How ITV aims to lure viewers with quality drama

ITV may be best known for talent shows and soaps these days, but its three new Jane Austen adaptations could prove as big a draw as Simon Cowell

"Stand back, horses charging," roars a fierce youth. I hold my breath as the deafening clatter of hooves on cobblestones announces the arrival of two 18th-century carriages. Teams of plumed black horses charge past, captured on a camera wheeled at speed along a makeshift track. "And... cut!"

I'm not, as you might imagine, on the set of a feature film or peeking in at the BBC's latest foray into costume drama. I'm witnessing the production of Jane Austen's early novel Northanger Abbey - and it's being made by ITV. This is just one of three new Austen adaptations that will form the heart of the channel's upcoming Austen season. And the classics won't end there. Plans are afoot for an ITV version of Dickens' The Old Curiosity Shop and a drama based on Rudyard Kipling's life.

All very impressive but, pardon my frankness, it's not very ITV, is it? For years, ITV has made reality shows such as Celebrity Love Island, I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here! and The X Factor the talking points of its schedule alongside the inevitable froth of soaps and more hard-hitting modern-day drama. Period drama has hardly featured beyond the populist Poirots and Marples.

Now, a change of leadership means a change of attitude. Laura Mackie, ITV's controller of drama, was poached from the BBC last year. She admits that the reappearance of period pieces in ITV's schedule is evidence of a channel tentatively searching for a new identity. "ITV is going through a period of redefining who we are. There has been a sense in the past few years that they haven't quite come through with classic pieces like Henry VIII and Doctor Zhivago, which they'd done in the past." Indeed, in the last months of chief executive Charles Allen's leadership, the channel preferred to tempt viewers with reality offerings such as Celebrity Wrestling.

So why choose to take the channel forward by heading into the past? "On any channel, something like this Austen season has a great halo effect on the programmes around it. I think it would be a great shame and a missing note for us if we weren't doing these pieces," says Mackie. "We're getting back to a position where we can confidently do classic adaptations." An insider on the Northanger production team, however, rather wickedly suggests that ITV is suddenly interested in period drama because it "didn't win any drama awards in the last Baftas."

Back on the set of Northanger Abbey, Felicity Jones, who plays Austen's heroine Catherine Moreland, prepares for a scene in which she will bid farewell to Bath and head to the eponymous abbey. Jones looks the picture of pretty innocence, nervously adjusting her bonnet, as she waits for the director's cue. But isn't Austen's heroine rather winsome and silly for a serious actress? Not surprisingly, Jones demurs: "I think the appealing thing about Catherine is her energy and freshness. She's never been to Bath before and her naivety there makes her very attractive. She's also a strong satire on the gothic novel heroines of the day so she's a really interesting literary construction."

Perhaps, as a teenage reader, I missed the point of this satirical Catherine. But many still label Northanger as one of Austen's weaker works. "The novel is seen as a test bed, really," admits Jon Jones, the drama's director. "But there's lots of wonderful satire there. And Northanger is unique because all the heroes in Austen's later books have a fortune. They are the established alpha males. In this novel, Henry Tilney [Catherine's love interest] is disinherited, and for once love wins over money."

Mackie explains that a great deal of planning went into the choice of the three new Austen adaptations. "Costume drama is not cheap. When you're deciding to do a title you have to work out whether enough time has elapsed since the last adaptation. For example, we wouldn't want to do Pride and Prejudice because there has just been the Working Title film."

So the channel decided on Northanger Abbey, Persuasion and Mansfield Park, the last of which will star Billie Piper. "Nick Elliot [ITV's director of drama] felt Persuasion would provide a wonderful contrast to Northanger Abbey because the former concentrates on the older heroine and the latter has a much younger heroine. With Mansfield Park, there was a film made a few years back [in 1999, directed by Patricia Rozema], but it wasn't that widely seen. As a mainstream channel we have to choose carefully and be sure we're making the right choices to bring in large audiences," says Mackie.

Part of that audience-friendly mantra saw Andrew Davies, the doyen of period adaptation, brought in as Northanger Abbey's screenwriter. His involvement means that the drama will linger on the spicier elements of the novel, but will there be a moment to compare with Davies' most famous scene - Colin Firth, as Darcy, rising dripping from the lake in the BBC's Pride and Prejudice? "I think it's got the Andrew Davis stamp on it," says the producer Keith Thompson. "He makes it a bit racy, a bit more erotic than it could have been, but it is quite an erotic story anyway. His script has a wonderful cheekiness to it."

Northanger will have classic Davies moments, like a naked Catherine fantasising about her gothic heroes as she sits in the bath (albeit modestly filmed from behind). And Henry, played by JJ Feild, will be shown naked as he washes one morning. "There was a scene of me naked, but luckily my bum managed to stay out of that shot, even though I'd flown my bum double in from LA for the occasion," says the actor, laughing.

The Northanger Abbey set has a happy and unpretentious air. The core cast are young, relatively unknown and clearly thrilled to be working on a project like this. Jones happily chats about coming to terms with the restrictions of her corset, while her co-star Feild enthuses about learning to drive carriages and sword-fighting. "It's dream stuff, really," he says, "Hopefully I can play a cowboy next and then I'll have fulfilled every boyhood fantasy."

ITV filmed Northanger Abbey entirely on location in Ireland, largely thanks to the generous tax incentives offered by the republic's government. It might annoy purists that Dublin's Georgian streets have replaced Bath's honey-coloured stone. "But isn't that shot of the Royal Crescent in Bath a bit of a cliché?" asks Thompson. "What we've done is create our own Bath."

Location (and a few Davies moments) aside, the production promises to be faithful to the book. ITV controllers, however, will be judging the drama's greatness on the number of viewers it gets and the advertising it attracts. Thompson thinks his Northanger can deliver in commercial as well as critical terms. "People love the glamour of a costume piece; it's a bit of escapism and a way to get away from those mindless vacuous reality shows. I think the whole Austen season will be very popular... but Northanger will be the most popular."

And with a laugh, he walks away down the cobbled street, pausing only to check for stampeding horses.

'Northanger Abbey', 'Persuasion' and 'Mansfield Park' will be showing on ITV this spring

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