Profile: Alan Yentob; The insider's extrovert

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
In one episode of Absolutely Fabulous, Edina and Patsy went to visit an old friend living in Marrakesh. The friend, played by the late John Wells, had a Moroccan manservant. Summoning him, he bawled: "Yentob." It was a nice in-joke for the media village. The real Yentob in fact commissioned the series, one of the BBC's most successful of the last decade. But the more realistic cameo for the corporation's director of television would have been wining and dining Julia Roberts in the film Notting Hill.

No one lives the image of media man with more enthusiasm than Alan Yentob. He dresses the part: Armani or Comme des Garcons suit, black Ralph Lauren polo shirt. He lives in the right place, Notting Hill itself, a few doors away from his erstwhile protege and now head of Channel 4, Michael Jackson. He takes the air in the Notting Hill communal gardens; he breakfasts in the Halcyon, the chi-chi media hotel in nearby Holland Park, and sometimes returns to Notting Hill from his White City headquarters to lunch at Orsino's.

Yentob, 52, is firmly among the favourites in the race to succeed Sir John Birt as director general. It's conceivable that he will land the top job himself, though, as we revealed yesterday, some of the smart money is moving to his being deputy to Greg Dyke, the former LWT outsider. The two former rivals have met and discussed the dream-ticket possibility. Even in the latter scenario, Yentob, as one of the best schedulers the corporation has had and the man behind some of its more successful programmes, would be Mr Dyke's creative eyes and ears, with a major responsibility for programming.

There could be few better choices. Yentob not only comes from the "creative side" of television, he knows the creative side well enough to take it home. The playwright Arthur Miller would accompany Yentob to his mother's for lunch. "He just loves her chicken soup," Yentob told a friend.

Indeed, if there is a favourite Yentob line among his BBC colleagues it is: "As I said to Orson..." And he did. In 1982, he made a programme about Welles and the two became friends. In looks Yentob has been correctly described as a cross between Salman Rushdie and Ringo Starr. He is a close friend of the former and has no doubt described life, fashion and drumming with the latter at some stage.

In the era of accountants, budget cuts, bureaucratic jargon and faceless management, Yentob's heart remains in programme-making and dealing with artists, from playwrights to pop stars such as David Bowie (pictured below). If he gets the top job, many will see it as a possible return to a golden age. Certainly, he is a champion of the programme-maker and an instinctive and mercurial scheduler. He paid a social visit to the Royal Opera at Covent Garden, liked the production enormously and cleared the schedules for it the following Saturday. He was so taken with his young son's delight in the animation The Wrong Trousers that he put it on BBC1 one Christmas Day.

But a study of some of his recent pronouncements show that he has also quietly taken on more of the Birtian ethos than his champions might acknowledge. In one recent interview he looked back on his early days at the BBC with a slightly cynical perspective: "A producer had the right to fail," he said, "but also, I'm sorry to say, the right to be a failure. There were huge freedoms, but we were remarkably complacent. We had to start finding out how much programmes really cost to make. Don't forget, Match of the Day costs as much as Pride and Prejudice, and the whole point of the BBC is that we need to do both."

Yentob was a baby boomer, born in 1947 in London to a family of Sephardic Jews who had left Iraq a few years earlier. His family quickly moved to Manchester and his father ran a successful textile business there. Alan grew up in the leafy suburb of Didsbury. The family returned to London and a Park Lane flat when Yentob was 12. But one memory of his Didsbury childhood stayed with him. As he said in a Bafta lecture in 1997: "My family's television set opened up the world for me."

After the return to London he and his non-identical twin brother Robert became boarders at King's School in Ely. Yentob worked hard, passing his A-levels at 16, then went on to the Sorbonne in Paris and a year at Grenoble University before going to Leeds, ostensibly to study law, but immersing himself in student drama and pursuing what remain his two chief pastimes, swimming and reading.

His father had hoped that he would go into the family business, as his brother did. Instead, in 1968 Alan joined the BBC as its only non-Oxbridge graduate of that year. His obsessive nature soon became evident. Friends remember him in the cutting-room day and night, cigarette and wine glass in hand, agonising over shots. He spent 18 years in BBC Arts, working on Arena and Omnibus, and meeting the glitterati who were to become his friends. In 1986 he became controller of BBC2; he took over BBC1 a few years later and latterly has been overall director of television.

It was in the BBC canteen that he met his partner, Philippa Walker, a TV director, with whom he has two children, Jacob and Isabella. Philippa, who continues to direct, is a strong influence on Yentob, friends say. Michael Jackson, head of Channel 4, knows the couple well. He says: "She has extremely strong points of view - about television, about everything."

Yentob enlivened BBC2 by commissioning Ab Fab and Have I Got News For You and had responsibility for setting up the seminal TV arts programme The Late Show. His drama commission range from Middlemarch and Pride and Prejudice to populist offerings such as Ballykissangel. And he can be decisive in wielding the axe on expensive failures, as the cast of Eldorado discovered when he went out to Spain shortly after becoming BBC1 controller to give them notice.

Yentob was never particularly close to Sir John Birt, though the latter entrusted him with leading a programme strategy review. But with the time for the appointment of Birt's successor approaching, Yentob saw the need to be viewed as a policy planner. He had been stung, say friends, that he had not been offered the Channel 4 job, which went to his junior partner Michael Jackson, who had succeeded him as BBC2 controller.

Jackson, who could easily have been a rival for the DG job if he weren't now committed to Channel 4, feels the time is now right for Yentob. "He would have been the wrong candidate last time round," he says, "but a good management structure is now in place and what is needed for the BBC in the future is a big-picture vision of its purpose and its values. Alan has a real sense of the values and the sense of the BBC as a creative organisation. In his work he is engaging and charismatic; as a companion he is witty and obsessive. And I found that he is excellent at encouraging people, which a director general needs to be. He is also well connected and people want to spend time with him. That is important for the job, as well."

Notoriously disorganised (he once left a meeting with a producer to take a phone call and never returned, having totally forgotten about the meeting), Yentob has begun to surround himself with a different breed of BBC person from his usual creative chums. Most significantly, he brought in the Glaswegian David Docherty, the BBC strategy whiz-kid, to be his right-hand man and help build up his reputation as a policy thinker. To the surprise of many, Yentob suddenly started talking about "tribes" of audiences and commissioned a study into the supposed 100 tribes who make up the BBC audience. It was a Docherty idea but Yentob dutifully paid lip service to it.

"People complain, I know. And there are people who are under-served by us. That's why we've put so much emphasis on getting to know the audience better. We've talked about the so-called 100 tribes, and that's a way of acknowledging that there are new and different communities of interest out there, which need to be reached in new and different ways."

But Yentob's heart may not be in those new and different ways. He is at his most passionate in championing the BBC's traditional public-service values. In an interview last year, he said: "Look, when people talk about things not being what they were, I have to say: who else would spend three years making Attenborough's new series on birds? Or Cold War? Or The Death of Yugoslavia? That was a brave response to an incredibly complicated situation. And you may say that only a million people watched it, but that means there were a million people in this country better informed."

Then, just a few weeks ago, he overtly recaptured the "creative vote". Launching the new schedules, notably high on quality drama and educational programmes and low on docu-soaps, he declared that the BBC should stop worrying about ratings.

Commenting on ITN dropping News at Ten, and its replacement with Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, he said: "We do not feel that after a couple of weeks of ITV doing well we have to reinvent the rules... but we do want to remind people of the BBC's strengths. It's a long game and [audience] share is not the only objective. Clearly our competitors are stronger than they were - that's the environment we have to live in - but there are added values that the BBC can bring and we are not going to forsake them for the sake of audience share. "It is different to ITV. ITV can forsake the news in peak time; the BBC cannot and will not do that."

Being the torchbearer for news coverage did him no harm, either. Yentob has never worked in news and this has been thought an impediment to his becoming director general. Indeed, he has some ground to make up with the news departments. As director of television, Yentob has tried to move Newsnight to a later slot; it took Sir John Birt's intervention to keep the flagship programme in its present slot.

But it was Yentob's bravery of at last divorcing the BBC from the interminable ratings chase and publicly championing its core values which sounded like a director general, or, at the very least, a deputy director general in rehearsal. As a credo, it is certainly one that will endear itself to viewers and programme-makers who want quality programme-making to be the priority, and feel uncomfortable with the BBC (under Yentob, it must be admitted) paying massive fees to sign up game-show hosts and downmarket light entertainment stars.

The creatives have rediscovered their champion. Beryl Vertue, chair of the producers' alliance, Pact, says: "Like a stick of rock, Yentob has BBC written all through him. He has a rapport with the creative community and is supportive of indies. We need someone to put the soul back into the BBC." As Orson might have said to Alan.

A Concise History

Born: 11 March 1947, London

Education: King's School, Ely; University of Grenoble and University of Leeds

Family: Father, Isaac, and mother, Flora. Partner; Philippa Walker, a BBC director. One daughter, Bella (4) and a son, Jacob (8).

Career: Joined the BBC as a general trainee 1968; editor, Arena 1978- 1985; head of music and arts, 1985-1988; controller, BBC2, 1988-1993; controller, BBC1, 1993-1996; director of programmes, BBC TV, 1996-1997; director of television 1997- present

Responsible for: The Private Life of the Ford Cortina; The Late Show; Oranges are Not the Only Fruit; Absolutely Fabulous

Pastimes: Swimming, books, the arts

He says: "I think the BBC is big enough and generous enough to allow all kinds of individuals to thrive within it"

They say: "Family entertainment means nothing. Maybe he has a complex about people with experience," (Bruce Forsyth). "More than any other controller, he has managed to make the people in entertainment feel part of the BBC" (Noel Edmonds)