The man who cooks up tasty TV

The award-winning producer behind 'Jamie's School Dinners' talks to Ian Burrell
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The Independent Online

THIRKELL: vb. 1 To troubleshoot;

THIRKELL: vb. 1 To troubleshoot;

2 To take a prototype idea for a television programme and transform it into a Bafta winner.

The verb "to Thirkell" is fast becoming part of the vocabulary of the television industry. When broadcasting chiefs want to develop a germ of a programme idea into something that will have the nation talking, they are likely to turn to a dapper freelancer and ask him to Thirkell it.

Robert Thirkell is the man who masterminded Channel 4's Jamie's School Dinners and helped make it an election issue. For the past 15 years he has been creating the blueprint for the more intelligent end of the reality television market. It was Thirkell who as a young assistant producer in 1990 was given the chance to direct and made Sir John Harvey-Jones the popular face of British business, through the landmark series Troubleshooter.

Harvey-Jones, the former head of ICI, was persuaded to go into a string of ailing businesses and breathe life back into them. The programme - which resulted in Triang Toys and the Shropshire health authority deciding to get rid of their bosses - pioneered the makeover show and created the mould for programmes such as the BBC2's The Apprentice. It also won Thirkell the first of his three Baftas (the other two were for the business series Back to the Floor and Blood on the Carpet).

After 28 years at the BBC, Thirkell shocked the television industry in 2003 by walking out of the corporation and going to live in a hammock on various beaches in the Far East. "When people ask what I did, I say 'fuck all'. It was so much nicer than being a television producer," he says.

Now Thirkell is back and it is he who is the troubleshooter. "I'm a free gun for hire," he says. "I was married to the BBC for so long that I don't want another relationship. I think of myself as a virtual independent production company - I can come up with ideas or I can sort them out."

The gift that he offers broadcasters, he says, is the knowledge of how to tell a story in pictures. "It's classic story-telling that's been going on for thousands of years. It is character revealed through struggle," he says.

Thirkell has always been a bit of a television oddball, combining his early role as an assistant producer with a weekend job selling second-hand coats at Portobello Market in London. But he almost single-handedly created the BBC's creative business unit, making programmes like Nightmare at Canary Wharf, the inside story of Kelvin MacKenzie and Janet Street-Porter's fraught attempts to establish L!ve TV, and taking charge of The Money Programme.

"I was very, very lucky that business compelled me because nobody else seemed remotely interested in it," he says. "If I was a medieval film-maker I would be making films about knights in armour, but in the modern world business is where you struggle to make your dreams come true."

Although Jamie's School Dinners was the chef's own idea, hatched with Mark Thompson when he was still chief executive of Channel 4, it was Thirkell who was called in to make it work. He and his "wonderful" series producer, Dominique Walker, tracked down the crucial characters such as Nora the cook, and then made sure that it was the children who were put at the top of the story, rather than Oliver himself. The young chef was a "consummate professional" who let Thirkell have complete editorial control. The pair got on so well that they are working on a new project, Jamie's Italy, which is designed to allow Oliver to recapture his love for cookery. "He feels he has been working like a maniac and has got away from the food he loves," says Thirkell. "He wants to get away and be enthused by food again."

For the TV troubleshooter, it is a case of what goes around comes around. "When I first met John Harvey-Jones I said that he was like my dad and he has gone on advising me ever since," he says. "I am now like Jamie's dad and I will always go on advising him."