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Wednesday, September 23, 1998 Published at 11:38 GMT 12:38 UK


Costume battle goes to sea

Naval gazing: Robert Lindsay and Ioan Grufford star in Hornblower

ITV bosses are wheeling out the big guns for the autumn ratings battle with the BBC - with a spectacular drama series about seafarer Horatio Hornblower.

It marks the latest stage in the commercial network's battle to steal the BBC's reputation as the home of quality drama.

£3m per episode

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But the battle is costing the network dear - Hornblower is reputed to be the most expensive drama ITV has ever made, at £12m for four two-hour episodes.

Upcoming star Ioan Grufford plays the 18th century naval hero, heading a big-name cast including Robert Lindsay, Cherie Lunghi, Antony Sher, Denis Lawson, Peter Vaughan and Estelle Skornik.

On the ocean wave

At 24, Mr Grufford is already a veteran of maritime drama, having played Fifth Officer Lowe in the film Titanic.

But he found life as Hornblower harder than life with Leonardo DiCaprio.

"Titanic was shot in a tank in Mexico - a very big tank. For Hornblower, we actually went out there and went sailing for real," he explained.

'Television deserves shows like this'

Producer Andrew Benson said: "We could have made an Errol Flynn-type film, but this is not just about that. It is about character, morality and romance. Television deserves shows like this."

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Since the BBC's success with Middlemarch in 1994, British TV's love affair with costume drama has gone from strength to strength, especially since ITV entered the fray with its steamy adaptation of Moll Flanders in 1996.

Steve Clarke, editor of the industry magazine Broadcast, thinks the prestige of being associated with such productions is just as important as pulling in big audiences.

"Viewers like them, people like BBC governors like them, and they sell well abroad. Granada Television did incredibly well out of overseas sales of Moll Flanders.

"They don't pull in huge audiences like soaps do, but Our Mutual Friend was a huge critical success and gave the BBC a lot of kudos," he said.

High profile complaints

But there have been some high profile complaints about the number of costume dramas on British screens.

Culture Secretary Chris Smith has told BBC governors he wanted to see the corporation produce more gritty, contemporary drama like Our Friends In The North.

"I would be worried if they ended up just doing Pride And Prejudices. Formulaic historical drama without any real bite isn't going to work with the viewers," he said.

BBC Director-General Sir John Birt found Rhodes - about the colonisation of southern Africa - "disappointing" after it failed to attract viewers.

But all this is not stopping the BBC committing millions to costume drama. Vanity Fair, The Scarlet Pimpernel and Great Expectations are coming soon, and a remake of The Forsyte Saga is in the pipeline for 1999, which is reportedly costing £20m.

Steve Clarke thinks the prestige and international popularity of period drama will help the genre continue into the era of digital TV, even though production costs will be driven down as more channels start up..

"Costume drama helps give a channel an identity and overseas revenue. As long as overseas partners put in money for this kind of production then it will survive," he said.

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