Massive audience for feelgood drama amazes TV controllers

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The Independent Online
WHILE MOST critical eyes focused on the BBC's Vanity Fair and the future of the costume drama last week, a much more important development in television drama was taking place almost unnoticed at ITV.

There, the full ratings for the previous week's Goodnight Mr Tom were being analysed. This bucolic Second World War drama notched up a startling 13.8 million viewers - a 54 per cent share of all those watching television, and the best figure for a single drama since April 1991.

The success of the programme has started a debate in the television industry about a return to what is described as feelgood drama. Goodnight Mr Tom is the story of a village odd-job man, played by John Thaw, who has a young boy from the city evacuated to stay with him during the war. It was based on the children's story by Michelle Magorian that has been a standard in primary schools for two generations and was originally commissioned by the ITV children's department.

The programme is being compared to the equally rural and unthreatening Darling Buds of May, which in 1991 had its first six episodes go to number one in the weekly ratings. That was the first time for 20 years that such success had been achieved by a new drama. Now ITV is planning the adaptation of Uncle Silus, which, as with the story of the Larkin family was a bucolic H E Bates novel.

"We have had a lot more correspondence and phone calls than normal about this programme," said Ted Childs, executive producer of Goodnight Mr Tom. "It had a good slot, and a great star, but its ratings might contribute to a change in editorial thought.

"There has been a feeling that we've got to be more edgy and tough to appeal to a younger audience. The audience response to this would seem to counter that."

Some are more vehement in their attitude to contemporary dramas: "There has always been an appetite for such drama, but the elitist mob who run television are too out of touch with the public to realise it," says one senior television analyst. "Instead it is fashionable to be gloomy and present the world as populated by serial killers and detectives looking out of rainy windows."

This gloomy approach to drama is driving viewers away, according to a recent report by Broadcast magazine. The magazine's analysis shows that viewing of dramas is falling four or five times as fast as the viewing of other programmes. In the first 40 weeks of 1998, BBC1 and ITV weekly dramas lost an average of 800,000 viewers compared with 1997, which was also a weak year.

Industry analysts believe that the audience for feelgood drama is being diverted instead to the docu-soap genre. While these may lack sets and acting, they do provide storylines that show people triumphing over adversity: in Airport, the problems that make good television are overcome by the end when the planes take off.

However, Nick Elliot, ITV's head of drama, maintains that the network already mixes feelgood drama with darker stuff: "Heartbeat and Where the Heart Is are our Sunday night package of family viewing. But there are different sectors of audience and our more cutting-edge programmes do very well."