How to make a flop

`Crown Prosecutor' should have been the BBC's big new hit. But it's a turkey. What went wrong? Sue Summers reports

THE STATE of BBC1's new drama series Crown Prosecutor is comparable to one of the urban crimes with which it purports to deal. The brick has been heaved through the plate-glass window, recriminatory sirens are wailing on all sides and every culprit is protesting innocence.

"Nothing to do with me, guv," says the BBC's head of drama series, Nick Elliott. "I was miles away," says his predecessor, Michael Wearing. Crown Prosecutor's main writer and co-deviser, Nick Collins, is maintaining his right to silence. Executive producer Tracy Hofman is holed up in a safe house and plans a new life outside television. The only people willing to have their collars fingered are producer Esta Charkham and executive producer Caroline Oulton, who plead not guilty to all charges.

Crown Prosecutor, based on the workings of the real Crown Prosecution Service, began on BBC1 at peak time, 8.30pm on Thursdays, at the end of last month. Its first 30-minute episode attracted ridicule and vituperation recalling the great days of Eldorado, the corporation's disastrous and expensive soap-opera flop.

"BBC1's stolid refutation of the adage that `you can't go wrong with courtroom drama' finally hit the screen last night, and I for one would like to say thank you, thank you for a bloody good laugh," wrote Lynne Truss in the Times. The series looked "like a badly acted employment-training video," noted the Guardian.

For a series allegedly based in hard-hitting realism - the creative team spent some time closeted with the real CPS - the duff lines come fast and thick. The dialogue makes Crossroads seem like Flaubert. The characters all use identical clich'd sub-CID vernacular: "If the defence wipe the floor with you, Marty, I reserve the right to say I told you so", "Listen, Derek, don't walk me around the garden on this one", etc, etc.

Thanks to characterisation of the same consistency as the cardboardy sets, few of the cast have won any compensatory plaudits. Paris Jefferson, as ambitious young prosecutor Nina Fisher-Holmes, seems in danger of being out- acted by her lipgloss. David Daker plays Ben Campbell as a Northern stereotype who makes the ee-bah-gums of the Hovis commercial look like dirty realism. Actor Michael Praed gives womanising lawyer Marty James the same depth he brought to his most famous role, Prince Michael of Moldavia in Dynasty.

But for the wildly complicated plot lines, all this would find a natural home in mid-afternoon - especially played in an Australian accent. But by scheduling it in a high-profile evening slot, the BBC has yet again exposed its deficiencies as a maker of middle-of-the-road, popular drama, a genre over which it once reigned supreme with such series as All Creatures Great and Small, Bergerac and Howard's Way. ITV now leads the way.

"I just watch Crown Prosecutor and think, `ITV could have done this properly'," confesses one BBC drama producer. "If this is the kind of drama we really want to make, why can't we at least do it well?"

Those who suspect Crown Prosecutor was thrown together in panic in five minutes may be surprised - if not astounded - to learn that it took four years to reach the screen. The series was originally commissioned by Granada TV, but turned down by the ITV Network Centre when it took over responsibility for commissioning the ITV schedules in 1991. The project's three devisers, independent producer Tracy Hofman, Caroline Oulton and writer Nick Collins, offered it to the then head of BBC drama series, Peter Cregeen, who said no. But in 1993, Cregeen was sacked and replaced by Michael Wearing, whose brief was to look for peak-time series to build on the BBC's few successes, like Casualty and EastEnders. Wearing, who has successfully pioneered half-hour drama on BBC1 with the acclaimed medical saga Cardiac Arrest, liked what he saw. Given the perennial appeal of courtroom drama - and the gaping hole in BBC1's schedule where popular drama should have been - the channel's new controller, Alan Yentob, gave Crown Prosecutor the go-ahead.

An additional attraction for Yentob was the project's cheapness. Each half-hour episode was to be shot in three days, costing just £130,000. The entire 10-part series could be delivered for not much more than one episode of a costume drama such as The Buccaneers. "Alan had his doubts, but these mainly revolved around whether lawyers were intrinsically interesting or not," says a BBC executive involved in the project early on. "The truth is that, like any other professionals, lawyers are interesting but only in the right scripts - even at £130,000."

What exactly happened to the scripts of Crown Prosecutor once in the BBC's hands is then a matter for some debate. According to the same executive, "The BBC let loose its researchers, who said the series wasn't kosher [authentic? politically correct?] enough, so it was changed." Tracy Hofman, a former head of drama at Carlton TV, was originally to have produced the series through her own independent production company, Screenage, but agreed to serve as an executive producer when the BBC decided to make it in-house. Just before the first episode was transmitted, she claimed publicly that the BBC had effectively censored aspects of the series deemed not to be "politically correct" - by cutting out a womanising Asian and an unsympathetic character in a wheelchair.

Unfortunately for Hofman, her remarks, which were seized on in the press, coincided with publication of the portentous BBC report "People and Programmes", which was lambasted for its politically correct view that BBC programmes were too "white middle class". Hofman's BBC contract was brusquely terminated and, with something of the aura of a media martyr, she is now planning a career in investment banking.

In fact, Crown Prosecutor's wooden char- acters probably had nothing to do with the dictates of PC. Caroline Oulton says the disabled lawyer was dropped because "both the writer and I were adamant that we didn't want an able-bodied actor in a wheelchair, and there wasn't time to do an extensive casting of disabled actors." The womanising Asian turned into Michael Praed for other reasons. "We saw a number of Asian actors who weren't right, then we had a chance to get Michael Praed. He's a bit of a dish and a bit of a coup."

An inherent problem with the Crown Prosecutor format is that it reverses the time-honoured principles of courtroom drama by seeking to make heroes and heroines of the prosecutors, the traditional baddies. So we see these "heroes" trouncing women for resisting imagined rapists, and Asians for violently objecting to public displays of Fascism. It's hardly a coincidence that ITV's Kavanagh QC, starring John Thaw, a copper-bottomed version of the traditional genre, has been an enormous hit.

Crown Prosecutor's further misfortune - one suffered by so much BBC drama recently - was getting caught up in the real-life tribulations that have wracked the corporation's drama department, creating a working atmosphere which one senior producer compares to "being caught in a howling gale with permanently moving goal-posts". In August last year, after barely a year in charge of popular series, Wearing was moved in favour of Nick Elliott, a recruit from ITV. So, when Crown Prosecutor was about to go into production, neither top executive was really involved.

Statistically, Crown Prosecutor may not look like a disaster. Its first episode attracted an audience of 8.7 million, thanks to a cunning afternoon repeat on Fridays after Neighbours, which pushed up the Thursday- night figure of 6.7m. By recent BBC standards this may look respectable, but it is far from Casualty's figure of 15.5m - and every frame of Crown Prose- cutor signals its desire to be another Casualty.

Many a series has begun slowly but built to huge popularity. If that should happen to Crown Prose-cutor, the BBC won't care a damn how many people write it off as Crossroads with wigs. "I'd much rather please my cleaning lady and the woman next door than Lynne Truss of the Times," says producer Esta Charkham. "My doctor loves it. My cleaning lady says it's a little difficult to follow, but she's sure she will get with it."

If the brick in the shattered window does turn to gold you can bet that the fleeing culprits will be back to claim the credit. !

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