George Entwistle on improving the BBC, paying for big name talent and his love for Mad Men

In the full exclusive interview with Radio Times editor Ben Preston, the new director-general reveals his plans for the Corporation and talks about his own television passions

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George Entwistle on improving the BBC, paying for big name talent and his love for Mad Men
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Ben Preston

There was uproar in the Entwistle house when coverage of Chancellor Roy Jenkins’s 1969 budget overran. Tom and Jerry had been bumped off the schedule and six-year-old George was outraged. On behalf of his two younger brothers, he sat down to write a letter to the director-general of the BBC.

Some 43 years later, when he was applying for the job of running Britain’s most powerful cultural institution, Entwistle’s father, a lecturer, sent him that letter. “I had misspelt it ‘derector’,” he says. “My father, underneath, had written Broadcasting House, London, and then failed to post it - very typical of my dad.”

Sitting beneath the austere gaze of Lord Reith, the BBC’s founder, in his trendy burgundy meeting room in the corporation’s gleaming 1 billion New Broadcasting House, George Entwistle is affable and articulate. In the jacketless uniform of summer office-workers, he is at his most passionate when he talks of the Beeb’s enduring place in his own life and the nation’s.

By the age of 12, the BBC was firing his nascent fascination for international politics and culture each evening: “I would go to my bedroom and listen to Kaleidoscope and The World Tonight. I think my parents thought it was a bit strange. But these programmes laid a foundation…”

For Entwistle, the BBC is the heartbeat of his life. “There has barely been a morning - with the exception of holidays - since I was aware of what was going on in the world, that I haven’t listened to the Today programme. One of my earliest memories of my father is him shouting at Jack de Manio, who he disapproved of.”

Entwistle takes the helm after the BBC’s golden summer. It’s still basking in the global glow of brilliant Olympic coverage, a reinvention of Shakespeare’s history plays - The Hollow Crown - and critics swooning over Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of Parade’s End. But his mission is to ensure this is no last hurrah. And there’s no guarantee of success when cash is short, technological change is bewilderingly fast and the corporation has many enemies.

He is tasked by the man who appointed him, chairman of the BBC Trust Lord Patten, to restore creativity and improve the quality of the BBC s output by 20 per cent (“Yes, that was, a very precise number,” he admits). He must perform that conjuring trick while cutting budgets by almost a fifth. And then he must negotiate with the Government and convince people that the BBC deserves a new Charter to secure the licence fee and its very future after 2017. For the record, his reward for taking on the role is a hefty salary of £450,000 - but Mark Thompson’s was nearly 50 per cent more.

Entwistle, 50, is little known outside the BBC where he’s risen to the top in 23 years. So who is this insider chosen to be both our new national taste-maker and chief executive officer of a vast organisation with nearly 22,000 employees? And is he the right person to deliver on these three, daunting fronts of content, cuts and Charter?

For most of his time at the BBC he was a working TV journalist, fascinated by politics, international affairs and the arts, who came to edit The Culture Show and Newsnight. And in contrast to his cerebral and slightly remote predecessor Mark Thompson, he talks infectiously about the excitement of making programmes. In his first full day running Newsnight he recalls dashing back to the office from lunch at a Thai restaurant just in time to see the second plane hit the Towers. “It’s awful, in these tragic human events journalists can’t quite get the excitement out of their voice about how it felt.”

Then he was fast-tracked through a blizzard of executive jobs in current affairs and the arts, runninb BBC4, factual programmes and last year he was appointed head of television, or in the strange language of the corporation, director of BBC Vision.

But in this, his only print interview - I suspect he will not spend as much time courting the picadors of Fleet Street as those before him - Entwistle soon banishes any impression of a gilded ascent to the fourth floor.

He attended a private school, Silcoates, near the family home in Wakefield. But, after leaving Durham University, where he studied politics and philosophy, he was rejected by two BBC graduate training schemes. A holiday in Catalonia with a university pal, Tim Atkin, now a wine writer, Tim’s father Ron, a sports journalist and Barry Norman, RT’s legendary film critic, convinced him that journalism was the right path. “It was the first time in my life that I ever spent time with a bunch of grown-ups who absolutely loved what they did. They told brilliant stories and I thought, ‘Crikey, they’re making it sound like the best profession in the world! I fancy a bit of that.’”

Entwistle spent a lost year in a succession of dreary fill-in jobs - emergency Christmas sales at Laskys electrical store, temporary clerical assistant at the Department of Health and Social Security, processing pharmaceutical licence applications - while the rejection letters piled up. Eventually, days after flunking a second interview for a hi-fi magazine, the editor of its sister publication, Camera Weekly, gave him a job as a sub-editor. He spent five years at Michael Heseltine’s publishing company, Haymarket, without ever meeting the boss.

“You learn far more from the knockbacks,” says Barry Norman. “George was always very bright and charming. I’ve just written to him saying I’ll blackmail him about youthful indiscretions unless he looks kindly on my ideas for commissioning!”

An innovative BBC training scheme recruiting late-blooming talent changed everything. Within days he was on attachment at The World Tonight, his boyhood radio obsession, covering collapse of East Germany. Next came Panorama working alongside another hero of his youth, reporter Tom Mangold (“I couldn’t believe it”).

And it is the lessons learnt from his experience of day-to-day news and programme-making that helped win the top job and define his mission today. “The original letter I wrote as part of the application process said that I both love the BBC and at times find it an immensely frustrating place. It can feel - and this has been true the whole time I have been here - that the way the organisation is run is somehow slightly dislocated from the thing the organisation is for: outstanding creative originality and outstanding journalistic quality.”

For a moment he sounds almost evangelical, vowing to “go to war on... every bit of the design and the structure and management and every bit of the culture that isn’t optimised for that.”

 Yet Entwistle strikes me as a leader with a streak of steel who prefers to lead by example, winning small battles quietly rather than making rousing declarations from the battlements like another recent DG, Greg Dyke, or impenetrable ones like John Birt.

In his own career, Entwistle says he’s always made a deliberate effort to explain things clearly and avoid managerial jargon. At Newsnight he even held a “myth-busting” section in his weekly ideas meeting to stop inevitable office gossip that he “wasn’t interested in films on Northern Ireland or whatever” from ever taking root.

In which parts of Entwistle’s BBC will the viewer see the first blossom of new creativity? “I don’t want to answer that question because one of the things that doesn’t work with creative people is to identify some of them as laggards and effectively say, ‘I need you to be more creative.’ You can’t mandate creativity. My hunch is that there isn’t a single bit of the BBC that, in places, can’t do better.”

So what does he watch on TV? “I am an inveterate user of iPlayer - an amazing tool - but I like to try and watch television as it goes out, because it’s very important to stay in touch with what state of mind you are in at certain times, eight o’clock, nine o’clock…”

This autumn, he’s looking forward to another fabulous series of Strictly. Armando Iannucci’s The Thick of It “is state-of-the-art funny about coalition politics”. And there’s “corking drama” to come with a spy series called Hunted; The Paradise with Sarah Lancashire, which starts this week; and The Secret of Crickley Hall.

His own love affair with television drama was forged as a child watching Doctor Who as a family (“Jon Pertwee was my Doctor; I was a bit sceptical about the Tom Baker regeneration”). Married for 20 years to Jane, an illustrator, with a teenage son and daughter, he knows creating “television occasions” when families gather again around the box the is the only way of attracting huge audiences as the march of tablets and mobiles gathers pace.

Entwistle is as partial to a box set as the next time-pressed metropolitan executive. “The Wire would probably be in my top five, certainly my top ten all-time favourite television dramas. I used to watch four or five hours of it a night at the lowest point of my junkie habit. The worst night, I started at nine, finished at 3am. Success! Absolutely gorgeous! Totally wasted the following morning, didn’t know which way was up.”

He talks with precision and zeal about drama that allows characters to develop: “I’m devoted to Mad Men [which he brought to BBC4]. One or two episodes in series three and four are as close to poetry that it’s possible for television to come… I think Parade’s End is in that class. There were moments in the first series of The Hour, episode five, that were as good.”

He wants more Shakespeare to follow the “astonishing” Hollow Crown series. He is deeply proud of a success that some believe won him the top job - but anxious to share the credit because radio and television are “absolutely team games.”

An admirer of BBC4’s Danish imports The Killing and Borgen, he wishes the BBC had nabbed Homeland rather than letting it go to Channel 4. Budgets, he insists, weren’t to blame.

What of the challenges facing the BBC? The financial muscle of Sky, which dominates sport, is now routinely poaching stars made by the BBC like Ruth Jones, Steve Coogan and even Sir David Attenborough?

Entwistle is determined that every penny of the £145.50 licence fee should be seen to be spent carefully and efficiently. “We are very good at finding new people. We put them on the telly, we turn them into something remarkable relatively quickly. The rest of television thinks, that’s a nice shortcut, we’ll take that piece of talent away. We should fight to hang on to the people we love… but we should never bankrupt ourselves to keep them because that’s not what we are for. We should keep on looking to find the next generation.”

Isn’t money even more of a problem for sport? “While I am director-general, the BBC will carry on having a serious commitment to sport. But look at the latest BT/Sky Premier League deal, that comes in at about £6.5 million per football game. We are simply no longer in that class.”

Instead, he says, the success of the Olympics offers new playing fields. “Look at growing interest in women’s sport and what opportunities might there be for us in the future as different sports come to the public’s attention. Women’s sport could be a real opportunity for the BBC.”

And he’s already looking to repeat the Olympic success of live red button channels at Wimbledon. “When you’ve got amazing content, how do you make sure you get as much of it as possible to your audience in as uninterrupted a way as possible? Perfect challenge for the next Wimbledon.”

Only when asked about Sky Arts does Entwistle sound waspish. “It’s not giving BBC4 a run for its money... Make the good popular. I don’t have a passion for creating tiny niche stuff that only incredibly small numbers of people see. If you’re going to do arts, aspire to half a million people watching, not 5,000!” The future of BBC4 - despite cuts that threaten its eclectic programming - will be safe on his watch, he insists.

What about the Diamond Jubilee River Pageant, which he was responsible for broadcasting? Entwistle takes it on the chin: “It’s important to say our coverage was a disappointment, particularly making factual mistakes as we did. That’s not what the BBC is about.”

Entwistle wants to lead a risk-taking BBC with the courage of its convictions. Citizen Khan, the sitcom about a Muslim family that sparked criticism from the community leaders it pokes fun at, made him laugh. “The speed of response on Twitter could talk you out of doing anything in this day and age and it’s absolutely critical that great, bold decisions are made and we support them.”

Jeremy Paxman noted in Radio Times this year that when empires know their time is short they start erecting monuments to themselves. He was talking about the British in New Delhi but referring to the splendours of New Broadcasting House. For Entwistle, this grand new home for 6,000 staff is a statement of confidence in the BBC’s future. A place where small boys can write to him for years to come.

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