It was always going to be a big night for Sherlock. Asking loyal fans to wait two years to discover how the detective faked his own death guaranteed an audience for his New Year’s Day return, but the news that over nine million had tuned in "delighted" and "thrilled" co-creators Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat and will make enjoyable reading for BBC bosses too.
A peak audience of 9.7 million watched the first of a trio of “solutions” unfold in the first five minutes of the series three opener on BBC1 and HD, with an average of 9.2m – a 33.8% share of the total TV audience – sticking around across its whopping 90-minute running time.
That figure shows a steady increase in the popularity of the show since it began in 2010, launching with overnight figures of 7.1m (28.6%) which rose to 8.8m (31.0%) for series two on New Year’s Day 2012.
Mark Gatiss, who wrote the episode The Empty Hearse, thanked fans for watching and reminded them that their wait for another new instalment will be much shorter this time.
"Delighted our loyal audience tuned in on an appropriately bleak and stormy New Year's night!" said Gatiss. "After two years it's fantastic to have this response to Sherlock, John and all the team being back on TV. All this and Dr Watson gets married in three days time!"
Fellow co-creator Steven Moffat thanked the show's production team and didn't forget to name check the man without whom Sherlock would not exist – no, not Benedict Cumberbatch but Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
“Thrilling news on overnight ratings for Sherlock," said Moffat. "A tribute to the team who work so hard, and with such pride, on the show, and of course to the genius of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It's proof that audiences will show up if you give them what they want – though we can't throw Benedict off a roof every week.”
After last night, viewers may be glad of that fact: despite enjoying the show, many were left frustrated as the episode failed to provide a definitive answer to how Sherlock survived The Fall – although the 400,000 or so who switched off after the first fake explanation had played out may still be in blissful, if slightly bemused, ignorance.
Sherlock: The Sign of Three is at 8:30pm on Sunday 5 January on BBC1