ITV is hiring a string of high- profile BBC stars to revamp its comedy output with a batch of upmarket shows.
Caroline Quentin, of Men Behaving Badly, and Richard Wilson, of One Foot in the Grave, have agreed to take part in a themed series of "sophisticated" comedy plays. Sanjeev Bhaskar, the writer and lead character in the BBC's The Kumars at No 42, and Rob Brydon, the star of Marion and Geoff, will appear in separate comedy dramas likely to be broadcast later this year.
The announcement by ITV executives yesterday marks a change in direction and an attempt to discard the channel's reputation for more populist comedy entertainment. The new shows are intended to demonstrate that comedy can act as a vehicle for the revival of quality plays on television.
Quentin and Wilson will feature in a run of three plays linked by the generic title Trapped, due to be networked on ITV next year. The series was the idea of Tim Firth, the Olivier award-winning writer of Preston Front, Our House and Calendar Girls.
Wilson will appear with Mark Benton in Firth's "King of the Fridges", the story of an electrical warehouse manager saddled with a 65-year-old re-trainee (played by the Victor Meldrew star).
The other plays in the series are a reworking of "Beauty and the Beast", called "Beauty" and written by the Men Behaving Badly writer Simon Nye, and "Von Trapped", the story of a woman with a fanatical interest in The Sound of Music. In the latter, Quentin plays the obsessive Maria, who journeys to Salzburg to see where the film was made.
Announcing the series, Firth said: "My idea was to create a short season of freestanding comedy plays for television which were not trying to be the pilot for a series and in which writers could kill off all their characters in the last scene if they wanted."
The new direction has taken many at ITV by surprise.
Outlining the new tack, Sioned William, ITV's controller of comedy, said: "What appealed to us was the idea of having three very different first-class comedy writers create something with total freedom but under the unity of a common theme."
To recruit Bhaskar, who is very much a product of the BBC, is a step in the direction of more upmarket and contemporary programme- making. He will star in a comedy drama called Angell's Hell, about a man who dies in an accident but comes back to life. Bhaskar made his name in the BBC comedy Goodness Gracious Me and has appeared in feature films, including Notting Hill and Meera Syal's Anita and Me.
Brydon came to prominence after meeting Steve Coogan and being encouraged to press ahead with his idea for Marion and Geoff, in which he plays a cab driver called Keith who talks in a downbeat, pooterish monologue to the camera about his failed marriage and his wife's new partner.
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