It’s a saga that surpasses any literary classic: the rivalry of two television drama kings. And the prize is the latest Jane Austen TV spectacular.The winner – this time – is Nick Elliot, head of drama at the ITV network, who has just succeeded in the race to bring Austen’s Emma to the small screen. Not only that: he has lured away the whole production team responsible for the BBC’s world-beating version last year of Pride and Prejudice.The screenwriter Andrew Davies, the producer Sue Birtwistle and their back-up staff are taking their skills to the commercial channel and its story of Emma Woodhouse’s misplaced matchmaking. They were the team who brought to life on the BBC those perfect Georgian country house settings, lush costumes and formal dances that thrilled audiences around the world as they witnessed the wooing of the fiery Lizzie Bennet by the arrogant Mr Darcy.The loser is Michael Wearing, BBC head of drama serials,one of the corporation’s most talented executives and the man responsible for Pride and Prejudice.
He might have had the Davies-Birtwistle Emma as a world-beating sequel – indeed he was offered it – but he had already promised the adaptation to someone else. “It was a very, very difficult situation,” he said yesterday. “I had already commissioned Sandy Welch, one of our BBC writers, to do Emma. We really were in a fix.” He felt bound to honour his word.
When the P&P team offered the project to Elliot at ITV he grabbed it, and the TV world is aware of the piquancy of his triumph. Wearing and Elliot are two of the most bitter personal rivals in television. Two years ago Wearing lost half his BBC job as head of drama series and serials.
To head drama series, and to sharpen BBC popular drama, John Birt, the director-general, brought in the managing director of London Weekend Television, who had overseen London’s Burning and The Knock. His name was Nick Elliot.
Wearing resigned at once. But 150 staff in the drama department, including leading producers, signed a petition in protest and he was persuaded to stay. And it was Elliot who ended up leaving last year, after only nine months, amid rumours that he was less than happy with the Birt regime.
Wearing complains that Elliot was the man who approved BBC programmes dreamt up before his arrival, only to defect back to ITV. “I feel that quite a lot of what’s been on the screen this year is actually the product of the time before he came.
“That was the great joke in the drama department. He comes for nine months and walks off knowing the entire BBC development scheme. We’d put Emma into motion almost a year before it became clear than Andrew Davies was doing his version for Elliot.”
Elliot is unrepentant. “I couldn’t believe it,” he said yesterday. “At the height of its success with P&P the BBC was turning away their star producer and their star writer.”
The single-episode, pounds 2.5m film of Emma, the highlight of ITV’s autumn schedule, is being shot at the moment. It stars Kate Beckinsale as the headstrong heroine, plus Mark Strong (Tosker Cox in Our Friends in the North), Samantha Morton (Tracy in Band of Gold) and the character players Prunella Scales and Bernard Hepton.
But the drama between the rival executives is just as fascinating for those who know them.
A senior drama producer who saw them at the BBC said: “They are like chalk and cheese. There was Elliot in his suit, looking as if he could be selling widgets. He would call departmental briefings with slides and market research and tell us that BCs don’t like Cracker. By contrast, Wearing has never been known to hold a meeting with more than two people. He doesn’t look like an executive. He thinks of himself as a maverick, an artist fighting for quality drama with a political edge.”
Andrew Davies, Wearing’s friend and BBC protege for 20 years, is suffering mild culture shock from his defection. At just two hours, which with advertisements comes to 103 minutes, his adaptation has to be very tight. “I wish the actresses could have worn the ads on their dresses like footballers do, so we didn’t have to have commercial breaks,” he said yesterday.