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Making a scene: Is the BBC drama department obsessed with costumes, bonnets and wigs?

Ever since Mr Darcy emerged from that icy pool, dripping wet, it has been a truth universally acknowledged that the BBC's forte is retelling the classics for Sunday evening audiences, a reputation bolstered by recent successes with Cranford, Bleak House, and Lark Rise to Candleford. It follows then that almost anyone asked which programme they think best defines BBC drama will, to a man, plump for a lavish costume piece adorned with the wigs, jewels, carriages and vast country houses expected of period drama.

So it comes as something of a surprise to hear the BBC's head of drama commissioning, Ben Stephenson, share his top pick from across the broadcaster's four channels. Waterloo Road, he says, "is one of our best dramas. It is one of the pieces of drama on the BBC that I am proudest of and it is not spoken about enough. It is brilliant storytelling, incredibly ethnically diverse in terms of its on and off screen talent and – crucially – in terms of its audience. Episode one of the new series is incredibly contemporary, urgent, important, thrilling and heart-wrenching. It is drama at 8 o'clock which talks directly to the public and is a bit soapy around the edges, with a great cast. It is set outside of Manchester, so urban but not London-centric: utter public service broadcasting".

Stephenson wishes to draw attention to the programme, which stars Denise Welch and Neil Morrissey, because it attracts some of BBC1's youngest viewers, and is therefore a frontline weapon in the biggest battle facing the BBC, that of winning younger viewers and thus assuring its own longevity. "We have to look at how we can bring in the next generation of BBC audience. The BBC3 viewers, who are 18-34, are also crucial to us. We absolutely have to do what we can to try to get them," he says.

Fans will have to wait a few months for the fourth series of Waterloo Road to start. Stephenson is actually here to make a splash of the autumn line up, much of which, going by the glossy showreel, wouldn't look out of place in a cinema. Uma Thurman, Jonathan Pryce, Matthew MacFadyen, Stellan Skarsgard, Dominic Cooper and Rhys Ifans all make appearances, and Kenneth Branagh's long awaited return to the small screen comes in Wallander, three programmes based on a set of best-selling Swedish detective novels by Henning Mankell. Other highlights include Apparitions, a supernatural series exploring contemporary religion by former This Life writer Joe Ahearne, Survivors, a remake of the popular seventies series and Merlin, a fantasy starring Richard Wilson, Anthony Head and John Hurt, which aims to pull in families to the Saturday evening seven o'clock slot on BBC1.

Period drama, of course, has not been abandoned. "The day we stop it I will hear the cries from around the country," says Stephenson. Audiences will soon be treated to Little Dorrit, adapted by Andrew Davies, Tess of the D'Urbervilles, courtesy of David Nicholls, and, at Christmas, The 39 Steps and a Lark Rise to Candleford special ahead of a new series. "Clearly, period drama is part of the DNA of what the BBC does. It is absolutely essential that we retell the classics, just as the RSC retells Hamlet or Twelfth Night," he continues. "The crucial thing is that there is a reason to do it."

The average age of a BBC drama viewer is around 55. Attempts to attract a younger audience notwithstanding, great pains are taken not to alienate these core viewers. Yet, while the BBC might seem heavy on the pomp and circumstance stuff, in fact period drama makes up a tiny proportion of autumn output, just 14 hours out of 70, which doesn't include the many more hours churned out by EastEnders, Holby City and Casualty, corporation stalwarts which also come under the remit of drama, and of which the department is fiercely proud.

The news of the above shows, all for BBC1, has been dribbled out over the past few weeks rather than announced, as is usual for each new season, with considerable fanfare. Has the channel steered clear of a proper preview because of the uproar caused by last year's, where a scene misrepresenting the Queen was shown to gathered press, leading to the departure of then controller Peter Fincham, who is now repositioned over at ITV? The BBC say not, insisting that as the current BBC1 controller Jay Hunt has only been in the job three months, it would have made no sense for her to launch shows she had not been involved with personally.

BBC2, explains Stephenson, is "a channel about authorship" which covers one-off dramas such as last week's My Zinc Bed by David Hare, a thought-provoking piece about addiction, the scheduling of which, nonetheless, provoked the playwright to condemn the BBC for having killed off the TV play.

Stephenson welcomes Hare's opinion but thinks it unjustified, given he has commissioned 24 single pieces of drama this year, which he says is "at least" equal to output during the halcyon days of Play for Today. The time and money given to different genres is an interesting point of contention for drama lovers, but not one likely to reel in younger audiences. The job of enticing the Skins generation belongs to BBC3, the digital channel which roadtests a good chunk of the comedy, which then makes its way over to BBC1 and 2. Its next plan, under the stewardship of Danny Cohen, is to ignite a love of drama in its viewers, who will hopefully carry that with them throughout their television-viewing life.

"I find the argument about whether there should be a BBC3 odd," says Stephenson who, at 31, himself falls into the channel's target demographic. "BBC3 has to be there to nurture the next audiences of the BBC. If those audiences aren't watching, then there won't be a BBC in 20 to 30 years." He says BBC3 has lacked a consistent drama strategy until now: "It's still a new channel and people are still finding their way through it." The current plan is to spread three original teen dramas across the year. P.A.s by first-time writer Gabbie Asher is described by Stephenson, perhaps ambitiously, as having a Desperate Housewives feel; Phoo Action is an offbeat kung fu comedic series. One of the big productions billed to hook these younger people is the spin-off show Spooks: Code 9, a six-part series which started last month, but had lost almost half its audience by the second week and third episode, dropping to under 450,000.

"Reach (not ratings) is the most important thing," claims Stephenson. "Across drama output we have to make sure that some part of it speaks to every single licence-fee payer. The minute we overlook one part of our audience we are in deep trouble".

Another thing Stephenson is sure not to overlook is the competition. "ITV1 and BBC1 need each other. We need ITV1 to be strong and resurgent and they need BBC1 to be strong and resurgent. That might be trickier sometimes when you get the overnights, but the more successful you are with drama the more appetite there is for it".

BBC drama has won acclaim in recent years for a number of hits, including Life on Mars and Doctor Who, both commissioned by head of fiction Jane Tranter when she held Stephenson's position, before she was promoted last year. Since then the drama department has been criticised for over-representing the narrow tastes of Tranter and Stephenson, who points out that they can only commission what is passed their way, from the development departments in London and around the UK, and that each new script has to be accepted by the station controller as well as himself or Tranter.

Even if BBC drama were being micro-managed to the detriment of creativity, Stephenson asserts that every project they take on presents a risk, and that this is part and parcel of making good drama. He might soon have a shot at Tranter's position himself, as she is tipped to move to the US.

If risk were once the preserve of edgy television plays on BBC2, the biggest risks at the moment are being taken with the rack of new series scheduled for BBC1, a "broad church about the best and most modern of mainstream," in Stephenson's words. "We are also constantly looking at how we can reframe the debate about what mainstream is," he says. Life on Mars was considered a great success in this respect, and it is hoped Apparitions, Survivors and Merlin will be too, though it is very unlikely all will be recommissioned. "To use Jane Tranter's expression," he observes loyally, "you have to kiss many frogs before you find your prince".

For an exclusive first look at BBC Drama's autumn showreel go to www.bbc.co.uk/pressoffice