Peter Bazalgette: The real face of Big Brother

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The Independent Online

By the time you read this, the fifth series of Big Brother will have begun, with more and, as has been promised, wackier contestants than ever. For the next few weeks, the red-top tabloids will, it's safe to say, be crammed with speculation, innuendo and enthusiasm about the doings of the residents of the Big Brother House. The quality press will be marginally less crammed with similar stories, but inflected with a distancing irony and counterpoised with columns agonising about what the programme reveals about contemporary society.

By the time you read this, the fifth series of Big Brother will have begun, with more and, as has been promised, wackier contestants than ever. For the next few weeks, the red-top tabloids will, it's safe to say, be crammed with speculation, innuendo and enthusiasm about the doings of the residents of the Big Brother House. The quality press will be marginally less crammed with similar stories, but inflected with a distancing irony and counterpoised with columns agonising about what the programme reveals about contemporary society.

One person who won't be agonising is Peter Bazalgette, chair of the production company Endemol UK and very likely the most influential man in television. That estimate of his importance is founded not just on his commercial heft, which is considerable, but on the effect that that he has had on the whole shape of television today. The schedules are littered with programmes that have either been made by him or are trying to copy him. In the 1990s, he was behind the revolution in "lifestyle" television, overseeing the creation of such steady ratings-winners as Ready Steady Cook, Changing Rooms and Ground Force.

More recently, he has been at the forefront of the vogue for reality TV: Endemol has produced not only Big Brother but also the celebrity sports contest The Games and The Salon (a sort of reality soap about relationships between the staff of a specially built hairdresser's in London). He produced Fame Academy for BBC1, and then took the interactive, vote-by-phone TV event upmarket by making the architectural popularity contest Restoration for BBC2.

Bazalgette has won a reputation as not just a programme-maker but a visionary, one of the few people in television with some long-term understanding of how the business is changing, and what impact new technologies might have on the medium. He has predicted, for example, that the spread of personal video recording technology such as TiVo, which enhances viewers' ability to fast-forward through the ads, will lead to the death of the traditional commercial break: where will broadcasters get their revenue then? One question that remains to be answered is whether Bazalgette can turn his huge influence into real power; in other words, can he move from running one of the biggest suppliers of programming into running one of the big purchasers, the BBC or Channel 4? With Mark Thompson quitting as chief executive at Channel 4 to go to the BBC, Bazalgette's name has been linked with the post, just as it was the last time it fell vacant.

Jane Lush, the BBC's Controller of Entertainment Commissioning, and a huge fan of Bazalgette, thinks he would be "more than capable" of taking on such a job; it is a matter of whether he wants it. He may well not: it is rumoured that his contract with Endemol is simply too lucrative for him to think about giving it up. But even if he did, would the big boys want him?

A suspicion lingers that with his background in pop TV he is "too lightweight" and too controversial. There have been mutterings about the apparent conflict of interest between his seat on Channel 4's board and his position as one of Channel 4's major supplier of content. And over the years, his programme-making style has attracted reams of unfavourable comment from critics, media pundits and the great and good generally.

In August 2000, shortly after the first series of Big Brother had started, he compiled his own list of phrases that had been applied to the programme by the press: "Ghastly, cynical, dissipated, distasteful, a new low, tedious, desperate, voyeuristic, seedy, a sham, pointless, sad and pathetic, creepy, inane, barrel-scraping, phoney, gross, tacky..." Victor Lewis-Smith, in his television column in the London Evening Standard, has compared Endemol to "the battery chicken industry, churning out bland and flavourless produce at the lowest possible price, irrespective of quality", and he has accused Bazalgette of having "done more to debase television over the past decade than anyone else".

Jane Lush thinks such attacks have no real substance. "I think there's a snobbery in television, isn't there? He makes big popular programmes, that's what he does, and I think there are certainly people who don't think that's a good thing. But I think those are the hardest programmes to make." Bazalgette himself would almost certainly agree with that assessment. In speeches and newspaper articles, he has regularly objected to what he sees as a "miserable, puritan streak" in British society, running from Lord Reith onwards, a "cultural elite" frightened by the prospect of losing control of the airwaves.

Last year, Sir Richard Hoggart attacked programmes such as The Weakest Link (not one of Bazalgette's) on the grounds that they "display and encourage mindless, cruel competitiveness and a disguised or perhaps unconscious contempt... for those at whom they are directed. They aim very effectively at an inadequately educated part of the population." In reply, Baz - as he is almost universally known - quoted the 1960 Pilkington Report on broadcasting, of which Hoggart was one of the authors: "Those who say they give the public what it wants begin by underestimating public taste and end by debauching it." This determined populism sits oddly with Bazalgette's own privileged background.

He is a descendant of Sir Joseph Bazalgette, the great Victorian civil engineer responsible for building London's sewer systems. Cracks between his ancestor's job clearing out excrement and his own have been made with boring frequency: I'm afraid I'm one of the culprits.

He grew up in prosperous circumstances - his mother was a pianist, his father a stockbroker with, it would appear, a paranoid turn of mind. A couple of years ago he recalled in a newspaper how, in the mid-1970s, his father was convinced that Britain was on the verge of revolution. "I was dispatched to our local supermarket... to buy £300 of tinned food. I had two or three trolleys on the go. It all sat in the house until 1983. All these tins covered in cobwebs. We used to call it my father's Commie Crisis Cupboard."

Bazalgette's own politics are harder to pin down; one acquaintance I have spoken to guesses that his instincts are Tory, but he has been careful not to express any political sympathies. When in 2001 - a busy year - the Conservative Party invited him to join a "Commission for Democracy" to see if young people could be encouraged to vote for MPs as enthusiastically as they voted for evictions from the Big Brother House, he refused to accept unless he was given assurance that the commission would not be party-political; when the press got hold of the story, reporting that he had been "hired" by the Tory party to help its chances, he dropped out of the venture altogether.

He went to Dulwich College, and from there to Cambridge, where he took what his official biography describes as a "none too distinguished" degree in law, having devoted more energy to writing a gossip column in the university newspaper, and a successful campaign to become president of the Cambridge Union. A news traineeship at the BBC was a natural progression; the impression is that he was following a natural trajectory into the ranks of the Establishment.

But Bazalgette's view of life was transformed by a spell as a researcher for Esther Rantzen on That's Life. Here he learned the importance of entertainment, of using human emotions to engage the emotions of an audience. Tracey McLeod, who worked for him on the BBC2 programme Food and Drink in the 1980s, recalls, "He was very much a product of That's Life. I think he always saw himself as one of Esther's boys."

By this stage he had left the BBC to work as a freelance, and in 1987 he formed his own company, Bazal, taking Food and Drink with him. McLeod says: "He was always very clear about how to make Food and Drink accessible to people who weren't foodies. It was very much about storytelling and involving real people, and not about restaurants and high-end experiences." (Bazalgette is himself something of a connoisseur - his many honorary positions include the chair of the British Academy of Gastronomes.) What McLeod recalls about working for Bazalgette is the clarity of his vision: he always knew what he wanted, and as an employee always knew what to do. She reckons he was the best boss she's ever had, and that affection seems to be general. Even people who take a dim view of his professional achievements qualify their remarks by saying what a good company he is, how fair-minded.

On the negative side, there are those who think that he manages his image more carefully than he lets on. One sceptic I spoke to said, "The shows he is famous for are either not actually his, or if they are, they are junk... In other words, he got lucky but is nowhere near as smart or as able as the reputation." But he added: "Nice bloke, though." However nice he is, though, it is hard not to see his influence as baleful, to wonder whether his belief in the power of stories does not sometimes go too far.

Bazalgette has referred to participants in Big Brother as "characters", as if they were merely fictional and not real people with feelings to be hurt. In an interview in 2000, he responded to a remark by the veteran documentary producer Roger Graef, to the effect that reality TV is the modern equivalent of throwing Christians to the lions. Bazalgette said, "But he knows that we watched his Thames Valley police series not out of a concern for law and order, but for the human stories, the powerful narrative."

Well, of course we did. But it didn't seem to occur to him that in Graef's powerful, humane documentaries, the story is only a means; the end is a greater understanding of moral and political problems. In Big Brother, there is no end but holding the viewer's attention. Few people understand better than Baz how television is done, but does he have any idea what it is for?

A LIFE IN BRIEF

Born

22 May 1953. His father, Paul, was a stockbroker, his mother a pianist.

Family

Lives in London with his wife, Hilary Newiss, an intellectual property lawyer, and their two teenage children.

Education

Dulwich College, then law at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, where he was president of the union.

Career

Researcher and then producer at the BBC, notably several series of Food and Drink, which he later produced through his own company, Bazal. At Endemol since 1990 he has overseen Ready Steady Cook, Ground Force, Changing Rooms, Fame Academy, Restoration for the BBC, and all five series of Big Brother for Channel 4. He has also co-written four books, mainly about food.

He says...

"Anybody who uses the phrase 'dumbing down' should be locked in a darkened room for a couple of years."

They say...

"Given that his Victorian forebears were responsible for London's sewerage system, surely it's fitting that he's keeping up the family tradition by smearing excrement over our screens."

Victor Lewis-Smith

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