Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway returned to ITV with an average of 7.3 million viewers, the broadcaster has said.

The TV double act joked about boredom and lockdown fatigue at the start of the programme, which aired without a studio audience.

Coronavirus restrictions meant the flagship variety show, now in its 17th series, was filmed live in front of a virtual audience of 300 people.

The TV audience peaked at 8.1 million.

The show opened with a black and white sketch of the duo staying at home through January and early February, looking bored and depressed as they baked endless banana bread and did jigsaws in their pyjamas.

The pair then read in a newspaper about the programme’s return and looked thrilled as the sketch became full colour and they were suddenly dressed in suits.

At the start of the show, Ant McPartlin said: “We are so excited to be back in the studio.

“Obviously things will be a bit different this year but it will be an absolute privilege to bring you a takeaway every night for the next seven weeks.”

Declan Donnelly introduced the virtual audience and said: “For the first time ever we can see in the living rooms, live, of 300 people… Make sure you’re all decent please!”

The figures make Saturday Night Takeaway the second highest rating programme of the year outside news and sport, behind The Masked Singer, the channel said.

Last year the show scored its highest viewer ratings, after airing without a live audience for the first time in 18 years.

The March 21 2020 episode, which took place in an empty studio due to the Covid-19 outbreak, was watched by an average of 9.5 million viewers.

On Saturday night, Ant and Dec surprised teacher Kath Crawley with a tribute ahead of her retirement, which featured an appearance from Jason Manford dressed as Father Christmas.

Meanwhile, Stephen Mulhern hosted a selection of fairground games dressed in an all-gold outfit, including short shorts.

Harry and Jamie Redknapp took part in the segment I’m A Celebrity … Get Out Of Me Ear, in which they interviewed staff for a fictional restaurant, and had to repeat everything the TV duo told them to say.

This series of Saturday Night Takeaway will also have a new companion show on the ITV Hub.

The seven 10-minute episodes will feature new interviews with Ant and Dec and behind-the-scenes gossip.

The last series of the variety show aired without a live audience for the first time in 18 years due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The presenters hosted the final episode from the sofas in their own homes.

– Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway continues on Saturdays at 7pm on ITV.