BBC director-general Tony Hall on Top Gear, the price of football and televised election debates

“We’ve got to keep working away at efficiency, and demonstrating that we are spending money properly”

Tony Hall, Baron Hall of Birkenhead, director-general of the BBC, is a man of passions. He’s transfixed by the beloved antediluvian tape recorder I place on the glass table in front of him as RT editor Ben Preston and I settle ourselves for our interview. “This is actually tape? It’s a cassette? May I look? This is amazing!”

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This leads to an explanation of his delight in sound systems generally. “At home we’re hanging on to one video player and one tape cassette player. I haven’t got a reel to reel, I’ve got new hi-fi equipment and I’m going to get something that will play vinyl again.”

Vinyl is a new love after a chat with musician and presenter Neil Brand “who’s done this wonderful series Sound of Song. We had this big launch for the Song and Dance season on BBC4, and Neil and I found ourselves chatting. [I asked him] ‘Where do you get really true sound?’ and he said [whispers], ‘It’s vinyl.’ ”

Clearly, Hall is a man who throws himself into his enthusiasms. (He uses the word “wonderful” a lot and from time to time clips the table with a forefinger to make a point.) He can’t wait to talk about Wolf Hall, BBC2’s acclaimed dramatisation of Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell novels. “I’ve been lucky enough to have all the episodes at home. I’ve been yomping through them. It’s fantastic. Mark Rylance is just extraordinary as Cromwell.”

Hall is genial and energetic, described in W1A, BBC2’s comedy pastiche of life in the jargon-rich BBC, as being the “king of the personal approach”. Will he appear in the next series of W1A? Emphatically “no!” he laughs. But he’s such a king of the personal approach, he spends “at least a day a week going round New Broadcasting House”, and frequently gets up for a quick stroll, prompted by a clever gadget-y bracelet on his wrist that tells him, via his smartphone, how many steps he takes every day. It’s a W1A scene just waiting to happen… 

“I’m very proud of this,” he tells us as he demonstrates this neat little toy. “I spend too much time sitting at my desk, so this monitors how much movement I do. I have a goal each day of doing 10,000 steps. I’ll show you… yesterday I did 14,930 steps. It tells me how long I’ve been idle or haven’t moved for… I look at it and think, “It’s lunchtime and I’ve only done 4,000 paces but I want to do 10,000 so I walk around the building, or go for a walk. It keeps me active.”

Hall, who took over the £450,000-a-year top job at the BBC in 2013 after the resignation of George “54 days” Entwistle following the Jimmy Savile, Lord McAlpine/Newsnight farrago, will need to keep his energy levels topped up during the coming months as the general election looms. First, there’s the knotty problem of the party leaders’ television debates.

He keenly wants the debates to happen. “This time round, the debates are going to be more important to democracy than last time. I don’t know anyone who can call this election, therefore the notion of hearing those who are competing for your vote being tested and testing one another, is much more important than last time. It seems to me to make absolute sense to have the involvement of the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru, the Greens and Ukip.”

By offering the Nationalists and Greens a role, he’s backing a concession that ought to tempt the Prime Minister to
take part, but at the risk of focused debate becoming a cacophony of voices. 

Would the BBC and other broadcasters really go ahead with an empty podium should David Cameron still refuse to take part? “There’s nothing in any of our guidelines that says you can’t ‘empty chair’ anybody in any debate. [But] where I want to get to is the point where all of the party leaders are taking part.” So he’d really proceed without the PM, the man who, depending on the outcome of the election, he might have to face next year in potentially sticky discussions about the BBC’s Charter Renewal and the licence fee upon which it depends?

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“I’m not saying we are going to empty chair, I’m not saying we aren’t,” he says, deftly pointing to his most powerful weapon but leaving it sheathed. “You have always got to do what is right on behalf of the people who pay for you.”