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Sir John: Bombs, Blair and the Beeb

In his latest book Sir John Tusa takes a nostalgic look back at a career in broadcasting. Peter Gruner reports

13 July, 2018 — By Peter Gruner

Glocal hero: Sir John Tusa

HE’S one of Britain’s most influential culture vultures, but Sir John Tusa has his roots firmly in his beloved Highbury.

In his new book, Making A Noise: Getting It Right, Getting It Wrong in Life, the Arts and Broadcasting, the former BBC TV Newsnight presenter describes the highs, lows and conflicts he has encountered during his career.

Speaking this week, he said: “I’ve always stood up for the arts, whether it is nationally or around my home in Highbury, where I’ve lived for 18 years.”

A former Czechoslovakian émigré whose family fled the Nazis, home has always been important. Sir John is patron of Highbury Opera Theatre and has publicly called for support for his local corner shops. He even penned a poem in 2011, Why I Love Canonbury.

In the book, Sir John writes: “I never thanked my parents for bringing us out of Czechoslovakia and into a land of wondrous opportunities where foreigners could flourish. You don’t when you are only three.”

Born in 1936, he went from English boarding school to national service with the British army, Cambridge University, and then became a BBC graduate trainee.

The book contains engaging historic anecdotes. Always an avid theatregoer, Sir John remembers the huge excitement over a new dramatist in 1958 whose name was Harold Pinter. It was the premiere of The Birthday Party. The play was universally panned as “incomprehensible,” by most critics, apart from Harold Hobson of The Sunday Times. “But we recognised that it was new, different and special,” Sir John writes. “At the curtain we stood and cheered.”

Think we worry about conflict with Russia today? Sir John relates how he and his wife Annie “clung together” in horror by the radio during a speech by President Kennedy threatening the Russians during the Cuban Nuclear Missile crisis of 1962.

“During the night, woken by the noise of the traffic on the Embank­ment, I was convinced it was the start of the London population’s exodus to avoid nuclear extinction.”

Writing about his time as managing director of the BBC World Service, 1986-92, he describes it as enjoyable but also a period of “infighting, gossip, malice, viciousness and incompetence at the very top.”

A speech he made at City University in 1994 was described as a “coded” attack on the BBC’s then director general John Birt’s management consultant approach.

Taking over the Barbican in 1995 was also fraught. At the time, he writes, “it sat marooned in a cultural desert, without bars or restaurants, little footfall, a morgue at night, amid a belief held by many in the City that visitors should not be encouraged to intrude into the Square Mile.” At the same time it was a “miser-
able and dysfunctional organisation” with directors at war with one another.

But the biggest battle came with new Labour prime minister Tony Blair in 1997 and the arrival of “Cool Britannia”. The doors of Downing Street were thrown open to the worlds of pop and fashion but not the arts. It was the rebirth of “Swinging London” 30 years on, Sir John writes. “Somehow, the artists, composers, playwrights, poets and novelists were omitted, overlooked or actively ignored on the grounds that they were ‘elitist’.”

However, in Sir John’s previous book, Pain In The Arts, in 2014, he sang the praises of Lord Smith of Finsbury, who during his time as Labour arts minister introduced in 2000 the highly popular decision to make entrance to London museums free.

Sir John believes that language in the arts is often used to confuse or control. He lists a few of the words he hates including: benchmark, baseline, connectivity, cooperation, driver, discourse, direction of travel, edutainment, experimental, going forward, glocal, holistic, narrative, indicators, push back and transformational.

How different from his own simple but eloquent poem about Canonbury. The poem ends with: “I like the grandeur of certain houses, the quiet domestic convenience of most.

“I love the Victoria line. When I return to the bustle of Highbury and Islington station, I am coming home.”

Making A Noise: Getting It Right, Getting It Wrong in Life, the Arts and Broadcasting. By John Tusa, Weidenfield & Nicolson, £25

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