BBC Drama is to return to its Jane Austen heartland with a new period adaptation of the classic novel, Emma.

Produced in-house, the 4 x 60-minute drama will air on BBC1 in the autumn, and kicks into touch reports that the corporation is turning its back on period pieces.

The series will be scripted by Sandy Welch, who penned the BBC adaptations of Jane Eyre and North and South, and jointly won a Bafta for the BBC dramatisation of Our Mutual Friend.

The corporation said the new drama would offer a “humorous” new take on Emma, but would remain faithful to its regency setting. It added that the series will have “more time to flesh out character” than the 1996 film adaptation starring Gwyneth Paltrow or the ITV single drama with Kate Beckinsale of the same year.

Kate Harwood, controller series and serials, said: “In Emma, Austen has created an intriguing heroine, and our four-hour canvas allows us to explore this multi-faceted character in detail. Emma was Austen's last novel, written when she was at the height of her craft.”

Ben Stephenson, controller of BBC drama commissioning, added: “This four-part adaptation - the first serial version of Emma since the 1970's - gives Sandy the opportunity to find new detail and added psychological depth in Austen's characters.

"2009 will also see Desperate Romantics and Small Island burst onto the screen and we believe that this offers viewers a real range of stories about our heritage.”

The novel, first published in 1815, centres on Emma Woodhouse, a beautiful young lady who believes herself to be a skilled matchmaker but is brought up sharply against the folly of her meddling.

The BBC has not confirmed casting but is aiming to start filming in the spring.

Phillippa Giles (Jane Eyre, North and South, Alan Clark Diaries) is lined up as executive producer and George Ormond (Silent Witness, EastEnders) is the producer. Stephenson ordered the series with BBC1 controller Jay Hunt.

The commission follows a spate of modern dramas by the BBC, including 20th century adaptations The Diary of Anne Frank and The 39 Steps plus contemporary dramas House of Saddam and Criminal Justice. However, drama chiefs are keen not to move away from “bonnets” altogether. Stephenson said: “BBC drama is committed to retelling classic stories for a new generation of viewers.”