At 62, Tony Hall is the oldest man – there still hasn’t be a woman – appointed director-general of the BBC. He was seen as the wise head needed to help the corporation recover from the Jimmy Savile crisis – with an outsider’s eye after 12 years running the Royal Opera House, and the inside knowledge gained from his previous 28-year career at the Beeb.
Now, three months into a job that claimed his predecessor after only 54 days, he’s fielding questions from RT readers. Hundreds of you seized this first chance to put him on the spot. He promises action over everything from those annoying squished credits at the end of programmes to muttering actors and the future of BBC4.
Bring back the Breakfast presenters from Manchester to London! They have no one to interview except each other.
Vanessa Hayward, Hurstpierpoint, W Sussex
I love that the Breakfast news programme in Salford is working alongside Radio 5 Live, and alongside science and children’s. It feels a really exciting place to be… having a chunk of the BBC reflecting what is going on outside London and taking a different perspective. I was brought up on the Wirral. We take money from everybody, so we should make sure that the whole of the UK is reflected. I disagree with people who say we should bring Breakfast back. I like the fact that it, and 5 Live, feels that it’s away from the superstate of London and the South.
Squashing credits into unreadable sizes at the end of a programme shows total disrespect for those taking part in the production. It also disregards any interest the viewer has in the actors, producers, directors and so on.
Janet Hooles, via email
Yes. Well, we’re changing it. It’s the curtain call. You want to make sure that the creative team get their proper bow. So we have got a new way of doing it, starting right away.
Are all your sound engineers 25? Haven’t you got any 55-year-old ones who realise that it can be difficult to hear programmes because of background music, especially nature documentaries or dramas?
Richard Andrews, Liverpool
You are balancing people’s needs as they get older – which, as someone of my age, I completely appreciate – with the creative need of a director to put in music or other sounds that help to make the drama or the programme more real and vital. Danny Cohen [director of television] has been going through this with executive producers to try to get this better, and I think the complaints are much, much reduced.
I don’t want to sound like a grumpy old man, but I also think muttering is something we could have a look at. Actors muttering can be testing – you find you have missed a line… you have to remember that you have an audience.
Does the BBC listen enough to viewers?
Helen Williams, Bradford, West Yorkshire
What impresses me, going round the place, is that people at the BBC do respond to feedback nd think very carefully about what they are doing. People say, “Oh, the BBC can be arrogant…” Actually, I find it’s an organisation that thinks more carefully than almost any other.
There is passion inside the organisation and a real passion outside. People don’t have an ambivalent relationship with the BBC, they feel phenomenally strongly about it – and that’s good. But it also means you get into tussles and debates that other organisations wouldn’t get into.
The occasional vox pop can be illuminating, but they seem to be obligatory these days – as does moving them around the country, however irrelevant the location is to the story.
Prof Christian J Kay, University of Glasgow
You want to use vox pops or studio interviews with care. They have got to add something to the storytelling. Simply repeating what you have already said isn’t good enough. But we know that people want to feel that “People like me, voices like me” are on our airwaves. The BBC needs to reflect this extraordinary country, so the more we can get away from London and the South East in terms of voices the better. But I can see the point the professor makes.
What was your childhood inspiration?
Mark Abbot, Bristol
Kenneth Clark’s  series Civilisation was one. It gave me a love of painting and of going around Europe looking at churches, galleries and museums. And when I was a kid I was interested in astronomy and I bought a telescope because of The Sky at Night’s Patrick Moore.
Do you think ratings indicate the success of a programme?
Sophie Graci, Ashtead, Surrey
They can do. Cynically, people would say it is all about ratings – but I think what the BBC has got to show, and I believe this passionately, is that we can do great things and make them popular. And you start that way round: great things that we want to make that then become popular. That means understanding your audiences, what they want, the mood that they’re in and what they want from programmes.
Strictly Come Dancing, for example, is an astonishing programme, and even more wonderful now it’s got Darcey Bussell. I just love making the great popular and making great programmes.
What have been your priorities in the first three months in your new job?
Louise Hillman, Brighton
I have been doing three things. One is a day-and-a-half each week, getting out there among programme-makers, which is inspiring and enthusing. When I was at the Opera House, on bad days I would go and watch a rehearsal and come back feeling inspired. That’s what it’s all about. I love it.
Secondly, getting a top team together.
Thirdly, thinking about how we position the case for the BBC and public service broadcasting and where we want to go. I think the BBC has looked in on itself over the last while – understandably with the crisis it has been through – but now is the time to say, “You know what? By 2022 – our 100th anniversary – the BBC has to offer as much to the British public, if not more.”
How much higher can the licence fee go in times of austerity?
John Chell, Loughborough
That’s a very difficult question. Our task is to prove to people that you really are getting great programmes, really good value. I know that £145.50 at a time when people are really feeling the pinch may seem like a lot, but actually it doesn’t work out to be a great deal when you look at the rate per day. What is really satisfying, but I say this with no sense of complacency at all, is that the satisfaction from the BBC, with what we do, and with the licence fee, is growing.
I hope we can build on that over the next couple of years and get people feeling that they are getting even better value from the licence fee. So the number one aim is to get more people to come to more of what we are offering.
I am a pensioner who now has to cut back by relinquishing Sky Arts 2 because of inflation eating into my income and savings. Why can’t we have more culture, real music and all the arts on the BBC? Why does the BBC have to compete with inane commercial channels?
Janet Bailey, Tresillian, Cornwall
I love that person! A person after my own heart. I am a passionate believer in the arts and culture. I saw it last year when I was chairing the cultural Olympiad – the BBC’s role in that was crucial, not just in recording things that were going on and bringing them to a bigger audience, but also in helping arts organisations to do things that can reach a bigger audience. So, expect something on arts and culture that raises its profile within the BBC.
Music should absolutely be in the DNA of the BBC, like news is, like drama is – we need to do more to draw attention to the range of music that the BBC provides.
Will the BBC produce more of Shakespeare’s plays, like The Hollow Crown on BBC2 last year, or classic plays by George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde or Anton Chekhov?
John Dakin, Dunstable, Bedfordshire
I’ve got some ideas, but our drama is in great form. Just look at the Baftas. On Shakespeare, all I will say is – with an encouraging smile – that is very interesting. I want to work with other companies outside the BBC in getting things aired – but again, I hope to say a bit more about that come the autumn.
Why is opera almost extinct on BBC2? When it is done, it’s a staged production televised, which I find unimaginative.
John Dakin, Dunstable, Bedfordshire
That’s a lot to do with cost. I wouldn’t knock the straight transmission of operas, but embellished with interviews with the cast and directors to bring them alive. Remember that not everyone is lucky enough to live at the end of a Tube line to get in and see these things.
What about radio?
Linda Fordham, Oxford
The great unsung hero or heroine in all this is radio drama. Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility is coming on Radio 4 shortly. I like Anthony Trollope, and we’ve got The Barchester Chronicles starting next year. I love the intimacy of radio drama. I listen on my iPod or my phone a lot to things I’ve downloaded. Sometimes on my commute I will put on a drama that takes me away from what I’m doing.
On my iPod I also have a lot of Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time, which my daughter and I both share a complete passion for. You take three academics and conjure up something amazingly difficult and make it comprehensible – no one else is going to do that. It’s brilliant.
It does lead me to think about the BBC being, in radio, the home of the spoken word. And whenever I travel – and I did a lot with the Opera House – you find a lot of people telling you, “Oh God! BBC radio’s so wonderful to listen to.” The current affairs programmes or the dramas or the documentaries on Radio 4. There is something here, which I am currently exploring, about building what we do globally around this sense of the spoken word.
What would you have as your desert island television series or box set?
Rachel Howard, London N22
David Attenborough. I’m a huge fan. He has taken me places and made me think about things I otherwise wouldn’t think about.
BBC4, the channel with the highest viewer satisfaction figures and a string of awards to its name, has had its budget cut, reducing it to arts, documentaries, repeats or subtitled foreign dramas like The Killing. Is it because BBC4 viewers are disproportionately older and middle class? Why punish success?
David Butcher, RT deputy TV editor
I’ve been here three months and I’m coming towards the end of the listening and finding-out phase. So I haven’t punished success. I think BBC4 does a fantastic job. What we are doing, and I will have things to say about this in the autumn, is looking at BBC2 and BBC4 – how you can run them with an independent focus and with both having their own sense of what they are, but together in the sense that we should be thinking about what each is doing and how you can work in a complementary way without losing the qualities of either. I don’t want BBC4 being narrowed down.
Will the BBC stop frightening women with savage dramas like The Fall and Luther? Will a woman ever be able to sit in front of a BBC drama and not see grotesque representations of sexual violence and sadism?
Alison Graham, RT TV editor
This needs an enormous amount of real care. It’s good that, countering The Fall – which I thought was absolutely outstanding and compelling drama – you’ve got The White Queen, which has a different feel for audiences… You are balancing what motivates writers, directors and a creative team against the feeling that’s all that there is.
I thought that episode two of BBC2’s The Politician’s Husband [which had an anal rape scene] was actually handled well. I felt there was enough warning around it. And, most importantly, dramatically, I felt it worked. It didn’t feel spurious or cynical.
Match of the Day or Test Match Special? Test Match Special.
Glastonbury or Glyndebourne? The Royal Opera House!
Jeremy Paxman or Jeremy Clarkson? Erm, Paxman. But I like Jeremy Clarkson enormously. This is really putting me in a spot!
The Fall or Broadchurch? The Fall.
The Archers or EastEnders? EastEnders.
Radio 2 or Radio 1? Radio 2.
Puccini or Verdi? That’s almost impossible! Verdi. Must be. Don Carlo.
Today or Breakfast? I start with the Today programme. But Breakfast is very good.
Fawlty Towers or Yes Minister? Has to be Fawlty Towers. The most embarrassing things in the world are
in Fawlty Towers.
Robert Peston or Stephanie Flanders? How can I face them? They’re both brilliant!
Where do you get your copy of Radio Times? Mostly I buy it in Waitrose.
Tony Hall answers Sophie Raworth’s questions on The Andrew Marr Show, Sunday BBC1