Tea-party vicar

Citizen Greg: the extraordinary story of Greg Dyke and how he captured the BBC

Chris Horrie and St

Few who have crossed Greg Dyke's path will dispute these authors' unstated assumption that the director general of the BBC is an unusually simple soul. As unashamed hacks, their concern is with plot rather than character or philosophy, and in this case, so much the better. This work is not only unauthorised, but actively opposed by its subject (always a good sign), so we are spared the self-justifying, pseudo-soul-searching reflections that can pollute official biographies of the living. Instead, we get a blow-by-blow account of a straight guy's odyssey, from the back of the telly pack to the top of the broadcasting tree, put together with such narrative skill, energy and economy that it is genuinely hard to put down.

This being England, our authors feel obliged to present their hero as a lower-middle-class suburbanite triumphing over a stuffed-shirt establishment determined to do him down. But, in fact, the chum who got Dyke into television in the first place turns out to have been a minor public schoolboy (Nicholas Evans, the now globally successful author). A City lion, former Tory politician and Oxford fencing blue (Christopher Bland) helped make Dyke a multimillionaire and got him his present job. And his most important champion of all was a silkily suave Oxford First (the London Weekend Television managing director Brian Tesler). Meanwhile, the few who got the better of him include a brassy Texan, who beat him to the top job at Pearson (Marjorie Scardino), the ninth son of a Donegal carpenter, who robbed him of his LWT base (Granada's Gerry Robinson) and the amiable Aussies at Sky, who snatched the football Premier League from under his nose, but whose own manners and speech make Dyke sound like a tea-party vicar.

Still, this is a story that offers enough uplift without an outdated moral to go with it. Would that British TV programmes could match the gripping and surprisingly good-hearted drama of the behind-the-scenes machinations described herein. Although the cast list includes its quota of colourful nutcases, most of the players emerge with credit (if not, sadly, your reviewer, who is accused of destroying Dyke's marriage by overworking him, and then telling him to "fuck off" in his leaving-card).

Dyke himself shines through as an even more heart-warming figure than the (almost) universally high regard in which he is held might lead you to expect. Television drama would have you believe that a high achiever such as Dyke must inevitably be a ruthlessly obsessive careerist, however affable his public pose. Yet Horrie and Clarke find a rounded person whose now problematic membership of the Blairist mafia flowed from a lifetime of genuine political concern, rather than opportunist cronyism. Having been both his boss and underling, I can endorse these findings.

Dyke is recorded as expressing the fear that he is really just a mediocrity who has been unusually lucky and will one day be found out. In this, at least, he is wrong. His virtues may be simple - the ability to see a problem clearly, to pursue its solution relentlessly, to inspire a team and to retain loyalty and even affection while performing necessary but unwelcome deeds - but they are all too rare, not just in British television.

Are they enough, however, for the challenges that lie ahead? Well, Dyke may have had little trouble in rescuing TV-am, reshaping ITV for a changed world or turning Pearson Television into a global player, but to achieve these undoubted triumphs, he had to confront tasks that were already clearly defined. The BBC's problem, on the other hand, has yet to be articulated.

What, in a universe so utterly changed from the one in which John Reith became Dyke's first predecessor in 1927, is the BBC for? If an answer cannot be provided and made to resonate in the hearts of viewers, listeners, licence-payers and politicians, the corporation may be doomed. Yet this is not the kind of project for which Dyke's experience has prepared him. So far, he has run away from it, putting his energies instead into areas that he finds more familiar but which actually matter less, such as curbing bureaucracy, repackaging channels or stealing a march on the competition by beating ITV to the ten o'clock news slot.

If Dyke can find within him (or from elsewhere) something of the "vision thing" he has so far been able to manage without, Horrie and Clarke may yet be able to weigh in with a sequel worthy of this present impressive effort, perhaps titled How Citizen Greg Saved the BBC. But the current volume, for all the credit it rightly does its subject, provides no guarantee that he will be able to.

David Cox is a former head of current affairs at LWT