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Dramatic change for the better

Something strange has been happening on television lately. Strange and, it has to be said, a bit wonderful. After years of being little more than a receptacle for any lump of crusty old crud that plopped from Simon Cowell's creative bowels, ITV has started to behave like a proper channel again.

It's true that the weekends are still dominated, at least in terms of screen time if not necessarily ratings, by the ailing X Factor and the imbecilic gameshow Red or Black?, but elsewhere in ITV's schedules the improvements have been staggering to behold.

Gone for the moment, at any rate, are the days when the ITV programme planners' idea of high-grade weeknight viewing was a celebrity travel documentary featuring Martin Clunes going, "Wow!" at a pack of wolves, Joanna Lumley wafting like posh, odourless smoke around Egypt, or -- if it was getting late in the year and the budgets were running out -- Adrian Edmondson stomping around the Yorkshire Dales admiring grass, trees, clouds and farmers with hair growing in unusual places.

Those types of programmes have not gone away forever, I'm sure, but what's been most notable above all else in recent weeks is ITV's vibrant commitment to, and generous financial investment in, original new drama, something which this time last year, you would have been forgiven for thinking you'd never see on the channel again.


This week alone offered a positive embarrassment of dramatic riches. On Sunday (yes, I'm aware Sunday is not a week night, but let's bend the rules a little) there was a feature-length adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's The Scapegoat, directed by Charles (Brideshead Revisited) Sturridge.

Monday brought the three-part Leaving, written by scriptwriting heavyweight Tony Marchant and starring Helen McCrory as a middle-aged wife who falls into a relationship with a man (Nick Dunning) 20 years her junior.

Much of Tuesday was taken up with England's World Cup qualifier against Ukraine, but drama was back on Wednesday with part two of Mrs Biggs, starring Sheridan Smith, who's been all over our screens this month, as the wife of Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs (Daniel Mays).

Thursday saw the continuation of The Bletchley Circle, a clever new series featuring the fictional adventures of a group of female Bletchley Park codebreakers who, bored with domestic drudgery in the months after the end of the Second World War, turn detectives to track down a killer of schoolgirls.


Friday being a night when, traditionally, TV bosses think most viewers want to put their feet up and relax with something that won't tax their brains too much, it was back to more familiar ITV fare in the shape of Piers Morgan's Life Stories -- although at least the guest was the venerable Roger Moore rather than some washed-up C-lister.

Tomorrow night sees the start of series three of Downton Abbey, which, despite a bonkers second series, is sure to be a ratings magnet again, not least because of the addition of the mad-as-a-bag-of-lab-rats Shirley MacLaine as a foil for Maggie Smith.

It doesn't matter whether you like all, any or none of the above; the important thing is that for the first time in a long time, drama seems to be back at the top of ITV's agenda -- and that can only be good for the future television in general.

>UNFLAPPABLE PHILIP Phillip and the Enormous Willy. Sounds like it could be the title of a Roald Dahl book. It wasn't, of course. No, what we're talking about here is the fact Phillip Schofield may well be the most unflappable host on television.

On ITV's This Morning, he interviewed New Yorker Jonah Falcon, who is thought to be the world's most well-endowed man.

To demonstrate just how well-endowed, Schofield produced a cardboard cutout of Falcon's penis and stuck it on a life-sized cutout of a man, illustrating just how inadequate other men are by comparison. A standout moment of TV, no question.

>this bird has flown He bared his soul in Washington. He shared his fear of bugs in the Amazon. He bore the bruises after he was attacked by thugs on St Patrick's Day. A unique CV, I think you'll agree, for a TV journalist.

And Charlie Bird made history even as he departed RTE after 38 years. He went quietly, we hear tell; no fuss, no going-away do, no emotional farewells. For once, Charlie wasn't the centre of the story. That's GOT to be a first.