Interview of Arts Council Chair Sir Peter Bazalgette : Chairing the Arts Council may seem an unlikely role for the producer of Big Brother, but he’s thrown himself into the job with enthusiasm. In fact, has he gone native? In the end, it’s not so much about the art as the words. Sir Peter Bazalgette, multi-millionaire television producer and chairman of the Arts Council of England, has enough for everyone. ‘What was it like when I came here?’ he repeats, gesturing around the Arts Council offices. ‘My preconceptions were similar to other people’s, which is that, quite properly, the Arts Council is the careful spender of other people’s money, either the taxpayers’ or the lottery’s, therefore it is something of a bureaucratically heavy, box-ticking, process-driven organisation, and that’s what you hear from the bodies that are funded by it. I was chair of the English National Opera, and it was funded in part by the Arts Council …’
Baz, as he’s known in TV circles, is in his element: describing, organising, setting out his thoughts, almost as if pitching a concept for sale. Moments earlier, while having his photograph taken, he had provoked gusts of giggling from his comms team by lecturing them in his plummy voice on the link between finger length and sexual proclivities.
Tall and bony in his baggy pinstripe suit and black suede trainers, he seems equal parts Soho, City and the London Palladium.
‘… So I knew that. Then, when you come in here, you find a group of extremely passionate and intelligent people, whose main task and you could even say joy is talent spotting: enabling great things from creative people, responding to creative proposals, working with people across the country, finding the next generation of talent, and that’s rather inspiring – the other side of the coin from the same job I described.’
It’s a guileful gift for oratory that Bazalgette crafted 40 years ago as president of the Cambridge Union debating society and further honed at Esther Rantzen’s knee, where he learnt his TV craft working for the BBC.
Later, he prospered in independent production before making his fortune as the creative brains at Endemol, the Dutch giant that floated on the Amsterdam stock market after turning Big Brother and other populist series into worldwide hits.
Hence the predictable mutterings when Bazalgette emerged as the front-runner to chair the Arts Council last year. First the government cut its money, then it put in charge the man who brought us race rows, Jade Goody and TV bonking. It cannot be serious.
Of course, Bazalgette, the son of a stockbroker, is not in charge of the Arts Council, he is its two-day-a-week chairman, who heads a board that oversees a chief executive, Alan Davey, and his team. And he was always far more than a populist programme maker, as his business success and his stint at English National Opera have shown.
He is an engaging raconteur and a canny lobbyist, with a wife, two children and a big house in Notting Hill that is useful for networking. But an organisation such as the Arts Council, which dispenses over £700m a year of public money – £469m from government last year, £272m from the National Lottery – needs a figurehead who commands respect.
‘I chair the executive team, I liaise with government, I have to be an advocate for the arts,’ nods Bazalgette.
Does he set strategy? ‘I can but it is not something you do without the council, you do it with them and the executive team. But if you are talking about the strategic objectives, I have contributed to them in the last year.’
Those objectives – enforced by the government, which has reined in the cash it gives – include making all arts organisations that receive investment more efficient, more audience-friendly and more open to raising funds from business. The Arts Council, which supports many of England’s world-renowned museums, galleries, theatres and libraries, also has to wrestle with one fundamental problem: does it prioritise the high-quality/low-audience end of the arts spectrum, or reward those who successfully get bums on seats, thus proving that taxpayers’ money is finding a popular home.
Outsiders look at Bazalgette’s CV and fear bums. He is rather more cagey about it, arguing that we are at an interesting tipping point where barriers between the arts are breaking down, contemporary art stands at the forefront, and what it means to be British is a point of discussion, a dialogue stimulated by Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony for the Olympics and underlined by the cultural Olympiad. He says the Arts Council needs to spot opportunity.
‘Actually, public money has the objective of taking risks that wouldn’t otherwise be taken. Today’s outrage is tomorrow’s mainstream. Look at the two Turner Prize winners Grayson Perry and Steve McQueen. Perry is now a folk hero and McQueen is the director of the best movie in the world last year (12 Years a Slave).’
Sitting in the Arts Council’s modest offices in London’s Victoria, Bazalgette is an eloquent persuader. Now 61, he has softened the business edge that once made him an aggressive negotiator and adopted a manner that appears almost ecclesiastical in tone, often steepling his hands to make an erudite point or pouting to make a wry joke. Hunched and smiley, you could quite easily imagine him as a rather patrician, likeable bishop.
He certainly seems more approachable than his predecessor, Dame Liz Forgan, and he has a gift for presentation that has quickly won him friends in arts circles.
He spent his first year as chairman travelling England, attending events, making speeches, seeing everything the Arts Council supports, proving himself a loud enthusiast – a smart move when your appointment has been greeted with suspicion, and when some still believe the Arts Council is too London-centric. Just take a look at his Twitter feed, which celebrates what he sees, and where, in a no-nonsense, upbeat way.
But the travelling must cost the Arts Council quite a bit? He sees that coming. ‘Allegedly, the salary for a two-day week as chairman is £40,000, but I decided to take £30,000 as I knew I would have higher expenses as I wanted to travel a lot.’
Money is never far from the conversation when discussing the Arts Council. Set up after World War Two to revive the country’s cultural infrastructure, it has grown into one of the biggest arts funding bodies in the world, whose top recipients include the Royal Opera House, the Southbank Centre, the National Theatre, English National Opera and the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Who it backs and who it doesn’t has always caused grumbling, and whether it was intended as a permanent organisation or just a stopgap while Britain rebuilt is now the subject of debate, but Bazalgette is adamant it is vital because it defines who we are.
‘I concluded within three months here that a lot of people in politics and the civil service were in favour of funding the arts but few could remember why. So we’ve worked very hard in developing a holistic case in support of arts and culture. The creative industries do not have the influence in government and policy terms that engineering or car manufacturing has because they don’t speak with one voice. They are fashion and TV and radio and art and …’
His point is that it all now connects – Perry the cross-dressing potter gets an adoring audience in working-class Sunderland for his tapestries; McQueen, the video artist turned film director, is cheered onto the pitch at Tottenham Hotspur (his local team) after winning his Oscar. With each new generation, the old silos break down and the Arts Council can play its part in accelerating the entwining of arts, fashion, music and business.
‘Arts and culture are growing twice as fast as the national economy. They are the incubator of the creative industries.’
Yet if they are growing that fast, surely they don’t need taxpayers’ money? ‘No, the government has an umbilical connection to all parts of the economy, and if this is doing well, think how much better it could do with extra money.’
But America doesn’t have an Arts Council. In fact, lots of countries don’t. Why should we?
‘No, America doesn’t have an arts council but it does have the National Endowment for the Arts (a smaller body that dispenses around $150m a year) and a strong tradition of local contributions to the arts. Mike Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York and the new chairman of the Serpentine Gallery here, has done a remarkable amount of work on how arts and culture contribute to life in a place and why people might want to live or study there.’
In fact, the American predilection for donor-naming everything in the arts from libraries to lavatories is something organisations here can only envy – British givers just don’t want that kind of profile. But we are better at creating a mixed economy for the arts than many European countries, according to Bazalgette.
‘I remember asking the Scala theatre in Milan what it did about fund-raising five years ago and they didn’t know what that meant. They do now. In Germany they have always had a strong tradition of local support.’
The problem for many arts organisations here is that the government wants to keep reducing its spend – cuts that will have to be passed on by the Arts Council. In officialspeak it sounds small: a drop of ‘grant in aid’ of 1.17% in 2014/15 and 1.13% in 2015/16. But the Arts Council argues that it amounts to a 33% real-terms cut compared with 2010-11.
Yet, as Britain struggles out of recession, it’s hard to argue against the cuts. Bazalgette was touted as the cash-savvy appointee who would manage the shrinkage, improving links with business and helping organisations find other sources for funds.
In fact, he seems to have become a defender of art for art’s sake. In interviews he gave at the launch of Richard Wilson’s monumental sculpture Slipstream at Heathrow in April, it sounded as if he was warning government to stop thinking of art solely in economic terms.
He told The Times: ‘The reason we put public or private money into art is because of the intrinsic value of culture, by which we mean its ambition, its effect on people – that’s why we do it. There are other benefits, but don’t talk about them first.’
A few took this as a reminder to the latest culture secretary, Sajid Javid, the former banker and Treasury minister who replaced the disgraced Maria Miller, that money-first won’t work as a long-term approach. Has Bazalgette gone native already? Or is he simply keeping all his constituencies onside? And what of Labour’s pre-election demand for a less elitest approach to the arts?
The key is balance, he says. All Arts Council beneficiaries must increase the revenues they take from elsewhere. And many are already doing that.
‘Over half the income of larger arts organisations is commercial, while the Arts Council accounts for around 27%. I did a speech the other night and I said: « Tell me what percentage you think the Arts Council provides in these big organisations? » And they all thought it was more than 50%. Well, it ain’t.’
But he acknowledges that support from business is a challenge. ‘It fell off a cliff after 2008.’ Now, he says, it’s about educating bosses about what they can gain. He cites the benefits experienced by multinationals such as BP, which in effect buys esteem by backing cultural events, and by entrepreneurs who consistently support initiatives outside London, improving the local environment – vital if you are a regional employer that wants to attract talent to an area.
‘And there is a broader issue. Arts and culture are about our national life, the national conversation, and some companies want to contribute to that.’
He also believes the Arts Council must help to develop social enterprise investment – using commercial strategies for artistic and social ends, whether for profit or not. ‘It’s been pioneered in hospitals and prisons but we’ve been slow in getting this going in the arts.’
In short, finding new methods to spread the ‘investment’ are essential. He is self-deprecating about his record as a private investor in online ventures – ‘I invest in digital media startups and they have yet to pay back but that’s another story.’
He is keen, however, to use his experience to help the Arts Council find ventures that distribute art and culture in innovative ways. He cites The Space, a digital joint-venture with the BBC that will deliver art content to viewers, and Random Acts, a partnership with Channel 4 that allows artists to make their own short films for television, covering art, dance, animation music and opera.
The intermingling of Arts Council and BBC investment poses the question: at what point do these two publicly funded leviathans start duplicating each other’s work? Bazalgette has raised the issue of the BBC sharing its £3.5bn licence-fee income before, and argued that the corporation should work harder to partner with outside organisations. Some read that as a hangover from the days when he was rumoured to covet the director-general’s job. Did he?
He raises his eyebrows. ‘If you work hard enough, your name gets brought up, but I happened to be the producer of Big Brother, and I am not sure I was seen as a suitable candidate.’
So maybe he took the Arts Council chair just to improve his reputation?
‘If your implication is, as a non-executive chairman at age 61, I am looking for an executive role, which Tony Hall has just bravely taken on at the same age, well, no, I am not wanting to be DG.’
And do the Big Brother taunts still hurt?
He shrugs. ‘It is all part of the furniture now. In its day, it was a controversial programme, it was ground-breaking, but was it that shocking? I think it was criticised by regulators just once in 10 years. It was pretty tame stuff really.’
And, anyway, he ran the company behind the programme, he didn’t really produce it. ‘It was produced by a talented producer working with a talented team and commissioned by Tim Gardam at Channel 4, who had input. He is now master of an Oxford college, by the way.’
Meaning, it didn’t do his career much harm? Bazalgette just smiles broadly: ‘I had to take it on the chin.’
He is used to the brickbats – the Daily Mail still calls him ‘the man who took TV to the gutter’, as if doubly amazed a product of public school and Oxbridge could stoop so low. Yet he has always made plain that he wants to contribute to public service, often citing his great-great-grandfather Sir Joseph Bazalgette, the engineer who created London’s sewer system in the 19th century.
He even slips sly jokes about that into his proselytising. ‘The new city quarters where young people want to live, work and create companies need a soul as well as a sewer,’ he wrote in the Observer recently.
So where did he get his gift for chatty provocation? ‘Basically, I was brought up with two elder brothers and a sister, and it makes you quite assertive – you have to shout to be heard.’
Yet his father, he says, was pretty taciturn. His mother was a pianist. ‘I think my father’s father was a bit of a talker. He deserted his family when my father was two, though everyone was drunk and fornicating through the 1920s after the trauma of World War One.’
He says his love of discourse was developed by teachers at south London’s Dulwich College. One in particular had been a pupil of FR Leavis, the renowned literary academic. ‘Disciples of Leavis learned to be provocative – it was a very good teaching device. And I was encouraged to do public speaking.’
As for ambition, that was stoked by competition with his nearest brother, Vivian, who went on to head investment at M&G, the City fund manager. ‘Though I have to say I am not very comfortable doing this kind of analysis.’
Ever done therapy?
‘No!’ he shouts, grinning. Like many entrepreneurs, he mistrusts self-analysis, as if worried it might undermine his success. ‘I’ve never even been mentored.’
Well, that’s not strictly true, as he was spotted at the BBC by Esther Rantzen, who took him to her That’s Life show and set him on a path making thought-out, provocative, popular programming. ‘Yes, Esther was an influence – formidable, difficult. She liked assertive, bright people. She was very clever but had an element of the fairground about her, which is quite good, isn’t it?’
He has kept that in his own career, always adept at huckstering a crowd, developing programmes such as Ready Steady Cook – he’s a determined foodie – and Ground Force, while also lobbying for changes to legislation affecting independent production. Politicians enjoy his company, as he is far more outgoing and business-focused than most TV executives. Ever thought of being a politician himself?
‘Not really tempted,’ he says, drawing out the syllables. ‘I was happy with a media career. I am quite political, though, and I did campaign for independent production. I was also a non-executive for Jeremy Hunt when he was culture secretary.’
That role, advising the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, still makes certain newspapers twitchy. Some think Bazalgette is always motivated by personal ambition, and used his holiday home in Tuscany to lobby Hunt and Ed Vaizey, the minister for culture, for the Arts Council job. Did he?
‘No! There was a request from the Mail asking precisely when Hunt and Vaizey went to my house, or me to theirs and in which country. The press office was going to reply that: « People have lots of parties … » I said: « No, you can give a much better answer: never! »‘
He slaps the table and laughs out loud. Nothing, it seems, can get under his skin – he has a thick wall of humour as protection. And if he isn’t the most earnest or introspective of souls to have chaired the Arts Council, that may be a good thing. You want a cheerleader who brings cheer. Beneath it all, though, something clever is going on – I hope for the benefit of all of us.
THREE CHALLENGES FACING SIR PETER BAZALGETTE
Ensuring that arts and cultural organisations diversify their revenue streams.
Creating a national conversation emphasising the value of arts and culture.
Ensuring that arts and culture have as great a digital dividend as business.
BAZALGETTE IN A MINUTE
1953: Born 22 May. Educated at Dulwich College and Fitzwilliam College,
1977: BBC news trainee
1979: Researcher, That’s Life
1987: Sets up independent production company Bazal
1990: Sells Bazal to Broadcast Communications
1998: Broadcast Communications sells Bazal to Endemol
2002: Chairman, Endemol UK plc and non-executive director, Channel 4
2004: Chief creative officer, Endemol Group and deputy chairman, ENO
2010: President, Royal Television Society
2012: Chairman, ENO and knighted
2013: Chairman, Arts Council England and non-executive director, ITV