Talking Point: The drama of the missing classics: Last week, the BBC revealed the fine details of its pounds 200 million new drama season. David Lister found some glaring omissions

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The Independent Culture
I don't wish to make a crisis out of a drama, but when I attended the launch of the BBC's pounds 200m new drama season last week, I felt, as I feel at the same time every year, that the word drama is becoming ever more loosely defined.

Charles Denton, the newish head of the BBC TV Drama Group, hailed a year of 'diverse, compelling and entertaining drama'. He looked forward to two new police-based adventures, a comedy about bin men, several new series and serials, an Edith Wharton Victorian love story and more of such established hits as Between the Lines, Casualty, Lovejoy and EastEnders. He paid special tribute to this last - now on three times a week and celebrating its 10th anniversary.

Much of the season sounds highly entertaining: a good-looking new comedy with Robert Lindsay trying to poison his wife, played by Alison Steadman, and a series of Screen One films with the likes of Victoria Wood and Julie Walters, Richard Harris, Elliott Gould and Charlotte Rampling.

I suppose it's all drama. I suppose it must be because that's what the BBC calls it, as do all the other channels. Channel 4's highest rating drama is Brookside; ITV's is The Bill. Go to their season launches, and you will hear them boast about how well they are doing in drama. They must be. Just look at the ratings for EastEnders, Brookside and The Bill.

The one thing drama appears to have ceased to mean is Britain's dramatic heritage. I put it to Denton that, in all the 400 hours of drama planned, there is virtually no sign of a classic play. The season is awash with soap opera, detective series, and yes, first-class new commissions of films and studio dramas by contemporary writers. But there is precious little of what should be synonymous with the word drama - classic plays from the last four centuries.

Denton said there were a few classic plays, and if he could get more money from the BBC he would like to put on more. In the new season there was a Rattigan, he said, though he couldn't remember its name. Denton is in charge of 400 hours of drama and there's no reason why he should have instant recall of every planned production. But I suspect he wouldn't have forgotten the name of a detective series as he did the title of The Deep Blue Sea in what promises to be a marvellous production with Penelope Wilton repeating her West End stage performance. There is also Priestley's Summer Day's Dream with John Gielgud; Richard E Grant in Jim Cartwright's Bed; and Shakespeare's Measure For Measure, directed by David Thacker. 'We have got a Shakespeare this year,' added Denton. I am tempted to respond, 'Big deal,' but looking back over recent years, one Shakespeare isn't bad going.

So there it is. A maximum of half a dozen classic plays among the new detective series and light comedies and EastEnders three times a week - all under the banner of 'drama'. I wonder if such thinking isn't muddled and a little dangerous. In the frenzy to find and maintain top-rating popular drama series - endorsed by the Government, which encouraged exactly this in its White Paper this month - a steady drift downmarket can be disguised because of the large amount of money and programming hours coming under the heading of drama.

If the BBC can't brighten its drama season with a constant array of great British theatre through the ages, then who can? Our theatre remains the best in the world, yet it has only the tiniest reflection on television. The fact that Britain's national playwright gets only one play on television this year and none in other years, speaks volumes.

Television has redefined the word drama. I suggest a different generic term is used for soap operas, detective series, peak-time serials and light comedies. Then we will see truly how much genuine drama - British, European and American, from Shakespeare through Shaw, Rattigan, Miller, Williams, Brecht, Pinter, Mamet and countless more - we really see.

After the success of Middlemarch, Michael Jackson, the head of BBC 2, acknowledged that, for some years, programme- makers had misjudged their audience in believing that there was no desire for the traditional classic serial. Thankfully, the new season contains Paul Scofield in Martin Chuzzlewit, so the trend is at last reversing. But what misplaced arrogance it was of those programme-makers to assume there was no hunger for classic work. Are they now making the same wrong assumption in giving us so little classic drama?

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