Soap stars won't wash, says Dyke

BBC chief tells producers to stop depending on household names: 'That's not what good drama is all about'
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The Independent Online

The script is about to change for the stars of EastEnders, Coronation Street and Brookside. The days when a melodramatic exit from Albert Square led to a grand entrance in a primetime drama are over.

The script is about to change for the stars of EastEnders, Coronation Street and Brookside. The days when a melodramatic exit from Albert Square led to a grand entrance in a primetime drama are over.

Yesterday, BBC director-general Greg Dyke said it was time to stop the ubiquitous practice of casting stars in big television dramas just because their faces were well known.

It is a ruling which, had it been applied in the past, could well have prevented Del Boy's transformation into the grumpy Detective Inspector Frost or spared the viewer endless opportunities to watch Nick Berry play himself, whether as 1960s Yorkshire bobby or as a Dorset harbour master in Harbour Lights.

It would almost certainly have been a major obstacle for EastEnders stars Michelle Collins and Leslie Grantham who, despite their rudimentary acting skills, have gone on to star in major drama series.

But in a question-and-answer session at the Edinburgh Television Festival yesterday, Mr Dyke said: "What I do see is the pressure to push into drama and comedy a star of a soap because they are recognisable. That is not what good drama is all about."

Mr Dyke had been asked whether every new BBC drama would have to have a Michelle Collins or a John Thaw. Even Thaw, better known as Inspector Morse, wasn't spared in the D-G's answer. Mr Dyke went on: "Just having John Thaw does not help. Remember A Year in Provence. That started with 14 million viewers and went down to two million viewers."

The BBC chief's comments seemed to contradict an earlier response when he said that he did not interfere in actual programming. His clear distaste for the trend of casting soap stars in high-profile dramas and comedies will be noted by BBC1 controller Peter Salmon and BBC2 controller Jane Root, who are attending the festival. They are both now likely to think twice before approving new series featuring soap stars.

To judge from Mr Dyke's remarks it is not merely the use of soap stars to which he is signalling the death knell. The future of make-over shows and docu-soaps is also in doubt. Mr Dyke said: " Driving School was really interesting, the first of the docu-soaps. Now, four years later, we have used up the genre. The same thing is happening with make-over shows."

It is not just television drama and comedy to which soap stars are graduating. Next year the National Theatre intends to stage a production of the musical My Fair Lady starring Martine McCutcheon as Eliza Doolittle. McCutcheon, who became famous playing Tiffany in EastEnders, has not appeared on stage before.

Referring to the moving of the BBC Nine o'Clock News to 10 o'clock next year, Mr Dyke gave the first detail about the new show. He said that the weather report would precede it rather than come after it so that "the news can be played into Newsnight. We have got to have that junction with Newsnight."

The Ten o'Clock News will be presented by Michael Buerk and Peter Sissons, he said, adding that he had no intention of trying to poach ITV's Sir Trevor McDonald.

But Mr Dyke did let slip one highly significant change to the BBC's pledge that it would keep the news at 10pm only if it retained the viewing figures of the Nine o'Clock News. This had been promised by the BBC chairman, Sir Christopher Bland, to the House of Commons select committee on Culture, Media and Sport.

However, the director-general said yesterday that what hid chairman meant was that the new Ten o'Clock News would have as many viewers as the Nine o'Clock News would have had over the coming years. It is a change that might yet bring him into conflict with the select committee.

As Mr Dyke explained: "What I meant was it will get a bigger audience at 10.00 than if we left it at 9.00. We will look at the trends - what would it have got in five years if it was left at nine. What we are saying is that we believe we will get a larger audience at 10.00 than 9.00. But you have to look at the trends of fragmentation in television."

One BBC star, Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman, put Mr Dyke on the spot, even though he was not present. Paxman's agent, Anita Land, asked Mr Dyke for a guarantee that Newsnight would not be moved from its 10.30pm start time for five years. Mr Dyke said there were no plans to move it, but added that he could not give that long a guarantee. "Five years - I have no idea," he said.

He pointed out that Ms Land, who had introduced herself as "a presenter's agent", was in fact Paxman's agent. She retorted: "Jeremy wanted me to ask you for a guarantee for 10 years."