Tough at the Top

Mandelson's folly? Or his greatest triumph? The BBC was there to follow the ups and downs of the Dome

In the first episode of BBC2's new documentary series The Dome: Trouble at the Big Top, Peter Mandelson is asked why he became involved with the Millennium Dome in Greenwich. His answer is candid: "Because I was a Minister and was told to. And... I'd be a good fall guy if it all went wrong."

More than two years in the making, this fascinating series shows many occasions when it nearly did all go wrong for Mandelson. Early on in his time as Minister responsible for the Dome, he is filmed canvassing a group of schoolchildren for their thoughts on how to fill the huge exhibition space. "You can tell me your brilliant ideas," he pleads, only half joking, "and how you're going to save my career."

The New Labour anthem may tell us that things can only get better, but in Mandelson's case they didn't. At the end of 1997, Stephen Bayley resigned as a creative advisor to the Dome, saying that "unless there is decisive creative management, it could be crap." The hapless Minister faced jeering headlines about "Mandelson's Folly".

He confides to the cameras that at the time "I felt my own career was slightly shaky. People were looking at me differently... and thinking `Is this man going to survive?"' Of course, he wasn't - but his downfall had nothing to do with the Dome. (BBC cameras were on hand to record the moment, on 21 December 1998, when Mandelson, scaling the Dome, received a doom- laden pager-message about his ill-advised home-loan: "The PM wants a word.")

For all the frissons these moments of potential disaster provide, the documentary also tells a story of potential triumph. When Mandelson first goes inside the Dome, it is already taking shape, and he is exultant: "I feel like getting down and kissing the earth. I'm feeling rather emotional. It's worth all the stress."

By June 1998, the exterior of the Dome is completed on schedule, and Tony Blair is impressed when he surveys the work. Mandelson can barely suppress his delight. "There are too many people in Britain who have forgotten what it is to be great as a country, too many people who have lost their ambition... I think it's pathetic."

Robert Thirkell, executive producer on The Dome, has been, to some extent, won over by Mandelson's vision. He reckons the Dome is so widely slagged off because "the public don't have the conceptual framework to understand it. We're always sceptical of grand ideas. The exhibitions of 1851 and 1951 were reviled in advance, too. The British character hasn't changed since 1851. It's easy to kick any creative endeavour. But I admire the Dome conceptually because it represents the notion of spending money on something more than the material. It's like building a cathedral; it's not just about making cars or hi-fis.

"When I was younger, I remember the feeling that Britain was a has-been country, the sick man of Europe. Now we're a younger, more dynamic, forward- looking country. We're not mired in the Imperial past, thinking how we used to be the biggest and the best. The Dome symbolises that change."

Adam Wishart, the series producer, says that part of the problem with the public perception of the Dome is that "there's nothing to show while you're making it. When James Cameron was making Titanic, everyone assumed it would be a flop because no one had seen the finished product."

"Building the Dome is like producing a TV programme," Thirkell chips in. "While you're working on it, you think `How will these disparate bits ever make a programme?' Then, suddenly, in the last week, everything comes together to create a unified whole."

Thirkell's cameras have captured some hairy moments - for instance, the kerfuffle when it emerges that the pieces of fabric for the roof do not initially fit the frame. He admits that some of the 20,000-odd people working on the pounds 758m project "may mind" about their portrayal in the documentary, but "what they wanted to show was the incredible amount of hard work that went into the Dome."

The filmmakers have certainly achieved that aim. You never know, they might even inspire some people to go and visit the blessed thing.

`The Dome' is on BBC2 at 9.30pm on Thur

Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year


Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Arts and Entertainment
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
    'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

    'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

    British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
    Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

    Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

    Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
    14 best kids' hoodies

    14 best kids' hoodies

    Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk