The hunt is on in ITV for executives with English Literature degrees,
and one or two at least will surely be found eventually. After 40 years
or so of thinking literary costume dramas were something that could
safely be left to the BBC while they got on with showing James Bond
revival seasons, ITV has stumbled across Literature.
With gentle Emma from Meridian and the rumbustious Moll Flanders from
Granada already out of the way, and Jane Eyre and Far From the Madding
Crowd already commissioned, there is no mistaking the fact that a new
bandwagon has started to roll in commercial television.
The discovery that costume drama need not necessarily begin and end with
Sharpe and the Napoleonic Wars is good news for ITV, for advertisers and
for audiences. The drama premiere slot also looks like a decent deal for
the sponsor Midland Bank.
The numbers make captivating reading. Emma pulled in an audience of 11.2
million, just behind The Bill and a bit ahead of that week’s
international football. Moll Flanders did even better with 13.5 million,
ahead of just about everything apart from Coronation Street.
As Marketing goes to press, you can be sure that the ITV Network Centre
is already interviewing Cambridge dons for the new post of controller of
costume drama, with a bias in favour of those with a detailed knowledge
of filthy novels and those of the 18th century in particular.
The great joy of such literary masterpieces is that apart from adding a
bit of variety to the schedule and keeping advertisers happy with
audiences that might be expected to be a bit more up-market than normal,
is that you can sin and blaspheme to your hearts content when the action
is set a long time ago.
Virginia Bottomley can make herself ridiculous as often as she likes
pandering to Michael Howard’s obsession with sex and violence in
television. When Daniel Defoe is the author - anything goes.
Rarely have so many purposeful heaving buttocks been seen on ITV and not
long after the sacred 9pm watershed. Not even Paul Johnson could
complain about televising Defoe’s novels - at least not until Michael
Grade and Channel 4 catch up with the trend.
But it did sound a little odd to hear a preacher during a coach journey
in Moll Flanders denounce the evils of London by warning that they
practised cunnilingus there. Well indeed they do. But it was still a
surprise to be reminded of that fact by Granada before 10pm on a Sunday
evening, and did Defoe really include such a word in 1722 in his
Puritan’s tale of sin and repentance?
It is extremely sad that it has taken ITV such a long time to realise
there is a virtuous circle to be found - that spending money on quality
productions that stray beyond one more sub-variant of the cop show can
pay dividends in audiences, advertising, sponsorship and even rights to
sell around the world.
Raymond Snoddy is Financial Times media correspondent