Culture House Daily

Tony Hall’s new vision for BBC Arts: waffle, stale buns and chief execs

25 March 2014

I can’t remember the last time I turned to the BBC for cultural guidance. That’s not to say that the BBC doesn’t provide an extremely valuable public service on the arts. It does. It’s just I doubt it’s the public service they ever wanted it to be. For the BBC has become an absolutely fantastic bet-your-bottom-dollar benchmark for what not to see, listen to, go to or respect. It is the finest cultural mortuary we have. You’re wondering whether Jarvis Cocker has any creative juice left in him, just switch on BBC Boring – I mean, BBC Four. Spot him? You have your answer. The BBC is where once talented, once creative beings go to die. And they were all packed into one gaudy room for Tony Hall’s first major speech on the future for BBC Arts.

To be fair, Hall is to be saluted for at least trying to set out a new vision for BBC arts coverage. It’s just a pity that his vision lacked any vision whatsoever.


Viewing the world from a Royal Opera House box seems to have done funny things to Hall’s understanding of culture. You get very used to enormous public subsidies, very reliant on a bureaucratic mentality and very hung up on the idea that culture is synonymous with high art. You begin to think that this is where creativity resides. That’s the only way I can explain the bizarre idea that what he announced this morning was a ‘brand new vision’ for BBC Arts. Sure, if you consider eating a cheese sandwich one day and a ham sandwich the next a ‘brand new vision’, then this indeed was a brand new vision. But for anyone sane, the announcement was a mixture of waffle, stale buns and bureaucratic mess.

In short, the BBC will be making several semi-interesting new arts programmes (as they do every year). There’ll be ‘collaborations’ and ‘partnerships’ (as there have always been). They’ll be broadcasting performances live (as every other institution has been doing for half a decade). The Space will return. (You remember The Space. The online arts channel that no one watched.) Some bloke no one had ever heard of, Hall announced, would be become the new head of some department no one cared about. Exciting!

If he had stopped there, however, we would have gone home merely disappointed. But there were announcements in here that will actively harm the arts. The announcement that panjandrums like Nicholas Serota and Nicholas Hytner were to join the BBC (as head of a new ‘sounding board’ and chief executive respectively) is a bad new step that will further reduce the diversity of artistic opinion and further embed a cultural monopoly in the country. And isn’t it pretty amazing after all that’s happened over the past few years that Hall thinks the solution to the BBC’s arts coverage is to hire several more chairs and chief execs and directors and boards. A new vision? A new BBC car crash in the making, more like.

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  • Hexhamgeezer

    Strange to relate but the most enriching conversations I have ever had have been in the bars of the ROH or my local WMCs. Shame that this doesn’t permeate to those ‘higher’ boxes.

  • judyk113

    Talk about an Old Boys’ Network. Literally. An unbelievable scandal that Patten should have been able to appoint this man without so much as an interview or any form of open competition, and do exactly the same in recruiting Serota and Hytner. Not so much Jobs for the Boys, as Retirement Sinecures for the Boys.

    • Colin56

      The Whitehall network puts the old Etonian cabal to shame – the weak lily-livered denizens of Slough Grammar have nothing on the job-seeking missiles of Portland Place, White City and now – shudder – Salford.

  • Colin56

    Hall is a complete disaster as D-G and this is the second disastrous appointment by Patten in a row. the last thing the BBC needs is someone from a background at the Royal opera, where, as is stated here, huge state hand-outs are a way of life. To hall, there’s nothing that a new ‘sounding board’ or a couple of giant pay-offs won’t cure – provided that La Hodge at the deeded Select Committee doesn’t hear about it.
    Trouble is, the BBC is more transparent now, and, like the old warning not to let daylight in upon magic, daylight has been let in and we don’t like what we see. The excesses thus revealed conceal the amazing 45p / day value we get, especially in radio; and thus the BBC is terminally damaged.
    Best for ‘Lord’ Hall to pack his rictus grin and phoney new labour title and head for some foreign opera house where they do subsidies with out the populace tiresomely complaining about it. Best for Patten to step down and spend more time with his other jobs. Best for someone with an eye for the bottom line to take a long hard look at the BBC, and cut out all the waffle, the excesses, the ‘sounding boards’ and ‘creative spaces’. Best that person takes a long look at ‘W1A’ and view it as a documentary rather than a satire (satire often brings out hard truths). And best that someone is someone who wants to cultivate the BBC through great programming (both radio and TV) rather than drown it in corporate swaddling cloths. the rot set in with another ‘lord’ – John Birt.

    • post_x_it

      “head for some foreign opera house”
      He would struggle! The position he had at the ROH is actually pretty unique in its responsibilities, focusing purely on administrative duties. If he wanted to take over a major European house, he would have to be much more involved in the artistic side of things, which he left entirely to Elaine Padmore and Antonio Pappano at the ROH and therefore has no experience of. If he took over a US house he’d have to be extremely good at schmoozing and fleecing major sponsors and donors, since there are no public subsidies to rely on. His ROH experience is really not very transferrable.

      • Colin56

        So – are we stuck with him then?

    • anncalba

      Just one thing – there is apparently a plan to remake “Civilisation” – to appeal to young viewers. Says it all, really.

      • post_x_it

        Presumably it will be all about how dreary, deficient old Western civilisation has been saved and enriched by mass immigration from the third world.

        • anncalba

          More likely to be about how Tracey Emin is as important in the great shceme of civilisation as Michaelangelo, I expect.

      • Colin56

        “Apparently” – doesn’t really cut it as any sort of real indication of intent, does it? And some sort of Hollywood yoof remake would simply demonstrate the superiority of the original.

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