To BBC3 or not to BBC3? Can Coogan and Shakespeare turn the viewers on?

Steve Coogan, the creator of such cultural car-crashes as Paul Calf and Alan Partridge, is to become the BBC's new champion of poetry and Shakespearean theatre.

The Mancunian writer and comedian will attempt to popularise Shakespeare's soliloquies by persuading some of Britain's best-known comedy actors to recite them. From Bard to Verse, from Coogan's Baby Cow production company, will feature the impressionists Alistair McGowan and Ronni Ancona. He will play Romeo while she will be Portia from The Merchant of Venice.

The comedian David Walliams and the soap actress and presenter Lisa Riley have been assigned the roles of Henry IV and Cleopatra. Coogan said he hoped that with such actors he would introduce a fresh audience to Shakespeare. "These are people you would not normally associate with Shakespeare and they will make it more immediate," he said. "Shakespeare's soliloquies stand by themselves, they are witty and intelligent, [but] the people who do it, do it very interestingly."

The venture is Coogan's second foray into verse, having previously made a series called Wine Gums which was commissioned by BBC3, as is From Bard to Verse. Coogan has a close relationship with the digital channel and has also made a black comedy series that will be a showpiece in the station's autumn schedule.

Nighty Night, which is billed as a West Country version of Fatal Attraction, is expected to be a rehabilitative vehicle for Angus Deayton, who was fired from his presenter's job on the BBC's Have I Got News For You after revelations over his taste for prostitutes and cocaine. Deayton has been cast as a doctor stalked by an obsessive hairdresser who lives in the house opposite.

Nighty Night was one of no less than five new scripted comedies unveiled yesterday by BBC3, which is struggling to make an impression on the public six months after its launch.

Stuart Murphy, the channel's young controller, denied that he was relying on comedy programmes to make BBC3 relevant and justify an annual budget of more than £75m, paid for by licence fees. "My focus is not just on comedy, it is across all genres," he said.

But Murphy is pinning his hopes on the success of Little Britain, a new showpiece comedy starring David Walliams and his comic partner Matt Lucas in a parody of modern British eccentricity.

BBC3 is better known than its predecessor BBC Choice but it still attracts woeful viewing figures for some shows. The channel, which is aimed at young adults, is under pressure from Tessa Jowell, the Culture Secretary, who is closely monitoring its performance.

A chat show presented by Johnny Vaughan, who was to be the face of BBC3, has also not fared well. His poorly received show is to be scrapped and replaced with a new "risky" series, for which he has a 12-month contract.

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