The 32 most-watched shows in British TV history ever

Brits sat down and tuned in in their millions for these record-breaking broadcasts

L-Princess Diana, R- Bobby Moore holding the World Cup 1966
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Whether you come home and crash in front of yours, or you like to binge a favourite show before bed, television is one of our greatest pastimes. 

But it's much more than that. TV can unite us - bringing us together in a 'we all remember where we were' moment. Over the years, these are some of the biggest programmes to be broadcast in the UK.

Because things like catch-up TV, Netflix and others mean we consume media differently now, some omissions on the list might come as a surprise, since it's harder to verify figures not from the major broadcasters. 

The list is comprised of figures from the British Film Institute for anything pre-1981 and the Broadcasters' Audience Research Board for programmes post-1981. These are independently verified. 

The most watched shows in British TV history

Steptoe and Son, 1964 - 21.54 million viewers

A still of the actors from Steptoe and Son

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The beloved BBC sitcom, Steptoe and Son, scored a massive 21.54 million viewers for the episode titled The Lodger, which aired on February 18, 1964.

The classic series was about a father and son who worked for a rag and bone business (meaning they collect unwanted items) in London. The lead roles were played by Wilfrid Brambell (playing Albert) and Harry H. Corbett (Harold).

Albert was the older, but not wiser, dirty-old-man trope, while Harold was the sensible son.  

The show ran for eight series between 1962 and 1974.

The Eurovision Song Contest 1973, 21.55 million

Anne-Marie David after winning Eurovision in 1973

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The Eurovision Song Contest has been delighting fans of great (and not-so-great) pop since 1956 - and in 1973, a huge number of Brits tuned in to the BBC to watch the action.

Luxembourg won the contest with the song Tu te reconnaîtras by Anne-Marie David.

The United Kingdom sent Sir Cliff Richard that year, who placed a respectable third with his song, Power to All Our Friends

Coronation Street, 1992 - 21.60 million

Ken and Deidre Barlow (Bill Roach and Anne Kirkbride) posing with wax models of their coronation street characters

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One of the biggest soaps in Britain, Coronation Street's northern antics have been delighting ITV viewers since 1960. 

Throughout these six-plus decades of drama and comedy, one of the most beloved couples from the entire show was Ken and Deidre Barlow - so much so that the pair were immortalised in wax at Blackpool's Madame Tussauds. 

On January 8, 1992, a whopping 21.60 million viewers tuned in to watch the beleaguered couple finalise their divorce (but fear not, they would reconcile years later).

Dallas 1980, Who Done It - 21.60 million

Larry Hangman, who played J.R Ewing in Dallas

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Along with the likes of Joan Collins' Dynasty, Dallas was one of the biggest soap operas to air in the 1980s. It was huge in the United States, and that popularity soon travelled across the pond. 

While the show was popular for several years, hysteria - and viewership - peaked during the iconic "Who Shot J.R.?" storyline. The episode which revealed the shooter (we won't spoil that, just in case you still haven't got round to catching up some forty years later) pulled in its biggest-ever audience in the UK - and one of the biggest broadcasts in British TV history. 

Turns out everything IS bigger in Texas.

The Benny Hill Show, 1971 - 21.67 million

Benny Hill

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The Benny Hill Show was one of the most iconic and beloved British comedies which aired across the BBC and ITV between 1955 and 1989.

While regularly hitting huge viewing figures, The Benny Hill Show peaked on March 24, 1971, when 21.67 million households watched an episode called Cinema: The Vintage Years

Saturday Night at the London Palladium - 21.89 million

Jimmy Tarbuck

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Tonight at the London Palladium (sometimes known as Saturday Night at the London Palladium) was a variety show hosted from the iconic theatre in London's West End. 

Hosts of the show over the years included Strictly Come Dancing's much-missed Bruce Forsyth and even James Bond alum, Roger Moore. 

However, it was an edition presented by Jimmy Tarbuck on December 3, 1967 that landed as one of the most-watched programmes in British history. 

This is Your Life: Lord Mountbatten, 1977 - 22.22 million

Lord Mountbatten

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A naval officer and a confidant of the British Royals, Lord Mountbatten was Prince Philip's uncle and a second cousin of King George VI.

The senior military figure was surprised by loved ones with a special edition of the series, This is Your Life, in 1977.  

In the show, the host (Eamonn Andrews at the time) surprises a special guest, before taking them through their life with the assistance of a big red book, filled with memories and anecdotes. 

Over 22 million people watched Lord Mountbatten's episode.

The Royal Variety Performance 1975 - 22.66 million

Queen Elizabeth II at the Royal Variety 1975

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The Royal Variety Performance takes place every year with the biggest names in entertainment putting on a spectacular show in aid of the Royal Variety Charity, which assists those who've worked professionally in the entertainment industry and are in need of help.

The annual performance first started in 1912 when King George V and Queen Mary attended the first 'Royal Performance.' It has since become a staple for the royals, with the likes of Catherine, Princess of Wales and Duchess Sophie Wessex attending. 

In 1975, 22.66 million Brits tuned in to watch the likes of Kwa Zulu, an African song and dance company, and Vera Lynn perform for Queen Elizabeth II. 

Princess Diana's Panorama interview - 22.78 million

Princess Diana interviewed for BBC Panorama

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"There were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded." Princess Diana's iconic words echo throughout history to this day after her interview with Martin Bashir for BBC's Panorama in 1995. It blew the lid off the tumultuous marriage between her and the then Prince Charles and confirmed that there had likely been an affair with the now Queen Camilla during Charles and Diana's marriage. 

Understandably, Brits were glued to the screens, with 22.78 million households soaking up the royal soap opera - and, in a funny bit of trivia, a surge of 1000 megawatts of energy was reported by the National Grid when the programme ended, as every hooked viewer got up to put the kettle on afterwards. 

EastEnders, Who Shot Phil? 2001 - 23.18 million

Phil Mitchell from EastEnders

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Phil Mitchell has been one of the most iconic characters in the history of Britain's soaps, and the EastEnders hardman faced his karma in 2001 when he barely survived being shot.

On April 5, 2001, viewers finally found out who pulled the trigger, and the milestone moment closing one of the soap's biggest-ever storylines pulled in a massive 23.18 million.

Jaws, ITV 1981 - 23.25 million

Jaws movie poster

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Duh duh. Duh duh. Duh duh duh duh...

Some people will have chills just hearing that tune, and you might find yourself second-guessing any upcoming beach holidays. 

Jaws terrified an entire generation when it came out, with the tale of the oversized shark terrorising a New England beach town. The Steven Spielberg film is considered one of the all-time greats and, in a world before Netflix, people only had a few options to watch it - in the cinema or wait for a broadcaster to pay for the rights. 

In 1975, ITV had the network premiere and 23.25 million viewers snapped it right up.

EastEnders, Christmas 1986 - 23.55 million

Angie Watts and Den Watts (Anita Dobson and Leslie Grantham)

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In 1986, EastEnders fans were gripped by the rocky relationship between Den and Angie Watts, played by Leslie Grantham and Anita Dobson. 

For the ever-important Christmas episodes - where, typically, soaps in the UK go all out to try and claim the most viewers with the biggest twists - Den famously served Angie divorce papers. A not-so merry Christmas for them, but it was for EastEnders bosses as they claimed 23.55 million viewers on Boxing Day as people tuned in to witness the aftermath. 

Miss World 1967 - 23.76 million

The winner and participants of Miss World 1967

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Well, this might be a bit of a surprise, but Miss World was once so popular it's one of the nation's most-watched broadcasts ever. 

The oldest existing international beauty pageant, it was created in the United Kingdom in 1951. 

In 1967, Peru's Madeline Hartog-Bel won the crown in front of 23.76 million British viewers.

Live and Let Die, ITV 1980 - 23.50 million

Roger Moore

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The name's Bond. James Bond. In 1980, ITV had the network premiere for James Bond's Live and Let Die adventure. The film was the first to star Roger Moore as the iconic spy, and the number of viewers who were planted in front of the TV far exceeded 007. 

In fact, there were 23.50 million of us watching at home. 

To the Manor Born, 1979 - 23.95 million

To the Manor Born

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A beloved series starring Penelope Keith and Peter Bowles, To the Manor Born followed Penelope, a wealthy woman who has to sell her prestigious country estate after the death of her husband. 

Moving into the estate's small guest lodge, she strikes up a love/hate relationship with the new owner.

The finale of the first series, which aired on November 11, 1979, was watched by a staggering 23.95 million people. 

The sitcom ran for three series.

EastEnders, 1988 - 24.15 million

Anita Dobson as Angie Watts

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On January 7, 1988, the ever-dramatic Angie Watts shocked viewers as she succumbed to her alcohol addiction and suffered a renal shutdown on Eastenders. 

The shocking storyline attracted a huge 24.15 million viewers. 

Angie would leave the square that same year, as actress Anita Dobson wanted a break after three years of playing the iconic role.

The Royal Variety Performance 1965 - 24.20 million

Queen Elizabeth II at the Royal Variety 1965

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The late Queen Elizabeth II attended another one of the spectacular Royal Variety Performances in 1965, where she was treated to performances from the likes of Dame Shirley Bassey and comedy from Dudley Moore. 

Viewers at home were equally as enthused to catch the best from the world of showbiz, as an impressive 24.20 million people tuned in when ITV broadcast the programme on November 14.

EastEnders, 1992 - 24.30 million

The Fowler family from EastEnders

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British soaps churn out multiple episodes a week, every week of the year. And while fans tune in constantly for the drama and the comedy, every now and then, a soap will use its platform to tackle a big societal issue. 

In 1992, the story of runaway Mark Fowler finding out he had HIV was a challenging and thought-probing journey for viewers. 

On January 2 that year, Mark's parents urged him to reveal his diagnosis to his sister in moving scenes which attracted 24.30 million viewers. 

Only Fools and Horses, 1996 - 24.35 million

Only Fools and Horses

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Only Fools and Horses is a true British institution. The sitcom followed working-class heroes, Del Boy Trotter and his brother Rodney. 

Spending most of the prior series and episodes trying to get rich, 24.35 million fans got to witness their dreams coming true in the 1996 Christmas special. 

In the episode titled Time on Our Hands, the Trotters become millionaires in what was supposed to be the last-ever episode of the show. However, three more specials followed between 2001 and 2003.

Live Aid, 1985 - 24.50 million

L- Princess Diana and R- Freddie Mercury at Live Aid 1985

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On July 13, 1985, some of the biggest names from showbiz and society joined forces for one of the greatest fundraisers ever held. 

Led by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure, Live Aid was put on to raise funds for the famine in Ethiopia. The awe-inspiring concert was held in two locations simultaneously - with tens of thousands watching live from both Wembley Stadium in London and the John F. Kennedy Stadium in Philadelphia. 

King Charles and Princess Diana were in attendance at Wembley, where acts included Queen, fronted by Freddie Mercury, Madonna, Sade and Sir Elton John.

The action was broadcast on BBC One for those who couldn't be there, and a peak audience of 24.50 million watched.

Queen Elizabeth II's State Funeral

The Imperial State Crown during the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II

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On September 19, 2022, Britain's longest-reigning monarch was laid to rest after 70 years of service. 

The State Funeral of Queen Elizabeth II was always going to be a moment for the history books, and 26.20 million viewers tuned in just on the TV channels airing it. As we now live in a world of live streams and multiple other ways to consume media, only the verified channels were taken into account so it's very likely that many more tuned in via other platforms. 

Coronation Street, 1987 - 26.65 million

Hilda Ogden in Coronation Street

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The departure of one of Coronation Street's most iconic characters brought in a huge 26.65 million viewers in 1987. 

Hilda Ogden was one of the most popular characters of Coronation Street's defining eras, coming to represent the humour and working-class grit for which the show was lauded. 

Played by Jean Alexander since 1964, she decided to quit the series in 1987 and she left on Christmas Day that year. 

Hilda was voted the greatest TV character in a Radio Times poll of over 5,000 people.

Boris Johnson announces lockdown, 2020 - 27.10 million

Boris Johnson

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After months of worrying updates from countries including China and Italy, on March 23, 2020, the then Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, announced live to the nation that the country would be going into a national lockdown to prevent the spread of the virus. 

27.10 million people watched as the world changed, but it's fair to say this is one programme nobody is keen to rewatch.

The wedding of Princess Anne and Mark Phillips - 27.60 million

The wedding of Princess Anne and Mark Phillips

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Everyone loves a Royal Wedding, and by the time Princess Anne married her first husband, Captain Mark Phillips, on November 14, 1973, it was only the second time one had been broadcast on TV. 

The first ever televised royal wedding was that of Princess Margaret and Antony Armstrong-Jones. 

Many reports confirm that, globally, around 500 million people watched the Queen's only daughter get married. In the UK, 27.60 million of us tuned in.

EastEnders, 1987 - 28 million

Leslie Grantham as Den Watts in Eastenders

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A new year in EastEnders (in 1987) didn't bring any new cheer to Albert Square. 

The continuing storyline of Den and Angie Watts' acrimonious divorce kept drawing in viewers, with 28 million people spending New Year's Day that year catching up on the latest antics. 

The wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana - 28.40 million

The wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana

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Prince Charles and Princess Diana's wedding was supposed to be the first step of a fairy tale come true - the beginning of happily-ever-after. 

The world was utterly under the spell of the royal couple - the prince who would be King and his ubiquitously popular partner - and when Diana walked down the aisle in her enormous gown on July 29, 1981, 28.40 million tuned in.

Worldwide it was thought that around 750 million people watched. 

Apollo 13's splash down, 1970 - 28.60 million

Apollo 13's splash landing

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Apollo 13 was the seventh crewed mission in the Apollo space program and the third meant to land on the Moon... however, things didn't quite go to plan. 

The shuttle was launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on April 11, 1970, but the lunar landing was aborted after an oxygen tank ruptured two days into the mission. 

As footage of the crash made it to news around the world, 28.60 million Brits watched live across BBC and ITV.

England v Italy in the Euro 2020 finals, 29.85 million

Prince William, Kate Middleton and Prince George at the Euro 2020 finals

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Football! Of course, this makes it into one of the most watched programmes in British history, as in 2021, the England men's football squad made it to their first major final since 1966. While it was technically the Euro 2020, the competition was postponed until 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

As head of the F.A. (Football Association) - and generally as a fan of the game - Prince William got in on the fun by taking the Princess of Wales and Prince George to watch the showdown at Wembley. 

Sadly, England didn't take home the trophy. But it galvanised the nation as 29.85 million tuned in.

EastEnders, 1986 - 30.15 million

Den and Angie Watts in EastEnders

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On Christmas Day 1986, 30.15 million Brits - no doubt stuffed with turkey and ready for the relatives to leave - tuned in to realise it could be a lot worse. 

The family strife between Den and Angie Watts left any Monopoly squabbles in the shade as Den (Leslie Grantham) showed no remorse as he served his wife divorce papers during the Yuletide. 

Ho ho... oh dear.

The Royal Family documentary, 1969 - 30.69 million

The Royal Family at home in 1969

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In June 1969, the Royal Family did something unprecedented at the time - they let cameras behind the hallowed walls of Buckingham Palace for a behind-the-scenes documentary. 

Titled Royal Family, over 30 million of us tuned in. However, the documentary was not exactly well-received. 

Many criticised its impact on the mystique and reputation of the institution, and Queen Elizabeth reportedly had it banned. It's not been seen shown on British TV since 1977, and access is heavily restricted. 

The funeral of Princess Diana - 32.10 million

The funeral of Princess Diana

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The world was in mourning for Princess Diana in 1997 after her tragic car accident in Paris. After the shock of her death on August 31, the funeral was held on Saturday, September 6. 

An estimated 2 billion people tuned in worldwide, with 32.10 of those being in the United Kingdom. It is considered one of the biggest televised events in world history. 

The 1966 FIFA World Cup Final

1966 England footballers winning the World Cup

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1966 marked the first - and, to date, only - time football actually came home. The 1966 World Cup final was a moment of history for the country, as England's Three Lions roared to victory against Germany.

32.30 million Brits watched, and roughly the same amount live in the hope each tournament they might get to watch as we recreate that joy. 

Jack Slater
Freelance writer

Jack Slater is not the Last Action Hero, but that's what comes up first when you Google him. Preferring a much more sedentary life, Jack gets his thrills by covering news, entertainment, celebrity, film and culture for woman&home, and other digital publications.

Having written for various print and online publications—ranging from national syndicates to niche magazines—Jack has written about nearly everything there is to write about, covering LGBTQ+ news, celebrity features, TV and film scoops, reviewing the latest theatre shows lighting up London’s West End and the most pressing of SEO based stories.