Hit and run television

Popular drama series: ITV have them in spades, the BBC have them in their dreams. Thomas Sutcliffe joins Alan Yentob on his search for the elusive hit
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The Independent Culture
At the recent press conference to present the results of the BBC's People and Programmes research, Alan Yentob was in reassuring mood. The BBC, he was reported as saying, would continue to produce series in the successful mould of Chandler and Co, Roughnecks and Common as Muck. Behind his back he must have had his fingers crossed - and not just because the mould for a successful television series isn't exactly a thing you can buy in your local hardware shop. Producing a regular stream of popular drama series is perhaps the trickiest challenge any scheduler has to face, a highly complex trade-off between urgent decisions and long-delayed consequences. It is like navigating a supertanker fitted with a dodgy radar system.

Yentob's choice of programmes at that press conference was exemplary in more than one sense. He cited them because they were series that had enjoyed both popular and critical success, the sort of following wind that helps a series back on the air. More than that, they took established television formulas and showed that the BBC could add something extra; in the case of Chandler and Co, the standard detective buddy pairing was given a feminine twist (and delivered a female audience) while Common as Muck upended television's conventional career ladder - proving that with a good writer, dustbin-men could be as successful as doctors and lawyers. But both those programmes also perfectly illustrate the difficulties of scheduling series to meet the changing appetites of the audience.

The irony will not have been lost on Barbara Flynn, one of the stars of the first series of Chandler and Co. Because, though Chandler and Co will soon be returning to our screens, it won't be emerging from the same mould at all. Changes in the programme's soundtrack and Alan Yentob's decision to shift it to a more protected area of the schedules meant that by the time the BBC had decided to go ahead with the second series Flynn's contractual option had lapsed. She and Peter Capaldi had moved on to other projects and decided not to return.

The BBC appears to have learnt from this experience. Options for second and even third series are now the rule rather than the exception, accoring to Caroline Oulton, executive producer on Crown Prosecutor. "You commission them for the first series and get a written undertaking that they will do a further series. There's a certain date by which that has to be triggered and it will specify when the shooting of the second series will take place." Such an arrangement benefits both sides, allowing actors to plan other work while they wait for the good or bad news, and protecting the television companies' considerable investment in a new series (it is said that John Thaw's contract for Kavanagh QC paid handsomely for a second series option). But the option date can also place an extra pressure on producers and schedulers, setting an unmoveable deadline by which a fraught decision needs to be taken. "Obviously there's an advantage in having your transmission time as close to shooting as possible," Oulton points out, "because that allows you to see what the audience response is."

Yentob is more cautious these days, too, despite the practical advantages of early commissions. "I don't think it's sensible to commission series in advance without having a sense of the audience's response," he says. "Dangerfield is an exception, it has been recommissioned but it isn't something I would do with a lot of programmes, particularly given our track record in the past."

It may be that he has Harry in mind here: despite Charles Denton's confident assertion that "Harry has hit written all over it", the public proved stubbornly dyslexic and its figures were disappointing. It's now back on our screens after some changes prompted by focus groups, an in-depth form of market research that aims to tweak drama into closer conformity with audience taste. It's possible to wonder whether it would have had to endure this indignity if the second series hadn't been commissioned so early, in order to secure Michael Elphick.

Dangerfield, by contrast, rang the right bells inside the building, a gut sense that was confirmed by its early figures. But Yentob insists that the BBC isn't about to surrender editorial choice to statistics. While Harry has returned after some discreet plastic surgery to give it a friendlier face, other series are allowed to maintain their distinctive character. "There was no focus grouping on Cardiac Arrest," Yentob points out, "even though it got relatively small audiences." His decision to commission the medical drama for a third series, even before the second is broadcast, is one example of the BBC's continuing ability to protect drama's hothouse flowers, programmes that claim their space in the schedule because of their unusual shape, rather than their robust vigour.

And the scheduler is rarely as powerful as the average viewer might imagine. Alan Yentob wants a second series of Roughnecks, but will have to wait until the exigencies of filming in the North Sea allow him to have it. He wants a second series of Common as Muck, but the distinctive virtues of single-writer drama come with a temporal price-tag; you have to wait while the writer works his way through the next distinctive scripts.

Neither of these problems apply to Crown Prosecutor, which is likely to be Yentob's next big recommissioning decision: the weather inside a courtroom is delightfully predictable, and the episodic narrative structure lends itself to industrial forms of creativity - lots of young writers released on a whole portfolio of storylines. Audiences over the next few weeks will help to shift the odds but in the end only the scheduler can make the bet with real money.