Halt the agonising death of BBC drama

Actor Brian Cox scorns the way a great play fell victim to TV apparatchiks' stunted ambitions
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WHATEVER happened to British television? It's one of the most common questions I am asked whenever I meet independent TV producers in Hollywood today.

Marshall Herskovitz, creator of thirtysomething, said: "British drama was the standard which sustained me throughout my early years as a producer. It was for my generation the marker of excellence. We felt as long as the Brits can keep the flag flying, we will be OK. But now the standard of British TV drama seems to have evaporated."

Last year I was sent a script by Trevor Griffiths. It was simply the best television film script I had read in years. It was to be produced by BBC Wales and it renewed my faith in British television drama. I thought, perhaps, that the legacy of Dennis Potter was alive and well, reversing the trend of the dumbing-down of TV drama. Trevor's script was the result of the vision and tenacity of one remarkable man at BBC Wales, Dai Smith. Dai is in the best tradition of what was most powerful at the BBC, a nurturing, independent spirit given scope to commission works of excellence and vision. Dai is now, alas, an almost extinct species. His brief to Trevor was to write a drama in celebration of the life of Aneurin (Nye) Bevan, the creator and visionary of the NHS, arguably the greatest Welshman and the most brilliant parliamentarian of the 20th century.

Trevor produced a most original script. This was no TV biopic, but an elegy to a dying politician, covering the last year of his life, a unique piece of work, affording me the best role I had been offered on television. I was moved to be asked to play this most famous Welshman. Surely it was a role for Sir Anthony Hopkins if ever there was one, but no, Trevor was adamant, Nye was for me. Little did he know when he was creating this work that he was also creating a BBC scheduler's nightmare.

The centenary of Nye's birth was yesterday. BBC Wales wanted to screen the programme at 9pm on Saturday night. After all, the subject was a Welshman and the film was produced by BBC Wales. But Nye was not only a son of Wales; his legacy through his chairmanship and his establishing of the NHS affects the lives of every man, woman and child in Britain. Surely this work should be seen throughout the nation, but the schedulers threw up their hands in horror. It was inconceivable that it could be on prime time television on Saturday night, on BBC1. What about BBC2? The boys at BBC2 were not too keen. They looked at the completed work and there was talk of perhaps needing a degree in political science to appreciate it. Perhaps it was a bit recherche, and quite simply, who gives a monkey's about a dead Welsh politician? Mr Yentob would have to decide.

In the meantime, I was sitting in my house in Hollywood oblivious to any of this controversy. I rang Trevor to find out how the assembly of the film was going. The film now had a title, Food for Ravens. He was excited, filled with delight at Sinead Cusack's performance as Jennie Lee, John Richards' editing and Andrew Dunne's brilliant camera work.

Three weeks ago, Trevor rang to say there was a problem: it was unlikely to be shown nationally, only in Wales. At that exact moment, I had completed an interview for the Independent to be published concurrently with the showing of the film. I rang the LA correspondent to say: please put a hold on the article as the programme is now in jeopardy, and I told him the reasons. Two days later an article appears in the Independent questioning the fate of the Bevan project. The story was picked up by the BBC's radio news programme The World at One. They spoke to someone at BBC TV, asking him to confirm or deny the fate of the Bevan programme. He said that no decision had been made, but that there was a question over the desirability for the programme to be seen nationally. A headcount was taken among the World At One team confirming a desire to see the release of the project. A few days later, by strange coincidence, the two events of course no way related, Alan Yentob decided that Food for Ravens would indeed be shown on BBC 1 in Wales at 9pm on 15 November, and on the network the following night at 11.15pm on BBC 2.

Buried, nice and safely past the watershed hour. The burial was corroborated by the fact that no trails for Food for Ravens were to be shown nationally on either BBC1 or BBC2; only on BBC Wales.

A week ago I flew in to London to attend the press screening of Food for Ravens. I am proud to be part of such a distinguished and important production. It is the apogee of Trevor Griffiths' career as a writer and director. It is a disgraceful act of vandalism, and so disrespectful to the drama department of BBC Wales, not to show this work in the best possible circumstances.

As a child of the 1950s, I consider television the primary influence in the formation of my cultural life. Television made the world accessible. I was exposed to language, ideas, drama, politics - its scope seemed endless. Sunday night was the night of The Sunday Play, a live performance, with an interval during which my cousin Lizzie nipped out for a couple of fish suppers, the original TV dinner. The Sunday Play was the highlight of our week, the writers ranged from Shakespeare through Ibsen, Chekhov, Miller, Tennessee Williams. For one nine-year-old boy it was a wonderful introduction to the dramatic arts, courtesy of the BBC.

Years later I was fortunate to work with Michael Barry, who in the 1950s had been head of drama at the BBC. I was grateful for the opportunity to thank him, finally for bringing the works of these phenomenal playwrights into my life. He told me his brief was to make the best possible drama available to the greatest mass of the television public. It was, in his words, an act of public service.

During the 1960s and 1970s television drama blossomed, to discover its unique voice. There was no longer any need to rely heavily on the theatre. The age of the television dramatist had arrived: Dennis Potter, John Hopkins, Alan Owen and Clive Exton, Harold Pinter, Alan Plater, Jim Allen, Alan Bleasdale. British TV drama had reached its zenith. Producers such as Sydney Newman, James McTaggart, Innes Lloyd, Tony Garnett, Martin Lisemore. Directors such as Ken Loach, Philip Saville, Herbie Wise, Alan Cooke, Bill Hays, Michael Elliot, Richard Eyre, Ronald Eyre, Stephen Frears - an endless roll call.

The BBC's classic serial was standard fare. A few years ago people were making a fuss of Middlemarch, followed recently by Pride and Prejudice. But 20 years ago Pride and Prejudice would have been one of many classic series produced in the space of a year, usually about 10 to 15 in all.

Now we produce only one - the economics of the times requires that, we are told. Now there are elite A-lists of directors, writers and players. Now there are cries of: "Oh, we can't have so and so. They're only a 3 million player". That is, only 3 million people watched their last TV performance.

Nowadays, BBC TV is run by programme controllers whose value system seems to be, "Let us not challenge, let us maintain the status quo, let us not raise our heads above the parapet, let us encourage a policy of ignorance and play to the lowest common denominator". They seem to want drama programming that is bred in ignorance, fed by ignorance and as a result, dying through ignorance.

Two years ago Dennis Potter, in his brilliant last television interview, pleaded for British television to be saved from its malaise. Little has been done since to stop the rot. It does not behove me to make this criticism. I may never be asked to work in television again, which would be a great sadness to me. Some may accuse me of cutting off my nose to spite my face, but I think it is time that we spoke out. It is time that we picked up the gauntlet that Dennis Potter threw down to us. Particularly those of us interested in rescuing standards before they are completely eroded. I call on others like myself to make their feelings publicly known.

The author stars as Nye Bevan in 'Food For Ravens', to be shown tonight at 11.15pm on BBC2.