BBC reaffirms commitment to quality drama

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The BBC yesterday declared its total commitment to backing new writers, directors and single plays and films, and said it intended to develop a new generation of screen talent for both BBC1 and BBC2.

Charles Denton, head of BBC drama, held a briefing at which he specifically rebutted criticism last week by the screenwriter Andrew Davies.

Mr Davies , who has a wide range of television adaptations to his credit, had attacked what he saw as a descent into formulaic and tired old drama typified by long runs of detective stories. He made his criticism while giving the prestigious Huw Wheldon lecture, and specifically named Alan Yentob, the Controller of BBC1.

Mr Denton, who is still smarting from Mr Yentob's decision to scrap the Sunday night drama Seaforth, pointed to three recent BBC1 ventures which have attracted both audiences and critical acclaim - Common As Muck, Cardiac Arrest and Roughnecks. They were, he said, evidence of fresh thinking and accomplished writing.

Mr Denton said that if a young Dennis Potter clutching a copy of Vote Vote Vote for Nigel Barton came into the BBC's Drama Department, he would find young producers fighting over him. He added that he was anxious to lay the myth that single dramas (the key nursery slopes for new talent) were dying at the BBC. They were "alive, well, kicking and growing."

George Faber, the BBC's head of single drama, announced a rise of £3m in spending on single dramas to £51m, to be spread over 1996 and 1997. There will also be an extra six new films on BBC2 in each of the coming two years with the number on BBC1 remaining at eight a year.

However, the Screen One series, which ran in the autumn, attracted disappointing ratings and a mixed critical reception. Only one film, Pat and Margaret, starring Julie Walters, was truly popular. The BBC is reviewing the scheduling of its films and considering whether to abandon the Screen One and Screen Two seasons in favour of one-offs. It points to the recent success of Cold Comfort Farm which won 9.9 million viewers even though it was opposite ITV's Poirot.

The corporation also announced a new £1m fund, headed by Beeban Kidron and Danny Boyle. It will dispense grants of up to £100,000 annually and will meet twice a year.

In addition, BBC2 is setting, aside space and money for a further 16 hour-long films in 1996 and 1997 as slots for new writers and directors.

Mr Faber said: "We reach for the stars. Sometimes we get there, sometimes we fall flat on our faces but one would always like to increase the strike rate."