Media: Why should business be a bore?

The BBC's Robert Thirkell has managed to turn corporate coverage into entertaining television.
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The Independent Culture
Ten years ago, in his blistering attack on Britain's television establishment at the Edinburgh Television Festival, Rupert Murdoch condemned the "anti-commercial attitudes" of British broadcasting. He accused programme- makers of reflecting contempt for money-making. The good and the great of broadcasting were contemptuous. "He would say that, wouldn't he," hissed one.

Looking back on the media tycoon's indictment, one senior BBC producer now offers offers a candid admission. "Murdoch was right," says Robert Thirkell, pausing as he puts the finishing touches to tomorrow night's concluding episode of the third series of the pioneering business programme, Trouble at the Top ("Too Many Cooks", broadcast on BBC 2 at 9.30pm).

The programme covers the struggle of two businessmen to re-launch the ailing Pierre Victoire restaurant chain.

"What Murdoch said was true," he continues. "The attitude here was that business was intrinsically boring. The view of many producers was that they hadn't joined the BBC to make programmes about money. There was real disdain for the business of making money and things. The tradesmen were supposed to use their own entrance."

What a difference a decade makes. The notion that making money is not boring but in fact very interesting has become one of the hottest ideas in broadcasting, and not just at the BBC. Where once British viewers had to put up with little more than weary episodes of the Money Programme, with its warmed-over features from last month's business pages, today they are being bombarded with business news - enough, possibly, to satisfy even Rupert Murdoch.

For the obsessive there is a choice of two 24-hour business news channels (CNBC and Bloomberg). For the merely interested there is a vastly expanded role for business on Radio 4's extended Today programme. Sky News has established a respected business news unit headed by Michael Wilson and has given it plenty of air time. Business news is integral to the BBC's own News 24 channel. Even the Money Programme, long the BBC's sole concession to the world of commerce, has been relaunched with a new look and sharper stories.

Amidst all this, Thirkell has emerged as a prophet of a new kind of business television, of interest even to the normally indifferent. Producing a series of ably crafted films, Thirkell's achievement is to create business programmes full of passion, drama and human interest.

He has done this by working outside the normal BBC news and current affairs structure, under the aegis - of all things - of the BBC's science department, where he has become a hot property. He has been given his own unit, channel controllers besiege him for shows and he has a stack of resumes on his desk from aspiring programme-makers who are eager to join his team.

Thirkell, a career BBC man, joined the corporation as a researcher and by 1985 had won his first producer credit with Billion Dollar Day, a look at the foreign exchange markets that told the story of currency trading. His big break was a couple of years later when he met John Harvey-Jones. It was the genesis of the Bafta Award-winning Troubleshooter in which Sir John starred as the original company doctor. The first programme aired just a year after Murdoch launched his attack on BBC business coverage, and critics took note. Thirkell has not looked back.

Two series of Troubleshooter led to the single programme, Nightmare at Canary Wharf (about the launch of cable channel LiveTV, complete with its news bunny and weather in Norwegian), which in turn spawned Trouble at the Top. That then led to Back to the Floor (in which bosses returned to the shop floor for a week) and Blood on the Carpet (a series about business battles).

Among the memorable episodes of Blood on the Carpet was the one describing the confrontation between the hippie ice-cream-makers Ben & Jerry and Haagen-Dazs, then a division of the giant American food processor Pillsbury. As a narrative it was a David-versus-Goliath story, but along the way it managed to treat many of the serious business issues that face today's managers: the permissible limits of competition, the nature of branding, the importance of skilful public relations.

Last autumn Thirkell, by now a BBC high-flyer, spent six weeks on an advanced management course at the Wharton business school in America. He has returned to a promotion running the corporation's new Business and Adventure Unit. The unit's name reflects Thirkell's belief that business is itself an adventure, and that business people make great television.

The separation from the day-to-day pressure of news coverage has given Thirkell space to develop some genuinely original ideas. Just a few months old, the unit already has 12 series in production. They include new series of Trouble at the Top and Blood on the Carpet, a third series of Troubleshooter (in which Harvey-Jones returns 10 years later to companies he visited in the first series), and an ambitious look at the culture and practice of management consultancy, Naked Work.

He's also shooting a one-off series on the struggle to build and launch the Millennium Dome, and a new series for next year, Master Blasters, about people who blow things up for a living.

Thirkell's programmes are hardly self-consciously didactic. They do not pause for lengthy exegeses on the theory of management or marketing. Instead, they concentrate on the individuals involved. If his work can be criticised, it is perhaps that he may sometimes be too sympathetic to his subjects. An episode of Back to the Floor last November, "Back on Site", offered a sympathetic portrait of Tony Pidgley, millionaire owner of the property developer Berkeley Homes. The portrait of Pidgley by Thirkell's unit was engaging but not entirely convincing; are we really to believe that from his position at the top of the company, Pidgley really had so little idea of what his subordinates were up to? The viewer was left with the impression that the subject of the film was taking full advantage of the opportunity to present himself in the most favourable light.

Yet despite the typically rather gentle approach to his subjects, many of Thirkell's shows could well serve as model case studies for business school students, exposing the pressures on managers as they grapple with the relentless demands of suppliers, customers and staff.

Tomorrow night's episode of Trouble at the Top is typical of the breed. By now, most analysts who follow the catering industry already know about the ambitious launch and then the near collapse of the Pierre Victoire chain.

The restaurant franchise launched eight years ago and expanded rapidly, but others had similar ideas. Soon, there were bistro-concept restaurants on every corner. Suddenly, Pierre Victoire was in trouble. Franchises were struggling; many collapsed. Last summer Pierre Victoire went bust with debts of more than pounds 10m.

Thirkell takes up the story as two of the former restaurateurs, Richard Willis and Simon Edwards, struggle to relaunch the company. The camera follows them from the kitchen of their restaurant in Edinburgh to grim meetings with shareholders and prospective employees. It is the authentic stuff of business. The pressure is unrelenting, the work unglamorous. By the end of the film, Richard and Simon have emerged as real heroes, and it would be a callous viewer who could walk away unimpressed by their pure grit and persistence.

The trick, says Thirkell, is to find a good story and let the business points make themselves. "It's all about narrative," Thirkell says. "You need a star character or a star subject. It's got to be more than just docu-soap."

What next for Thirkell? After a career as a hands-on programme-maker, he is now at risk of spending more time managing the projects of others than he does making programmes himself. In a corporation that faces plenty of business stresses of its own, perhaps there are bigger things in store?

Thirkell shakes his head. "I've already got the best job in TV," he says.

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