 10 in April.

Death in Paradise (BBC1, January) – 8.5m

There is nothing quite like being transported to the fictional island of Saint Marie for a sun-kissed murder or two under the palm trees and we can't wait for its return in January.

(These figures were first reported by Deadline.)

Patrick McLennan

Patrick McLennan is a London-based journalist and documentary maker who has worked as a writer, sub-editor, digital editor and TV producer in the UK and New Zealand. His CV includes spells as a news producer at the BBC and TVNZ, as well as web editor for Time Inc UK. He has produced TV news and entertainment features on personalities as diverse as Nick Cave, Tom Hardy, Clive James, Jodie Marsh and Kevin Bacon and he co-produced and directed The Ponds, which has screened in UK cinemas, BBC Four and is currently available on Netflix. 

An entertainment writer with a diverse taste in TV and film, he lists Seinfeld, The Sopranos, The Chase, The Thick of It and Detectorists among his favourite shows, but steers well clear of most sci-fi.