A lot of eyebrows must have shot up when the BBC announced the name of its new director-general – the white knight who, in theory at least, will charge to the rescue of distressed Auntie. For one thing, Lord Hall of Birkenhead is a peer – the first to lead the BBC (even Lord Reith was plain Sir John when he did the job). For another, he comes from running the Royal Opera House, not exactly famed for attracting punters from every social stratum. How do 11 years in that elite establishment prepare you for masterminding an organisation that must reach out to everyone in Britain? And thirdly, as plain Tony Hall he was turned down for the DG’s job in 1999. What’s changed?
The answer is pretty much everything. In 1999 Hall was known as an efficient but slightly grey backroom-boy who ran the BBC newsroom. When he made his unexpected flip into the world of preening divas, he blossomed. The Royal Opera House was in a mess, financially, artistically and politically. He sorted it out brilliantly. His reputation as a steady hand on the tiller stems from then.
He also revealed a breadth of interests unsuspected in a man who had written tomes about coalmining and nuclear politics. He revelled in the complex challenge of staging
operas and ballets involving dozens of highly strung performers, like tempestuous soprano Angela Gheorghiu. If you can handle her moods, then Jeremy Paxman is a pussycat.
Yes, ticket prices remained astronomical – 200 and upwards on starry nights. But Hall cleverly found ways of opening up the place. He led a high-tech revolution, with productions beamed live to cinemas around the country.
Three years ago, he took on a task that stretched him further: pulling together the plans – among them, towing an iceberg from the Arctic to Cornwall – for the Cultural Olympiad. It was critically acclaimed and hugely popular. And it made Hall’s name as a man who could present showbiz with style and highbrow arts with pizzazz.
That, and his 25 formative years in news journalism, is what Hall brings to the job of DG. Plus the fact that, although he knows the BBC inside out, he’s spent a decade on the outside looking in. Distance doesn’t always lend enchantment, and many observers now think the BBC’s managerial problems will be more objectively diagnosed.
Hall is probably a man who listens to Radios 3 or 4 by choice, 2 or 5 with cheery regularity, and 1 and 6 out of a sense of duty. He is 61, after all. But he’s keenly aware of what Louis MacNeice called “the drunkenness of things being various” – that there are 60 million people out there, with 60 million different ideas of what they want from the BBC. Under Hall, the Corporation won’t suddenly be clearing the Saturday-night TV schedules for deep, dark Chekhov or interminable Wagner. He knows that ratings matter politically. Why should everyone pay the licence fee if only a minority enjoy the BBC’s programmes?
But he might well encourage network controllers to feel less apologetic about appealing to intelligent middle-class audiences. Conversely, he might remind them that if their commercial competitors make shoddy shows or hire crass, talentless presenters, there’s no mandatory requirement for the BBC to follow suit.
Anything else? Well, an obsessive interest in Newsnight may help to survive his first two months.