ITV appoints new drama controller: 'Darling Buds' executive given key role in charge of network's pounds 255m budget for family entertainment

Vernon Lawrence, who was responsible for Darling Buds of May, was yesterday appointed controller of network drama and entertainment for ITV.

The new position is one of the most crucial and powerful in ITV, combining the two most popular strands of programming. It is here that about half - pounds 255m last year - of ITV's annual programme budget is spent.

A polished and experienced professional, Mr Lawrence, 52, will play the key role in selecting everything from future mass appeal dramas to new family entertainment programmes for Sunday evenings to replace religious programmes. He was appointed by Marcus Plantin, the new ITV network director, recruited from London Weekend Television, who also rose through the ranks of light entertainment.

Both men swiftly pointed yesterday to the current appeal of two-hour television dramas, pioneered by Inspector Morse. Viewers, often leading busy lives, apparently also like to know they can see the whole story in one sitting.

Their problem lies in swiftly commissioning new programmes to fill the schedule from next September onwards. But they have been helped by the BBC's disarray and failure with Eldorado.

Mr Lawrence will also seek to improve ITV's poor record in half- hour situation comedies, where it trails badly behind the BBC. He is credited with spotting and starting to fill the gap for comic dramas. But he also pointed yesterday to the 'tired series on the network' which needed weeding out, a list thought to include Rumpole.

Mr Lawrence, controller of light entertainment at Yorkshire Television, has this month notched up another huge hit with the David Jason two-hour detective drama serial, A Touch of Frost, which attracted an audience of 16.8 million. This complements his track record in launching A Bit of a Do, The New Statesman, Stay Lucky, and Seventies favourites such as Rising Damp and Duty Free. He said yesterday he had always been impressed with series such as Auf Wiedersehen Pet.

Audience research has shown that viewers do not believe there is a surfeit of television detective series. Before commissioning A Touch of Frost, Yorkshire found that 75 per cent of viewers liked them, and that the public appetite for whodunnits was undiminished. Mr Lawrence, a former pupil at Dulwich College, south-east London, had originally planned to be a monk, and wanted to read theology at university. But after a two- year break, when he worked as a redcoat in Butlin's, he answered a BBC radio advertisement for studio managers who had 'manual dexterity and aural imagination'.

Between 1959 and 1974, he worked at the BBC, switching from radio ('where I made funny noises on The Goon Show') to television production. He is known for his ability to strike long-term working relationships with star writers (David Nobbs) and talent (David Jason).

There will be a third series of Darling Buds, but probably no more: he thinks it should end when Pop (David Jason) has a heart attack. 'The great art in this business is to get out at the top,' he says

The BBC launched its winter 1993 schedule yesterday and gave top billing to A Year in Provence, a film version of Peter Mayle's best- seller. The 12-part serial, starting in February, stars John Thaw.

Jonathan Powell, controller of BBC 1, who is defecting to the new ITV franchise holder Carlton, ducked out of yesterday's presentation, which included several popular dramas for the channel.

These range from a new version of Spender, Lovejoy, and Love Hurts, to Gallowglass, a Barbara Vine thriller, and You, Me and It, about a couple's struggle with infertility treatments.

BBC 2 has The Mushroom Picker (starting 13 January), a drama comedy about the manners of Russian and English people, set in Moscow, and Mr Wroe's Virgins, adapted from a novel by Jane Rogers about a religious sect in nineteenth-century Lancashire.

Screen Two films include Derek Jarman's Edward II and Clothes in the Wardrobe, an adaptation of an Alice Thomas Ellis novel starring Jeanne Moreau with Julie Walters and Joan Plowright.

The BBC's commitment to popular entertainment continues with Noel's House Party, a new Bobby Davro programme, Rock with Laughter, and Best Shot, hosted by Marti Caine. There is also a new series called That's Showbusiness in which celebrities demonstrate how to perform routines.

Francine Stock, the Newsnight presenter, begins the new year with a three-part mini-series for Assignment looking at the future of Europe, using drama to explore what the 21st century will be like.

(Photograph omitted)

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