Formula-ridden BBC `should give up drama'

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The Independent Online
THE BBC'S drama department is in such a dreadful state that the corporation should abandon in-house production of drama altogether, says a Channel 4 executive.

In a speech tonight at the Birmingham International Television Festival, Channel 4's head of drama, Gub Neal, will accuse the BBC of producing too many drama series that are simply trying to clone proven successes such as Casualty and EastEnders.

What is more, he will say, too many of these formulaic dramas have to feature established "star faces". Recent BBC failures, according to Mr Neal, include Maisie Raine, the detective series starring Pauline Quirke from Birds of a Feather. He also describes Harbour Lights, starring Nick Berry, and Sunburn, starring Michelle Collins, as flops.

"Original drama [has] become shrivelled and dwarfed by the ascendancy of star vehicles and genres," Mr Neal says. "Is it because writers love policemen? Or producers adore nurses? Is it that the audience can only be allowed to see the world through a medical or legal perspective?"

Mr Neal argues that producers are "bored rigid" by BBC procedures, and broadcasters who "keep ordering genre by the yard". He says: "It's bad enough not getting your programme made. But it's even worse when you realise you've got a green light but it's contingent on Michelle Collins or Dawn French agreeing to star in it - excellent artists though they may be, it suggests to the creative team that the idea and script on their own aren't worth the commission."

Mr Neal says the problem stems from an exodus of talent from the BBC, led by its former head of drama Michael Wearing, in response to reforms by the director general, Sir John Birt. "It became a nightmare to work there almost from the day that Michael Checkland [former BBC director general] announced that the corporation was a billion-pound business," he says.

"Unfortunately nobody intervened to remind him or Marmaduke Hussey [former BBC chairman] that it was also a `culture'. From the moment that the free market arrived, in the form of John Birt and the inappropriately named `producer choice', the drama department, with all its myriad strengths and problems, became a critical casualty of the new policies."

Mr Neal argues that the rebuilding of the BBC drama department is not viable as "it would be impossible to attract key talent back into the building". He concludes: "The only way forward is for the BBC to abandon the in-house production of mainstream series drama."