Out of a crisis, drama

And it's all over and out for BBC drama ... well, that's what the pundits have been saying. High time to think again, says Maggie Brown

The BBC has lost its ability to produce popular drama and has ceded the crown to ITV. So runs the cliche. But does the cliche still hold true? After the nadir ofEldorado and Westbeach (Howard's Way without boats ... or a plot), the BBC has begun to fight back.

Industry insiders date the revival to last summer and the series Chandler & Co, about a female private detective agency. (Though oddly enough, the BBC had not expected the show to do so well.) Since then, the penny has started to drop in the ITV camp - the BBC has pulled back from the abyss.

These are the titles bringing hope and joy: Common as Muck, a sharp comedy drama about privatised bin men; Roughnecks, about life on an oil rig; Hamish Macbeth, the cases of a West Highlandpoliceman; Dangerfield (cops meet docs) and The Vet (the title says it all). Even an ambitious period drama, The Hanging Gale, about the Irish famine, held up well against the Sunday night guns of ITV, clocking up 8.5 million viewers to The Governor's 9.2 million.

Jonathan Powell, former controller of BBC1 and now head of drama at Carlton, says success is relative. "None of the shows have become big hits, but [the BBC] is looking at the area with a degree of commitment. The shows feel as if they are meant. The Vet looks as if it's trying to reach the public. My favourite is The Hanging Gale. You wouldn't have expected such a subject to have done so well."

In terms of determination to reach a wider public, though, the really significant breakthrough came with the very un-BBC-like Bugs, the Saturday night action series the corporation snatched from ITV. Instead of following existing formats, Bugs blends escapist action drama, reckoned a tough genre to crack, with science fiction-style plots.

People are shot as the baddies are foiled, but don't scream. The tone is socheerful that entire families are making a date with BBC1 on Saturday nights - 10.8 million viewers tuned in a fortnight ago.

"Bugs is original," claims Peter Ansorge, Channel 4's head of series and serials. "My jaw drops as I watch it. It is quite different from Dangerfield or The Vet, which seem carbon copies of ITV ideas."

There is an important point about relativity to explain. Although Hamish Macbeth, Bugs, The Vet and Dangerfield have been hits in BBC terms - and certainly compared with recent history - they might struggle to be re- commissioned if they were on ITV. On a network in which the acceptable viewing figure is in the low teens, any series attracting only 10 million or so would be carefully observed. Indeed, at around nine million, ITV's The Governor, Bramwell and Dangerous Lady are considered to have been "performing below expectation".

Still, the consensus is that the BBC has improved. Drama department insiders credit the focus provided by Michael Wearing, now head of drama serials, and the departmental head, Charles Denton. Although Nick Elliott, head of drama series for nine months until defecting to ITV last April, is given the nod (he commissioned The Vet and a forthcoming Ian McShane vehicle), many key commissions, such as Hamish Macbeth and Bugs, pre- date his arrival.

Denton says before he joined two years ago, popular drama was not valued, despite Casualty and EastEnders. "Too many people thought their highest ambition was to deliver a fantastically original script. Not enough people valued the creation of mainstream, popular series."

But other factors include broadening the input of commissions (Bugs is made by the independent company Carnival, Chandler & Co in house, The Hanging Gale arrived via BBC Northern Ireland) through a drama board on which regional BBC executives now sit. Roughnecks, The Hanging Gale and Hamish Macbeth have managed to set nationally popular dramas in locations that have too frequently proved a turn-off.

All good news, but it would be wrong to be too optimistic. "We're by no means out of the woods," one senior BBC producer concedes. "Things are better, but there is still an awful lot of room for improvement."

True, there have been plenty of turkeys. Harry (the freelance hack no one wanted) didn't work, twice over. Seaforth, the gloomy Forties drama series was disappointing; The Buccaneers, adapted from the slight Edith Wharton novel, was given the critical brush-off, and Castles, the new 24-part nouvelle-soap, is now getting a cool reception.

One problem for expensive BBC dramas has been scheduling. The Choir's soaring Gothic cathedrals and forbidden love sank against ITV's gritty whores' tale, Band of Gold (turned down by the BBC). Tears Before Bedtime, a horror tale about modern nannies, looked rather like a refugee from either BBC2 or Channel 4.

ITV, at any rate, is not prepared to roll over and accept defeat. Popular drama, with light entertainment "people shows", remains its mass- market speciality. Band of Gold (13-14 million ratings) proves it can match the popularity of Cracker or Prime Suspect. And now that Nick Elliott has taken his populist touch to ITV (where he will commission drama for the Network Centre), the BBC's rival may further improve its pulling power.

"You can devise your vet show, your doctor show and your police show, but the tricky territory is making them into big hits, and adding unexpected hit dramas such as Cracker," says Jonathan Powell.

But as Denton points out, with Hamish Macbeth, The Vet, Dangerfield and Bugs, the BBC now has - for the first time in years - a set of bankable products it can develop into big successes. The challenge, Denton says, is to ensure the corporation's new-found popular touch does not exclude more ground-breaking work in serials and single films, such as Roddy Doyle's Family or the award-winning Suffer the Little Children, starring Jane Horrocks, whose "range and ambition is what the BBC is all about".

The BBC scooped every important drama prize at the Royal Television Society programme awards last month, and audiences are tuning in to the BBC in greater numbers than they did before. According to Channel 4's Peter Ansorge, "ITV went through a very strong period. The BBC went through a weak period. The see-saw is slightly changing." We shall see.

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