BBC pins its hopes on the tale of the century

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The Independent Online

Media Correspondent

This autumn BBC1 will begin screening the most ambitious television documentary series since Jeremy Isaacs' epic World at War, as part of a pounds 168m season of programmes aimed in part at continuing to narrow the ratings gap with ITV.

People's Century, a 26-part series made in conjunction with the American television company WGBH Boston, will chronicle the upheavals of the 20th century from the viewpoint of ordinary people's testimonies. The first 10 episodes, which include the death of Queen Victoria, the Boer War and the Depression, take the series up to the Second World War, with the second half of the century completed next year.

Although actors will provide links in the narrative, the focus will be on eye-witness accounts from those present at the events, from the Paris exhibition in 1900 to the storming of the Winter Palace which heralded the Russian revolution.

The autumn schedule unveiled yesterday by Alan Yentob, the controller of BBC1, also includes a new adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, Rowan Atkinson's first sitcom for the BBC since Blackadder, and Alien Empire, from the Natural History Unit, which explores the insect world.

Ian Richardson reprises his masterful portrayal of the scheming prime minister, Francis Urquhart, in the conclusion of Michael Dobbs's House of Cards trilogy, the "Final Cut".

The new season follows a period in which the gap between ITV and BBC1 had diminished significantly, prompting Marcus Plantin, the network manager of ITV, to accuse Mr Yentob of becoming "commercialised".

Mr Yentob brushed off the suggestion, pointing out that while BBC1 had enjoyed a good ratings run - ITV's share lead fell to 5.1 per cent in the first 29 weeks of this year compared with 7.9 per cent last year - programmes such as People's Century, Pride and Prejudice and Alien Empire proved that BBC1 had not sold out.

"Narrowing the gap is nice, but BBC1's ambitions are not to become ITV. They are to have a mix of popular shows and shows which would not be on ITV," he said.

Part of BBC1's success recently had been based on a revival in popular drama, where corporation fortunes have improved with ratings and critical hits such as Bugs, Hamish MacBeth and Common as Muck. But comedy shows such as Men Behaving Badly, 2point4 Children and Goodnight Sweetheart had also helped, along with tough competitive scheduling (the third edition of EastEnders on Mondays, for example, and placing the highly successful Animal Hospital against ITV's The Bill on Thursdays).