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Rhodes to nowhere: BBC's epic tale flops

The BBC's major drama serial Rhodes is in danger of becoming a flop as colossal as its hero's exploits.

Viewing figures reveal that the pounds 10m epic on the British empire-builder Cecil Rhodes is fighting for an audience. Only 4.8m watched the second episode on Sunday, down from 7.6m for the opening instalment.

The nine-hour series, starring Martin Shaw as the Victorian tycoon who became the wealthiest man in the Western world by the age of 30, is one of the BBC's boldest gambles.

A high-powered publicity campaign touted one of the most expensive British productions of all time. It took a decade to make, cost more than pounds 1m per screen hour and employed 10,000 extras.

But the makers failed to make the programme truly accessible. Viewers complain of a difficult plot, centring on a man whose dream of extending the Empire from the Cape to Cairo left a million square miles of Africa coloured pink, and who inspired a country almost the size of Europe - Rhodesia - to be named after him.

Part of the problem is that the series assumes prior knowledge. And such are the intricacies that the BBC has issued a 32-page explanatory bookletwhich it advertises at the end of each episode. But the pounds 4.95 guide from the BBC Education Information Unit will not be available for another fortnight - by which time the series will be half over.

By then it may be too late, as the rival London's Burning continues to lure viewers. And word-of-mouth, not to mention the critics, condemns the series.

It will be deeply embarrassing for the BBC if it fails to recoup its investment (with WGBH of the US, CBC of Canada and SABC of South Africa) through overseas sales.

BBC Worldwide Television, however, remains bullish. "It's obviously very disappointing about the ratings but it doesn't really affect international sales. Overseas broadcasters ... tend not to go on what critics say here," a spokeswoman said.

"A lot of programmes which haven't gone as well as we hoped ... have sold quite successfully internationally."

A drama spokesman was also quick to defend BBC1's bold epic. "It's not regarded as a flop by the BBC. Frankly, if it were, we'd hold up our hands and say we got it wrong," he said.

Sales are thought to be approaching pounds 2m so far, and Rhodes will be shown to buyers in Cannes next week.

Roasted by the critics

Rhodes, the epic story, started with everything against it and then they made it all worse - A A Gill, Sunday Times

The BBC's Rhodes is a man who cannot take a leak without the assistance of the Berlin Philharmonic - David Aaronovitch, Independent on Sunday

It was very odd - Lynne Truss, The Times

In nine tendentious hours, Rhodes is to be presented as a corrupt and greedy money-grabber, a racist and paedophile, whose disgusting passion was to get his hands on young boys ... the BBC has spent pounds 10m of our money putting together a farrago of exaggerations and smears about this great man - Paul Johnson, Daily Mail