Crinolines Are In

What’s big, comes with bustles, costs big bucks, doesn’t get big ratings but is booming at the British Broadcasting Corporation?

The classic literary period drama, epitomized by such recent examples of Frock TV as “Middlemarch” and “Martin Chuzzlewit.”

Crinolines are suddenly back in fashion at the Beeb, as the pubcaster seeks to retain its high standards – and curry high political favor – with high-budget adaptations of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, George Eliot and Joseph Conrad.

“Nowadays you can’t hire a horse and carriage for love nor money,” quips Michael Wearing, BBC TV’s head of serials.

Next month shooting starts on location in Colombia on a £10 million ($15 million) four-parter based on Joseph Conrad’s” Nostromo.”

Co-funded by Italian pubcaster RAI, with Boston’s WGBH expected to take a minority stake, the miniseries is the BBC’s most ambitious literary epic to date.

If “Nostromo” proves successful, still bigger literary blockbusters may follow.

TV serializations of classic English novels are so in vogue with BBC mavens that Will Wyatt, managing director BBC Television, recently asked U.K. novelist David Lodge, who adapted “Chuzzlewit” for the BBC, to compile a list of 18th-and 19th-century English texts he deemed suitable for TV treatments.

Lodge subsequently discovered the titles he came up with were already earmarked by the drama department.

This should have been no great surprise to Wyatt; programming based on Austen’s “Persuasion” and “Pride and Prejudice” is in the pipeline; adaptations of Eliot’s “Daniel Deronda,” Anne Bronte’s “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall” and Elizabeth Gaskell’s “North and South” are understood to be waiting in the wings.

Exquisitely produced television serials of writings by 19th-century literary lions touch a nerve with the burgeoning heritage industry and reflect a mythical view of how Blighty likes to see itself – and how others like to see it – at a time of social fragmentation and uncertainty.

“Of course, period drama is part of the nostalgia industry and we’re part of that,” says Charles Denton, head of BBC Television drama. “The United States in particular sees Britain as a kind of heritage theme park.”

This idealized view of Britain’s country-house past strengthens a traditional view of the BBC at a time when it is attempting to compete more effectively in world markets. “Period drama is one of the things the BBC is internationally famous for,” Wearing says.

As Disney’s reputation waxes and wanes with its success at producing family flicks, so the BBC’s global image depends to a large extent on the quality of its literary drama.

Until the second half of the ’80s, the Beeb made classic adaptations on a regular basis. But rising production costs (budgets start at around $1.5 million an hour) and fears generated by a more commercially aggressive ITV network rival led to the genre’s decline.

Classic serials provide the BBC with overseas outlets; at home they fulfill the BBC’s endlessly stated objective to supply “distinctive” fare for domestic audiences that is unavailable elsewhere.

These classy costumers make little sense commercially, at least in the short term. Their huge cost far outweighs what they deliver in ratings. With audiences of around 5 million, “Martin Chuzzlewit” and “Middlemarch,” both of which premiered last year on artsy net BBC 2, proved less popular then “X-Files,” acquired from the U.S. for a fraction of the price.

But the British establishment loved them, or at least the idea of them. And BBC insiders reckon the return of the classic serial is fundamental to the BBC retaining political support from the ruling Conservative Party.

Occasionally the strategy comes unstuck. The pubcaster’s latest period pic, “The Buccaneers,” aimed at a more mainstream audience and aired on the pubcaster’s flagship net, BBC 1, was trashed by critics (“Baywatch with bustles,” said one), but at least is performing well in the ratings.

The spate of serials inspired by literary classics may eventually make a good return for the financially strapped pubcaster. In the short term, international sales are not that great; key European markets like Germany and France prefer feature-type material and long-running series. But literary classics have a long shelf life in program libraries, increasingly important as channels multiply.

Currently there is no shortage of potential co-producers for such fare. WGBH invested in “Middlemarch,” co-developed by producer Rebecca Eaton, “Martin Chuzzlewit,” “Persuasion” and “The Buccaneers,” which Eaton initiated. A&E also regularly supports the BBC’s period pix.

Pay cabler Showtime is understood to have offered to provide coin for “Nostromo.” The BBC is believed to be talking to Turner and Fox about investing in classic drama. But their more brash style may lead to a cultural clash.

The decision to include scenes depicting rape and homosexuality in “The Buccaneers” and a climactic, final kiss in “Persuasion” (none of which appears in the novels) led to press stories that the BBC’s U.S. partners were pressuring the BBC to take liberties with the creme de la creme of English literature and spice up classics. All involved deny the change. Eaton accepts responsibility for ending “Persuasion” with a clinch. She points out that the producer had the power to veto the kiss were it deemed inappropriate. “If our American partners wanted to spice up a piece we would consider the editorial arguments,” Denton admits. “But our first priority is to the English audience.

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