Editor-At-Large: I like Greg Dyke, but not enough to pat him on the back

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The Independent Online

I know Greg Dyke, the BBC director general, pretty well. For several years he was my producer, back in the heady days of London Weekend Television, when I fronted The Six O'Clock Show with Michael Aspel on Friday nights. Greg Dyke is smart and he doesn't mince his words. You certainly know if he doesn't think a programme is up to his standards. He does a very good impersonation of me moaning - he's certainly not known for his tactfulness, and I was frequently berated by him for complaining I was presenting something "common" and "stupid". Greg, unlike many of his workforce at the BBC, is no elitist, and is obsessed with programming that reaches as many people as possible.

So it was pretty stupid of Chris Bryant MP, as a member of the House of Commons Select Committee on Media and Sport, to compare the BBC's annual report to that of Enron, the energy giant. He was not only wrong; he missed the point.

Gavyn Davies, the BBC chairman, may be a millionaire economist, but he's no crook, and neither is Greg Dyke. Their crime, and it is a crime given their joint intelligence, was to think that 2003 was a good year to produce yet another of those syrupy, self-congratulatory BBC annual reports, and to think that it would not attract more than the expected adverse comment.

The climate has changed, fellows, and I don't mean that digital is all about us. There couldn't have been a worse time to produce the usual anodyne twaddle about meeting objectives and continuing excellence. Not only is half the Commons convinced that the BBC is no longer impartial, but there is a strong lobby to break up the licence fee into separate payments for radio and television. Another powerful group of opinion formers and commentators wants the licence fee abolished altogether. By spending so much money setting up and running the digital services, and writing a confusing set of accounts so that no one believes that "only" £279.9m was spent on these services (that's more than £15 of every single licence fee) when many reckon the figure is nearer £400m, the BBC has created a dangerous situation for itself.

The annual report, of course, celebrates excellence in programming, but surely a little more humility wouldn't go amiss when most of us are paying for digital services we cannot receive without subscribing to Sky. Then, the word "successful" ought to be banned from BBC documents. I read that "it has been a very successful year" for BBC4, the channel I can't get in Yorkshire or Kent. Apparently it was watched by 12 million people. This manipulation of figures, and use of phrases such as "approval ratings" and "reach" rings hollow. BBC3 for example reached 25 per cent of the target audience, whatever that might be. Digital services reach 35 per cent of digital households.

Arts programmes "show signs of revitalisation", without any acknowledgement that there are now so pitifully few of them. The report is reduced to praising Rolf on Art and documentaries about George Eliot and Jane Austen linked to the television dramatisations of Daniel Deronda and Mansfield Park. The governors tell us they expect BBC1 and BBC2 not to show the same genre of programming at the time time, giving the viewer choice. That's why BBC1 announced last week that it plans to show Fame Academy on Saturday nights opposite Pop Idol on ITV. You, dear viewer, are the loser, not the BBC. The only chink in the smug, cosy world of Greg and co is an admission that Saturday nights on BBC1 are still "one of the most challenging areas", with "no single compelling format" breaking through. This is code for us to find another Noel Edmonds, for God's sake.

The governors exist to represent the licence payers' interests to the BBC programme-makers, and in this report we see scant evidence that this is a task they have any appetite for. Chris Bryant was right when he talked about reflecting his constituents' views. Unless the governors demonstrate more fibre and less semolina-like acquiescence, they will soon be swept aside and the BBC regulated by Ofcom. Apart from acknowledging that the BBC is failing to attract viewers from ethnic minorities (the reach and share of viewers in this category fell) even though the cast of Holby City has a greater racial mix than the Notting Hill Carnival - there's no plan of action, no individual carrying the can.

What we learn from this gorgeously produced, well-designed, easy-to-read document is that same lesson we glean from those expensive, well-designed on-screen promotions the BBC is so good at. The BBC is a world leader at patting itself on the back. The only trouble is, we're paying for it.

Hard to swallow

So the Atkins diet now outsells all books except Harry Potter. I won't be reading either, thanks. The new, sleazy, warts-and- all biography of Frank Sinatra beckons, written by his former butler. I'd far rather be nodding off in the sun over the antics of Frank, Mia and Ava, than learning how to combine steak with pork, cream, Béarnaise sauce and fried eggs in order to have the nasty, bony chest of Jennifer Aniston or Kelvin MacKenzie - a recent convert.

Now eating in other people's homes is dying out fast - and why have people round to supper when half of them don't want croutons, don't eat bread, scrape the quiche off the pastry and the pizza off its base, and leave their potatoes? They eat pasta without the sauce, chicken without the stuffing and steak and kidney pie without the topping. Luckily, chez JSP we still consume old-style food along the fattening lines suggested by great chefs such as Simon Hopkinson and Mark Hix. Going to drinks parties is even more of a minefield, as people unwrap ham from asparagus, and take fish roe and smoked salmon off their weeny wholemeal bases. Diet mania fails to breed any manners whatsoever. Devotees talk of nothing else but "combining" and "eliminating". Whatever happened to relaxed eating with a group of close friends?

Only two summers ago I cooked vast fish stews for weekend lunches, eaten with French bread, potatoes and lashing of mayonnaise laced with garlic. I haven't dared risk the rejection lately. 2003 will surely go down as the year sensible eating vanished. No doubt Marks & Spencer will soon be launching an Atkins-approved range of meals for one.

Last Thursday Kenneth Branagh returned to the West End stage for the first time in 11 years with an extraordinary performance as the central character in David Mamet's 20-year-old, one-act drama, Edmond. It bears a resemblance to John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, but is set on the sleaziest streets of New York. Edmond leaves his wife and subsequently embarks on a rapid descent into hell, killing a waitress and ending up in jail. Before long, Ken's got all his kit off and the Branagh genitalia are wobbling about for all the £10 audience (this is part of the very commendable cheap-ticket season at the National Theatre) to see.

The nudity is irrelevant really as the play itself is such a scorcher. No one does visceral dialogue better than David Mamet. Branagh's accent is perfect, his white, slightly flabby body a pleasingly believable specimen. The trouble is this one-act play would be better seen in more intimate surroundings, with a smaller cast. Instead, the National has thrown a lot of money on a revolving set, a neon crucifix and a lavish bar. I would have preferred to see half-a-dozen actors double up and play several roles - some characters are on stage for only a couple of lines - and kept the props to a minimum. It all tends to detract from what Branagh is doing - a thoroughly compelling piece of work.