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Michael Lynch's latest challenge - as the new chief executive of the unloved South Bank Centre - will seem like a cakewalk compared to coaxing the reclusive

Jørn Utzon back to the Sydney Opera House He's been here before, but as an oddjobbing newspaper boy back in 1964. Now Michael Lynch has the odder job of heading one of the world's most renowned but troubled arts complexes.

The 51-year-old Australian is the latest high-profile leader to be enlisted by another 51 year old, London's South Bank Centre.

Lynch becomes SBC chief executive in September and freely admits he will need his trademark tough-but-chummy approach for a masterplan that has stalled for 15 years.

'User-friendliness is critical' is his first impression of a stretch of riverside condemned by MPs three months ago as squalid and menacing. Times have changed since Lynch's last prolonged stay in England, a year with his father in Surrey when he was 14 years old.

Much of that change is cultural, and he's keen to bury the cliché of Australian backwardness. 'When I visited with a major arts programme in 1996, most of the TV footage of me was juxtaposed with Dame Edna, ' says Lynch, who was lured from the Sydney Opera House by a £150,000 salary.

'I suspect things have moved on. I'm more comfortable this time round and feel on a pretty equal footing. You've embraced your national soccer manager in a very magnanimous way, and as another middleaged balding guy from abroad, I should be in reasonably good shape to cope.'

Behind the humour lies a cold determination. As chief executive of Sydney Opera House, Lynch coaxed Jørn Utzon back into the concrete fold after an unhappy absence of 33 years. The opera house had a 'tumultuous history' and bad acoustics.

Lynch pushed through a £20 million refurbishment over four years, and has to do much the same at Royal Festival Hall.

'What I have learned over the course of four years at the Sydney Opera House will inevitably inform how we move forward over the next few years here. It is with some regret I am leaving the opera house - I was on a five-year-contract - but after much soul-searching I knew this was too good an opportunity to turn down.'

In the meantime, he is looking at disaster areas here to battle-harden himself for the SBC's grey ramparts. 'We have kept close tabs on the Millennium Dome and Wembley Stadium. The Wembley experience is a very salutary example of how not to move forward, and that's why we want to get more familiar with the masterplan and framework. There are no nirvana-type solutions we can plonk down.'

This may explain why he gives nothing away on the current masterplan by Rick Mather Architects, which could cost up to £200 million. 'I'm very interested in what's on the table. However, I would prefer to be more familiar with who is using it and the views of the staff before I say what we do.

'But it's such a fantastic site with extraordinary opportunities, despite the problems. I'm coming with an outsider's view and hope it will be tempered by views of the staff. I need a clearer idea of how it sits in the broader plans of the council, the mayor and the government before I start putting my foot in.'

Lynch, who studied politics and lists 'macro politics' as an interest, has no doubt that he can handle those who have contributed to the dithering arts scene in England. He has worked closely with several Australian premiers and could be in his element beside Tony Blair's pal Lord Hollick.

The Labour peer and SBC chairman has given the Aussie three months to cement an arts vision and artistic remit before focusing on building volumes, costs and the future of threatened buildings. Lynch feels he is up to it, coming from a breed of gritty arts leaders grounded in all aspects of administration.

'My generation of administrators grew up with a broad perspective, combined with a close understanding of what our centres do and how to work with the people running them. It gives us less hidebound ideas on how to do things.

'In Australia, we have to survive on less money, we have to fight harder, and this is seen as valuable.'

Lynch is equally at ease taking a macro view of arts from the stage to the big screen and insists any changes will be driven by the needs of the arts.

'I'm not interested only in grand architecture - I want the arts to work at their best. We will be looking at hard questions and the connection between what kind of people use arts centres and what they do when they arrive here.

'But as well as focus purely on the arts we must look at big urban issues, such as the internal redevelopment of spaces and buildings and their future uses in design terms. This is a major cultural regeneration project and we have to engage with the masterplan in terms of urban design.'

Before the Opera House he was general manager of the Sydney Theatre Company, which followed a highly successful stint as a casting director for Crocodile Dundee and Kylie Minogue films.

'I didn't want to be seen as the new Crocodile Dundee then, and don't want to be seen as the new Les Patterson now, ' he says, before you can say low-culture or Rupert Murdoch. Lynch is also the chairman of the Australia Asia Pacific Performing Arts Centres and used to head the Australia Council, the equivalent of our Arts Council.

This training ground will become even more distant history in September when Lynch moves here with his wife Crissy Sharp, currently a general manager of the Sydney Festival.

'I always thought I would like to work outside Australia and am happy to do it at the age of 51 rather than 21. At my stage in life you want to look at new challenges, and to be offered this was thrilling and something I jumped at.'

A series of short visits is helping to ease him into SBC territory. His latest stopover saw him touring Foster and Partners' GLA building on an adjacent site, as well as the embattled Hayward Gallery, bang on his new doorstep. Both are superb, he says. But unlike the Royal Festival Hall's 'exciting 24hour ambience', the Hayward needs closer engagement with visitors and has accessibility problems.

Accessibility is high on Lynch's agenda.

As a child he contracted polio, which badly damaged his right leg.

'This job is an excellent chance to think longer term about a legacy for the 21st century rather than look back over the first 51 years, ' he says of the South Bank Centre - not of his own years.

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