What Tony Hall Could Do Next

In BBC, Classical Music, Opera on March 27, 2013 at 4:50 pm

The BBC welcomes a new leader after Easter. Sooner than expected if the average term for a Director-General should be counted more normally in years rather than days, and foisted on the Corporation without interview or due process by that great panjandrum Lord Patten.

And what Lord Tony Hall of Birkenhead inherits is an organisation that often seems outdated, out of touch and out of its depth.

Like a gambler with a faulty or marked deck of cards, ‘Call Me Tony’ has already shuffled his management team. He’s shifted some errant executives around, followed Patten’s cue and appointed at will and symbolically renamed divisions as if the digital age had never happened.

Over the next few days, weeks and no doubt months the media will write about Hall’s intray, his first one hundred days – and let’s hope he surpasses that target unlike his predecessor ‘Incurious George’ – and dissect every word and action he undertakes.

His is an unenviable task. He is being heralded by the BBC’s inadequate spin doctors to anyone who will listen as the ‘great bright hope’, a man who will pull the BBC out of its creative mire and tackle the management malaise.

And if rumours are true Hall hopes to put right many wrongs with a war chest of £100 million which he is having skimmed off divisions like a layer of cream in advance of his arrival.

But money can only go so far. For years the BBC has singly failed to come up with a creative strategy and stuck to it. Granted, trying to come up with a single aim and purpose for an organisation that is splitting at the seams with television and radio channels, a morass of mindless entertainment fodder and a website with a voracious appetite is always going to be a problem.

But perhaps it should simply look to define itself by the original principles established by Lord Reith?

Inform. Educate. Entertain.

So on that basis then the BBC’s commitment to arts and culture should be at the centre and benefit from Hall’s chest of gold? Surely?

Currently the BBC’s commitment to culture is haphazard. History, art and literature seem to do pretty well but classical music seems to have hit an all time low in terms of love.

I think Christmas was the last time opera made it to one of the main channels, the Proms have been relegated bar the token appearance and attempts by the BBC to popularise classical music with such ideas as Maestro At The Opera aren’t so much misintentioned and misguided as simply offensive.

Even the recent and most excellent Written On Skin – possibly one of the most exciting and significant new operas for many years – has been recorded for transmission on BBC 4 at a later date. Why it wasn’t broadcast live escapes me.

So, given a blank cheque what could Tony Hall do?

What I am about to suggest isn’t a strategy or a manifesto but simply a few ideas. But none of them, I believe, are too far-fetched to achieve.

Naturally anything he does has to be seen as impartial – a great BBC word when it suits them – and therefore can’t be seen to favour his old friends on Bow Street. But nonetheless here is an opportunity for Hall to cure the dry rot at the heart of the BBC’s commitment to the arts.

And let’s be clear, this commitment isn’t about ratings. It’s about saying that quality – another BBC buzzword – isn’t only about the millions that watch, or about an increase in that other BBC marketing tool its appreciation score, but about standing by a set of principles set down decades ago.

Inform. Educate. Entertain.

First. A simple reversal. If rumours I have heard are true, this year the Proms will not feature at all on either BBC 1 or BBC 2 but be tucked away on BBC 4. I hope my friends in the BBC have got that wrong. I mean no disrespect to Richard Klein. I’ve met him plenty of times. I’ve enjoyed talking with him and hearing both his views and ideas as well as his frustrations, and admired his passion in the face of ever more harrowing adversity and cuts to his budget. But putting everything on his channel doesn’t make it a destination but rather an apology.

So first of all, put the Proms back on the main channels. Again I hear that there are some stupendous proms planned – not least Barenboim and the Berliners performing the Ring cycle – therefore the Proms needs to be actively celebrated for everyone to watch as well as listen.

The BBC might be surprised by the results. Music is one of the oldest forms of entertainment. If done correctly, classical music on television can be just as gripping and entertaining – yes entertaining – as a night at Glastonbury and far more dramatic than that manufactured and mind-numbing pap The Voice which cost the BBC £22 million.

Secondly take a more active role in live broadcast. I hugely admired Bayerische Oper’s live broadcast of Kriegenberg’s Götterdämmerung last year. While that was commercially sponsored, it’s a crying shame that the BBC has retreated from taking any part in the screens that are set up in major cities. I can’t believe the outlay was that much compared to a single episode of Strictly Come Dancing but wouldn’t it be marvellous to revisit that decision and again perhaps use them for the Proms – and not just the Last Night – but also strike deals with other arts organisations and help share the financial burden in some way?

And with the Proms adequately provided for perhaps the BBC could make a bold decision regarding opera? I believe the TV term for them is output deals so could the BBC sign an output deal – possibly the first of its kind ever – with all the major UK opera companies – ROH, ENO, ETO, WNO, Scottish Opera, Glyndebourne etc – and commit to broadcast one or even two of their operas in every season? It’s a bold idea and would take some planning but why not? As well as signalling a very concrete commitment to classical music on a par with the Proms, I am sure the companies in question wouldn’t balk at this new revenue stream. And it needn’t conflict with their existing commercial deals with cinemas as there are plenty of operas to go around. Additionally I’m pretty sure Parliament would like it too and in a concession to those poor schedulers they could be broadcast on BBC 2 and we could have some respite from more ‘bake offs’.

And what about The Space? It’s a smart idea and is being brilliantly championed by the likes of Susannah Simons – the only BBC executive it seems that has a real passion for classical music – but it needs more and longer-term investment. Originally a hurried afterthought for the London Olympics when the BBC realised it’s own cultural contribution was almost zero, The Space could and should play a greater role in supporting the arts – big and small – across the UK. And at the same time be a way to get to young people, that ever elusive audience.

Perhaps a deal with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and their excellent Night Shift and The Works series?

And finally how about prime time programmes that don’t patronise and aren’t presented by idiots? Get rid of ideas such as Maestro At The Opera and follow real musicians – players, singers, conductors – as they try and make a real career based on talent and passion. I like Simon Russell Beale on stage but I don’t want to be subjected to him – or others – pontificating about classical music. If the BBC can secure the ever wonderful Mary Beard then why can’t it make programmes about classical music presented by experts in the field? People who actually know what they are talking about without resorting to a script potentially not even written by someone with specialist knowledge themselves?

I admit this is – as I have said – my wish list. I’d like to come home and switch on my TV and have the opportunity to watch something that isn’t either a half-starved idea created as tick-box television or tucked away in the television equivalent of a gulag for the culturally inclined.

It will be interesting to see what Tony Hall does upon arrival at Broadcasting House.

I’m hoping that his ten or so years outside the BBC – and at Covent Garden – have removed any old loyalties that might lie dormant in his grey suited breast.

I’m hoping he has some bold ideas about the BBC’s future creative purpose and direction.

And most of all I’m hoping he will put the arts – and in particular oft-neglected classical music – back at the heart of what the BBC does.

Inform. Educate. Entertain.

  1. […] being made as a result of the Wagner bicentenary. I just hope that the BBC – with its newfound commitment to ‘culture’ – doesn’t wait another two hundred […]

  2. […] can’t the BBC ever get their commitment to classical music right?The latest blunder in quite a long line of missteps is their dedication of Saturday nights to […]

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