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Blowing the lid off the dome

people: A BBC series on the Dome traces one of the greatest architectural adventures of the century. Its creators Robert Thirkell and Adam Wishart tell a drama of clashing personalities and poignant personal commitments by lee mallett. photograph by guy j

A new four-part series, The Dome - Trouble at the Big Top, (bbc2, first episode 9.30pm, 9 December) by the bbc's ironically titled Business & Adventure Unit, tells the story of the Great Exhibition de nos jours. Like all stories, it's in the way it is told.

Its Bafta-winning creators, Robert Thirkell, the unit's executive editor, who brought you the John Harvey Jones series, Troubleshooter and the Trouble At The Top documentaries, and Adam Wishart, whose memorable programme about the Benenden headmistress who took a job as a supply teacher was such a success, have come up with a corker two years in the making. 'The Dome makes great telly because it is a very defined story. It starts as a gas works and ends with people going through the doors of the Dome,' says Wishart. And on the way, you get to see 'an extraordinary clash of art, business and politics at the very heart of the British Establishment'.

Thirkell and Wishart's oeuvre is telling stories from the supposedly arid worlds of business and the professions and in the process revealing the tragi-comic operettas at their heart with an affection that hooks the viewer throughout, leaving them the space and the material to make their own judgements.

This first programme, from its opening jolly fairground music that goes awry, through to Peter Mandelson's stirring impromptu speech while walking to his car eating a hamburger, is a lovingly crafted homage to the enormous efforts that have gone into making the Dome. Not one frame in this film though suggests a panegyric: 'We try to make it so you can judge it for yourself,' says Wishart.

Their film shows they found an un-expected, uplifting serendipity, revealed amid the squabbling and physical obstacles threatening to extinguish the creativity the Dome is intended to display. It warms the cockles while simultaneously depicting a seething cast of driven power-mongers, prima donnas, stoic construction workers, sacked design gurus, irate organisers ('we'll bloody well trust you when you show us your ideas'), cynical journos, absurd clerics, all jostling to make their mark.

Your heart goes out to softly-spoken Eva Jiricna being tossed on the horns of the most acute architectural dilemma imaginable, harassed by nmec boss Jennie Page trying to extract the costs of the Spirit Zone, sweating to accommodate umpteen versions of religious hocus pocus, while under fire from the frighteningly influential Litmus Group. 'To me [the cross] is a symbol of suffering,' says frazzled humanist Eva, who hails from Czechoslovakia when it was a totalitarian state and who must have felt a chilly sense of deja vu during her regular roastings. Hemingway's definition of heroism - 'grace under pressure' - springs to mind .

'I was amazed by the extraordinary dili-gence of the architects involved,' says Wishart. 'Their level of concentration and creativity is amazing. I was stunned at what Eva and Zaha Hadid were able to produce.' We should watch out for Eva's final rabbit-out-of-the-hat design, inspired by a pair of lace wedding tights she bought in a Marks & Spencer sale and revealed in a later programme.

'I think it is going to be very good for architects and architecture,' saysThirkell. 'The architects wanted to do things very differently from the people who were there just to get product throughput,' adds Wishart. 'Everybody brought their own skills to it, but the architects showed a depth of creativity that the others don't.'

There are many parallels between what architects and Thirkell and Wishart do, they observe: 'Our job is to conceive of what might be there where nothing exists at the moment,' says Thirkell, who reveals he originally wanted to be an architect, but started out doing menial tasks at the bbc. He designed and rebuilt the interior of his own flat ('I moved one of the walls three times').

'What struck me about the [Dome designs] is that it is all in the detail, and it's the same with telly. It's all a matter of inches. There are tiny little things we do to achieve the effects we want, a tiny clip here, a few frames more there, that you wouldn't notice on their own, but take them all out and you get something completely different. It's the same with design. Architects are very expert craftsmen.'

Do they think the Dome is a good thing? 'The answer is 'let's wait and see,'' says Wishart. 'We'll only know when you can see the finished product.'

What is clear from the film is, as Thirkell says, 'The whole bloody lot of them were trying their best - every single last one.

'They may have all had different ideas and aims, but even the dear old Lambeth Group, wanted the best Dome they could get and that's what I hope our series shows.'

This is especially true of Peter Mandelson's performance. His final 'hamburger' speech at the end of the programme is one of the best I've heard in years.

Some of the best lines belong to Oklahoma cowboy Ronnie MacFarlane, whose die-hard attitude is curiously reminiscent of Mandelson's determination. His team put the Dome's roof on and he rode bulls in professional rodeo for 20 years. Imagine a broad Slim Pickins Western accent: 'Compared to the last two weeks, ridin' bulls was easy. If we make it, fine, we gonna be heroes. If we don't, what they gonna do? Eat us, shoot us, chuck us in the river?'

He made it all right and, I suspect, so have the rest of them. Thirkell and Wishart's creative achievement has been to conceive and craft a story that lives up to the efforts of everybody involved, revealed as never before. Don't miss it.

Lee Mallett is a director of Wordsearch

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