Viewpoint: 'Crass mishandling of franchises and cynical flight from quality'

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The Independent Online
What depresses me most about the current ITV drama set-up is the absence of vision, the lack of ambition, and the abject and headlong flight from quality.

In the current Writers' Guild Newsletter, Vernon Lawrence, who commissions drama and entertainment for the ITV network, says that ITV will never again make anything like Brideshead, Jewel in the Crown, or Anglo-Saxon Attitudes.

It can't afford it, apparently. This is the climate we are in, and I think it is shameful. And yet we seem to accept it.

It seems extraordinary to think that as recently as two years ago, LWT was still seriously considering producing Pride and Prejudice. It seems like a different world.

Well, it is, but it is not the result of natural forces - it is the result of the Government's crass mishandling of the ITV franchise awards, the cynical abandonment of the quality threshold, and the consequent institutional philistinism of the ITV Network Centre (responsible for commissioning all nationally networked programmes). The whole of the drama output of ITV now depends on the judgement of two people. If you had been told that as a joke five years ago, you would have fallen about laughing.

The job is clearly impossible: it defeats the abilities of the people who try to do it, and it insults the dignity and intelligence of the producers and broadcasters who are required to kowtow to them.

Talented and sparky producers are censoring themselves by trying to tailor their projects to the perceived debased taste of the Network Centre - basically police series with David Jason, or David Jason in a cardigan and wellies.

Producers do quite often approach me, because my name on a selling document is supposed to be a good thing. They say: 'It's a new quirky sort of police series]' I say: 'I am not interested in the lives of policemen, there are too many policemen.'

They say: 'What if it's a woman and she's not really like a policewoman, she's really, you know, off the wall, like police series, but quirky.' And I do my level best to steel myself against it, because I know she will finish up being played by David Jason in a cardigan, or Richard Wilson in a bow-tie, because they know what that show needs]

It is sort of funny, but it is tragic too, because ITV used to do some great drama.

I also get the impression that ITV has abandoned the single play or film. If so, it is a shame, because popular drama needs a leading edge, and that leading edge comes nearly always from the one-off script.

The Network Centre says very little new drama is commissioned because the needs of the schedule dictate the re-commissioning of proven successes, and at longer runs.

Why? Who determines the needs of the schedule? Who wants all these longer runs for already exhausted shows? Why not kill a few of them off and make room for new blood?

A word for new and up-and-coming writers. Do not bother submitting to ITV. It says it welcomes submissions from new writers, but it does not put any on. The BBC, on the other hand, has a number of initiatives specifically designed to foster new and up-and-coming writers. So has Channel 4.

Finally, a rallying cry. It doesn't have to be like this.

Andrew Davies: scriptwriter - Middlemarch, To Play the King, Harnessing Peacocks, Anglo-Saxon Attitudes.