The Ratings War: Andrew Billen Reports on the Conquests and Casualties Behind the Scenes and on Our Screens
Billen, Andrew, New Statesman (1996)
The best, most ambitious drama of the year was The Second Coming on ITV1, in which Russell T Davies resurrected Christ. JC was returned to modern-day Manchester as a video shop assistant. There were all sorts of signs and portents in it for the future of television and, for that matter, in an age when you can download anything, for video shops. But this was a year of deaths and resurrections all round, not least in Manchester where Granada, which will complete its takeover of ITV next year, announced its decision to close its Quay Street offices.
The long death of the old ITV, a federation of regional television stations in many cases loved by their communities, ended with the shareholders' crucifixion of the chairman of Carlton, Michael Green, in October. Carlton failed to make any notable contribution to the history of television and imposed its off the-peg logo on regions up and down the country where once local identities ruled.
The survivor partner, Granada's Charles Allen, chief executive designate of the new ITV, believes he can save ITV 100m [pounds sterling] from the merger. That is an awful lot of firings. But with another 100m [pounds sterling] rescued from the station losing the auction for the rights to screen Premiership football, the good news is the scope the savings give for ITV to pump its cash into better programmes. The bad news is that in a recent interview in Broadcast magazine, Alien confided that he would like to bring back Cracker and "look at Upstairs, Downstairs again". This does not exactly sound like blue-skies thinking.
It made me nostalgic for David Liddiment, ITV's former director of programmes, who made many mistakes during his tenure, from disinterring Crossroads to moving News at Ten, but truly believed in making ITV a modern, innovative and event-centred channel. It is hard to imagine The Second Coming making it to the screen without him.
Where a decade ago ITV had an audience share of nearly 40 per cent, it now settles for less than 25 percent. Its daytime schedule is flabby and its flagship national bulletin is referred to by everyone as the "ITV News at When?".
Yet, if I were forced to make a wager, I would put my money on ITV coming up with the next big TV sensation, rather than the BBC. The channel pulled Fortysomething and Single from their prime-time slots when they performed badly in the ratings. But it also steeled itself to spend oodles on one-offs about Boudicca and Henry VIII. Never mind if they were any good or not; the programmes tried to take our imaginations somewhere different.
If the ITV year started strongly with The Second Coming, it ended magnificently with the revival of Prime Suspect. Peter Berry's script had Helen Mirren's Detective Superintendent Jane Tennison (ageing ungracefully) heading for retirement and Bosnia, in search of evidence against a suspected war criminal who happened to be her optician. Only in the final scene, where the baddy held a knife to his child's throat when under arrest, did the film submit to police procedural cliche. Until then, everything about it was fresh--quite something for a show that started life in 1991. Tom Hooper proved an outstanding director, imposing a bleak, overlit hyper-realism on the search for a killer in a hospital, isolating Mirren in rows of empty chairs and playing on the eyewitness/ optical visual metaphors. Dame Helen's performance was beyond praise. And more than nine million people watched.
The only BBC drama to match this quality was Stephen Poliakoff's The Lost Prince in January. The prince was Johnnie, clumsy, possibly autistic, certainly dyspraxic, an unmajestic embarrassment. But the star of the piece was Tom Hollander as George V, a small man leading (Poliakoff implied) a shrinking, small-minded, petty country. This truly was a tour de force and The BBC spent the rest of the year failing to come up with anything half as impressive or intelligent. …