Illustration by James Ferguson of Greg Dyke
© James Ferguson

This is the earliest lunch ever!” exclaims Greg Dyke. I hear the cheery London tones a fraction before Dyke himself strides into the dining room of the Century Club in Soho, almost deserted at 12.07pm. He grabs my arm in greeting. The chairman of the English Football Association and the British Film Institute and the BBC’s former director-general (to mention just a few of his hats) blames himself for choosing the time.

Why so early? “I’m also chairman of the Ambassador Theatre Group, and we were launching our sponsorship opportunity this morning at eight.”

Does he have too many hats? “Well, it suits my brain really. I was never great at concentrating on one thing for very long.” But isn’t it a crazy life? Dyke appears to reflect, then replies: “Nah. It’s better than being bored.” Still, wouldn’t he rather spend – “my old age?” he interrupts. Dyke is 66. “No,” I add hastily, “but, you know, time in the south of France?”

“I don’t think I’ll ever just retire and do the allotment. I’d be crap at the allotment and I would get bored.”

Much still remains to discuss over lunch, yet within three minutes, a truth has been revealed. I had hoped to discover how a lower-middle-class boy with terrible school results could become, in effect, chairman of the British Establishment. I’d wanted to know how the BBC’s boss could become so popular that, when he was sacked in 2004 after a row with the Blair government over reports on Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction”, the corporation’s eternally dissatisfied staff waved banners demanding his reinstatement. In short, I’d hoped to discover Dyke’s secrets of success. And he has already revealed them.

Admittedly, I only realise this a week later, listening to the recording of our lunch and recalling the scene. There was the arm-grabbing – a pleasant bit of physicality, almost unheard of between strangers in Britain. Dyke is old, bald and small but he has cunningly turned his physique into an advantage – it makes him unthreatening. He also pretended to think hard about my inane question. Then came his barrage of self-deprecation, extreme even by British standards: his poor concentration, his “old age”, his feeble gardening skills. And it’s all delivered in the simplest language, in husky confidential tones, and in an accent unadulterated by 30 years at the top. The chairman of the Establishment sounds like an agreeable, regular bloke.

The Century Club has an unobtrusive doorway on Shaftesbury Avenue. Is this Dyke’s club? “No, I don’t know whose place this is. It’s because the BFI is next door. This is all right. It’s fine, it’s informal.” A long, typed schedule for his day lies beside him, cannily concealed under a plate. He grabs bread from the platter between us and eats eagerly. Yet he orders with moderation: pea and ham soup followed by a “Century salad”. As per modern London lunchtime custom, he refuses wine. I have black pudding followed by tortellini.

Dyke grew up in Hayes just west of London, youngest of three sons of an insurance salesman. “I never went to a restaurant until I was 15,” he recalls. “I can tell you exactly where it was: the Swan & Bottle steak bar in Uxbridge. My dad was of the view that paying to go out to eat was ridiculous. He didn’t have any money anyway but, when you went out, he’d say, ‘Your mother could cook this better at home.’ ’Course my mother loved to go out, ’cos it meant she didn’t have to cook. I remember someone taking me out when I was 25, roughly, for my first business lunch – I thought I’d made it in life. Was I ever intimidated by it? Yeah, we all were, weren’t we? First time you went to the Savoy …those sorts of things.”

Dyke traces some of his early support for the Labour party from his hatred of the 11-plus exam, which his elder brother failed. “It was a family tragedy, and my parents were distraught”, he wrote in his autobiography. He passed, but left Hayes Grammar School with just one A-level, a grade E. He became a trainee manager at Marks and Spencer but was soon sacked; he later joked that everyone should start their careers at M&S because things could only improve after that. His next job was as a reporter on the Hillingdon Mirror, where he became interested in politics, and, after a few years in journalism, he went to York University in 1971 as a mature student (inevitably, he is now the university’s chancellor).

For a time after graduating, Dyke was something of a loser. He stood as a Labour candidate in a Greater London Council election but was defeated and, for a while, was unemployed. He spent his 30th birthday, he says, sitting on a log in Wandsworth Common wondering, “Whatever happened to me?” Then, in 1977, a friend found him a researcher’s job at London Weekend Television.

Dyke went on to become a sensation in TV. In a stint as editor-in-chief at the struggling TV-am, he boosted ratings thanks to a hand puppet named Roland Rat. He acquired a reputation for dumbing down but ended up, in 1991, as LWT’s chief executive.

“On day one at London Weekend, it was quite hard,” he says. “But I went out and said hello to everybody. It takes a day out of your life but, if you go and have a chat, people are more likely to be on your side. I went to Harvard Business School in ’89 [he was sent by LWT] and did one of these three-month things. And what was really interesting was a bloke teaching there called John Kotter. These days, everybody teaches leadership but he was the first bloke I met who, in an academic way, spoke about the difference between managing and leading.”

What is the difference? “Well, it’s why accountants make good managers and don’t make good leaders. Particularly in creative businesses, people who work for you have got to think that you believe in what they believe in. If they think all you care about is the numbers, you’re in trouble.”

Still, the numbers added up. When Granada bought LWT in 1994, Dyke left with £7m but felt devastated at losing the company.

We’re hardly aware of our starters, partly because we’ve started talking football. Before Dyke, few TV executives had shown much interest in screening English football. At ITV Sport in the 1980s, he offered some club chairmen £12m a year for TV rights to the entire Football League. “These chairmen had eyes bulging, they couldn’t believe it,” he recalls fondly. Brian Clough, then Nottingham Forest manager, told him: “I wanna shake your hand, Mr Dyke, because you’re the first person that’s given football what it’s due: 12m quid.” Today the Premier League of 20 clubs gets about £1.6bn a year from TV.

It was Dyke who hosted the dinner in 1990 when five big clubs decided to create the Premier League. But he denies paternity. “David Dein [Arsenal’s then vice-chairman] was the most revolutionary bloke I’ve met in football. David Dein created the Premier League, it was his idea. Arsenal has never really recovered [from Dein’s 2007 departure],” he says.

Dyke had thought ITV would screen the Premier League. Instead, Rupert Murdoch’s BSkyB nabbed the rights. You miscalculated, I suggest. “We got it wrong,” Dyke cheerily agrees. “But we were going to get it wrong anyway because the potential income from paid television is so much greater than from advertisement-funded.”

After LWT, Dyke sat on Manchester United’s board and ran Pearson Television, at the time part of Pearson, the parent company of the Financial Times. Then, in 1999, the BBC made him director-general. “I earned a million quid the year before. This job was £300,000. I’d never wanted to work for money. I’m a strange person in that I’ve ended up with a lot of money given that I’m not bothered. And who could turn down being DG of the BBC?”

Dyke was the first DG who had not been either to a private school or Oxbridge. Critics accused him of dumbing down, especially after he moved the news from 9pm to 10pm. But he launched Freeview (free multi-channel digital TV) and pushed BBC1’s ratings above ITV’s for the first time. “Someone said to me, ‘You don’t think this is a very hard job?’ I said, ‘It doesn’t seem that difficult. Somebody gives me £3.5bn a year and I spend it.’”

Things began to unravel at 6.07am on May 29 2003, when the BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan said on radio that Downing Street had “sexed up” a dossier to strengthen claims that Iraq had WMD. Downing Street was furious. Lord Hutton’s inquiry in 2004 exonerated the government and criticised Gilligan’s reporting and the BBC’s management. “The findings were ridiculous,” fumes Dyke. Yet the BBC’s governors sacked him. Dyke says: “The board of the BBC has historically lost its nerve over big issues.”

No Iraqi WMD were ever found and the “sexed-up dossier” became a national trauma, the UK’s Watergate. Many Britons concluded their government had misled them into war. Dyke’s trauma was personal. Tony Blair tried to patch things up. “He invited me for tea,” recalls Dyke. “I didn’t go. My relationship with him, which wasn’t worth anything, was completely broken. I think Blair now is a very sad man, rich, but [he] betrayed everything the Labour party was about. I think he’s a bit of a shady figure. If you go around a bunch of suspect Middle Eastern governments, taking vast sums for advising them – I laugh when everyone talks about senior pay, saying that no one must earn more than the prime minister. I keep saying, ‘Hang on, is this what the prime minister earns in office or what the prime minister earns over the next 20 years?’”

How did Dyke cope with losing the biggest job he’ll ever have? “I remember being pissed off for probably close on a couple of years. I remember my daughter saying to me one day, ‘Why don’t you just get over it?’ And I thought, ‘Yeah, that’s right.’”

His pay-off from the BBC was £456,000, including a bonus of £81,000. The Beeb is now in trouble for excessive pay-offs. Was Dyke overcompensated? He replies that he gave everything but the bonus to York University. “Largely,” he points at me, “because I didn’t want to answer that question. And, remember, I was quite well-off, so it didn’t matter to me. Actually there’s a bloke at York called the Greg Dyke professor of film and television. One day I explained I gave the money because I thought it was tarnished. So the guy says to me, ‘I’m the professor of tarnished money!’”

Are BBC pay-offs generally too high? “The problem at the BBC is that senior salaries went too high. Therefore, pay-offs became very high.”

Our main courses have gone, eaten but almost unnoticed. Dyke orders a “skinny cappuccino”. You’re eating healthily, I say. In Britain, this is an accusation. “That’s because I was up early and ate too much breakfast,” Dyke defends himself.

After the BBC, he took on more chairmanships: at his beloved Brentford football club, where the directors sometimes “had to have a whip-round to pay players’ wages”, and at the BFI. “I walked into the interview and said, ‘You’re not the British Film Institute. You’re the London Film Institute.’” To change that, the BFI has just launched the BFI Player, a video-on-demand online platform that will let people nationwide watch great British film, mostly for free.

At the FA, Dyke oversees English football and the long-suffering national team. Soon after our lunch, England qualified for the 2014 World Cup, but the mood around the team remains pessimistic. “Arsène Wenger said to me,” – Dyke mimics the Arsenal manager’s French accent – ‘Why do you want thees job? It will take 10 years, they weel forget you.’”

Dyke wanted it. Aged 19, he watched much of the only tournament England ever won, the 1966 World Cup. “I was working in west London, I literally could drive over to Wembley the day before a game and buy tickets.”

He names his favourite footballers: George Best and Ryan Giggs. Tellingly, neither is English. As Dyke admitted in a speech last month, while setting England a target of winning the 2022 World Cup: “England does not have a history of success.” He complained that with so many foreign players in the Premier League, young English footballers can no longer break through.

I say that perhaps English players just aren’t good enough. “It could be,” Dyke replies. “Or it could be there there’s just not a pathway through. There are a lot of bog-standard foreign players playing here today.”

Our allotted hour for lunch is over, and Dyke has great British institutions to run, but two men arguing about football are notoriously hard to separate, and we sit for another 25 minutes debating why England lose.

Dyke has been canvassing opinions. “The guy who owns Brentford is Matthew Benham, right? He does everything on statistics. He says the single biggest factor why England haven’t done well is because they’ve been unlucky. He says you can alter the chances of winning on penalties but not by a lot. So when you get knocked out four or five times on penalties, which is what’s happening to England, he says if luck had gone the other way, we’d have won one or two of those.”

We could discuss this for ever but Dyke has to go and talk football with a politician. I ask how he will be remembered. “Somebody once asked at the BBC, ‘How would you like to be seen here?’ I said, ‘When I leave, I want people to be able to say, ‘This was a happier place than before I came here.’ I’d like to think I brought up my children well. I’d like to think this generation of kids are much nicer to their parents than we were. When I was 29, I wouldn’t have phoned my mum and dad because my car had broken down, whereas my kids do. As if you can magically fix it. But they also phone me up for a chat, which we never did.”

It’s the perfect answer, avoiding boastfulness and false modesty. Here’s a management secret they might not teach you at Harvard Business School: be nice.


Century Club

6163 Shaftesbury Avenue

London W1D 6LQ

Pea and ham soup £6.00

Black pudding £9.00

Century salad £10.00

Tortellini £12.00

Mineral water x2 £7.00

Espresso £2.50

Cappuccino £3.00

Total (incl service) £55.69

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