ITV creates a Dickens of a problem for the BBC

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The Independent Online

There was a chilly welcome on the shores of Lake Geneva for the BBC at the Golden Rose of Montreux TV Comedy Festival yesterday when ITV announced it had captured two of the corporation's prime assets.

David Jason, the star of Only Fools and Horses, is to play Mr Micawber in a four-part comedy-drama series scripted by John Sullivan, who wrote Only Fools and Horses. While it was known in the industry that Sullivan was taking the script to Yorkshire Television, Jason's involvement was unknown until yesterday. BBC sources were privately describing the double loss as a disaster.

Sullivan, who had been with the BBC for 25 years, had originally written his adaptation of David Copperfield for the BBC, but stormed out when corporation drama chiefs told him they were not happy with his script, which strongly emphasised the humour in the Charles Dickens novel.

The BBC decided instead to screen a different adaptation last Christmas with Bob Hoskins as Mr Micawber. Now comparisons will inevitably be made between the portrayals by Hoskins and Jason.

However, the ITV version, which will be called Mr Micawber, will depart drastically from the Dickens novel with no place for key characters such as Uriah Heep or even David Copperfield. The series will centre on Jason's Micawber and his family, with Sullivan taking considerable liberties with one of Dickens' most famous comic creations. Micawber becomes a butler and a stage manager as well as the lawyer he is in the novel. But he will remain Dickens' kindly, verbose and debt-ridden character and will still use his catchphrase "something will turn up".

The £4m series will be screened next year.

Last night, Jason said: "I very much hope that I can make Mr Micawber a household name. He is a loveable rogue with a heart of gold. Always jovial with a generosity beyond his means. It will be terrific to work with the same team again and I sincerely hope that some of the old magic will return."

David Reynolds, the controller of drama features and comedy drama at Yorkshire Television , said that the Micawber character will not be another Del Boy. "He is a more moral character. He adores his wife and family, which is fairly rare for heroes on British TV."

In a further warning to the BBC, Mr Reynolds said he would be asking Sullivan to write other series. He said: "There is an open offer to John. I know the BBC are courting him very heavily because they know he wasn't treated in the way a top writer should be. They have been very careless with their top talent."

Elsewhere at the festival, delegates sat, often stony-faced, viewing sit-coms from across Europe. They were particularly intrigued by theprospect of a special German comedy night being put on for the first time.

British stars, including Paul Whitehouse, "Ant and Dec" and Jerry Sandowitz, were last night flying into the resort to announce new projects.