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High drama at BBC1

The BBC has unveiled a slate of new dramas to air on BBC1 in 2012 and beyond. Michael Pickard reports.


Over the past 12 months, series such as Sherlock, Merlin and Luther that first aired on UK pubcaster BBC1 have found new audiences around the world.

So it would have been of great interest to the international TV community that Ben Stephenson, BBC controller of drama, last week unveiled a slate of new and returning shows lined up to air on the channel over the next 18 months.

Last year, the BBC’s focus was on BBC2 as the pubcaster unveiled a slew of single dramas, miniseries and returning series, such as Nightwatch, The Shadow Line, The Crimson Petal & the White and period newsroom series The Hour, which will return for a second season this year.

Airing under the banner of Original British Drama, BBC2 went head-to-head with other UK networks including ITV – home of Julian Fellowes’ period drama Downton Abbey – Channel 4 and Sky1, which were also pumping money into the genre.

Ben Stephenson

Speaking at a Broadcasting Press Guild lunch in London, Stephenson said: “Last year, we put a huge amount of focus on BBC2. We doubled the investment and increased our audience from an average of 1.9 million to 2.9 million and those shows were recognised as some of the highlights of last year.”

Now its BBC1’s turn, with more than 20 new titles and 15 returning series lining up on its schedule. From the slate, Stephenson picked out The War of the Roses, an adaptation of Philippa Gregory’s novels set during the eponymous period, as the “most ambitious project I’ve been involved in.”

The series, further details of which have not yet been announced, sees the 15th century battle take place through the eyes of the women behind the men fighting to rule England. It is due to air in 2013. Another adaptation, scheduled for Christmas 2012, is The Moonstone (3×60’), based on the Wilkie Collins’ novel that is regarded as the first English detective story. BBC1 also has plans to adapt James Herbert’s ghost story The Secret of Crickley Hall (3×60’), and is making a series about the life of a group of truckers, simply called Truckers (6×60’).

Previously announced commissions also coming to air include Birdsong, an adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’ novel; Anthony & Cleopatra, Red Production Company’s series about two widowers who find love again years after their teenage romance; and Ripper Street, an eight-part drama set in the aftermath of the Jack the Ripper killings from Tiger Aspect and Lookout Point.

Returning series will include a second season of BBC/France Televisions copro Death in Paradise, produced by Red Planet Pictures and Atlantique Productions; a third season of detective drama Luther; and a new season of Jimmy McGovern’s Accused. One episode will feature big screen actor Sean Bean as a transsexual.

“BBC1 is a really complex channel,” says Stephenson. “It has to offer something to a wide range of audiences. With that complexity comes its extraordinary power and strength and that’s why it’s the most exciting channel to work on.”

Death in Paradise is not alone as an international coproduction among a host of homegrown scripted series on the BBC’s forthcoming schedule. Spy serial Nemesis, from Kudos Film & Television, is made in partnership with US cablenet HBO. The two broadcasters are also onboard Parade’s End, Sir Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of Ford Madox Ford’s novel.

However, coproductions will not become more commonplace, Stephenson says, as the BBC’s first priority must be its domestic audience. “We have to serve the British audience and coproduction often comes with many factors that a mainstream British audience may find tricky,” he says, citing examples such as casting, language and locations that may deter potential viewers.

“That said, most shows are [coproductions]. The truth is that we are a unique mainstream broadcaster. If you look at what we do as opposed to what US network NBC does, it’s quite hard to see a relationship. Whether BBC1 shows and network shows in America are synonymous is quite hard to know.

“The British public pays us to watch British shows. We’re not there to make shows that look like they’re not British. That said, we have a great relationship with HBO. We’re doing a lot with them but in the main, the people we’ve got to think about are our audience. Sherlock and Downton have sold around the world and they are British to their DNA. You can’t get more British than those shows.”

Downton has seen huge success worldwide, particularly in the US where on Sunday it scooped the Golden Globe for best drama – miniseries or motion picture made for television, to add to its haul of four Emmys garnered last year.

And the unexpected popularity of the ITV1 series at home and abroad has led Stephenson to conclude that when it comes to commissioning, some risks are worth taking.

“That’s what it’s about,” he says. “The shows that are hits are ones that are unexpected, that you have high hopes for, that are hugely original. You’ve got to commit to originality, to authorship, to ideas you think will work. That means sometimes they’ll fail but sometimes they’ll soar. We did research on Sherlock and we were told it would not work. We were told it would get an old audience, a small audience, but we just followed our gut. It’s a lot of passion, belief in people and shows, and sometimes they soar and sometimes they don’t. And it’s the most unexpected one that soars.”

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