Romola Garai in The Crimson Petal and the White
Featuring numerous racy sex scenes, it is the BBC2 drama that executives say represents the future of the second channel, which faces the prospect
of seeing its daytime output axed to save money. The Crimson Petal and the White – hailed by the BBC drama controller, Ben Stephenson, as a "drama that only the BBC could make" – details the relationship between a clever Victorian prostitute and a wealthy but insecure industrialist with an ailing wife. Starting later this month, the four-part adaptation of the book by Michel Faber is the first fruit of the tripling of the BBC2 drama budget at a time when the corporation faces a 20% cut in its budget. It features a heavyweight cast including Gillian Anderson, Richard E Grant, Mark Gatiss, Romola Garai and Chris O'Dowd. Stephenson said that he made the return of adult drama series one of his key priorities for BBC2, after taking on the drama job two and a half years ago. "This marks the beginning of the story – the re-emergence of drama on BBC2," he said at a screening of the programme on Tuesday.
The BBC2 controller, Janice Hadlow, has also pledged to make drama a priority despite the budget cuts, boosting spending from £10m to £30m. However, this week it emerged that the BBC was considering axing BBC2's daytime output to save money – forcing shows such as Perfection and Pointless off the channel. Instead it would run the BBC News channel up until 7pm, providing a viewing boost to the rolling news service. Stephenson said that despite the overall cutbacks – which are creating debate about axing daytime, off-peak services and screening more repeats – drama was being ringfenced as it was too important to the identities of the television channels and to the audience. It is also, subject to agreements with unions and producers, expected to play a more prominent role through repeat screenings during the week of transmission.
The Crimson Petal has been adapted by film and theatre writer Lucinda Coxon, in her first venture into television, and is directed by Marc Munden (The Devil's Whore, The Mark Of Cain). It is made by Origin Pictures, which is headed by David Thompson, the former head of BBC Films, in co-production with Canada's CBC. It will air at 9pm on 23 March. Other series which will follow during the year include seven-part conspiracy thriller The Shadow Line; The Hour, by Abi Morgan, about a television newsroom in 1956; The Night Watch, by Paula Milne; Page Eight, the first original television play from David Hare for 20 years; and United, a drama about Manchester United and the 1958 Munich air crash.