TELEVISION / All they want is a second chance: A good script, great actors and a director to die for are no guarantees of a follow-up series. After all, they gave Trainer a second run. Sabine Durrant reports

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The Independent Culture
THE MAKING of Lovejoy is a story of vehemence rewarded. Everyone believed in it. Then everyone fell out. The first series in 1986 received lowish ratings and muted critical attention, but negotiations were already in hand for a second. Then the storm broke. 'It was about money,' says Allan McKeown, who produced it, 'we wanted to make it with the same money as the first series; the BBC wanted to give us less. I had Ian McShane on the phone every day, everyone was shouting. In the end Michael Grade and I weren't on speaking terms. The project was scrapped.' But McKeown waited, determined to keep the idea, which he 'always knew had legs', in the running. Four years later, the day Jonathan Powell took over as controller of BBC 1, McKeown descended. 'I was the first guy there,' he says, 'I was helping him in with his boxes.'

In this case, the perseverance was worth it. Lovejoy, which shot back with Powell's blessing (he has 'a great affection' for the programme) in 1991, is now filming its fifth series and, in its recent fourth, fought off ITV's Darling Buds of May with feisty Sunday night ratings of 10.5 million. It's a success story, a story of patience fulfilled, the sort of story that keeps television moguls awake at night. Like Casualty (almost axed after its first series - now, with its 17 million fanatical viewers, a BBC flagship), like Minder (the early audiences were bemused, Verity Lambert had to argue hard to renew contracts), Lovejoy shows how first impressions can deceive, how, with nurturing, something that may look lukewarm at one glance can harbour a roaring success. Ignore the first series, scream these shows, it's the second that counts.

Precedents, however, can be dangerous. In a post-Broadcasting Bill world, that elusive long-runner is an increasingly valuable commodity. Independent production companies want them to secure slots in the schedules; while the BBC and ITV want them as ammunition in the popular ratings war. So, add one part precedent to three parts wishful thinking and someone's gambling on a dead horse called Trainer (dreadful ratings), or a dead sheep called Strathblair (critically panned). 'Most of the series that have gone to second series recently,' says the writer and presenter Howard Schuman, 'are baleful examples of bad series that should never have been done in the first place.'

Nothing characterises a channel like its attitude to second series. Channel 4, with its innovative remit, and the BBC, with its public service ethos, base their decisions on factors other than ratings - and often decide to go ahead even before the figures are available. ITV, on the other hand, waits for positive confirmation. Final decisions rest with the ITV network director, Marcus Plantin, whose judgements are based on the ratings, the Audience Appreciation Index and anecdotal information. 'I want to satisfy the UK viewer and in turn the advertiser. Which amounts,' he says, 'to the same thing.' At the moment he's considering the future of Peak Practice, which kicked off on Monday. 'It has a very big delivery in the early estimates, so it's looking good,' he says. 'But it'll be the feedback that decides . . . I'm interested in hitting the bull's-eye very quickly.'

Many might argue his aim was less than true; that when you hit and run, you miss out. Allan McKeown, who as well as Lovejoy is responsible for Birds of a Feather, Auf Wiedersehen, Pet and Love Hurts (all second series triumphs), might agree. His limo-drama Full Stretch, which had a six-episode first series in January and February, was all set up to run and run ('It was absolutely perfect - great story lines from Clement and La Frenais, glamorous, working-class, fast moving'), but Plantin, disregarding the programme's potential, has so far held back on commissioning a second. 'We faxed. We wrote. We cajoled,' says McKeown. 'That second series was crucial for us if we were to recoup any money. Imperative. As it is we lost a quarter of a million. Plantin said it didn't find an audience. I know it needed some work, it wasn't focused enough, perhaps too fast-moving. But the BBC would have given us the benefit of the doubt. If I'd made it for Yentob or Powell, without any doubt they would have kept it on.'

In terms of second series, the BBC nurtures and takes risks. Often decisions are made early, when there's little evidence to go on: often no ratings, sometimes not even a first series. This may be because of time pressures: a deadline on an actor's options (as with the Darling Buds of May, say) or because the intention is to run the second series, one year on, in the same season as the original (as in Strathblair). Alan Yentob agreed to a second outing for the excellent The Riff Raff Element when he'd only previewed two episodes of the first. When it eventually went out it didn't do very well in terms of ratings - it was set against Channel 4's Cheers/Roseanne Friday night battalion - but the critics loved it. Yentob remains enthusiastic: 'I decided to go on because I believe Debbie (Horsfield) is a very interesting writer and I wanted to make a commitment to her,' he says. Jonathan Powell took the same risk with Rides (which starts its second series tonight). And the filming of Strathblair 2 was underway in March 1992, two months before Strathblair 1 took the air. In this case, it was the sheep who were playing up. It's a seasonal drama - the directors needed lambs and the lambs, due to later commitments, could only do spring. Sorry.

Both Yentob and Powell will look at a producer or writer's track record, but admit to having 'gut reactions': 'Old-fashioned as that may be,' says Yentob, 'I would have to be very well argued with to go against that feeling.' 'There are obviously emotional reasons behind some decisions,' Powell says. And practical: Powell renewed Trainer, it's been said, because he'd spent so much on the horses. Critics of Rides, made by and about women, might argue its re-emergence is due to positive discrimination. Certainly, the necessity for balanced programming might distort judgement. Yentob identifies the second series of Love Hurts as being not entirely successful - 'the dynamic between the characters had been lost'. But McKeown, who made it, thinks the BBC commissioned a second, and then a third, because 'it was the only show they had with a romantic feel'.

Duff decisions - as well as brilliant - are also sometimes based on an understanding that programmes should be allowed to find their feet (and their place in the schedule - see Riff Raff). This is particularly true of situation comedies. Birds of a Feather, now going into its fifth series, didn't take off until its second. Last of the Summer Wine (15 series down, one on the way) took its time to catch on, and it's taken One Foot in the Grave four series to reach its current peak of 18 million viewers. Martin Fisher, head of comedy and light entertainment at the BBC, argues that 'part of the public's affection for comedy is based on anticipating how a character is going to react to something. What Victor Meldrew is going to feel about litter or whatever. That takes time. The second series is the litmus test of whether it will ever work, whether it deserves a third.'

The third series, after all, can be sown on even stonier ground. 'If it hasn't taken off by then,' says Powell, 'the debate gets very difficult.' But if it has, are we automatically talking third series and fourth and fifth? McKeown hopes so. 'You need a minimum of 13 episodes for overseas sales,' he says, 'and to be syndicated in America you need a minimum of 65 or 70 shows, to be shown every night for 12 weeks, before a series gets to be valuable. I saw Doogie Howser MD just closed at 60. That's a flop.'

McKeown thinks the future of British television lies in the eternal series. But it looks like Yentob is liable to disagree: 'It won't be an automatic process by any means,' he says. Howard Schuman also finds virtue in limitation: 'In America they have a tradition of writing by committee. But that won't work here. The best British stuff represents an individual's vision. It's something that's nurtured to its natural length. Remember, there were only 12 episodes of Fawlty Towers.'

(Photographs omitted)