Northern Ireland

Mission accomplished for Our Man in the Vatican

Francis Campbell
Image caption Northern Ireland-born Francis Campbell, British Ambassador to the Holy See, in Rome during filming for Our Man in the Vatican - The Papal Visit.

TV cameras continued to follow Francis Campbell, British Ambassador to the Holy See, over the course of last year in the run-up to and during the recent Papal visit to the UK.

Series Producer Stephen Douds explains how the programme came to fruition.

Filming behind the scenes is rarely straightforward. Sometimes you arrange filming and nothing much happens. On other occasions you arrive ready to cover one event and something entirely unexpected takes place.

So it was on a dismal Monday in February when we arrived in Rome to talk to Ambassador Francis Campbell about what he described as "the worst kept secret in Westminster" the Pope's visit to the UK.

'Chaotic'

The idea had been to interview Francis about the discrete planning and the preparations Whitehall was making to ensure continuity after the looming General Election.

But then the Pope changed everything.

Barely an hour before we arrived, Pope Benedict let the cat out of the bag, telling a group of English bishops how much he was looking forward to visiting England in September.

When the Vatican reported this speech all hell broke lose at the Embassy.

Francis went into overdrive. Simultaneously he answered calls on his mobile, his land-line, his deputy's mobile and all the time keeping an eye on the torrent of emails coming in from Whitehall, the UK press and the Italian press all eager to know what was happening.

Throughout these chaotic few hours we kept filming, observing an Ambassador caught on the hop, but catching up effortlessly, answering every query with faultless manner and charm.

And all this even before the first series of Our Man in the Vatican had been broadcast.

When it was, the audience loved it. The three programmes won some of the highest audience share in that slot for well over a year.

'Nail-biting'

Francis found himself more widely recognised than ever before. Two months after transmission, and at the height of the volcanic ash scare, he was walking through Rome one Saturday lunchtime, when a family from Lisburn approached him.

Their flight home had been delayed and they needed medicine for a sick child.

Recognising Francis from the series, they asked for help. He was able to take them to the nearest pharmacy and get the medicine.

Our cameras were with him in those nail-biting days after the General Election when no-one knew who would form the new government, vital information for a serving Ambassador.

Image caption Francis Campbell takes his staff through some last minute planning ahead of the papal visit to the UK

Having observed Francis Campbell and many of his colleagues accredited to the Holy See, what strikes me is their one common denominator - skill in communication.

Contrary to the traditional image of an ambassador as some-one so circumspect it requires a genius to figure out what he is communicating, it's clear that plain speaking is essential for a diplomat's success.

'Offensive'

Francis' facility for plain speaking was never clearer than when he talked about the infamous leaked memo from the Foreign Office on what the Pope might do while in the UK.

The memo suggested he might apologise for the Spanish Armada, open an abortion clinic or spend a night in a council flat in Bradford.

In this special sequel programme, Francis describes the memo, a real low point in the planning, as "silly, offensive, and juvenile."

Language that may well have been used inside the Vatican itself when Francis had to apologise unreservedly on behalf of the government.

The papal visit brought the crowds onto the streets and generated hugely positive press coverage for both the Pope himself and the UK's diplomatic relationship with the Holy See.

A relationship Francis Campbell has done more than most to build up.

His verdict on the visit?

That it is "mission accomplished"; a conclusion many might suggest is best used to describe the five years the farmer's son from Barnmeen, outside Rathfriland, has spent as Our Man in the Vatican.

Mission accomplished.

Our Man in the Vatican - The Papal Visit will be broadcast on BBC One Northern Ireland on Sunday, 26 September at 1930 BST.

More on this story