Tale of chivalry tops BBC drama

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The Hammer horror legend Christopher Lee is spearheading BBC television's pounds 184m drama schedule for next year with a chilling performance in Sir Walter Scott's 19th century classic novel Ivanhoe.

Lee, 74, plays the arch villain Lucas De Beaumanoir in a pounds 6m adaptation of chivalrous derring-do set in the time of Richard I, centring on Saxon and Norman enmity and the battle for the hand of Rowena.

The six-part serial is the BBC's flagship production for the coming year and Lee's portrayal of the Templar Grand Master is described by the corporation as "simply superb".

Steven Waddington, who starred in Last of the Mohicans, takes the title role, and Victoria Smurfit as Rowena and Susan Lynch as Rebecca complete the love triangle.

Ivanhoe, written by Scott in 1819, is yet another classic adaptation from the corporation, which is still basking in the success of the "Pride and Prejudice effect". It is due for broadcast early next year.

Intriguingly, Salman Rushdie's Booker prize-winning novel Midnight's Children is to be turned into a six-hour drama serial, to be shot in India next year. And another costume drama, an adaptation of Henry Fielding's Tom Jones, is also on the cards.

Also recommissioned for eight more episodes is Ballykissangel, which attracted audiences of almost 15 million in its Sunday evening slot last year.

A total of 13 series have been recommissioned, including Hetty Wainthropp Investigates, Hamish Macbeth and Common As Muck.

Ruth Caleb, acting head of BBC TV drama, said: "We are delivering successful programmes on a scale which has the chiefs at ITV under increasing pressure from their advertisers. Fortunately we are answerable to our viewers and not to advertisers.

"The BBC's unique funding enables us to take risks, build on potential success and offer unsurpassed range."