Greg Dyke, the BBC and the BFI

From The Times Online today:

The Times
March 6, 2008

Greg Dyke: our man in the stalls at the BFI

The populist new chairman of the British Film Institute says he’s an average filmgoer: ‘I wouldn’t say I was a film buff’

Tim Teeman

He’s a TV man, Greg Dyke. He was when he ran TV-AM, and he was when he left the BBC in 2004 after four years as Director-General to those astonishing scenes of staff chanting his name and thronging him as he left TV Centre for the last time. “That was one of those days that happen once in your life,” Dyke says. “A friend e-mailed from the States to say: ‘The staff walked out when their boss got fired? You do realise this is a first?’”

Television is where his passion still lies and he reveals, in his cheeky-chappy, ebullient way, that he thought the BBC One controller Peter Fincham shouldn’t have been forced out over the Queen controversy of last year (Fincham was appointed ITV’s director of televison last week); and that it was wrong for the editor of Blue Peter to go “over the naming of a cat”. And that he, Dyke, was approached to run Channel 4 after he left the BBC following the Hutton inquiry, “but I told them they needed someone 20 years younger, and they hired Andy Duncan who I recommended”.

Dyke confesses that he misses running the corporation, the money he could dispense, the creative decisions he oversaw: the BBC iPlayer came under his aegis, so was Freeview. Now, as he puts it, he’s a “portfolio man, with directorships here and chairmanships there”, and so it is that he finds himself on his fourth day as the new chairman of the British Film Institute. “It’s not just film, it’s television too,” he says of the new job, and while it is true that the BFI has nearly 700,000 hours of TV in its archive, film – and the jewel in its crown, The Times BFI London Film Festival – is its beating heart. The archive holds 230,000 movies dating from 1895 to today and more than four million film stills. The BFI is a standard-bearer for cinema, but is he?

Dyke says he took on the job, succeeding Anthony Minghella, “because I’m passionate about libraries and access to them. There’s been an explosion in film, theatre and cinema studies and this place has the best library in the world. How best do you utilise it? We live in a digital world and it would be great, if you could sort out the various rights issues, to make our library accessible to everybody.” By this he means all documents, programmes, video, everything, free of charge. When he served on the board of Manchester United the first question his children asked was could he get them tickets. When he got the BFI job, it was the same question.

A passionate man, Dyke is naturally unfettered (thoughts generate thoughts, emotions scud across his features, sentences are frequently left unfinished), but he is chaperoned today by a BFI spokesman, and is muted on the state of the British film industry. “I’ll pass. No one has given me a brief to sort out the British film industry.” Pressed, he says he believes that the film industry is “as healthy as it’s been for some years, and there are some very good film-makers here but the problem is a lot of them end up in America”.

Of shaking up the BFI, he says: “It would be a bit arrogant for me to come from outside and say: ‘This is how we should do it’. You’ve got to listen, throw ideas around.” But:

“Organisations need to reinvent themselves – always. That’s why you change the leadership in organisations.” He is keen to oversee the construction of a £200 million film centre and cinema complex, bringing all the BFI’s operations together under one roof (currently it is split between the National Film Theatre on the South Bank and an office in the West End). “It will say something about the film industry. But it has to have connections outside London. It can’t just be another thing on the South Bank. This is called the British Film Institute, not the London Film Institute.”

He foresees the creation of a series of metropolitan hubs – mini-BFIs, or partnership organisations, with which the BFI can link up in Manchester and Edinburgh and other big cities. The Government has already given a chunk of money, now the BFI is out to raise the rest with private investors and corporate partnerships. Dyke is inspired by the restoration of the Royal Festival Hall, though is also a realist, adding, “Of course first you’ve got to make sure the bloody library survives. What you want is both scholarship and entertainment.”

To that end, Dyke wants to ramp up the red carpet glamour element of The Times BFI London Film Festival. “It may not happen this year. But London should have a great film festival. For what it is, the festival is successful, but I think the idea of making it bigger and glitzier is quite attractive. Film can be a mixture of artform and commercial. You want the festival to be for buffs and the general public. A glitzier film festival is a good idea. It does something for London, which I think is a sensational city of many communities, a transformed city. The festival should reflect that excitement.”

In 2003, the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee said that Dyke “was almost cursory about the BBC’s approach to investment in British films. There was little to suggest that the BBC had a serious strategy.” This clearly still rankles with him. “Yeah, that was completely unfair. I was really pissed off with them. The first thing I did at the BBC was set aside £10 million a year to spend on British film. It was not part of the BBC’s remit to save the British film industry, but I asked Alan Yentob: ‘Go and invest this in interesting films’. By the standards of what the BBC was spending it was small money and a good investment. We made a few good films, like Billy Eliott [sic].”

Is his interest in film “cursory”? “I’m an average filmgoer, I wouldn’t say I was a buff,” he says plainly, and then disproves that by launching into an engaging description of his many cinema loves. On a recent flight he watched No Country for Old Men, which he couldn’t watch at the cinema with his partner Sue because she likes “relationship films and comedies and I like tough movies”. He “loved” Atonement and, a huge Bob Dylan fan, feasted on I’m Not There. The best film he has seen this year was The Lives of Others: the ending was a little implausible, he thinks, “but I was born in 1947 and more than half of my adult life was dominated by the Cold War. It seemed inconceivable that it would end, but it was suddenly not there. The film captured that moment.”

As a boy, Dyke grew up in Hayes, Middlesex, and would go to Saturday morning pictures in Southall, “before the cinema got turned into a bingo hall”. He recalls seeing Norman Wisdom films and wonders if he’d find them funny now. His dad took him to see The Bridge on the River Kwai and Spartacus. “When I did Desert Island Discs I realised all my choices came from when I was aged between 20 and 30. It’s like that with film. Annie Hall is another favourite – that wonderful scene with the lobster – which captured something about love, relationships and passion and disappointment.”

He namechecks One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and recalls “being completely blown away” by Richard Attenborough’s directorial debut, Oh! What a Lovely War: “It was one of those films you wanted to stand up and applaud. It summed up the complete inanity of that sort of war – that incredible final shot where all you can see for miles and miles is crosses.” More trashily, Carrie “was the only film I’ve been in where over half the audience was screaming at that shot of the hand appearing out of the earth.” In Cabaret, he loves “the scene at the end where Sally waves her hand in the light. The film told you something about a particular place at a particular time.” A keen fly fisherman he relished the landing of a whopper in A River Runs Through It.

Film, he thinks, can be too violent. “In Britain we’re tough on TV violence but liberal about sex. In America they’re conservative about sex but happy to show someone getting blown to bits at 6pm. I don’t think you can show violence for its own sake and say: ‘Oh look, that’s a beautiful shot’. There has to be a reason for it.” He balks at Tarantino’s films.

Dyke may say that his role at the BFI is about “strategy, not running the place”, though whether it’s in his genetic make-up to be hands-off with a new trainset is another matter. He gets most animated, for instance, when discussing risk-taking. “Most organisations are risk-averse. We’re pretty short of money and there are limitations. You don’t risk everything, but sometimes you have to say: ‘That’s a great idea, we have got most of the money, we’ll get the rest from somewhere, let’s go’. The BFI will face tough choices. But you have to ask: ‘Can this money be better used somewhere else?’”

He still misses the BBC. He gets wistful and twitchy when asked if he’d ever go back – the response is a soppy and faraway “No”. But he was “quite glad” he wasn’t there last year, “which was obviously a rough time, though I would have handled things differently. I wouldn’t have sacked the editor of Blue Peter for changing the name of a cat. It’s not a heinous crime. I just think Peter Fincham should have said he had made a mistake over the Queen documentary.” He shouldn’t have resigned? I ask. “He didn’t resign,” Dyke says with lifting of the eyebrow. “We all make mistakes.”

Dyke still chairs the TV company that makes Bob the Builder and Thomas the Tank Engine. He made a documentary about Lord Reith last year. Would he go to ITV? “I tried to buy ITV two years ago and I’m glad I didn’t. It’s in terrible shit (yesterday it was announced ITV profits over the past year were down by just over a third). I’m very critical of the way Michael Grade [now ITV’s Executive Chairman] treated the BBC. He was Chairman [of the Board of Governors] and to walk out at the moment of renegotiating the licence fee left [the BBC Director-General] Mark Thompson completely isolated. That was not acceptable.”

Because of the visible devotion he commanded at the BBC, big organisations – and on the day we meet a government minister whom he won’t name – ask him how to get their staff on side. “Every head of an organisation looked at that and said, ‘Would my staff do that for me?’” The key is valuing your workers, listening to them, he says.

As for the film world, Dyke shares a footballing passion with Stewart Till, chairman of the UK Film Council and until recently chairman of Millwall FC; Dyke is chairman of Brentford. What else could win over doubters who believe him not “film” enough? “Watch this space,” he says. Does he like arthouse? He laughs. “I wander over to Richmond Filmhouse every so often. They have nice comfortable seats, whereas the Odeon in Richmond is hardly the most comfortable place to watch films.” Comfy seats and Carrie: the BFI should prepare itself for an unfamiliar dose of proud populism.

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