Sir Peter Bazalgette: A long career transforming British television

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Sir Peter Bazalgette, a television producer and executive has had a momentous influence on the direction of British television. When I first interact with him, in the reading room of the Durham Union, he is in a cheery mood, and is a warm, approachable personality who showed an interest in my own career and love for journalism.

A few weeks later we talk again in a more formal interview, and throughout the interview I am struck by the sense of public duty and concern that drives his work. He believes television is central to the health of the nation, and must be preserved in the face of dangers posed by streaming services. “They deliver some sort of public good. What is that public good? It’s threefold.” Broadcasters provide “trusted and reliable news and information […] they produce programmes which are rooted in our own culture […] programmes for us, by us, and about us […] and they are important contributors to the screen industries.”

Bazalgette concedes that Ofcom may not always do the best job at regulation, for example in the face of GB News, which failed in partiality rules but, as he notes, got a “very soft slap across the wrists without a fine.” But, on the whole, Bazalgette is not too concerned. His focus is on the main public service broadcasters, which include BBC News, ITV News, Channel 4. “There is a battle for the soul of what we might call impartial news. We’ve seen what goes on in America with Fox News on the one hand, and CNN on the other in the last presidential election.” Added to this, during the interview, Bazalgette also recognises the threat to impartial news posed by the internet. Thus, “there should be a gold standard of impartiality and you should know where to go, like the BBC or ITV News, to get a service where they’ve done their very best.” Clearly, Bazalgette’s faith in the traditional news channels endures.

They produce programmes which are rooted in our own culture […] for us, by us, and about us

I am impressed by Bazalgette’s overwhelming sense that public service broadcasters do just that, public service. But I am also aware that Bazalgette’s critics accuse him of having done a public disservice through the innovative shows he brought to our screens. Most famously, he brought Big Brother to the UK. The show centres on a house of contestants, who are continuously filmed, and gradually are evicted from the house by public televoting, with the final housemate winning. For his work, Bazalgette has been credited as being the man most responsible for debasing British television.

But even when I raise the subject of Big Brother, Bazalgette is keen to stress his perspective, that the show did serve the public. “It had some interesting positives” because it made people “media literate […] it was an early convergence of the media in one entertainment product […] and it had a quite revealing aspect of society.” Bazalgette does not believe television has to be some high art form, detached from the audience, but by creating a show embedded within, and reflective of, the nation’s culture, he considers it a major positive.

I wonder where such a love for entertainment sprung from. Bazalgette was not educated in the creative industries, studying law at Cambridge, where he was himself the President of the Cambridge Union. Further to this, Bazalgette started out in news, joining the BBC News training scheme once he left Cambridge. A career in entertainment did not seem likely.

However, working on BBC News “was stiflingly boring. In those days, the whole newsroom was run by men who smoked pipes and never did a story unless it appeared on three wires and didn’t appear to do any original journalism. And I got pretty bored there and I quite liked entertainment… I resigned from BBC News and went off to work in entertainment.” Bazalgette started off working on the hit entertainment show ‘That’s Life’ as a researcher. And the rest is history.

Through his subsequent career, Bazalgette produced hit show after hit show, at the BBC, with his own production company Bazal, and large media company Endemol (which had acquired Bazal). Some credit him with creating the celebrity chef, notably through his show ‘Food and Drink’. Other hits included ‘Ready Steady Cook’, ‘Changing Rooms’ and ‘Ground Force’, and, of course, ‘Big Brother’. These were early, foundational, shows for British Television.

There is a battle for the soul of what we might call impartial news

Bazalgette notes how television has changed over the years. Whereas “in documentaries made in the 1930s and game shows made in the 1960s, members of the public appeared as ciphers, really. They were given one line to say.” “Fine, but exploring members of the public, or real people a sometimes people call them in a rather bizarre phrase, they’ve come into their own in reality shows.” I cannot help but think that one of the major contributors to this shift is the man talking to me. He pushed “exploring members of the public” into what he produced, the result being a change in the type of television on our screens. His contributions are significant.

Given Bazalgette’s track record, I am keen to understand what makes an appealing show. Bazalgette responds by suggesting “factual entertainment[…] about getting people some information that’s useful to them wrapped up in an entertainment format with a lot fo human interest and possibly a good narrative. And so in the 1990s I created quite a lot of hit shows […] and all of them essentially had practical information about cooking, gardening, interiors, but wrapped up as a challenge, wrapped up with lots of human interest, personality, humour and drama and a good narrative, and these shows did well, they got very high ratings, and they sold around the world.” It becomes apparent that Bazalgette’s creations are not the product of unthinking, debased, vulgar intentions. Rather, each hit is carefully constructed to achieve a goal, and quite a serious goal. After all, in his own words, such shows are central to the health of a nation.

Television is not Bazalgette’s only passion. He is equally keen on promoting the creative industries, having been Chairman of Arts Council England from e to e (the Arts Council focuses on “the visual arts, the performing arts, and the public subsidy that is put into them by the lottery and the taxpayers’ money.”). He is now Co-Chair of The Creative Industries Council., whose job is “to liaise with the government on behalf of the sector to drive more sector friendly policies.” In short, Bazalgette is fuelled by a desire for the arts to remain part of the soul of the nation, and as accessible as possible. “The creative industries in general are now about 6% of the economy and they grow much faster than the economy in general. So, they are one of the hopes for future growth.”

Human interest, personality, humour and drama […] and these shows did well, they got very high ratings

As we near the end of the interview, it is clear that this is a man who has achieved a lot. He forever changed the face of British television, and he has been proactive in promoting the creative industries in Britain. Through all his achievements I am struck by his primary concern for the British public. All art, all entertainment, all shows, should be rooted in, as I have repeated, being “for us, by us, and about us”. Bazalgette may be criticised for debasing British television, but perhaps it is more accurate to say he helped television become embedded in the lives of real people. In a similar fashion, he is passionate about ensuring the creative industries are accessible to everyone.

Image: UK Government

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