Media: Sorry, BBC, you're in cloud-cuckoo land

The BBC claims to represent the `benchmark for quality others aspire to'. Nonsense, says Nick Elliott, controller of ITV's drama output
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The Independent Culture
`Die Breite masse eines volkes fallt einer grosse luge leichter zum opfer als einer kleinen", wrote Adolf Hitler, which I think means, "If you're going to tell a lie, tell a big one". It is advice that is now the central tenet of all good spin doctoring. And BBC apologists have improved on it by adding, "and tell it over and over again".

There is one lie that is told so often by BBC executives that one wonders if the constant repetition has even led them to believe it. ("Lie": that word is so cold and hard and some of my best friends are BBC propagandists so let's revise it to "false belief" or "self delusion" or "wishful thinking" even). The most recent bit of wishful thinking was by Sir Christopher Bland, the Chairman of the BBC, who only five years ago as Chairman of LWT would have sensibly dismissed the lie (sorry!) as silly corporate puff.

"We are still a trusted guide to quality standards," he told Petronella Wyatt in The Spectator recently. "If we set a benchmark for quality, we have to be pleased when others aspire to it. It means we have made broadcasting a better place."

Sir Christopher Bland admitted in that same interview that he watches relatively little television and what he says will sound about right to the politicians and other notorious non-watchers of television who want to regulate it. But I do watch the 605 hours of first-run drama each year on ITV and most of the 163 hours on Channel 4 and the 324 hours of BBC1 and 2 and in this one important area of terrestrial output I feel I can speak with some authority. I promise that the "others" (that's Gub Neal of Channel 4 as well as me) do not spend our time admiring the output of the BBC or aspiring to keep up with them.

ITV is broadcasting eight hours of Oliver Twist, dramatised by Alan Bleasdale. The BBC has claimed we are broadcasting it on these particular Sunday evenings just to spike their guns as they are putting out Mrs Gaskell's Wives and Daughters on the same evenings. The idea that we even considered the BBC is extraordinary. Where else would we have put a classic literary adaptation, but in the run-up to Christmas?

Our series has been two years in the making and was always aimed at this period. It is a marvellous and very original piece of work that was born out of Bleasdale's passion for Dickens and David Liddiment's faith in Bleasdale. The BBC's self-delusion is such that it not only believes we scheduled it with the BBC in mind, but also that we commissioned a Dickens piece purely because of the BBC's recent adaptations of Martin Chuzzlewit and Our Mutual Friend. The assumption is so arrogant. Were those productions in turn commissioned only because of ITV's landmark production of Hard Times in the 1980s ("Landmark", that's another word like "benchmark" that BBC spin doctors work to death).

If we are talking landmarks, surely two of the biggest landmarks in television history were Brideshead Revisited and Jewel In The Crown. Have there ever been bigger quality dramas than these? How the BBC would like to claim them into their fool's paradise, especially when, at the time these series were broadcast, the BBC was showing two famous turkeys Thornbirds and The Borgias. ITV has not claimed ever since that we set the BBC a benchmark they had to aspire to. Although it's probably true.

What other BBC landmarks are we to aspire to? EastEnders? I like it. It's a quality soap, but not as well written or popular as Coronation Street, which is now 39 years old and the benchmark for long-running series all over the world.

Apart from the literary classics and soaps, what about the bulk of BBC drama? Does the BBC really believe that Harbour Lights, Sunburn, Dangerfield, Ambassador, Badger, Life Support and Jack of Hearts are admired outside the BBC? That's a heavy weight of drama series to counterbalance a few half-decent ones such as Casualty, Jonathan Creek, Playing the Field and City Central? Who is the BBC to come on heavy and talk about "quality" and "benchmarks"? Don't benchmarks have to last like Heartbeat, Peak Practice, London's Burning, Where the Heart Is, The Bill and Taggart? Or, if new, doesn't a benchmark drama have to win solid ratings like Grafters, The Vice, Midsomer Murders and Trial & Retribution?

This year ITV spent pounds 255 million on drama. That compares with pounds 157 million spent by the BBC on two channels. There's no guarantee that money will buy quality. But, equally, you cannot have quality without spending money and under Liddiment, Jenny Reeks and I have been allowed significantly to increase ITV's spend on expensive one-off single films and short serials. I believe we now do more single films than the BBC - films like Lost For Words with Dame Thora Hird, The Murder of Stephen Lawrence, Goodnight Mr Tom, A Life For A Life, Rhinoceros and, The Turn Of The Screw. And with our serials we bring regular "events" to ITV. They have included distinguished work from top writers like Paul Abbott Butterfly Collectors and Tony Marchant Bad Blood, really exciting thrillers like Trust, Forgotten, Extremely Dangerous and Daylight Robbery or serials like The Last Train and The Blonde Bombshell that broke the normal mould of TV drama. We have also experimented with lower-cost, late-night serials from new writers with series like Wonderful You, Big Bad World and Lucy Sullivan is Getting Married.

When not telling us about "benchmarks" and "landmarks," the BBC has also made much this year of its strategy for casting, the BBC is to make great use of former soap stars from now on. At ITV we don't agree. Actors like Ross Kemp and Michelle Collins will lead series if they can act and are popular; and well-known actors like John Thaw, Robson Green, David Jason, Sean Bean, Stephen Tompkinson, John Nettles and Amanda Burton will, I hope, continue to star in our shows. But, equally, we are not frightened - indeed we are keen - to work with really talented actors from the worlds of theatre and film, Ken Stott, Fiona Shaw, Juliet Stevenson, Julie Walters, Ardal O'Hanlon, Alex Jennings, Pete Postlethwaite, Lia Williams, Zara Turner and Lindsay Duncan have performed for us this year with great results. Is a heavy emphasis on soap really the benchmark we should aspire to?

Have I been unfair to the BBC? I don't think so. I wrote this piece only because of the BBC's repeated claim to be superior to ITV and Channel 4. (I have not even mentioned Channel 4's achievements in drama - for instance, such ground-breaking drama as Queer As Folk. The truth is that the BBC probably should be the benchmark for quality that inspires others. We in ITV drama are happy to congratulate BBC success when it is deserved and a more ambitious BBC would help us. But the only high ground they can claim at the moment is cloud cuckoo land.

Nick Elliott is ITV network controller of drama

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