Media: This one's a real cracker

Can ITV's classic-laden autumn schedule triumph over the BBC's seasonal line-up? Nick Elliott, head of drama, thinks so. Marianne Macdonald reports
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The Independent Online
"It may dominate the top 10, but where's ITC's new stuff? If I was in charge I'd be worried. Their drama is years old. Where's the new blood?" a senior television executive demanded recently.

He was, admittedly, from outside ITV. But even allowing for professional rivalry, there is no doubt he has a point. ITV has become dangerously reliant on its "superbrands" for ratings. No one denies its long-running (the unkind might say grizzled) generic series such as Heartbeat, Soldier, Soldier, London's Burning and Peak Practice can still deliver more than the magic 10 million viewers. But actors leave, formats tire, tastes change. Where, indeed, is the new blood?

This is the question that Nick Elliott, ITV's controller of drama, has been wrestling with since bailing out of the BBC in April after 10 months in the job. But it is only now, with the new autumn schedule, that his answer is becoming apparent. Elliot's new blood will come from the introduction of "events" woven into the schedule.

Events are glossy one-offs that "ordinary members of the public look forward to watching", he says, and if you switch on to ITV over the next few weeks you will begin to spot them: Emma is an event, as are Rebecca, Jane Eyre, Moll Flanders, Jimmy McGovern's Hillsborough, this week's Prime Suspect V and the Cracker special.

In introducing so many costume dramas to spice up the schedule, Elliott has been accused of taking the BBC on at its own game. But he takes the opposite view. He thinks the BBC has been copying him.

"I get a bit humpy about that," he admits. "I was at the BBC a year and a half ago, and just before I got there they weren't doing any. Pride and Prejudice [the BBC hit series starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth] was developed by me and the writer Andrew Davies at LWT.

"It was snapped up by Michael Wearing [head of drama serials] because the critics, and the governors to some extent, had been putting pressure on them to do more. It's ironic that I chose to do Emma, which they turned down, and I do Jane Eyre, and then they claim they were going to do it as if they have a divine right."

Either way, classics are key to the new strand, which will also include a Lynda La Plante thriller, Supply and Demand, an adaptation of Jilly Cooper's The Man Who Made Husbands Jealous, Agatha Christie's Poirot and PD James' Original Sin.

"Volume is always the name of the game at ITV," Elliott concedes, "big series which deliver big numbers. Soldier, Soldier and Peak Practice continue to be ITV's meat and potatoes. But we were criticised and we thought we should put more variety in."

In some ways, his brief at ITV is the opposite of what he was appointed to do at the BBC. There he was told to inject "a bit of sense" into its popular drama. Elliott commissioned hits including Ballykissangel, Silent Witness and Dalziel and Pascoe. "I achieved an atmosphere where it became respectable again to do popular drama," Elliott says. "When I arrived everyone there was treated like second-class citizens."

But the BBC had its own problems. At this year's Edinburgh International Television Festival, Elliott accused the corporation of wasting money. More than pounds 6m a year was spent developing films, while it had 190 on the shelf. He was never allowed to "follow his nose with an idea", he added, and the only way to get a meeting with Alan Yentob, then BBC1's controller, was to bump in to him in the lift.

Then there was the simmering conflict with Michael Wearing, who was dismayed that Elliott had been given half his job. He resigned, but was subsequently persuaded to stay.

"I went to dinner with him the night before I arrived but he only found out about things that I thought he knew on Ceefax," Elliott admits. "I always got on with Michael Wearing and I was very fond of him, although the BBC system sometimes unfortunately pitches you into rather silly competition with other output heads [for cash].

"But the main negative was the frustration you get at being called head of something and not being able to steer series. There were always so many people jumping into the way. And they divide things up in this lunatic way, where series and serials and films are different from each other. I'm involved in the whole train set at ITV."

Certainly, the latest ratings bear witness that the BBC can ill afford to lose a man who understands the popular palate: currently, 13 out of the top 20 shows are ITV products. Hence the persistent rumours (not denied by Elliott) that his old mates John Birt, the BBC's director-general, and Alan Yentob have tried several times to woo him back. Birt, of course, was Elliott's colleague at LWT, where Elliott pocketed a cool pounds 2.2m after it was taken over by Granada.

How is the BBC doing now? "Well," says Elliott, "we went through their stuff this morning and Casualty seems to be going wrong. Ratings are down. I think they've concentrated too much on disasters every week. Also, it's been knocked for six by Blind Date which is back for its 11th series.

"They've also got Ballykissangel, which is strong. But I imagine, being the BBC, they won't keep it running. Last year, they had Hamish Macbeth and it's already off the boil and into its last series."

Next March, ITV faces the threat of Channel 5, and judging by its negative spin-doctoring about its embryonic rival, it is rattled. Elliott is laid back about the challenge. "Of course, it'll get some ratings, between 5 and 10 per cent I suppose, but it's not coming on as early as we thought.

"They will be playing their 9pm movie against most of my stuff, but I'll be surprised if they've got hold of the good movies because they haven't got any money." And that evergreen question: would he move News at Ten? "Yes, I'd move it. I'd like to use the 10pm slot for drama."

The industry will keep a sharp eye on the success of Elliott's "events". But while the public will always tune into another Cracker special, there is serious doubt that one-offs can re-energise a schedule. The backbone must be the new long-runners coming through, and at present they seem few and far betweenn