Peter Bazalgette: From Big Brother to chair of the Arts Council

He changed British TV. But not everything he has been involved with has prospered

Peter Bazalgette was never convincing as an Ena Sharples character, despite once publicly stating: "I'm like a fishwife at heart. I'm like Les Dawson in a hairnet gossiping over the fence." Well, not really. Bazalgette yesterday became the new chair of Arts Council England. He is already the chairman of the board of the English National Opera and the president of the Royal Television Society. He is a non-executive director on the board of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. And a year ago he was awarded a knighthood for services to broadcasting.

It would be harder to imagine a sturdier pillar of the British arts and media establishment than this towering figure, famed for his networking charms and the high-end guest list at his garden parties in Notting Hill in London. His task will include improving financial acumen in the arts at a time of austerity resulting from public-sector cuts. His entrepreneurial nous, gained at the forefront of independent television, might help to transform a culture criticised for box-ticking and bureaucracy. His contacts book might encourage more of the arts philanthropy common in the United States.

And yet, despite his position at the centre of the arts world, Sir Peter has always consciously styled himself as the upstart outsider. "I like to be idiosyncratic, a naughty boy," he says of his career in television. How ironic, then, if Bazalgette, having been put on so many plinths by the great and the good, still ends up being best remembered by the public as the man who made Big Brother. As he approaches his 60th birthday in May, that's certainly the legacy for which he is famous.

The show transformed television at the start of this century but was not every viewer's idea of art. "It showed us heterosexual men being tricked into passionately kissing a 'woman' who later turned out to be a male transsexual," spluttered Geoffrey Levy in one of many hatchet jobs on Bazalgette published by the Daily Mail.

Big Brother was also notorious for a race row that led to effigies of the programme's producers being burned in India, and an outbreak of violence among the show's contestants that led to public complaints to the police. Not to mention the sight of MP George Galloway wearing a red leotard and drinking milk like a cat.

To be fair to Bazalgette, he has never apologised for the show and has spoken of his pride in a project that "revolutionised our attitude to what is on TV and some of the social mores around it". He likes the idea of being a revolutionary. "Bolshie" is how he describes his attitude as a schoolboy. Nonetheless, this son of a stockbroker and a pianist with a place at the elite Dulwich College in south London – where he studied alongside Lionel Barber, the current editor of the Financial Times – won his place at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, where he became not only the president of the Cambridge Union but its "superstar", to use the description of his friend and contemporary John Makinson, now chairman of Penguin.

From there, Bazalgette went into the London media. This he regarded not as a privileged position but as an adventure in slumming it. He had "no alternative", he has reflected, having achieved only a third-class degree in law and, besides, his stockbroking father had inadvertently whetted his appetite by telling him that "journalists were ghastly types who hung around in pubs".

He did not, of course, then go off to make the tea at his local weekly paper. By the time he dropped off Esther Rantzen at Cambridge station, after inviting her to talk to the union, he had already secured a precious place on the BBC news training scheme. Such was his obvious talent that Rantzen – who has recalled that the student was "so brilliant and so funny and so talented" – did all she could to wrench him away to work as a researcher on her BBC magazine programme That's Life. He took up the offer and, demonstrating the charm for which he is known, Bazalgette has reciprocated by saying he "learnt at Esther's knee".

His first big break came when the BBC put him in charge of Food and Drink, where chef Michael Barry and wine experts Jilly Goolden and Oz Clarke became the new darlings of the middle-class audience. Bazalgette saw the potential and, having set up his own independent production company, Bazal, invented a slew of 1990s lifestyle hit shows such as Ready Steady Cook and Changing Rooms.

If not exactly leading a revolution, he had altered the focus of British television and excited a wider public interest in gastronomy and interior design. But his career really hinged on the swallowing up of his business by the Dutch media company Endemol and his development of one of its formats for the British market.

Big Brother has made Bazalgette some powerful enemies. The Mail's Quentin Letts described him as "that dreadful man" when he was awarded a knighthood alongside other "cultural lefties". In fact, "Baz" has always been smart enough to be ambiguous about his politics. The Mail would like to see him as a champagne-quaffing pinko but The Sunday Times suggested recently that he was a "Tory boy". Certainly he is liked and admired by the former Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt and the current Culture minister, Ed Vaizey, and his connections at the department should be invaluable in Arts Council England's budget negotiations with government.

Among other allies will be Tony Hall, who is leaving the Royal Opera House to become the new Director-General of the BBC. Hall, who conducted the internal Channel 4 inquiry into the Big Brother race row, retains an admiration for Bazalgette, as does the Channel 4 chairman of the time, Luke Johnson, despite the problems the programme caused.

The Endemol relationship made Bazalgette extremely wealthy and – with holiday homes in Tuscany and Devon – he is hardly in need of the £40,000 salary he will receive for his two‑day-a-week role at the Arts Council.

Not everything he's been involved with has prospered. English National Opera, of which he became chairman last June after three years as deputy chairman, recorded a most recent annual loss of £2.5m and has had its audiences fall to 71 per cent of capacity. The austerity at the Coliseum is reflected across many of the 690 bodies that he will oversee at the Arts Council. In his new job, he will have to manage internal belt-tightening, while struggling to protect the council's spending budget (£1.4bn, with another £850m from the National Lottery) from further reductions, following earlier 30 per cent cuts.

It's not the best environment to be a creative risk-taker. But Bazalgette has great leadership talents (he is immensely loyal to those who work for him), apparently limitless energy (he says he never wants to retire), and a deep understanding of the ecosystem of arts and television, his natural habitat.

He has a particular instinct for media convergence (which he links to the success of Big Brother at a time of surging internet use) and has driven digital innovation at ENO as well as working on the advisory board of The Space, an ambitious digital project managed by the BBC and the Arts Council.

All these skills will help him in the task ahead. Bazalgette's elevation in the arts world has predictably led to warnings of "dumbing down" from those who point to his taste in "pink polka dot" socks as a sign of the anarchy to come. But this is just another indication of the circles in which Baz moves, as anyone who has observed the lurid ankle wear of such grand media figures as Lord Grade, Sir David Frost or the former Press Complaints Commission chairman Sir Christopher Meyer will testify.

And whether Sir Peter Bazalgette succeeds or fails in his new role at the Arts Council, he will continue to host his A-list Notting Hill parties and will remain a member of the cultural elite which he claims to love to provoke. And the public will continue to know him as the man behind Big Brother.

A Life In Brief

Born: Peter Lytton Bazalgette, 22 May 1953, London.

Family: Married lawyer and bioethicist Hilary Newiss, with whom he has two children. He is the descendant of Joseph Bazalgette, the civil engineer who built London’s sewage system in the Victorian era.

Education: Dulwich College, then a law degree from Cambridge University.

Career: After BBC news graduate training scheme, he joined Epic, a video production company. Formed his own company, Bazal, which created Ready Steady Cook and Changing Rooms. In 1990, Bazal was bought by Broadcast Communications, and absorbed by Endemol. In 2005 became chairman of Endemol UK and was responsible for Big Brother and Deal or No Deal. Chairman of Arts Council England.

He says: “I genuinely hope I am a no-brow person.”

They say: “He believed if something was popular then it was probably good. He enjoys controversy. He certainly likes a debate.” Tim Hincks, president of Endemol Group

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