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High Profile

Culture vulture

Andrew Graystone

Sir Peter Bazalgette, once vilified by much of the press as the man who debased British television, is now chair of Arts Council England. Third Way dropped in on its London headquarters.

Peter Bazalgette

Is it true that your family didn't have a television when you were a child?

We didn't get a television set until I was 10 or 11, in 1964, something like that. Then we gave in and got a telly like everybody else and became normal.

 

What do you think you gained or lost by not having one?

I couldn't watch The Lone Ranger like all my friends and talk about it in the playground, so I felt rather excluded. I remember pretending I'd watched it, because you need at that age to take part in 'water-cooler' conversations and you don't want to be unpopular, do you? Otherwise, I don't think I could say there were any pluses or minuses to it, really. It wasn't particularly un-usual - it was a sort of middle-class fetish, really. What was your family like? It was an aspiring lower-middle-class family. My father was brought up by his maternal grandparents because in the Roaring Twenties his own parents were, shall we say, a little wayward. He had to leave school and go out to work when he was 15 or so because his grandfather didn't have much money. Like him, my mother was brought up in south-east London. Her grandfather was quite a wealthy merchant. They married in 1947, in the depths of a terrible winter, in a church where the organ froze (which sounds like a rude music-hall joke…).

I had two older brothers and a younger sister. From the age of eight or nine, I grew up on Romney Marsh in Kent, which is a place of the most magnificent Saxon churches, where I spent an idyllic childhood on my bi- Culture vulture Interview by Andrew Graystone Sir Peter Bazalgette, once vilified by much of the press as the man who debased British television, is now chair of Arts Council England. Third Way dropped in on its London headquarters. cycle, collecting butterflies and doing brass-rubbing, which was very nice.

 

Did religion play a part in your upbringing?

My mother was extremely religious, I would say. Let me qualify that: she was an active member of the church - she ran a choir, she used to write the parish magazine… My father was entirely areligious - he wasn't hostile to it, but he didn't believe.

I went to confirmation classes when I was 13 and at that point decided no, I didn't want to be confirmed. So, I wasn't, and I have not been a churchgoer. The best description of my beliefs would be 'agnostic'.

 

Was it a home where creativity was valued? Were you a creative child?

I'd say it was. My mother was studying at the Royal Academy [of Music], and music and the written word were venerated. I learnt to read very early, and learnt to read widely and enjoy reading hugely. I think I was reasonably creative. I spent quite a lot of time editing the school magazine, writing, taking part in plays and things like that. A lot of public speaking, debating - I was quite interested in the political dialogue.

 

Did you talk about politics at home?

Talked about politics quite a lot. My father worked in the City, so predictably his politics were mildly right of centre; but he always used to take the New Statesman, because he said he wanted to know what the other lot were getting up to. So, I read that as a teenager.

 

You seem to have gone fairly seamlessly from Dulwich College to Cambridge University and the Union…

Not so seamless, no. I was fairly indolent: I got pretty poor O-levels, though I did get reasonably good A-levels. Then I failed to get into Oxford - I wasn't properly prepared for the interview and I think they rumbled me, quite rightly. I taught in a school for a year and then, yes, I did get into Cambridge to read law.


You then went into television, where you made a career primarily in popular TV. You seem to have a particular gift of knowing what a mainstream audience wants to watch -

Well, there's a lot of luck in that, but anyway…

 

How did you come by such a good understanding of popular taste?

It's a good question. I'd say that one thing you need is, you need to like entertainment: you need to enjoy consuming it but also to like the idea of entertaining other people. In other words - not to elevate it too much - to like the idea of being an impresario.

What happened to me is, I went into the BBC and worked for a couple of years as a news journalist, and also was involved in making documentaries like the old 'Man Alive' series, stuff like that. But I liked the idea of entertainment and I got myself into Esther Rantzen's show That's Life!. She was brilliant at taking factual information and making it entertaining, and I learnt a hell of a lot from that. A lot of what I did subsequently was sort of based on that idea, really.

 

When you were making shows such as Ready Steady Cook and Changing Rooms in the late Eighties - or Big Brother from 2000 onwards - what were you trying to achieve?

I was trying to do three things, probably. One is inform people about something; two, entertain them; three, get as many of them together in one place as possible.

Basically, shows like Ready Steady Cook and Changing Rooms were what the Americans used to call 'how to' shows. In the late Fifties, the BBC used to have Barry Bucknell saying: 'This is how you use a hammer to bang a nail into some wood. And here's a close-up.'1 But if you can get human interest around that, something of a storyline and a resolution - entertainment's based on storytelling - you've got a more compelling package. I learnt it from Esther Rantzen, basically; and those formats were very successful.

Big Brother is a slightly different fish, but I have a suspicion you'll come to that.

 

Well, it is part of your story, isn't it?

Fine. Very good. Well, we'll look forward to that!

 

I know it's been done to death.

So it has. So it has.

 

Entertainment seems to be a high value for you.

Yes, it is. If you take other things I've done, like being chair of English National Opera, there you've got lots of stimulating intellectual and emotional content, all the benefits that arts and culture confer in terms of imagination, enlightenment, empathy; but you also have entertainment, and getting as many people to a show as possible.

 

Is television an art form?

Of course! Is every element of television an art form? Well, is a pantomime in a theatre an art form? Possibly yes, possibly no. I don't make huge claims - some things are there purely for entertainment, and the news has a different function to a drama has a different function to a leisure show has a different function to a reality show…

 

How do you judge whether a TV programme is good?

Well, everybody would have a different point of view, and I'm not trying here to establish a set of criteria that I expect everybody else to sign up to - that's ridiculous - but I'd say that it's entertaining, it's informative and it has some positive effect on the people who watch it: it gives them some insight - it may have some bearing on how society works.

Here we're straying into beginning to define all the things that arts-and-culture does, which is something I'm very much involved with now…

 

You've received many plaudits, including a knighthood for services to broadcasting; but you've had some very fierce criticism. People have accused you of trivialising television, sexualising it, dumbing it down. Why do you think you provoke such strong reactions?

There are always those who denigrate popular television for whatever reason, and a certain sort of person was quite dismissive when I did shows like Ready Steady Cook and Changing Rooms and so on. But the main reason can be summarised in two words: Big Brother. It's a format I know quite a lot about, because I've produced it here and then at one point I was responsible for it around the world; and I've also written a book about it - Billion Dollar Game,2 available on Amazon for about two pence now it's eight years old. The book charts the outrage that the format first caused in most of the countries it was produced in. It's pretty stale and uncontroversial now - it just chugs along on Channel 5 quite happily.

 

Do you think people were better for having watched Big Brother? You've talked about TV having something of a social and moral purpose, among other things.

I will answer that question directly, but I'm first going to tell you an anecdote. When we did the first series, it was commissioned by the then director of programmes at Channel 4, Tim Gardam - something of an egghead, double first from Cambridge in [English literature], now principal of St Anne's College, Oxford. And he decreed that nobody was to refer to Big Brother as anything but an entertainment show, because if you started calling it a social experiment (which I never did, by the way) or espoused any other higher motives, you would be shot down in flames. It was intended to be a popular show that got viewers and raised commercial revenue for Channel 4 - which it did, in rather large amounts.

However, since you ask me, Big Brother was actually quite revealing about the society we lived in, and the attitudes of young people, and in particular I think - I wasn't even expecting it to do this but, if you think of it, the person who was the runner-up in series one was a lesbian, the winner of series two was gay, and in subsequent series one winner [had] Tourette's syndrome, one was transsexual -

 

And one was even a Christian!

God bless him! A nice Scottish Christian, wasn't he?

But [those others] were people who when they first appeared were demonised by the tabloid newspapers - and they won because the public discovered their simple humanity behind the stereotypes.

It's quite interesting how different cultures react to Big Brother differently. In the UK, the winners are normally the people who are most popular, most genuine - it's almost as if the people who vote are making a moral judgement. In America, the winners are normally the people who are most Machiavellian, because the Americans applaud them for playing the game to the best of their ability according to the rules. You're very lucky, because I very, very rarely talk about Big Brother now - not because I regret it in any way but because I stopped having anything to do with it six years ago and my life has gone on.

 

Now you are chair of Arts Council England, you are not so much an impresario as a custodian…

Certainly that. The public money the Arts Council distributes and invests needs to be invested wisely, transparently and successfully. So, if you were asking for a functional description, the chair of the Arts Council is the custodian of that money; but he or she does not take individual decisions.

Something I'm very concerned by at the moment is that we have a political consensus for investing public money into arts and culture but we don't have a political consensus as to why we do it. Now, it's fine to have different points of view, but I'm seeking to get people to gather around a general understanding of why we do it.

For me it's a sort of schema and it looks like this. It's got at its core the intrinsic value of culture and the way in which that gives us enlightenment, entertainment, happiness and fulfilment, and helps to develop empathetic citizens who understand other people's points of view and predicaments. Around that, you've got some other satellites, and I'll name three: society - I'm talking about the way in which arts and culture feed into health and social care, provide stimulation, opportunities and enlightenment to people in society who need help. Then, there's education, where arts-and-culture has a massive role. And then there's the economy - arts-and-culture is critical for our tourist economy, it helps regional regeneration, it helps develop talent that feeds through into the creative sector and it partly [det- ermines] how Britain is regarded abroad.

The Arts Council is responsible for investing more than £600 million a year in arts and culture, but local authorities invest north of £700 million, not including libraries, and they are under quite a lot of pressure at the moment. So, I go around the country trying to get them to regard arts-and-culture as an essential service. I tell them: It's about people's feeling of wellbeing, their quality of life, their sense of place and identity locally. It's about why somebody will want to come and live or work in your area, or to study in your university. It's about your tourist offer. It's about how you regenerate.

 

You also believe that philanthropy should play a bigger role in funding the arts -

Well, I just think it needs to, that's all!

 

Why would wealthy people put money into the arts?

Why do people give at all? For a number of reasons - and as long as the money is given, I don't really mind what their motives are. But here are some of them. People give because they feel they have an obligation to put something back into a society that has helped them succeed. People give because they want to feel good. People give because they want to belong to something and the thing they give to they're then involved in. People give because they like to see the actual utilitarian results of it: talent enabled, education delivered, new activities happening.

 

Do you think that the person who produces content - in television or the arts - has a moral responsibility to the person who consumes it?

Well, in television that is set down in law, in statute and regulation, so 'yes' is the answer.

As to the responsibility of the artist, I think I'd refer you back to what is the function of arts-and-culture in society. An artist will have his or her own motivation: they will want to amaze someone, enlighten them, put a particular point of view to them, entertain them, give them an insight - they will have their own definition of what their purpose is, and if there's no public money involved, go for it! But if there is public money involved, there needs to be public purpose, and that's when you go back to judging the inherent value of culture and the other things I talked about - or you can go back to the five goals of the Arts Council in our - Do you know we have a 10-year plan? We're three years into it.

It has five goals and they're quite simple. The first is about the excellence of the art (and there are various ways of judging that, from peer review and the response of audiences); the second is about reach, about how many people enjoy it; the third is that the arts-and-culture organisations we invest in should be well run and sustainable - in other words, they should have a future; the fourth is about diversity, because we want the arts and culture to reflect the whole of society; and the fifth is about children and young people specifically, and the art and culture they come into contact with.

 

Imagine that you could sit down for a conversation with Lord Reith, the founder of the BBC, who really developed the idea that broadcasting had a moral and social function. How do you think that conversation would go?

I've read two biographies of Lord Reith… Complicated man. Very complicated man. Not the simple guardian of our morals that we take him to be. But do you know something? If we had a conversation purely about principles, we'd be completely in agreement, because both of us believe in the BBC and its public purpose, both of us believe it's a good idea to have public investment in arts, culture, news, information and so on.

If, on the other hand, you showed him some of the television programmes that I made, some of them with public money, just the 30-year difference [means] he would find them baffling and possibly shocking.

 

The cultural commentator Norman Lebrecht has said of you that you're 'a cynical operator of no known values'…

That was charming, wasn't it?

 

How would you define your personal values?

That's a very difficult thing to ask someone - and your personal values are not necessarily a qualification for being chair of the Arts Council if you can properly ar- ticulate what the Arts Council is doing and why. (On the whole, there are only two occupations where people are called upon to espouse what I might call 'higher motives' in society: politicians and vicars. And they're frequently attacked for it, because they're human like everyone else, and to go around espousing splendidly high values the whole time - you know, it's a distinctly unBritish thing to do.) But it's a fair question and I'm not trying to avoid it, so let me tell you.

If you look at the things I've spent a lot of my time doing, some of them are TV shows the primary purpose of which was to entertain people - which I don't see as a particular sin, all right? But some of them - news, documentaries and other things - are more than that: they're an attempt to inform, challenge, educate - and those are things I believe in and like doing.

Beyond that, if you look at things I've done like, you know, making charitable donations, working for charities in various sectors - in education, raising money for a steam museum,3 in public health and obviously in arts and culture - what is that about? Why does one do that? Because one believes that one can enhance people's lives with - we could actually go very neatly to those three words 'inform, entertain and educate'. Not in any particular order.

It would be unfair of somebody to say that I hadn't been involved in those sorts of things or didn't care about them. I demonstrably do.

 

Biography

Peter Bazalgette was born in 1953 and was educated at Dulwich College. He studied law at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, gaining a third in 1976 (after serving as president of the university debating society the Cambridge Union in '75).

He joined the BBC News graduate training scheme in 1977 and reported for BBC2's Man Alive, but was soon (as she put it) 'kidnapped' by Esther Rantzen to be a researcher for That's Life!. In 1983, he was asked to produce Food and Drink for BBC2.

In 1987, he formed his own production company, Bazal, which created such shows as Ready Steady Cook, Changing Rooms and Ground Force. In 1990, he sold it to Broadcast Communications, which was itself acquired by the Dutch company Endemol.

As creative director of GMG Endemol Entertainment from 1998, he was responsible for shows including Big Brother (which he adapted from an existing Dutch series) and Deal or No Deal, both of which became worldwide hits. He was both chief creative officer of Endemol and chair of Endemol UK from 2005 to 2007, when the latter was sold for €3.2bn.

He sat on the board of Channel 4 from 2001 to 2004 and was deputy chair of the National Film and Television School from 2002 to 2013 and chair of English National Opera in 2012-13 (after eight years as a trustee). He was elected president of the Royal Television Society in 2010 and was made a nonexecutive director of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport in 2011.

Among other current business interests, he sits on the board of both ITV and the digital productplacement company MirriAd.

He was appointed chair of Arts Council England by Jeremy Hunt in 2012 and began his four-year term at the end of January 2013.

He is co-author of The Food Revolution (1991) and You Don't Have to Diet! (1994) and author of Billion Dollar Game (2005), and edited Egon Ronay (2011).

He was knighted in 2012 for services to broadcasting and is a fellow of both Bafta and the RTS.

He has been married since 1985 and has a daughter and a son.

This interview was conducted on October 11, 2013.

 

Notes

1. Barry Bucknell's Do It Yourself at its peak attracted seven million viewers. It was followed in 1962 by Bucknell's House, in which over the course of 39 weeks he renovated a house in west London.

2. Billion Dollar Game: How three men risked it all and changed the face of television (Time Warner, 2005)

3. He set up a trust in 1987 that raised £4.5 million to restore the Crossness Pumping Station, built by his great-great-grandfather Sir Joseph Bazalgette, the architect of London's Victorian sewer system.