The return of Gavin and Stacey for a Christmas Day special was watched by 11.6 million people, smashing the show’s own viewing record and marking the biggest festive ratings success in more than a decade.
It makes it the most watched scripted programme of the year, significantly ahead of the 9.6 million people who watched Line of Duty’s season finale in May and just behind the 11.7 million who tuned in to watch England’s 2-1 defeat to USA in the semi-final of the women’s football World Cup in July.
It was also almost double the viewing figures for the most-watched programme last year, when 6.3 million tuned in for the Queen’s Christmas message. This year 6.4 million viewers watched the Queen’s message as she admitted that 2019 had been a “quite bumpy” year.
The figures were a Christmas ratings triumph for the BBC, with the top seven most-watched shows all broadcast by the corporation. Coronation Street was the best placed show on a commercial channel, in eighth place, with 4.5 million viewers.
The 11.6 million who watched the Gavin and Stacey Christmas special represented a 49.2% share of viewers watching TV at the time. Such seasonal success has been unmatched since 2008 when 14.3 million tuned in to watch Wallace and Gromit. The figures underline the enduring popularity of the show, created by and starring James Corden and Ruth Jones. When it was last broadcast in 2010, with a New Year’s Day special, it drew 10.2 million viewers.
The series follows the lives of the titular couple, played by Mathew Horne and Joanna Page, and their families and friends between Wales’s Barry Island and Essex.
The Christmas Day episode ended on a cliffhanger as Jones’s character, Nessa, proposes to Smithy, who is played by Corden.
Gavin and Stacey, first broadcast on BBC Three where it enjoyed a cult following and instant critical success, became the most nominated show in the 2007 British Comedy Awards. It earned more mainstream acclaim after switching to BBC One. It also established the global career of Corden, who has since become the host of the US talkshow The Late Late Show, featuring a Carpool Karaoke section in which he sings along with celebrities while driving an SUV.
The Christmas viewing figures buck a trend of declining live TV audiences and increasing audiences for streaming services such as Netflix and Apple TV.
But Elliot Gonzalez, founder of the I Talk Telly blog and a self-confessed Gavin and Stacey superfan, said the growth of streaming services had helped the show find new audiences.
“The show has put on almost 1.5 million since it was last on. Streaming services have helped with that growing fan base, because a lot of this new audience will only have seen it in the last few years on these new streaming services.”
He also argued social media had boosted viewing figures. “Social media has brought back live viewing for a show like Gavin and Stacey. Although you can watch it whenever you like on catch-up, there’s a fear of missing out by not watching it live. And people don’t want to read spoilers online and find out what happens. Gavin and Stacey ends with such a massive cliffhanger [that] if you hadn’t watched it live, it could have ruined it for you.”
But Gonzalez said the success of the show masked the long-term decline of live TV. “If there wasn’t a Gavin and Stacey this year then viewing numbers are the same, if not lower, than last year. For Coronation Street to get 4.5 million is quite low for any day of the year.”
Charlotte Moore, the director of BBC content, said: “Christmas Day on BBC One brought the nation together and entertained them in their millions with the much anticipated return of Gavin and Stacey taking the top spot in 2019, and making it the biggest in a decade.
“We delivered something for everyone with the seven most popular programmes that cap off an incredible year for BBC One celebrating British talent and creativity.”