wed 21/03/2018

John Tusa: 'the arts must make a noise' - interview | reviews, news & interviews

John Tusa: 'the arts must make a noise' - interview

John Tusa: 'the arts must make a noise' - interview

He started Newsnight, ran the World Service and the Barbican, and his new memoir is called Making a Noise

Sir John Tusa: 'I make a point of not commenting on BBC programmes except to loved ones'

In our era of 24/7 news, downloadable from anywhere in the world at the touch of an app, it's hard to remember that not so very long ago the agenda was set by the BBC - the Home Service as Radio 4 was then called, and BBC TV, just the one channel, which broadcast news at a handful of fixed points during the evening. Outside broadcasts, "OBs", were slow, labour-intensive and expensive. Politicians were respected. So too journalists.

That was the BBC that a new-minted history graduate named John Tusa joined in 1960, beginning his graduate traineeship at Bush House in what was then known as BBC External Services. A quarter-century later he would return as managing director of what he would rename BBC World Service but, in between those dates, Tusa - born in the Bata, Czechoslovakia, home town of the shoe company - honed his broadcasting skills on radio and TV. He was part of the team that launched Newsnight, a new-fangled magazine format to which BBC high-ups were indifferent and which politicians regarded as almost impudent. But it was the 1980s and an exciting time to be a newsman.

In his memoir Making a Noise: Getting It Right, Getting It Wrong in Life, the Arts and Broadcasting, John Tusa reflects on his remarkable life: his arrival as a little boy in Britain on the eve of World War Two, where home was the Bata Estate in East Tilbury, Essex, and on his years at Gresham's and Cambridge, where he indulged his growing passion for the arts. He left the BBC in 1992, highly critical of Marmaduke Hussey, chairman of the board of governors, and John Birt, his appointee as director general.

After more than a decade as managing director of the Barbican Centre in London and appointments at the University of the Arts London and the Clore Leadership Programme, Tusa is now Chair of the European Union Youth Orchestra and a dedicated advocate of the arts as necessity not luxury. He talks to theartsdesk.

LIZ THOMSON: You paint a vivid picture of your family life in Czechoslovakia and your earliest years in Britain but then your parents all but disappear from that picture - indeed, you say the gap that opened up on Paddington Station in 1942 "never fully closed". How did their lives play out?

JOHN TUSA: Father worked as MD of the British Bata Shoe Company till he was 60, then retired. Mother was a wonderful parent and Granny. Both lived to their late 80s, speaking broken English to the end.

Did they have particular ambitions for you - medicine or law, for example?

Not medicine, possibly law but certainly not a career in the Bata Shoe Company.

You refer in the book to your journals, but you presumably weren't keeping a diary as a schoolboy. While alluding to the fallibility of memory, you appear to have a very good recall from an early age - one could say you were destined to be a journalist. Did you feel that?

For the last two to three years at my public school, Gresham’s, my weekly communication home took the form of a newsletter complete with lurid headlines and all out attacks on the headmaster and house matron in best (I assumed) tabloid style. I had outgrown the dutiful, polite Sunday letter. Happily, my parents kept them all carefully filed away. Was I a budding journalist? I doubt it. I was a stroppy teenager.

The Cambridge you attended was full of celebrated academics and students - such as David Frost and Peter Cook - who went on to have distinguished careers in their fields. Did you form friendships that lasted while you were there?

Some of my most intense friendships date from Cambridge. My wife, Ann Dowson, for a start - we married in 1960. Our best man at the wedding, John Tydeman, later the vastly influential head of BBC Radio Drama who nurtured a generation of British playwrights. John Drummond, director of the Edinburgh Festival, then director of BBC Proms, one of the most colourful characters in the national arts scene. I miss him every day. Many others too, but it hasn’t prevented great friendships forming throughout life.

You didn't cut the mustard as a potential spook. What made you decide on the BBC?

I would have been a very long shot as a spook! I admired what the BBC stood for, then I found that both Tydeman and Drummond were applying for traineeships. I followed suit.

Newsnight was obviously very exciting for the team and much-needed for the public. What do you think of the programme now?

Making a Noise by John Tusa I make a point of not commenting on BBC programmes except to loved ones! In my book I offer six ingredients in the original success of Newsnight. They were: irreverence, independence, originality, controversy, laughter and investigation. They make a good formula. Today, Newsnight is not helped by the absence of a clean junction at 10.30 with the news. 

You write with passion about your time at World Service to which you were clearly very committed. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher recognised its importance for Britain in the world. Yet the present government appears not to value it and is slashing its budget. What would you say to Theresa May if you were running it today?

The fact that the World Service remains the most trusted broadcaster internationally should be grounds for funding it as a great exemplar of national soft power. I spent time as MD cultivating Margaret Thatcher and making sure she knew what we did. She increased our funding. There were also times when you have – to coin a phrase – to ”make a noise” about why the World Service matters.

You are highly critical of Marmaduke Hussey and John Birt, and it would appear that many of the BBC's current problems can be traced back to their era. Do you think it can recover or is it in terminal decline, like other of Britain's once-valued public services?

At the World Service, we demonstrated that you could – should – stick to your values and beliefs and run the organisation in an efficient way. Parliament recognised what we did. Meanwhile, the domestic BBC marched into all-out managerialism, putting business dogma ahead of creative values. The BBC will survive – as it should – if it keeps values and efficiency in balance.

Many would say the BBC is no longer a fearless impartial broadcaster but instead feels obliged to toe government lines - or at least not to rock the Conservative boat. What do you think?

I don’t accept this. But it should be remembered that impartiality is different from so-called balance, often a slavish belief that one assertion – or statement of fact - must immediately be followed by the reverse.

Your post-BBC career has been in the arts with which you are personally deeply engaged. Yet the arts are under-valued and under-resourced at a public level, and are seen as at best an optional extra in many schools. That means many children will never experience learning a musical instrument or a visit to the theatre, and the cost of a university degree will deter many from studying the humanities. All that will obviously have a deleterious effect on all aspects of our cultural life. What can be done - what should be done?

Yes, it is dispiriting that the fight for arts funding has to be fought again and again. The evidence for the incredible value and impact of the arts doesn’t weaken over time, it gets stronger. But it needs to be asserted and re-asserted, loudly. Yes, the arts must make a noise, make life uncomfortable for politicians and civils servants. Why was I called a “bastard”, “anti-Christ”, a “contaminant” for my campaigns for the arts? Because I made a noise! Join the party!

And finally, what would the mature John Tusa say to his younger self?

The army taught me: “Time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted.” Beware of vanity, rashness and the wrong kind of ambition. And “think with your head, feel with your heart, but know with your stomach” .

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