History, of course, is littered with examples of artistic visionaries who have been unbending in their pursuit of creative excellence. Conductors are notorious tyrants who thrive on control. Georg Solti, known as “The Screaming Skull” on account of the fact that he was bald and shouted a lot, made his orchestras quake with fear. But the fact is that when he became musical director of the Covent Garden Opera Company in the sixties, he turned a mediocre outfit into something that was world class.
Theatre seems to be a particular breeding ground for single-minded creative intent. Samuel Beckett was asked to leave rehearsals for Happy Days after driving Billie Whitelaw (incidentally his favourite actress) to despair.
John Dexter, famed for his directorial work on such groundbreaking plays as Arnold Wesker’s Roots and Peter Shaffer’s The Royal Hunt of the Sun, was such a persistent source of terror to actors that, at his funeral, Derek Jacobi reported that the theatrical great and good attended “not out of love but to make sure he was burnt to a cinder”.
Diana Rigg worked with Dexter on several occasions, and says that his tyranny was worth it. “He used the same people he loved and trusted, again and again – people who he sensed he could develop – and would, like a bull terrier, drag this talent out of them.”
And yet there is no doubt that Dexter often went too far. In his diary he once wrote plaintively: “Why does bringing out the best in others always bring out the worst in me?”
It’s true that there is a fine line between relentless perfectionism and downright bullying and I am not endorsing the working practices of many artistic geniuses whose modus operandi should be consigned to history.
Alfred Hitchcock was a master of his game, but his terrorising of Tippi Hedren on the set of The Birds (he made sure that live fowl were tied to her costume, pecking at her body) was nothing short of abuse.
But what should be acknowledged, and indeed championed, is that the best work is often down to a singular tunnel vision, rather than collaboration. With other business models, you need to consult stakeholders, but this is not the case with the arts. If an individual is talented enough to be given total control, they should be trusted – no matter how tough they are. The trend, now, sadly, is to move away from that. Too many cooks leads to a diluting of artistic vision as marketeers from middle management without a creative bone in their body feel the need to throw their thoughts into the broth.
And then there is the ever-growing need for kindness in the workplace. Yes, bullying shouldn’t be tolerated, and there is much to be said for working with charm and persuasion, but if a creative head is always conciliatory, is that really going to yield spectacular results? In a way, that is a throwback to the idea of a creative as a “wafty”, arty type whose ideas are nebulous, whose results are questionable. As someone with a creative job, I can say that I respond best to toughies who know what they want – from experience, a soft boss is only likely to make me feel cranky and a bit depressed.