ITV brings back Mirren and 'Prime Suspect' to fight BBC crime dramas

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Helen Mirren is returning as "thinking man's crumpet" cop Jane Tennison in a new series of Prime Suspect, helping ITV fight off a BBC push to steal viewers with a weekly dose of "Britgrit", an unprecedented number of crime-dramas. Executives from both sides believe Britain wants its television detectives to be "dangerous, dark and contemporary", more Jane Tennison or Cracker than Poirot or Morse. Granada has persuaded Mirren to play the female detective superintendent after a six-year break.

The BBC plans to consolidate Sunday, Monday and Tuesday as crime nights, and reverse BBC1's reputation for failing to produce acclaimed popular drama or television detectives as compelling as Tennison or Morse. Jane Tranter, the BBC's head of drama, has been piloting her strategy over the past year with "Crime Doubles" programmes largely in traditional whodunnit formats, often with a familiar "psychologically-damaged detective with a troubled past".

This week's Double, Waking the Dead, had Trevor Eve scrunched up with hidden emotional turmoil, but still able to reopen and solve old "cold cases". The programme trounced ITV's Survivor in the ratings. The best of the Crime Doubles will form the backbone of the planned 2002 flood of crime dramas. "I call it Britgrit," says Ms Tranter. "These programmes have tough ways of dealing with crime. Their world is dangerous and dark."

On her list for development is In Deep, which has two bankable stars – Nick Berry and Stephen Tompkinson – as undercover cops. National Crime Squad, a runabout action offering with David Suchet, has also made it onto her schedule, as has the long-established Silent Witness, with Amanda Burton as the mad-eyed criminal pathologist. A new series, Outside the Rules, about a female criminal psychiatrist, also has a slot. These series are likely to be broadcast on Mondays and Tuesdays.

Additional crime dramas are expected to be at the heart of the most competitive Sunday night drama wars on British television. Many in the industry suspect the BBC is planning to schedule an additional EastEnders programme on Sunday nights, which would deliver a huge audience for the start of a subsequent crime drama. The line-up would go head-to-head with Coronation Street on ITV, feeding into Prime Suspect or another detective major drama.

Until now, the BBC has been unable to match ITV's reputation in the genre. The occasional hits, such as Silent Witness or the hard-edged early Nineties series Between the Lines, with Neil Pearson and Siobhan Redmond, have always been second-league shows, in ratings terms, next to the ITV "jewels". One ITV executive says: "The BBC are trying to do what we did 10 years ago." He suspects the crime offensive is mere "sticking plaster", a quick fix to hold the drama strategy together and lift ratings as the BBC recovers from a disastrous start to the year with the flops of Love in a Cold Climate, based Nancy Mitford's book, and the Irish drama Rebel Heart.

With the popularity of Holby City and Casualty, the crime dramas will ensure a surfeit of detectives as well as doctors. Only on screen, that is.