Business dons a snazzy black suit

The BBC has decided that business does not get the profile it deserves. Enter Robert Thirkell, whose job it is to give the likes of The Money Programme a makeover
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The Independent Online

Robert Thirkell may need to buy a new suit. As the first of a number of BBC "creative directors" to be appointed by Greg Dyke, he thinks it appropriate that he should be wearing something snazzy in black. "It's a great title, isn't it?" says Thirkell, who is only a few hours into his new role as creative director, business programmes.

Robert Thirkell may need to buy a new suit. As the first of a number of BBC "creative directors" to be appointed by Greg Dyke, he thinks it appropriate that he should be wearing something snazzy in black. "It's a great title, isn't it?" says Thirkell, who is only a few hours into his new role as creative director, business programmes.

Well, yes it is. But it is also something of a challenge. Greg Dyke has decided that business coverage should be elevated at the BBC, and far more exciting than in the past. For Thirkell the easy bit is to do more of the sort of programmes that have made his name - the Bafta winning series Troubleshooter, Back to the Floor and Blood on the Carpet.

The trickier task is to take the pizzazz that he has injected into business features and replicate it in the faster-moving world of business journalism. His biggest test will be to turn around the old BBC war-horse, The Money Programme, which Dyke has distanced from News and Current Affairs and given to Thirkell, with his documentaries background. "What I want to do at The Money Programme," says Thirkell, "is combine story-telling with journalism. The business docs I have done are built on story-telling, but don't have to set the agenda. The Money Programme should set the agenda."

It is a sensitive subject. For the past year or so there has been considerable discontent at BBC2 about The Money Programme's performance - with some at the channel convinced that if it could not be changed completely then the best alternative was to axe it altogether. The truth was that the show looked increasingly old-fashioned as producers of factual programming in other departments discovered new formats - everything from Driving School to Castaway - and different ways of coming at old subjects.

In fact, Thirkell was one of the key programme makers who has, over the past decade, made the formats of traditional current affairs shows (talking head, general shots, reporter doing piece to camera) seem rather tired.

" Troubleshooter," says Thirkell, "was in a sense the first makeover programme - which is why it got a Bafta for originality. John Harvey Jones would go into a company and give it a makeover. And you expected reality to change because you were making the programme."

Current affairs is, of course, different. It has a greater duty to straight, impartial reportage. But Dyke is clearly hoping that Thirkell will think of something innovative to give The Money Programme a new lease of life.

"All three of my current strands have received a Bafta," says Thirkell, "and I see no reason why The Money Programme can't do the same". This is fighting talk. Part of the answer lies in instilling in News and Current Affairs producers the same storytelling expertise that he has managed to develop in documentaries.

Many of Thirkell's producers have been on the famous Robert McKee scriptwriting course, intended for Hollywood hopefuls, but setting out the key techniques for introducing tension, suspense and climax into a narrative. He says Money Programme staff will be able to attend the same course (it is several hundred pounds a shot, but deemed to be worth it if the programmes improve).

And it seems likely that more Money Programme stories will come at their subject through human tales. "If you are doing a programme about the Vodafone-Mannesman takeover then follow the fortunes of the bosses of the companies," he says. "What happens matters hugely to these peoples' lives".

What about the Birtian analysis? The context and the implications? Thirkell believes this can all be worked in - and there will be some stories which are important enough to do even though they are not conducive to a people-led approach.

The new, and with luck improved, Money Programme is to get a prime time mid-week slot to show off the real-life makeover that Thirkell wants to give it. His philosophy of programme-making is though based on access, access, access above anything. But getting good access for a camera crew is an expensive business. It requires producers and researchers to spend hours on the phone and fax negotiating with people and winning their confidence. It means ploughing away at possibilities that never come to fruition. And, to deliver the sort of quality that Thirkell is known for, it requires far more filming time than Money Programme producers are accustomed to.

The extra money is going to be raised by cutting down on the total number of programmes made during the year, and channelling more cash into individual productions (an approach also being put into practice at Panorama).

Money will also be saved by a switch from the programme's current magazine format, into the more in-depth reporting of one story a week. It is far more expensive to make three short films - with three crews and three lots of expenses - than one long film.

Turning round The Money Programme is, in Dyke's BBC, part of putting business at the centre of programme making - a status it has never before achieved. "There have been departments for arts, history, natural history, science, religion and tiddlywinks," says Thirkell, "but not business".

Historically business did not really matter at the BBC, he says. "The right-wingers looked down their noses at it and the left-wing thought it was something nasty and exploitative. It has taken the arty types a long time to catch up". And the shape of the department itself, he believes, reflects business' coming of age at the Corporation. "Our unit feels like a small entrepreneurial outfit," he says. "And it feels like a model for the BBC. A lot of programme departments could be run as small entrepreneurial outfits that can grow or wither, depending on how successful they are".

Thirkell also hopes to develop business ideas on the BBC's powerful internet site. At BBC News Online the business pages are the second most popular after its football pages - even though they are more hidden away. If Thirkell can build this up, then the "small entrepreneurial outfit" may actually become rather valuable. BBC NewsOnline has been valued at a whopping £4bn - so a business element would be chunky indeed.

These are ambitious projects and Thirkell's success or failure will be very much in the public eye. In the past he has thrived because his little idiosyncratic business docs unit was hidden away incongruously in the science department, and Thirkell was allowed to get on with managing in his own somewhat mercurial way. By going centre-stage, he has realised an ambition for the status of business programmes - but he may also find that he is hamstrung by old-style BBC politicking and manoeuvring. The proof of the pudding will be in the programmes.

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