Media: The old firm can still pull a cracker: Michael Leapman meets an in-house producer who gives independents a run for their money

When I arrived at her London house near Kew bridge, Sally Head, Granada Television's head of drama, was on the phone in the cluttered kitchen, reading from a long continuous fax that was curling round her calves. Although Cracker, Robbie Coltrane's hit series on ITV, was well into its stride, she and the producer, Gub Neal, were still settling details of the later episodes.

An eight-week-old kitten, one of a litter of four, chased after the flapping fax paper, then wailed plaintively when its mother imposed discipline. I had come to ask Head how successful television series are made. Was this the answer, this tableau of order within chaos?

Perhaps not, but it is a symptom of the time pressure imposed by the new ITV central commissioning system. Only in January was Head given the go- ahead to make the series, about a criminal psychologist who seems to need help more than his clients.

That did not leave much time to get seven hours of prime-time drama ready for a September launch. In the old days, when Granada was able to command an agreed quota of programmes on the network, she would have been allowed to start much earlier.

Cracker, already attracting 10 million viewers, is one of the hits of a mixed autumn for ITV. 'Marcus (Plantin, the chief ITV scheduler) phoned me after the first episode and congratulated me,' says Head. 'I'm still euphoric about it because I think I've got it right. If the British audience didn't respond it would make me want to pack it all in, I love it so much. If you're passionate about a programme you expect everybody else to watch it.'

The success of Cracker has been especially welcomed by executives of the established ITV companies because it is made in-house by one of their number. Those who continue to resent the intrusion of independent producers on to their traditional terrain see it as proof that there are no ways like the old ways. Nick Elliott, managing director of LWT Productions, points out that the two new franchise-holders that make no programmes of their own - Carlton and Meridian - have yet to commission a palpable hit.

'They've commissioned Full Stretch, Head Over Heels, Frank Stubbs Promotes and Brighton Belles: no real hits,

and Frank Stubbs is the only one that's been recommissioned. I think it's because there's a greater awareness in-house of what the schedule needs. The independents are to some extent disconnected from the schedule and its requirements.'

The poor ratings performance of BBC 1's independently produced Harry reinforces that view. But Jonathan Powell, head of drama at Carlton (and controller of BBC 1 when Harry was commissioned) disagrees. 'It's a real nonsense to say the independents aren't making good drama. It's codswallop, a real ITV Old Boys' Club line. The people who sit in the television establishments - the BBC as well - don't want change, so they look at the downside. They forget that Inspector Morse was an independent production and, anyway, a lot of the same directors make the shows for the independents as well as the networks.'

Head, who has run Granada's drama department for five years, declines to get involved in any such debate. 'Life's too short to be politicking the whole time,' she says. 'It's hard to knock other people's programmes, because you know the time and energy spent on them at every level.' The idea for Cracker began to be formulated about 18 months ago, when she was looking for something to match the success of her Prime Suspect. (Since then we have had Prime Suspect 2, and Prime Suspect 3 is due to be aired before Christmas.) She asked some producers to come up with ideas and Neal suggested a series about a criminal psychologist.

When they came to discuss writers, Neal suggested Jimmy McGovern. 'We knew the power and depth of his writing and his humour. He's strong on sex, religion and sexual politics and the dark side of life and the soul.' Once the first script had been written, everyone was certain that Robbie Coltrane was the man for the part of Fitz.

Although unwilling to criticise independents, Head does think there is a special atmosphere at Granada that allows creative people scope for their initiative, and allows her to follow her instincts about what makes good drama.

'My fear was that when David Plowright left (after disagreements with the senior management of the group) all that would change, but it hasn't. I haven't been leant on to do anything I don't want to do. Nobody has asked me to make it more commercial. My other fear was that with the new central scheduling office things would change yet again. But we got Cracker through and I can only say I am grateful for that. What the future holds I have no idea. I'm waiting to hear from central scheduling.'

The future almost certainly holds another series of Cracker and, more immediately, Prime Suspect 3. The first of Lynda La Plante's Prime Suspect series, in which Helen Mirren plays a put-upon policewoman, dealt with sexism in the police force and the second with racism.

'I was told Prime Suspect 2 would never pull an audience because of its subject, that having a lot of black people in it would turn off the British audience. That was nonsense. It won an Emmy and 14 million viewers - as many as the first.'

The series continues to tackle controversial issues. Prime Suspect 3 is about homophobia - an aversion to homosexuals - among the police. And Head is confident that we shall eventually watch Prime Suspects 4, 5 and 6. More evidence for those who believe that the old firms make the best shows.

(Photograph omitted)

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