A vintage performer relives a year when he made £7m in just one day

Marc Sidwell
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AS THE wine is poured, Greg Dyke winces slightly: “just a little for me”. That’s nothing to do with the wine, which is one of the world’s best – a 1991 Penfolds Grange – but Dyke, whose stint as Director-General of the BBC ended in controversy in 2004 when he resigned on the publication of the Hutton Report, is now chair of the British Film Institute (BFI) and, caught in the whirl of the London Film Festival, he is out for premieres and drinks every night.

Still, that doesn’t dent his enthusiasm: “The film I saw last night, The King’s Speech, was wonderful, an absolute sensation”. At 63, Dyke still gives off a irrepressible and infectious energy, and as he cheerfully approves the abolition of the Film Council – “I don’t mourn their passing – they never funded the BFI properly” – and reaches for his glass, the note of caution is swiftly set aside.

We are tasting this very special vintage – with intense licorice and dark berry flavours, it also aids the flow of conversation marvellously – in the sixteenth-century wine cellar of the Stafford Hotel, courtesy of Penfolds. Dyke will be speaking on 2 November at the Hospital club in Covent Garden, and those attending will be able to taste the same wine and hear both from Peter Gago, Penfolds chief winemaker, and from Dyke about why he calls 1991 his own vintage year.

vintage year

Educated at Hayes Grammar School and the University of York, Dyke’s CV is full of incident, from saving TV-am with Roland Rat to his battles at the BBC, but in 1991 he pulled off a remarkable coup that made his personal fortune and showed his rivals why this amiable businessman should not be treated lightly. At the time, Dyke was managing director of London Weekend Television (LWT).

LWT was faced with a preposterously-structured blind auction for ITV franchises, which Dyke says was a classic case of someone coming up with a decent free market idea and parliament amending it into a bizarre, unrecognisable mess. But Dyke rose to the challenge. “A couple of weeks out, I stopped doing my job and turned myself into an investigative journalist. I spoke to everyone, people they’d almost appointed, found out who was properly capitalised, found out what ITN’s bid was going to be. So by the end I knew as much as I could about everyone else’s hand.”

Dyke had also read the small print. Puzzling through the detail of the auction structure, he realised that a “quality threshold” allowed him to underbid his rivals and still win. LWT bid £7m and won, the competition bid £30m and lost. Dyke also won against TV-am, the company he had once saved and which later sacked him. “That was one of those cases of revenge being best delivered cold,” he smiles. The best revenge of all may have been the money Dyke made for himself on the deals – the franchise decisions on one day in 1991 eventually netted him £7m. “We had the most amazing party that night – people were still asleep on the floor the next morning.”

funding the bbc

Dyke never had to worry about money again, which perhaps leaves him now more willing than most to speak as he finds. Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell are dismissed as “unpleasant political thugs”, the experience of whose authoritarian instincts in government will keep him from ever voting Labour again. His report on the creative industries for the Conservatives was handed in but never published, probably because of his recommendation that the most sacred of cows, the BBC’s licence fee, should be killed off.

“I believe the BBC should be well-funded. If we’re stuck with a model that means it won’t be, that ought to change. The licence fee’s days are numbered; it can’t be sustained when people can just watch on the internet now. I saw my kids at university doing it. Anyway, it’s an unfair tax: the poor pay the same and the rich probably use it more. I’d like to see a hypothecated tax.”

He also drily notes that rumours of the BBC’s 16 per cent austerity cut are greatly exaggerated “The BFI would have welcomed that deal. You have to remember household growth of 1 per cent a year will add to the licence fee income, and there’s a big chunk only temporarily assigned to digital switchover until 2012. It’s a good swap for the guarantee that the licence fee will continue for six more years.”

Dyke’s views on the future of television deserve attention: he is one of the fathers of Freeview, an idea that he jokes was “too good for the public sector”, that made free digital television simple enough to become mainstream – 11m boxes later, it is hard to recall it even had to be invented.

Still, for all Dyke’s evident interest in these questions, he denies any desire to be back in the driving seat. Rumours about his return to Channel 5 were “silly” and while there was talk in March this year of Dyke being considered to take over as editor of the Independent, that “didn’t work out”.

Dyke doesn’t seem especially sorry. Living a portfolio life with plenty of holidays – and excellent wine – Dyke is happy to just pass on a little of his advice to the next generation.
Greg Dyke will give a Penfolds’ Vintage Years speech for budding entrepreneurs on 2nd November at The Hospital Club, London, followed by a Penfolds wine-tasting. Register for a ticket at vintageyears@penfolds.com


Age: 63

Education: Hayes Grammar School and York University

Family: Married with four children

Career: Dyke began his career as a local newspaper journalist. He worked at LWT before becoming editor-in-chief of TV-am in 1983. Dyke then moved to TVS and LWT, after which he became chief executive at Pearson and also guided the creation of Channel 5. Director-General of the BBC from 2000, Dyke resigned after the Hutton report in 2004. He is Chair of Brentford FC, Chair of the BFI and Chancellor of York University

Famous achievements: Put Roland Rat on TV-am; created Freeview; cut administration costs at the BBC from 24 per cent to 15 per cent of total income

Motto: “Be bold; go for it.”