Tony Hall: Living with creativity

Tony Hall

The 2014 John Donne lecture was delivered on 4 April by the Director-General of the BBC, Tony Hall, formerly Director of the Royal Opera House. The version below is summarized with thanks from his script.

Was there ever a man whose life captured the contradictions of our country better than this great poet? The quotation by which he is best known creates its own paradox: though an individual person of singular ability, he understood that he was deeply entwined with all other persons:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main… And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Creativity does not spring from the individual alone, and no man is an island. Instead, I want to show that individual creativity can best be served by a great institution, whether that is an Oxford college or – my own areas of expertise - the BBC or the Royal Opera House. Great acts of creativity depend upon the institutions that manage and support them. In his 2013 Reith lectures, Grayson Perry observed that

…art is not some sort of fun add-on…if you go back to the ice age, the artists then, they still made art and yet they were constantly under threat from cold and starvation, and from predators. And yet they still set aside hours and hours and hours to make art. It’s very, very deep – this need to express.

Grayson Perry is right: there is a deep need to express in all of us. But something is missing in this account of artistic endeavour. Cave men and women didn’t do their paintings in secret or hide them. They put them on walls and shared them: they had an audience. Audiences are as much a part of creativity as artists. The desire to reach out to as many people as possible with your idea, your programme, your drama is at the heart of the creative impulse, whether or not you are successful in achieving this. And the relationship between artist and audience is what unites my job at Covent Garden with my role at the BBC. Both organizations have to ensure broad appeal while pursuing excellence.

At the Royal Opera House I was determined to mount an assault on the notion that opera and ballet were only for toffs because mere mortals wouldn’t get it. On the contrary: everybody deserves the best and everybody can appreciate the best. I’m proud of what we achieved there. We ran a campaign aimed at readers of the Sun newspaper which earned us a brand new audience: over 90% of those who attended these performances had never been to Covent Garden before.

In a global age with the technology to reach millions, that simple human to human connection is possible on a scale never before seen – and it is a reciprocal connection: the audience participates in the creative process. Through technology, we can now all experience the same one to one creative pleasure as when the caveman drew his horse on the wall in France and his neighbour came to view it.

And we can add to that, the creativity that comes from interaction between the artist and the audience. From my experience in two great cultural institutions, I know that successful creativity is about work which gives expression to the creative impulse of the artist while touching something unconscious in the audience: the audience’s own need for expression.

The audience, of course, is not the artist’s only company in his or her creative endeavour. Without a supporting team, it is often impossible to realize creativity. Great creatives need great teams and vice versa, and this is true for opera singers and TV or radio presenters. I suppose you might call individuality requiring teamwork a paradox. There are many other paradoxes in the creative process.

Some of the greatest ideas feel simple – maybe obvious and indeed spontaneous. In fact they are based on phenomenal hard work and skills: the very opposite of spontaneity. At the Royal Opera House the dancers would glide across the stage but their performances were based on long days of hard work, practice and pain. In the ground-breaking Life on Earth series, there was the famous moment when  David Attenborough was in a hug with a gorilla. He later said it was “one of the most exciting encounters of my life”. It only came about after weeks of waiting so that the animals learned to trust him.

I also strongly believe there’s a place for serendipity in the creative process. It’s about creative happenstance – the unexpected things which happen when people spark off each other and discover a shared passion, a new idea, and a different approach which wouldn’t have happened on their own. In this, the great role of institutions like the BBC is twofold. It is to make it possible - in terms of finance, personnel and institutional self-confidence - for people to persist until they get it right.  And it is to bring people together to make creative encounters more likely.

My final paradox of creativity is this – failure is intrinsic to success. As Samuel Becket once famously wrote: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” And he was right. From failure something is always learned and often a stronger idea emerges. This is the paradox within the paradox - we must also know when the lesson of failure is “stick to your guns”; when the lesson is that failure presages success. 

What makes a great programme is as hard to define as creativity itself. But you know one when you see one. The Office didn’t start life as a success. It was an odd and awkward series which took more than a little time to take off with the audience. But the BBC stuck with it into a second series and the rest, as they say, is history. For me personally I learnt this lesson at the birth of BBC News 24 – it took a couple of years to get right. That is a great tribute to the team involved who stuck with it in the face of people saying there was no need for continuous news and some who said it was a waste of the licence fee. Nowadays the idea seems so natural its existence seems obvious.

The task, then, of the creative institution is a delicate one. Ensuring the individual is supported by a team, not crushed by it; bringing together creative talent and ensuring stability for these but not being rigid about the people we work with; getting the balance right between faith in our creative judgment and the moment you’ve just got to recognize it’s not working. And, of course, learning from audiences, feeding off them, reacting to them, but never being trapped by the critical response of the first audience we encounter. To be at its creative best, the BBC must understand the group nature of creativity as well as giving people the freedom to do some of the greatest, boldest, most imaginative work of their lives. We must reward courage and truth-telling rather than back-covering and caution.

Finally, let me give you three simple examples of practical steps we are taking to change the way that we work to enable creativity. First, we are opening up the BBC to find new talent. In 2011, a 16 year-old singer-songwriter from Nottingham was invited to a BBC Masterclass to learn from the Kaiser Chiefs. That summer, he played at the BBC Introducing stage at Glastonbury. This year, Jake Bugg was one of Glastonbury’s headline acts, as one of this country’s top singers.

Secondly, we are using the public’s own stories to make our programmes. Life Through Your Lens, when it’s shown on BBC Three, will paint a unique picture of Britain, reflecting back to our audiences the stories they themselves have chosen to document.

Thirdly, we are using individuals to work with local communities and tell us what they find. A hundred years after the poet Dylan Thomas’s birth, BBC Wales has set itself the challenge to inspire individuals and communities across Wales to discover the beauty and power of poetry for themselves. To help them, we’ve recruited the poet Benjamin Zephaniah and sent him to the Town Hill estate in Swansea – where Thomas lived – in search of a twenty-first-century Under Milk Wood.

As well as making organizational changes at the BBC I have tried to adjust attitudes. Big organizations have to be tough, disciplined, and ready to turn things down. I want colleagues to say “yes” as much as they can – and make exciting things happen. The licence fee gives us a particular responsibility to act as an engine room to stimulate this country’s creative industries, British talent and entrepreneurs and help them reach their audience globally, nationally and locally. Our creative economy accounts for around one-tenth of the whole UK economy and employs around 2.5 million people. In other words, it employs more people than the financial services industry or the construction industry. And in recent years, this creative workforce has grown four times faster than the workforce as a whole.

We are one of only three countries that are net exporters of music. We are the second largest exporter of TV programmes, with BBC Worldwide – our global, commercial arm – in the vanguard of British television’s international growth. The fact that creativity clusters in this way is, I suppose, the final piece of proof that it is a group endeavour.

The creation of the BBC was an extraordinarily imaginative act of state intervention. It has given this country something very precious, a national broadcaster that can help turn the great imagination of British people into fantastic works of art, in its broadest sense. All of which brings me back to my basic assertion about living with creativity: that it is always about a relationship between the need “to express” of the artist – and the need for the audience to see something about themselves expressed.

In a world that seems to be changing around us – and changing us – at sometimes bewildering speed, that role has never been more important. We tell stories to the wider world and we tell stories through sound and vision about ourselves and to ourselves. Just like the caveman.