New drama out of a crisis

ITV may have slid in the ratings, but it hopes that a change in commissioning policy will put it at the cutting edge. By Meg Carter
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The Independent Online

Creative doldrums or a brave new era? Depending on who you talk to, ITV drama is either in a trough or on a roll. Battered by criticism of poor ratings performance, ITV's director of channels, David Liddiment, recently claimed in these pages that ITV must be about more than ratings – that it has to be about "range, diversity and our willingness to take risks".

Yet at the same time the novelist David Lodge was condemning ITV, among others, for stifling creativity in TV drama: for over-investing in police and crime series, and for condensing novels to such an extent that many TV adaptations are implausible or simply don't make sense.

But ITV drama is changing, as a number of shows in coming weeks will reveal. Likely to be one of the most controversial is The Jury. This peaktime drama series, due to air in a 9pm Sunday-night slot from mid-February, follows the trial of a reclusive Sikh schoolboy for the murder of a white classmate. The story is told from the jury's perspective.

Then there's Blood Strangers, a two-parter about a mother who, when her 14-year-old daughter is found murdered, discovers not only that her daughter was a prostitute, but that the child's Asian boyfriend was her pimp, and Loving You, which deals with child sexual abuse.

Meanwhile, new adaptations of Galsworthy's The Forsyte Saga and Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim are waiting in the wings, while a remake of Dr Zhivago, written by Andrew Davies, and a new drama about Henry VIII, starring Ray Winstone, are about to go into production.

Nick Elliott, ITV's head of drama, resistssuggestions of a conscious change of direction, though he admits to a preference now for drama with "contemporary resonance". He says: "It's very difficult to innovate in TV drama. Our Othello is one notable recent exception. But otherwise it is hard to push the edge as you can with other programming genres. This is why my ruling principle is that any new ITV drama should not be like one you might have seen on ITV four or five years ago. It's about fresh voices from intelligent minds rather than reinvention just for the sake of it.

"With Blood Strangers I liked the overlap into newsier issues, like race riots. I don't think the BBC, for one, has yet realised the audience's appetite for this in its drama slate. Which is why it plays safer with more docs and cops [medical and police dramas]."

ITV drama executives don't disagree with some of the charges that have been laid against them. But there is a belief that ITV drama has never been more in tune with contemporary issues. True, this is still the home of old faithfuls such as Heartbeat and a steady stream of vehicles for contracted "star" players such as David Jason, Ross Kemp and Robson Green. The key to ITV's drama commissioning, Elliott insists, is breadth and diversity. But it is also the only broadcaster "moving drama into new areas," believes Andy Harries, Granada's controller of drama.

"TV drama is on the back foot at the moment," Harries explains. "While we have seen documentaries, entertainment and the game show reinvented by new styles of programme-making and technology, TV drama has stayed still. The danger is that it becomes homogenous. You need an appointment to view otherwise drama becomes soap – always there. You don't rush home for Peak Practice."

Eager to counter the BBC's triumphal claims of victory in the ratings war in 2001, ITV is predictably quick to stress that in primetime – the toughest battleground – ITV1 still maintains a six-point lead in audience share over BBC1, for which it thanks its diverse drama slate.

But the new dramas were commissioned before the economic downturn. Since then, production budgets have been squeezed. The future strength of ITV's drama strategy will ultimately be dictated by whether those who control both its scheduling and its purse strings can hold their nerve.