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Wednesday, November 10, 1999 Published at 14:00 GMT


TV's costume battle for viewers

Robert Lindsay is Fagin in ITV's Oliver Twist

ITV is trying to beat the BBC at its own game in the latest round of the battle for viewers - with a multi-million pound adaptation of Oliver Twist.

The network is currently pulling out all the stops to pull in advertisers in the run-up to Christmas, by aggressively scheduling the ratings-winning Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? and a spin-off from Coronation Street, After Hours.

Now it has unveiled its £5m version of Oliver Twist - starring Robert Lindsay and Julie Walters. It comes as the BBC prepares to launch its own showpiece drama, an adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskill's novel Wives and Daughters, featuring Michael Gambon and Francesca Annis.

[ image: Sam Smith plays Oliver]
Sam Smith plays Oliver
But both broadcasters are denying reports that the dramas are scheduled to clash with one another.

The BBC was reported to be planning to start Wives and Daughters on 28 November - also the launch date for ITV's Oliver Twist.

The BBC denied Wives and Daughters had been scheduled for 28 November, while an ITV spokesperson said it was unaware of its rival's plans. "Oliver Twist had been in our schedules to start four Sundays before Christmas for months," she added.

Although the BBC is still most-closely associated with costume drama, ITV's high profile efforts in recent years include Hornblower, starring Ioan Grufford, which won an Emmy earlier this year.

As well as their award-winning potential, the ITV companies are also finding costume dramas can be lucrative, with Granada finding particular success overseas with sales of 1996's Moll Flanders.

ITV it hoping its ratings offensive will be equally lucrative - the 15 companies which make up the network can use a successful run in the ratings to push up fees for advertisers.

[ image: Francesca Annis stars in the BBC's Wives and Daughters]
Francesca Annis stars in the BBC's Wives and Daughters
It has also been reported senior executives - such as the network's programme controller David Liddiment - are in line for lucrative bonuses if they can keep 39% of audiences watching ITV for the whole year.

This week has already seen Who Wants To Be A Millionaire involved in bruising clashes with the BBC's Casualty, Walking With Dinosaurs and EastEnders.

Unofficial figures released by ITV show Millionaire beat Walking with Dinosaurs on Monday, with Chris Tarrant's quiz pulling in 12.7 million viewers, compared with 9.7 million for the final instalment of the natural history epic.

But that could change when the final figures are released, as the early data does not take into account viewers who recorded one or both of the programmes.

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