Media: Drama out of Auntie's crisis?: Charles Denton's mission is to deliver a new hit series for the BBC. But time is running out, says Sue Summers (CORRECTED)

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Ask Charles Denton what his first year at the BBC has been like and he smiles grimly. 'Like Passchendaele,' he says.

So how is being head of BBC drama like surviving one of the bloodiest and most wasteful battles of attrition of the First World War? Does he mean that the corridors of TV Centre are strewn with bodies, or is this startling remark a reference to the impossibility of making any progress against BBC bureaucracy?

Another smile. 'When you come from a small company of 18 people to a department of 400 people - and 400 people who are very maverick, verbal, intelligent, disputatious and difficult - it's a culture shock,' he says. 'I had a culture shock. I should have known I would.'

Like that of many a First World War general, Denton's mission might have seemed impossible. His brief was to rescue the reputation of BBC drama from the depths to which it sank after a string of expensive and ill-thought-out flops such as Trainer, Westbeach, A Year in Provence and, of course, Eldorado.

In the field of literary adaptation, once the BBC's crowning glory, the laurels had largely been snatched by ITV, with productions such as Angus Wilson's Anglo-Saxon Attitudes and P G Wodehouse's Jeeves and Wooster. The best the BBC could manage was Ken Russell's ludicrous Lady Chatterley. Meanwhile, the ITV companies were astutely building on past ratings- winners, such as Inspector Morse and Darling Buds of May, with a new slate of middle-brow drama hits, Peak Practice, Heartbeat and Soldier, Soldier.

A highly respected figure in ITV, Denton, 56, had been the Central TV programme controller who dared to axe the popular Noele Gordon from Crossroads. More immediately, as head of the independent production company Zenith, he had overseen Inspector Morse, the ITV success most coveted by the BBC.

He made no secret of the fact that drama was not his field. But his role at the BBC was to be an enabler, 'providing conditions under which people can do their best work'. Most crucially, it was to find popular drama series that would restore the BBC's former effortless primacy in the genre, rather than making it a national laughing stock. As a seasoned professional, Denton knew that he had only a limited time to effect this huge turnaround in popularity and quality, but it was all, he said, 'more fun than an ex-ITV controller in his fifties had any right to expect'.

One year on, there is no more talk of fun. Indeed, Denton has been looking so down in the mouth that there has even been talk of his departure. Many of his 'disputatious' staff are fiercely critical of his regime. Does he intend to stay in the job?

'I've asked myself that several times without coming up with a definite answer. I've now come up with a definite answer: I'm staying.

'The end of my first year has been a turning point. I realised that either I was going to stay and enjoy it, or go because I was never going to come to terms with it. And I've decided I'm going to stay here for two or three years, because the job is an important one for me to do, and for the BBC to have done. To some people, I realise, that may not come as good news.'

In some ways, there appears to be much for Denton to be cheerful about. During the past 12 months, the image of BBC drama has been triumphantly resuscitated by the success of Middlemarch, a series that has reaffirmed the BBC's cultural values and provided a yardstick for contemporary social comment in the way every drama producer dreams about.

In the contemporary field, too, series such as The Buddha of Suburbia, Family, Between the Lines and Cardiac Arrest have reinforced the BBC's reputation for tackling the dangerous, original, individualistic work from which ITV is in full retreat.

But as Denton says: 'I'm proud that Middlemarch can get 6 million viewers, but it's not much when 10 million is thought to be the standard of success for a popular drama series.'

With pounds 180m a year to spend, drama accounts for one-third of the BBC's network television budget and should be the backbone of BBC1's schedule. One year into Denton's regime, however, the BBC's much-needed popular hit remains as elusive as ever. Casualty, EastEnders and Neighbours are still the only drama series on which the channel's controller, Alan Yentob, can rely for a mass audience. Indeed, the past year has seen supposedly 'popular' series such as Michael Elphick's Harry - which Denton rashly predicted would be a hit at his very first BBC press conference - and Lynda La Plante's Lifeboat (cancelled last week without finishing its first run) sink with little trace in the ratings.

Denton says, with justification, that it takes time to grow new drama series. He points to several in production - Jimmy Nail's Crocodile Shoes, Edward Woodward's Common as Muck, and Dangerfield from BBC Midlands - as examples of series that could be popular hits. Inevitably, however, the absence of any such success at present has given rise to rumours of strained relations between him and Yentob.

'I was at a meeting the other day with them both,' says a producer. 'Charles chaired it like a schoolmaster, and when Alan asked a supplementary question, he ticked him off in front of everyone. Charles has been confrontational from the word go, and he's alienated people.'

When he arrived, Denton says, too few resources were geared to popular drama and too many to the one-off film - the area that BBC producers regard as the zenith of attainment. What's more, too many decisions were made by 'controller whim' instead of by professionals in the drama department.

His remedy was to introduce a complicated new structure of 'core producers' - executives with responsibility for key production areas - and an editorial board where projects are vetted before being offered to the controllers. He also merged the series and serials departments under one of the BBC's most heavyweight drama producers, Michael Wearing.

The aim was to encourage producers in more toffee-nosed areas to turn their attention to the popular front, and make it easier for ideas to reach the screen. But the chief complaint - from even some of those who were most open-minded about Denton's appointment - is that he has introduced even more bureaucracy.

'The executives and legal and business affairs and finance people have taken over in a big way,' says one disenchanted producer. 'It takes longer than ever to get a decision, even about projects in which the BBC has already invested a good deal of money.'

Denton is well aware of criticisms. 'Structure never hurt anybody,' he insists. 'I believe profoundly that the right structure is a liberating influence, not a straitjacket. I'm trying to inject some idea of a structure and an organisation into a group that has famously busked it for a number of years. We can't afford anarchy.

'Yes, I'm hiring 20 production accountants at this moment, because I believe every BBC production should have one. It's a production grade utilised everywhere else in the world. How they should have got away without it here for so long defeats me.

'I'm here to make instrumentalists start playing as an orchestra. We've some terrific instrumentalists - what we need is an orchestra.'

But conducting that orchestra is clearly proving a far tougher task than he expected. 'What we see, looking up, is that the whole structure being put in place by Charles is completely irrelevant,' says one 'instrumentalist'. 'We just talk to Alan Yentob or Michael Wearing, and ignore it.'

Denton, however, is sticking to his guns. 'This is the only way we'll get a coherent strategy out of the place, and fill some of the weaknesses in the BBC schedules,' he says. 'The decline of popular drama performance on BBC1 is not a new phenomenon and there are no quick fixes. But it will be fixed.

'Creating a hit is the hardest thing in television. But a huge amount of development work is under way now, and there are good things coming along. I say, watch this space for another year.'

After that, as he admits, his time will have run out.


In our interview with Charles Denton we mistakenly reported that The Lifeboat drama series was being taken off early by BBC 1. This was not true: it is running for a full series. We apologise.

(Photograph omitted)