BBC drama chief looks to swim in the mainstream: Michael Leapman finds that the corporation's winter TV schedule hints at division among its executives

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The Independent Online
CHARLES DENTON, the new head of drama for BBC Television, said yesterday that he was planning to commission many more popular, long-running series for BBC 1.

'I'd like to see six or seven series demanding renewal and that isn't the case at the moment,' he said, after launching the BBC's pounds 200m drama package for the autumn and winter seasons. 'Three or four series haven't done as well as we expected.'

Asked whether the BBC was now going all out for ratings, Mr Denton said: 'We are in direct competition with ITV for the mainstream popular audience.'

'Mainstream' is the new correct BBC word to describe the mass audience that is eluding BBC 1 - ratings published yesterday show the channel's share of viewers at under 30 per cent for the third successive week.

Executives were embarrassed last week when Alan Yentob, controller of BBC 1, and Liz Forgan, managing director of BBC Radio, spoke of trying to reach C and D viewers - those in the lower socio-economic groups. This resulted in reports that the channel was going 'downmarket', a word officially discouraged. The sensitivity may cloak a division among senior executives about how far the corporation should go to attract the mass audience.

The drama season unveiled yesterday was the work of Mark Shivas, the man Mr Denton replaced as head of drama two months ago. It makes few concessions to the mainstream audience. Many of the strongest plays and films - with big-name stars such as Maggie Smith, Antony Sher, Anthony Hopkins, Robbie Coltrane and Michael Gambon - are destined for BBC 2, while one of the main BBC 1 autumn series is a dramatisation of Stendhal's The Red and the Black.

Politics and the media are popular subjects in the new season. To Play the King is a sequel to the Michael Dobbs political drama House of Cards - coincidentally screened while Margaret Thatcher was being manoeuvred out of office in 1990. The new BBC 1 serial will again star Ian Richardson as the scheming prime minister Francis Urquhart, whose self-serving plans are threatened by the accession of an idealistic king.

BBC 2 will have its own political serial, Ron Rose's Love and Reason, about manoeuvring over candidate selection in the Labour Party. Phyllis Logan stars as a shadow minister and Neil Kinnock, the former Labour leader, has a bit part.

A third political drama is The Vision Thing, the first television play by the Independent's Mark Lawson, in which Richard Wilson plays a prime minister who believes God is talking to him.

As for the media, a big new BBC 1 series, Harry, is about a former Fleet Street features editor, played by Michael Elphick, who runs a news agency in Darlington. 'I think it has 'hit' written on it,' Mr Denton said.

Television news is featured in a three-part BBC 1 serial, Calling the Shots, in which Lynn Redgrave plays an investigative journalist. A BBC 2 series, Making Waves, is about a radio station in a Glasgow mental hospital.

TV heavyweight, page 14