Behind the scenes of the Establishment
What’s it like to edit Today, run Wimbledon or present the Titanic disaster sensitively? Emma Hughes talks to 12 people who head up a great British institutions
Tristram Hunt, director of the V&A
When Tristram hunt’s mother took him to the V&A for the first time, as an 11-year-old boy, there was one exhibit in particular that caught his eye. ‘Of course, I remember being mesmerised by Tipu’s Tiger,’ he says. The life-sized wooden automaton, which shows a fearsome beast mauling a man, has become part of the scenery for him since he took over as director earlier this year, but if the tussle it depicts ever reminds him of his former life in Parliament (he was the Labour MP for Stokeon-trent), he’s much too diplomatic to say so.
‘I think what I bring from my time as an MP is a strong sense of the need for public institutions to serve people,’ he explains. ‘That’s why one of my first initiatives is to focus on the state of design education in our schools. It’s something the V&A is uniquely placed to support and can make a real difference, particularly in disadvantaged areas.’
As a historian, writer and broadcaster (he lectures at Queen Mary University of London), he’s making the role his own, but he admits to feeling daunted by its scope from time to time. ‘There’s always a sense, as you pass the photographs of previous directors, of whether you can succeed in an incredibly demanding role. You have a huge amount to try to begin to understand.’
Ambitious new sites and galleries in Dundee, China and Stratford are in the works and exhibition Road has just had a landmark makeover.
The job has already supplied some pinch-me moments: ‘The high points have obviously included things such as opening the Pink Floyd exhibition (until October 1) and hosting Kofi Annan at the Prix Pictet photography awards, but, really, the joy of this job is having time to talk with curators about their collections.’
‘There’s always a sense of whether you can succeed in an incredibly demanding role’
David Pickard, director of The Proms
Last year, David Pickard listened to every single Prom. ‘I’d never known an experience like it,’ he remembers. ‘You’re on a rollercoaster working here; something happens and you have no time to reflect because you’re onto the next thing straight away.’ Although he’d overseen the programme, there were still surprises, such as when Daniel Barenboim and Martha Argerich sat down at the piano for a ‘beautiful and moving’ duet.
That central Proms tension between the planned and the serendipitous is familiar to him. ‘It’s like when you’re music-making. There are schedules to be adhered to and everything sort of has to run to time, but it’s also got to have the flexibility for the moments of improvisation and inspiration that happen during a concert.’
After studying music at Cambridge, Mr Pickard knew that he wanted to work in the Arts ‘not as a performer, but as somebody who helped to create interesting things’. Jobs at the helm of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and Glyndebourne followed, before he succeeded Roger Wright at the Royal Albert Hall last year. ‘We’re very lucky that everybody wants to perform at the Proms,’ he says. ‘The more challenging bit is making sure that the audience is still there.’
He’s hoping to reach out to young people, is launching an accessible Prom for disabled people and is looking beyond London: Hull, UK City of Culture 2017, will host a Prom this year.
‘The fact that I’m in charge of something that means so much to so many people—every day, that’s daunting to me,’ he admits, ‘but I’ve got what I think is probably the best job in classical music.’
The BBC Proms runs from July 14 to September 9 (www.bbc.co.uk/ proms; www.royalalberthall.com)
‘I’ve got what I think is probably the best job in classical music
Seamus Buckley, clerk of the course at Goodwood Racecourse
Seamus Buckley was working as estates manager at Epsom when he got the call from the West Sussex racecourse in 1994. ‘I’ve never regretted saying yes for a minute,’ he says. ‘It’s been a joy and an absolute pleasure to be involved—not just in the racecourse, but also in the estate and everything that happens here.’
As clerk of the course, Mr Buckley is in charge of making sure the turf is in perfect condition for all meetings—‘it’s a fairly powerful position, but I don’t want to be a bighead,’ he says modestly— and it’s an extraordinarily complex endeavour. ‘A lot of the horses are trained on artificial, all-weather surfaces now, which means we’ve got to mimic that on the turf and maintain a lovely cushion of grass so they don’t damage themselves,’ he explains. ‘If we produced firm ground here at Goodwood, we’d get very few runners, but, because we’re 700ft above the sea, on chalk, it dries out and drains very quickly.’
The challenges are constant and unpredictable. ‘Your irrigation system might break down, a machine might go wrong, then you lose time—which is of the essence. If you’re programmed to race on August 1, it’s no good having everything ready for August 2.’
At the end of this year, Mr Buckley will step down from his current role, but he’ll still be involved. ‘On a nice day, there’s nowhere like Goodwood. It’s not only one of the most prestigious racecourses in the country, but one of the most beautiful.’
Glorious Goodwood is on August 1–5 (www.goodwood.com)
‘On a nice day, there’s nowhere like Goodwood’
‘There are a lot of unpredictables. We never have two days, or two years, that are the same’
Sarah Clarke, director of the Wimbledon Championships
Sarah Clarke’s relationship with the All England Lawn Tennis Club has shaped her life. ‘When I was finishing at school, I came to Wimbledon one day to have a think about what I wanted to do,’ she remembers. She applied for a holiday job looking after the ball boys and ball girls, which she kept up throughout her studies. After graduating, she went to work elsewhere, ‘but, every year, I’d come back to Wimbledon for the Championships.’ She was persuaded to go part-time in the press office in 2002 and rose through the ranks, taking over the top job in 2013.
Although the fortnight itself presents the biggest logistical challenges (the tens of thousands of spectators get through an average of 177,135 glasses of Pimm’s, 139,435 portions of strawberries and 133,800 scones), Miss Clarke is plate-spinning year-round. ‘There are a lot of unpredictables,’ she admits. ‘We never have two days, or two years, that are the same. It can be a very complex jigsaw puzzle.’
She thinks of herself as ‘just one of many temporary custodians’ and feels ‘exceptionally privileged’. ‘At some point before the tournament, I’ll come into work at 5am and walk around the grounds and listen. It’s like this sleeping giant, gradually being woken up. You know that something really special is just around the corner.’
The public ballot for Wimbledon 2018 (on July 2–15) opens as soon as this year’s tournament is over (www.wimbledon.com)
‘I think of Twitter and Instagram as the modern-day shop floor. Ultimately, we’re here to make people smile
Ewan Venters, chief executive of Fortnum & Mason
‘There’s nothing quite like it,’ says Ewan Venters. ‘Just walking into the store and being greeted by the red carpets and chandeliers—it slows life down. In a crazy world in which everything’s instant, there’s a sense that pressures are suspended while you’re in here.’
Fortnums has been in business for 310 years, but when Mr Venters was headhunted from Selfridges in 2012, it was in need of freshening up —trade in the once-bustling Fountain restaurant had slowed. Today, the picture looks very different: last Christmas, the company posted profit growth of more than 25% for the third year in a row, there are outposts in St Pancras and Heathrow Terminal 5 and the Fountain’s replacement, 45 Jermyn Street, is a genuine destination restaurant.
None of this has been innovation for innovation’s sake, however. ‘It’s a very special thing to come into something that’s been loved and cherished by the same family for so many decades,’ Mr Venters says.
His secret weapon? Social media. ‘I think of Twitter and Instagram as the modern-day shop floor. You’re chatting to customers, getting to know products—you’re interacting. Ultimately, we’re here to make people smile.’
‘I would hope for everyone to feel a bit enlightened at the end of it
‘It’s still my favourite sport and I have a deep, deep love for it
Sarah Sands, editor of Today
‘There’s a story that the signal for the nuclear submarines to open the sealed orders from the Prime Minister is when Today hasn’t been on air for three days,’ reveals Sarah Sands. ‘I checked it out with the Navy and it’s at least partly true.’ She laughs: ‘You can see why I might be worried about my lack of technical radio experience.’ Mrs Sands edited the Sunday
Telegraph and then the London Evening Standard—where she’s been succeeded by George Osborne —before starting in April at Radio 4’s flagship news programme (6am– 9am Monday–friday, 7am–9am Saturdays). ‘I felt this was a dream job. It’s an honour for an outsider from newspapers to be put in charge. The letters of congratulations that flooded in confirmed my pride— and my family took the plunging salary on the chin.’
Today, which recently notched up 7.45 million weekly listeners, celebrates its 60th birthday this year—and John Humphrys, its longest-serving presenter, had thought it unlikely he’d cover another election —until last month’s. How will she ensure the ‘anchor in the nation’s day’ holds fast? ‘It must set the agenda, but it’s also a conversation, so I want to make sure it’s the one that the country wishes to be part of. I would hope for everyone to feel a bit enlightened at the end of it.’
As for the tone: ‘I remember the brilliant Margaret Rutherford-type women who launched it. They said voices had to be vigorous and cheerful. Just so.’
Martin Slumbers, chief executive of The R&A and secretary of The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews
‘I now believe the people who told me that, if you work in the game, you don’t get much time to play it,’ laughs Martin Slumbers, ‘but it’s still my favourite sport and I have a deep, deep love for it.’ After 30 years as an investment banker in London and Hong Kong, in 2015, he decided ‘to leave the traffic behind and move up here to Fife. I felt it was a fantastic opportunity to put something back into the game’.
He admits to some nerves. ‘I knew how the City worked. Learning how a completely new environment operated was the thing I was most apprehensive about. And there’s been very little that’s happened in golf since it started that the R&A hasn’t been at the centre of. The question I asked myself was “How can I take it forwards in the world?”.’
Broadening the game’s reach is at the heart of his strategy. He’s set the target of a quarter of the Open spectators being under 25 and, last year, he set up a camping village at Royal Troon for the next generation of golf fans—young people who bought a ticket got a tent and a pitch for free. ‘Coming to the Open is one of summer’s great things to do as a family,’ he smiles, ‘and we want to see more people playing golf in 100 years’ time than do today.’
The Open returns to the Royal and Ancient in 2020 on July 12–19 (www.randa.org)
Steve Hughson, chief executive of the Royal Welsh Show
For Steve Hughson, the wheel has come full circle. ‘I was born in Builth Wells in 1963, the same year the Royal Welsh found its home on the permanent site there,’ he explains. ‘And I competed as a lad in the Young Farmers’ movement. When I started here in 2013, I actually shared my 50th birthday with the show. It just seemed so right.’
What was he doing in between? Not what you might expect. For 30 years, Mr Hughson was a police officer, first in the Met and then as the chief superintendent of Dyfedpowys Police, the Royal Welsh’s local force. He was coming to the end of his time there when a friend showed him the job description for his current role. ‘It felt like it had been written for me,’ he remembers.
Today, he’s in charge of Britain’s largest agricultural extravaganza, which sees 240,000 people passing through the gates of the showground over the four days to view 7,000 animals and 1,000 trade stands, supervised by some 1,000 stewards. ‘It’s a real team effort,’ he says modestly. ‘You do need a bit of reassurance that you’re going in the right direction and I get that quite often.’
Among his priorities are a commitment to keeping farming front and centre (‘it’s even more relevant now than ever, with new trade deals on the horizon’) and making the show more technologically friendly (‘we’ve installed a 4G phone mast on site because people used to say they couldn’t get a signal. You don’t hear that anymore’).
‘However, the real highlight is to watch people enjoying themselves and children with ice creams looking in wonder at things they only normally see on TV. It’s more than a show—it’s a way of life and it means so much to so many people. Including me.’
The Royal Welsh Show is on July 24–27 (www.rwas.wales)
‘It’s a way of life and it means so much to so many people. Including me
‘Our aim has always been to get more people growing and make this country greener
Sue Biggs, directorgeneral of the RHS
‘In some ways, it was a slightly strange move,’ admits Sue Biggs. ‘I’m not a trained horticulturalist and I’ve never run a charity, but, in others, it made complete sense.’ She’d spent 25 years at luxury-travel specialist Kuoni when she spotted the advert for the job in the Sunday Times. ‘I’d been a member for 20 years and I realised that our client base was very similar—so many people have a passion for both travel and gardening.’
Her own took root when she was seven. ‘My mum bought me a packet of seeds and I thought to myself “What a miserable present”.’ However, she planted them and the Virginia stocks that duly appeared made something click into place for her. Still, the idea of that little girl one day walking The Queen around the Chelsea Flower Show ‘never ceases to amaze me—it’s such a treat and an honour’.
This summer saw the curtain going up on the first-ever RHS show at Chatsworth, with Hampton Court and Tatton Park this month. ‘My friends always tell me “You’re so lucky, spending your life at flower shows” and they’re right, of course,’ says Miss Biggs.
‘You do need stamina, but our aim has always been to get more people growing and make this country a greener, more beautiful place. That can’t be a bad thing to go to work for every day.’
The Hampton Court Flower Show runs until July 9 and Tatton Park Flower Show on July 19–23 (www. rhs.org.uk)
‘As well as the ship, we’re exploring the city and the people who made her
‘It’s impossible to be anything other than exhilarated here
Tim Husbands, chief executive of Titanic Belfast
In 2012, on the centenary of the sailing of RMS Titanic, a different —and happier—sort of launch took place: Belfast’s sleek, multi-millionpound centre dedicated to the vessel opened its doors. More than 100,000 tickets had been pre-sold. ‘The world’s eyes were on us,’ says Tim Husbands, who masterminded it. Could he meet expectations? Yes—and then some: since then, the centre has welcomed 3.5 million visitors from 145 countries (including The Queen as part of her Diamond Jubilee tour). It’s proved a game-changer for Belfast itself, which now boasts a handsome Titanic Quarter.
Titanic Belfast has been praised for its sensitive, thoughtful approach to commemorating the disaster. To stop it feeling sensationalist, Mr Husbands wanted to put the telling of ordinary human stories at the forefront (this comes naturally to him: he’s a film buff). ‘And it has a lot to do with authenticity,’ he explains. ‘People can trace the story of the ship from design all the way through to its tragic end, on the exact spot where she was built and launched. As well as the ship, we’re exploring the city and the people who made her.’
Last year, Titanic Belfast was named Europe’s leading visitor attraction at the World Travel Awards (beating the Eiffel Tower and the Colosseum). What does Mr Husbands think tipped the scales? ‘Although the ship itself lies under 13,000ft of water, the story still captures minds and hearts throughout the world. It’s enduring.’
Alex Beard, chief executive of the Royal Opera House
Alex Beard’s office, which looks out onto Covent Garden, must be one of London’s most envied. ‘I don’t get to spend much time in here, to be honest,’ he confides. He arrives before 8am many days and is in the audience four or more nights a week. ‘It can be exhausting, but I’m spending the time watching some of the world’s greatest artists expressing emotions that are at the heart of what makes us tick. It’s definitely not a tough life—it’s impossible to be anything other than exhilarated here.’
Before he arrived in 2013, he was deputy director of Tate. The difference, as he puts it, between ‘being number one and number two’, is vast. ‘The buck stops with you. I was up for it, but you never quite know how that’s going to play out. And the level of intensity here is extraordinary, but everyone who’s involved has a shared belief that opera and ballet make life better.’
He’s delighted that 450 cinemas across Britain now broadcast Royal Opera House (ROH) performances at special screenings and is looking forward to next season, which will feature a new Swan Lake (‘always a momentous event for any ballet company’). His favourite sound in the auditorium? ‘A school group coming in for the first time,’ he says, without hesitation. ‘Thirty kids collectively gasp and the applause from them after they’ve heard their first opera —they’re totally transported by it. It’s sheer magic.’
The ROH is currently staging ‘Turandot’ (until July 16, www. roh.org.uk)
Jim Hawkins, head master of Harrow School
‘I’ll never forget seeing the whole school together like that,’ says Jim Hawkins, remembering addressing a packed Speech Room at Harrow on his first day in September 2011. He was very conscious of the weight of 445 years of history: ‘I felt the need to keep calm and take my time over what was to be said. Even now, I still get that sense of exhilaration on the first day of each new term.’
Previously headmaster of Norwich School (a post he took up aged only 36), Mr Hawkins sees his role as being both to cherish Harrow’s traditions and to ensure it remains an ‘outwardlooking place’. ‘The word “stewardship” springs to mind,’ he says. ‘One must be respectful of what has worked well in the past, but also avoid complacency and continually look for ways to improve.’
Philanthropy is especially important to him: on his watch, Harrow has forged more than 25 different educational partnerships with State schools, plus a burgeoning charitable and community-service programme. He recently invited pupils from a local primary to speak to the boys on the advantages of working together. ‘It must have been a daunting prospect for them, but they delivered their speeches with such confidence.’
Other highlights include Churchill Songs, in which the whole school, plus parents, old boys and staff, gather in the Royal Albert Hall to celebrate the school’s traditions, culminating in the singing of Forty
Years On. The last, in 2012, was a sellout and this year’s promises to be as well. ‘It’s an unforgettable evening—the atmosphere is very special indeed.’
‘I still get that sense of exhilaration on the first day of each new term