THE ANDREW DAVIDSON INTERVIEW: Tony Hall - The former head of BBC News proved a safe pair of hands in the Birt era and was looking like future DG material. So why take a drop in salary to be the fifth boss in five years at the Royal Opera House, the 'dirt

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The former head of BBC News proved a safe pair of hands in the Birt era and was looking like future DG material. So why take a drop in salary to be the fifth boss in five years at the Royal Opera House, the 'dirtiest job in the arts'? Could he be star-struck?

There are some jobs in life you love, and some you hate, and some you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy. And then there's running the Royal Opera House. If you were drawing up an MT list of worst executive jobs to take on over the past decade, it would be pretty near the top. Consider the constants: vicious backbiting, full-on media glare, continual near-bankruptcy, unclear lines of command, a horror of conventional management methods, politicians sticking their oar in, hosts of volatile artistic types venting their spleen ...

Sounds like the BBC? Well, in parts, which may explain why the ROH's latest executive director, Tony Hall, feels he's got the experience to whip this particular viper's nest into submission. He spent nearly 30 years at the Beeb, latterly running BBC News as John Birt's right-hand man. He has not a day's experience of arts administration but knows plenty about resistance to change, star egos and tantrums. At the BBC, he handled it all with steely good humour, always the 'upbeat man' as he forced through innovations. Here in Covent Garden, though, I get the impression that he is still feeling his way.

'Well,' he ponders, 'people did say to me when I took this on: 'You realise what you are letting yourself in for?' But when I came in I found very committed people wanting to do excellent things, committed to making this place work, and they are producing fantastic work.'

He says it almost with a note of surprise. We are sitting in his third-floor office overlooking the piazza behind the opera house. Outside, where workmen are assembling the big screen for that evening's open-air broadcast of Verdi's Rigoletto, rain is beginning to fall. The weather is bad luck, says Hall, it could depress crowd numbers for the opera, beamed live from the stage inside. He needs the big screen events to work. He wants to take them round the country - if he can find a suitable sponsor. It's part of his mission to increase access to the ROH's work.

He pulls a face, then, like the sun emerging from cloud, his good mood returns and he is beaming again. Hall likes to manage with a big smile. He focuses on the positive and talks about teams and fun and wanting people to 'flower'. He speaks fast and fluidly, part of his enthusiastic rush, and is so thoroughly nice that you wonder where the edge is.

He is also thoroughly undistinctive, one of those men who, if you bumped into him on his commuter train in from Henley, you would barely remember: greying sweep of hair, pale brown eyes, medium height, slim-shouldered, er ... Underneath, of course, he is far tougher than you'd ever realise.

He must be to have forced through the radical changes he implemented for Birt at the BBC. Merging television news and current affairs, instilling financial disciplines, turning journalists into managers, making the managers accountable for what was spent. To outsiders it seems barely consequential, no more than any other media business does; to those inside the BBC, these were seismic events that shook the institution to its core.

For a time, many BBC producers despised Hall's changes and his petty efficiencies. Now the dust has settled, there is more grudging acknowledgement of what he achieved. He may not have wowed the crowds, but he got things done. It was that efficacy, and the fact that he seems pretty good with people, that persuaded ROH chairman Sir Colin Southgate to ignore candidates with conventional arts backgrounds and instal Hall instead when the previous executive director, Michael Kaiser, left 12 months ago. Kaiser lasted only two years - a success in ROH terms. Hall will need all his skills to survive in what the Sunday Times recently called 'the dirtiest job in the arts'.

Or will he? There is a school of thought that Hall has made the move at rather a smart time. He's got a fantastic, newish building, part of the pounds 214 million redevelopment of the Covent Garden site. New performance spaces, new access routes. And inside, a clearer hierarchy is in place: slimmed down boards, less input from influential fundraisers, an easier-to-understand system of supremos for music, ballet and opera spinning off the executive director. Kaiser, an American arts administrator with a heavyweight CV, had steadied the ship and put some long-term planning in place. The books are balanced, the reviews for this seasons' productions are generally great. There is an undeniable buzz about the place.

And yet, what does Hall know about running arts? And isn't it a smaller job than heading a considerable chunk of the BBC? News at the BBC turns over pounds 300 million, the ROH a paltry pounds 51 million - pounds 23 million raised from the box office, pounds 8 million from fundraising and sponsorship, and pounds 20 million from the Arts Council. Hall, on nearly pounds 250,000 a year at the Beeb, is believed to have taken a substantial cut in salary to head the ROH. 'Yes, I did take a salary cut,' he smiles, 'and took a large decrease in benefits and left a fantastic pension scheme.'

And he is not even what we would understand as proper boss of the place. The directors of music, opera and ballet do not 'report' to him. He doesn't appoint them, can't sack them - he facilitates.

So why did he come? 'Because I couldn't not do this job,' he says. 'I love this place, I love opera, I love ballet. This is something I really wanted to do, and I believe in working for an organisation I can commit myself to. It's just something I really wanted to do.'

And he repeats it with enough positive force to convince, for now. Sure, he had been passed over in his application to succeed Birt as director-general of the BBC, but he could have stayed, he says, and worked with the man installed, Greg Dyke. Others guess that the ROH is Hall's stab at the big time, a brave leap out of the cocoon of the BBC into a far tougher world: it may be a snakepit at the best of time - five bosses in five years to 2001 - but running the ROH gets you noticed. He'd acquired a taste for it on the board of the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, which he chairs. To be the man who turned round the ROH (even if, in part, you're taking credit for changes that others put into place before you) might make up for any salary shortfall.

And perhaps most pertinently, Hall is a music nut, with a vast collection of CDs. Those who worked with him at the BBC say he was forever popping into HMV or Tower on his way to meetings in town, always coming out with something in a bag. When he insists he couldn't not do the job, his friends say, he's telling the truth.

That's why part of him seems like the boy who's inherited a sweetshop - bouncing round his office, telling me about the first nights he has been to, and the modern dance he's getting into, and the singers and the ballerinas and the choreographers and the directors. The people! He can't believe his luck.

Just occasionally, you'd guess, Hall's more sober side flashes him a warning: like when he tells me how everyone's been so good to him; Jeremy Isaacs, the old ROH boss, has been giving him advice ... He sees the flicker of worry cross my face.

Yes, yes, he says, Isaacs, one of the stars of The House, the famous fly-on-the-wall documentary about the ROH's painful management problems made by the BBC. He cuts off my next question by saying, great series, but, um, well, put it this way, the first thing he did when he got the job was say 'no' to a couple of documentary makers who wanted to get inside the doors again. And you can bet he did it, just as he listened to Isaacs, with a very big smile.

Southgate, former boss of Thorn EMI and architect of the many recent changes to the ROH's management structure, says Hall will be a success because of this ability with people, as well as his organisational nous. Southgate also makes it plain that appointing Hall is a deliberate break with convention, part of the drive to 'de-toff' the institution and move it away from run-of-the-mill arts administration.

'The quality that Tony brings,' says Southgate, 'is that he is very open, and when you are open with artistic people, they respond. What they don't respond to is someone just saying no, and shutting the door. Tony is open with everybody.'

And he knows about pressure. Combining ballet and opera companies in one set-up is a volatile mix (the advantage is that the shared costs save money), but compared with running BBC News - where you are the prime target for politicians and media rivals digging for bias, and whipping boy for the egos of presenters, producers and governors - it's almost straightforward. Another who was grilled by the ROH's headhunter about Hall's suitability remembers he just cited a list of names: 'Kate Adie, Jenny Abramsky, the newsreaders ... if Tony could cope with that lot, the opera house would be no problem!'

Hall has always been a good mixer. You can put it down to his early Liverpool roots, and his shift from school to school, following his father's career in banking. His grandad worked for Cammell Laird, his dad for Martin's Bank, 'like Captain Mainwaring in Dad's Army,' he grins. There the comparisons stop. Hall's father started as a bank clerk in Tranmere but ended as a regional director of Barclays in the Home Counties. Ambitious and hard-working, he moved the family from Birkenhead to the Potteries, Derby, Birmingham, then back to the north-west. Hall was the oldest of three kids - he has two younger sisters - and always the bright one who made friends quickly, never stood out too much, in each new school he went to.

His father, who died only recently, was particularly keen for them all to do well and move up the social ladder. 'He hadn't been to university and he was passionate we should all go,' says Hall. 'He was obsessed by learning. We would always have number games and quizzes when we drove anywhere in the Morris Minor.'

Balancing that, Hall also had an extended family on his mother's side, 'a good noisy bunch, lots of aunts, warm and funny'. Holidays were spent in the Peak District and on the Wirral. It is tempting to think he got just the right amount of drive and confidence from both wings.

He was bright enough to get grants to attend posh schools in Birmingham and Birkenhead, and was the first in his family to go to university: Keble College, Oxford, to read PPE. There he directed plays, entered student politics, edited Isis magazine. You can imagine Hall, the gregarious over-achiever, was almost too keen for his own safety. He declined his father's entreaties to go into banking and instead strolled into a plum graduate trainee spot at the BBC. Hundreds apply; Hall was one of six selected. It would have been hard to turn him down.

At the Beeb - 'terribly bureaucratic, first thing you did was decide which pension scheme you wanted to join and then sign the Official Secrets Act' - he worked first in radio. He was posted to Belfast as a reporter in 1974, where he learned that 'whatever you say or do, it matters that you get it right, because lives are on the other end of it'. He worked on Radio 4's The World Tonight, The World at One and Today. He moved into television via New York, worked on Newsnight, helped set up the Six O'Clock News, and edited the Nine O'Clock News at the age of 34.

As his career progressed, he gained a reputation as a safe pair of hands with an unflappable presence. Even so, Birt surprised a few people when he picked him in 1987 to run the newly amalgamated television news and current affairs. It was, Hall admits, a huge job for which he was hugely inexperienced.

'John brought in formal disciplines of agendas and budgeting and financial controls - it was all new. I had not done salaries or anything like that. I'd been through the whole of the Falklands War on Newsnight and no-one had mentioned budget to me. Whatever we wanted, we got. John just thought we would learn from what he was doing. It was probably the most traumatic part of my life.'

Not least because Hall was in charge of many of his own mentors. Some were livid, and many still accuse him of forcing through change that permanently damaged BBC morale. Yet Hall developed a resilient carapace, always keeping up a jolly front, rarely losing his temper. It was a facility that angered some even more.

'He was just amazingly good-natured,' says Linda Anderson, his former assistant at the BBC. 'When really pushed he could get cross, but he is normally just cheerful and positive. He likes having fun, and wants people to have fun with him, but when it comes to the tough decisions he will take them, even if it makes enemies. When you sack journalists, they remember for ever. He knows that. But the thing about Tony is that he never looks back and never holds a grudge.'

Did he ever lose friends? Hall considers it. 'No, that's important to me. People get angry, and there was a famous staff meeting in Studio B in Lime Grove where we got slammed into and the videos were sold in Private Eye and all that, but the thing that is interesting is that it makes you used to high-profile change. It was management training I got by default.'

He did bring in others to help. John Hunt, professor emeritus of organisational behaviour at London Business School, worked with Hall and says he was struck by his low-key and convivial manner. 'He gets things done in a quiet, non-theatrical way. He is very good at seeing the vision and leading a team towards it.' That, says Hunt, is where Hall differs in character from Birt. 'While not an extrovert, he's far less introverted. Just watch him working the crowd at an Opera House first night.'

Nevertheless, Hall upset many who accused him of putting ambition before old loyalties. Hall defends what he pushed through, pointing to the successes - the launch of Radio 5 Live, the investment in online, in news-gathering, in the regions, the digital expansion. 'When I took over news, our news-gathering ability was very limited, we were producing one hour of output for every hour we sat there. By the time I'd left, we had the biggest news-gathering operation in the world, more correspondents than CNN, and for every hour I sat there we produced about five-and-a-half hours of output!'

In the end, he says, nearly everyone saw the value in what he was doing. He wants to get the same sense of purpose instilled at the ROH. He says that the period before the ROH's closing for redevelopment three years ago, when the organisation nearly went bankrupt, has 'scarred' many employees. The documentary The House was an earlier boot in the belly.

'But the point which attracted me about this place is that it is all behind us, the line has been drawn, we are about to post our third modest surplus.' This is the new ROH, he says, the past is history. In particular, he wants to get all the people problems - the threats of strikes, the endless discontent - ironed out. He has appointed the ROH's first human resources director, and any of his 870 employees, he says, must feel they can approach him with an issue or an idea.

Running parallel to that, he cites excellence and access as his two main goals. The first is probably easier than the second: the ROH's current productions are a critical success, the future programme has been well received. Hall says he wants to get to grips with long-term planning, make sure the budgets are realistic. When I ask if he has input into exactly which ballets and operas are chosen, he ducks the question and says: 'It doesn't work like that.' He listens to the respective directors, he backs their experience.

Yet surely as the man running the money, he wants more of the high-earning audience favourites - the Nutcrackers and Carmens - than the obscure and difficult? He smiles. 'I don't want a populist programme but a popular one.' It's about balance, the old favourites plus some new commissions for the buffs, pushing the artistic boundaries while making money. Does he ever veto anything? 'Not in my first few months,' he laughs.

Access is a thornier problem. The ROH's redevelopment was paid for partly by lottery cash, its productions are underwritten partly by government money - it needs to show it is not just playing to the elite. There is already an imaginative education programme that takes the ROH's work into schools, and Hall also has plans for rock concerts and regional big-screen relays and proms sponsorship and webcasts. But can he afford them?

'It's a bit like news in that sense, taking what we do on the main stage to more and more people and seeing if we can make money out of it as well. I'd rather get it to more people for nothing, but if it means we have to look at other ways of doing it, we will. What I am passionate about is getting what is here to more people.'

How will he judge if he has been successful? 'I hope that over the next two years we will do programmes which show we are increasing access to this place and that education is central to what we're doing,' he says. 'I hope to see the team doing fantastic things on stage, and hope generally that the institution is creating new works and new things, and that it is an exciting place to be.'

And after his five-year contract? 'I am not thinking beyond five years, I am just excited about being here - it's a BBC trait always to think about the next job and my view is, I shall enjoy what I am doing and then see what happens.'

Ex-colleagues predict he will seek another high-profile public service post. 'Tony is not motivated by money,' says one, 'he likes a lot of it as a sign of his worth, but this is more about gaining the respect of others.'

Some suggest his wife, a successful head teacher at a private secondary school outside Oxford, may have a say. Friends noted that when Hall celebrated his 50th birthday, it was a high-production party at Mrs Hall's old college - St Anne's, Oxford - rather than his. 'She's an ambitious woman - she was as keen as him that he go for the BBC DG job.'

When I ask Hall if it is daunting living with a headmistress he giggles, and goes 'Oh yes, very daunting'. Sometimes it is impossible to get behind the smile. Just occasionally there is a hint of frost - when he realises there is no-one to help photographer Harry Borden set up his shoot because his press department won't come in before 10am - and then it passes. He grins, normal service is resumed. But you can bet he hasn't forgotten.

Then we end up chatting about his cottage in Dorset and the walking holiday in Skye he's dragging his teenage kids up to. 'Rain again, probably,' he laughs, showing me out. Always that cheery amiability. It disguises, I am told, his real, dominant trait: flinty determination. If the fates of his predecessors are anything to go by, he will need both in abundance, and more, at Covent Garden.

< hall="" in="" a="" minute="" 1951:="" born="" in="" birkenhead="" on="" 3="" march.="" educated="" at="" king="" edward's="" school,="" birmingham,="" birkenhead="" school="" and="" keble="" college,="" oxford="" 1972:="" graduate="" trainee,="" bbc="" 1974:="" reporter,="" bbc="" belfast="" 1985:="" editor,="" bbc="" nine="" o'clock="" news="" 1987:="" editor,="" news="" and="" current="" affairs,="" bbc="" television="" 1990:="" director,="" bbc="" news="" and="" current="" affairs="" 1993:="" managing="" director,="" bbc="" news="" 1997:="" chief="" executive="" bbc="" news="" 2001:="" chief="" executive,="" royal="" opera="" house="" tony="" hall="" is="" also="" chairman="" of="" the="" theatre="" royal,="" stratford="" east,="" and="" a="" member="" of="" the="" council="" at="" brunel="" university="">

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime