Media: The Belfast boy who is doing all right, Jack

Robert Cooper, head of drama at BBC Northern Ireland, is in bullish mood - but then he is taking his latest production to Cannes, says Rob Brown
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The Independent Online
BBC dramatists seem to have their sights sets as much on the big as the small screen these days. Buoyed by the box office triumph of Mrs Brown, which earned Judi Dench an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Queen Victoria, a delegation from the corporation will be heading off this week to the Cannes Film Festival with a clutch of celluloid productions.

David Thompson, Head of BBC Films, says he is delighted to have "a striking range of films both in the main festival and in the market". The production which will doubtless stir up most empathy among the massive press corps will be Divorcing Jack, an adaptation of Colin Bateman's bestseller about a satirical columnist on a Belfast newspaper who finds life somewhat less funny after a female student, with whom he's been having a brief affair, is mysteriously bumped off.

Robert Cooper, BBC Northern Ireland's head of drama, was gushing in his praise of this pounds 3m production when we met up in his Belfast office last week. "It's very different, vigorous, irreverent and full of dark humour," he trilled. "It's everything we wanted it to be."

Yet, as he prepares to leave behind bleak rainy Belfast for a few days networking in the south of France with some of the most glamorous and powerful people in the world of film, Cooper isn't completely joyful.

His original plan, he disclosed, had been to make Divorcing Jack for television, but that idea had to be dropped when the cost of the project became apparent. "To secure the necessary finance, more and more single dramas now have to be made as feature films for theatrical release," he observed. "In fact, it is now very hard to make one-off films on television- alone budgets."

The problem with this reliance on cinema, as he sees it, is that it imposes severe creative constraints. To earn a theatrical release, movies must have obvious mainstream appeal and, hence, commercial potential.

"It's wonderful to branch out into feature films," argues Cooper. "However, it is important to preserve particular types of television drama which would never make it on to the big screen.

"We need to encourage individual writers whose perspectives are challenging, even quite subversive. That's what public service broadcasting is all about."

Meanwhile, Cooper cannot complain about his strike rate on the commissioning front. In the last year alone, his 12-strong team has been responsible for developing network drama and film projects that have been budgeted at a total of pounds 25m.

That's quite a contrast to the situation a decade ago when Cooper took up the post. In 1988 BBC Northern Ireland's drama department was almost totally moribund. Now it makes the hit series Ballykissangel and is about to start shooting a second series of The Ambassador in Dublin,

The bulk of its showreel now consists of material shot south of the border. Although crews from the north regularly work on projects in the republic, they resent the fact that so little emanates from Ulster. Cooper, a 47-year-old Englishman, came under fire last week when it emerged that he had failed to get the green light for a major new detective series set in the north. Accusations flow that the project, entitled The Stranger, had been dropped because it was too hot to handle now that the future of the RUC is back in the political melting pot.

Cooper was also disappointed to receive a rejection note from his network controllers, but he insists that their decision was based purely on creative grounds.

Local anger may subside next year when another of Cooper's cherished projects has been pencilled in for production. Written by Graham Reid, Six into Twenty-Six Won't Go will be a landmark six-part serial about three Protestant chums living through the Troubles. It will be shot on location in Belfast with a budget of pounds 4m.

The average British viewer can only take so much bleak realism from Northern Ireland, he believes. "I think most viewers probably feel they've had the right amount of stories about the Ulster Troubles," says Cooper. "Making popular drama in this part of the world is difficult."

Divorcing Jack succeeds, in his view, because it is laced with dark humour, is fast-paced and, ultimately, big on entertainment.