26 FEBRUARY 1972, Page 9

BBC (2)

24 Hours et al.

Gyles Brandreth

Chaos has enveloped the BBC's Current Affairs Department of late. Superficial chaos, born out of the necessity of moving Panorama, 24 Hours and Europa, lock, stock and teleprompter, from their Lime Grove studios to Television Centre for the duration of the fuel crisis, and more profound chaos, born out of prolonged and aggravating uncertainty about the future of the Department's programmes.

For almost a year now the Corporation canteens have buzzed with talk of dramatic changes. The appointment, at thirty-four, of Brian Wenham as head of the Current Affairs Group, the arrival from the BBC's New York office of soft, silent, bright-eyed Peter Pagnamenta to edit 24 Hours, the continuous round of confidential programme meetings, all pointed to something being afoot, but while the deliberations have been many, the decisions have been few. For months, everyone within a one mile radius of Shepherd's Bush has known that something was about to happen, but nobody seems to know quite what or when. Even Robin Day's and David Dimbleby's decision to quit their presenters' chairs hasn't precipitated the action it was supposed to. The official word remains that the output of the BBCs most controversial Department "is still in a state of flux." 24 Hours is the programme that has been giving senior BBC men — there are no senior women on the current affairs side — their sleepless nights. They are perturbed by the continuing criticism from Westminster, where the Labour party is still bathing its bruises after Yesterday's Men and Conservative MPs remain convinced that 24 Hours exhibits an intolerable leftist, not to say anarchistic, bias — despite the fact that the men responsible for giving the programme its revolutionary fervour left for the more sheltered confines of Nuffield College, Oxford, some six months ago. Even' more disturbing to the Corporation is the fact that the programme has done nothing to dent the popularity of ITN's ratings success with News at Ten.

As it happens, the shape of current affairs to come is almost settled. Though the troops don't yet know it, the generals believe they have hit on a formula to win the battle on both the political and the popular fronts. From September 24 Hours is to be transformed. Once it was a tough news programme. Soon it will be a bright, bazzazzy late-night magazine, "mixing news and fun in a current affairs cocktail with a very broad appeal," in the words of one of the new programme's researchers. It will probably be screened six evenings a week, with a new presenter and a slightly different emphasis on each night.

The new mood can already be detected. Whereas the programme had a Sunday Times-Insight flavour under its last editor, Tony Smith, under Pagnamenta it is supposed to be developing a Sunday People feel. The arrival from Leeds as one of the programme's presenters of Austin Mitchell, complete with tousled head and Northern burr signifying that he's a man of the people, and the introduction of headlines to herald each item — well, some viewers are deaf — is indicative of what's in store, For a while theie was talk of slipping Panorama into this new late-night slot, but it now seems likely that the programme, with its new and earnest editor, Bob Rowland, and its new and only slightly less earnest host, David Dimbleby, will retain its identity as the BBC's only true heavyweight current affairs show. Dimbleby will only fill his father's chair on Panorama if he can go out and do some reporting as well. As a friend of his put it, "If Frost can go padding about Bangla Desh and Belfast, why can't David?"

While Panorama gets heavier — if it's possible — 24 Hours will get lighter and a new team of personable presenters will join Austin Mitchell. A number of names have been tentatively pencilled in. Jacky Gillott's is one. The BBC has always felt that women reporters aren't credible, but Miss Gillott seems to be believed on radio, so she may well become the first lady of TV current affairs. John Timpson, the Today man, is another possibility, though he may be holding out for the first of the TV breakfast shows.

To the BBC the present shuffling of the

pack amounts to a minor revolution. To the rest of us, of course, once the cards have been dealt the picture will probably seem much the same. There is one real surprise in store, however, and that is that one of the new late-night spots could go to Robin Day. For some years he is known to have had his eye on a Frost-like Day by Night show and his departure from Panorama may well have been a case of reculer pour mieux sauter. The odds are that our autumnal evenings by the box will be brightened by the presence of a gregarious Robin Day, ladling out the wit and wisdom in an endearing way that only members of the Garrick Club have been privileged to witness heretofore. What's more, in his new role Mr Day may abandon his bows and, for the first time in public, sport some of his fine selection of kipper ties. A revolution indeed.