The Alan Yentob Experience

Spending a lifetime with the BBC hasn't dampened Creative Director Alan Yentob's enthusiasm for the Arts. As a new series of his interview show, Imagine, begins, Sholto Byrne talks to him about expenses, The Culture Show, Arthur Miller and chicken soup.
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The Independent Online

"Botney," says Alan Yentob. "That's what Private Eye used to call me. It is, as you can imagine, my name backwards. In fact, the whole thing is Nala Botney." The creative director of the BBC, whose sprawling remit includes drama, entertainment and children's programmes, lounges comfortably in his Day-Glo office, seeming almost amused by the reversal of his names. We are talking about nicknames because we are discussing the new series of his BBC1 arts show, Imagine. In one past programme Yentob went on a road trip to Mexico with DBC Pierre, the Booker Prize-winning author of Vernon God Little. Pierre, I'd noticed, seemed to have coined a new moniker for his companion. "Oh, yes, what was it?" "Yobs," I proffer. "Yes, Yobs was a new one on me. But I thought it was a perfectly legitimate abbreviation."

Yentob is happy to talk about the series, a return to programme-making for a man who has held nearly every important desk job in the corporation. Even slightly hairy moments during filming, such as when Pierre set up a Mexican customs official to give Yentob an energetic frisking (which culminated in the production of a planted photo of Osama bin Laden from the presenter's bag), are the subject of fond recollection.

But this has not been a happy few months for Yentob. In July, the new director general, Mark Thompson, asked the BBC's chief operating officer, John Smith, to investigate "concerns" over the use of his expense budgets. Despite his insistence that he had done nothing wrong, Yentob endured three months of speculation, over both his lifestyle - deemed by some to be overly glamorous for a BBC executive - and whether this was a tactic by the new guard to undermine his position. The conclusion, at the end of last month, was that there had been "no dishonesty" on his part, but that he had taken "insufficient care over some aspects of his affairs". Yentob's voice hardens when I bring up the investigation.

"Did I welcome it?" he says. "No, certainly not. I did think to myself: 'Hey, you're in the public domain. Sometimes these things happen, and if they're going to happen, they'd better be dealt with properly. The BBC needs to deal with it in its own possibly over-rigorous way, but it needs to be seen to be doing it.' " Wasn't it unnecessarily public? "Possibly." Should the public have known about it at all? "Did I think it needed to be known? No, but the BBC felt if there was something out there in the public domain - because someone had rung the papers - a denial of it would look like we had something to hide, that they were trying to be protective of me. So I was generous enough to say: 'OK, if you have to do it, then do it.' So they did it."

How did he feel about the way the investigation was interpreted? "Well, once you've agreed that there was going to be a process, there had to be a process. Because it was undertaken by Mark Thompson, because we work together and we're close colleagues, they had to be rigorous about it. Was it enjoyable? No. And what are the rules about whistleblowers? I mean, in public life now the scrutiny is problematic for quite a lot of people. Especially since anyone can say anything they like, apparently." Off the record, Yentob elaborates on how disgracefully he thinks one newspaper behaved in making an allegation against him and then tucking away its subsequent apology.

"Would I rather it hadn't happened?" he continues. "Yes. Can I understand why it happened? I suppose I can. Do I feel now that it's over, there will be lessons to be learned from it? Yes, I do." The lesson for him, I suggest, might have something do with improving his reputation for being rather untidy in the conduct of his affairs. I remind him of Greg Dyke's reaction, when asked if there was any substance to the investigation. "Bollocks," said the former DG. "Alan isn't organised enough to fiddle his expenses." Yentob looks a little pained. "Yes, I did hear what Greg said. All I can tell you is that when it came to some annual reviews and things, I was better at it than Greg."

He bursts out laughing. We have moved on from a matter that has been a considerable distraction from, and, he clearly thinks, an unjustified irritation in, a working life whose purpose has been focused entirely on the BBC since he left Leeds University in 1968.

Born in 1947, into a family of Sephardic Jews who had left Iraq for London a few years before, Yentob spent the major part of his childhood in Manchester, where his father ran a successful textile business. When he was 12, the family returned to London, to an apartment on Park Lane. It sounds like it was a lively and - dare one say? - slightly disorganised household, with relatives, particularly his great uncle Isaak, turning up out of the blue for extended stays. His grandfather and many other cousins were also called Alan. "Always the ones who misbehaved," Yentob has said, "were called Alan." He and his non-identical twin brother, Robert, who went on to run the family firm, boarded at the King's School, Ely. Alan passed his A-levels at 16, and left school for spells at the Sorbonne and Grenoble University before reading law at Leeds.

Yentob was the sole non-Oxbridge graduate trainee of his intake, a distinction he thinks may have been partly attributable to an unusual approach to the entry form. "As I'd been to Leeds and everything," he says, "I thought: 'Well, hey, you've got to get noticed, otherwise they'll only go through the Oxford applications.' "

He calls for his secretary to produce a copy of the form. In the space for details of personal activities and interests, I read the opening paragraph, typed by what must have been a very cocky young Yentob: "Although possibly not a significant qualification for entry to the BBC, my dramatic debut at the age of nine as Mistress Page in The Merry Wives of Windsor was greeted with a gratifying critique by one of my contemporaries: 'You ought to be a film star 'cos you've got smashing legs.' " "Are the legs still lovely?" I ask Vanda Rumney, the BBC's head of press, who is sitting with us. "I'm afraid I haven't seen them," she replies tactfully. Yentob keeps his legs snugly hidden under the table.

A more relevant and more familiar Yentob emerges later in the application form: "Recently I've directed a new play by the Polish writer Slavomir Mrozek which was extremely well received. I am now adapting this play for a TV production."

These last two are sentences that one could imagine Yentob saying at any stage in his BBC career; for culture has always been his passion. He was the editor of Omnibus and then Arena, which he helped create, followed by head of music and arts. He made programmes on The Private Life of a Ford Cortina and the song My Way, and became firm friends with some of his subjects, including Orson Welles and Mel Brooks. (Brooks and his wife, Anne Bancroft, are godparents to Jacob and Isabella, Yentob's children with his partner, Philippa Walker.)

In his subsequent positions, as controller of BBC2 and then BBC1, director of programmes, and director of television, right up to his present empire, which is Prescottian in its diversity, Yentob has always treasured the arts - for instance, once clearing BBC1's schedule for a broadcast of Stiffelio, after he attended a performance of the opera at Covent Garden - apart from one period when he admits taking his "eye off the ball".

"It was three or four years ago. When Greg first came, we put a big investment into drama, and the zeitgeist had left the arts a bit behind. Melvyn [Bragg] likes to point the finger at me," he says of a period when the corporation was widely accused of turning its terrestrial channels into a cultural desert. Later, when we discuss BBC arts coverage in general, Yentob decides to share the blame more widely. I point out to him that when Imagine first started, Mark Thompson, who had then moved from being director of television at the BBC to run Channel 4, dismissed the increase in arts programmes as BBC window-dressing ahead of the licence-fee review. At the time, Yentob replied: "It's entertaining that it should be Mark Thompson, when he is the person responsible for removing them in the first place."

Yentob looks surprised but pleased when I read his quote back to him. One senses that he doesn't mind a bit of creative conflict, perhaps especially with someone like Thompson, who succeeded him up the BBC ladder but is now his superior. "You've really done your research, haven't you? That's rather brilliant. Mark and I were both taking positions at the time, he as the chief executive of Channel 4 and me as the BBC's person who you hit on the head if there's any problem with the arts coverage. Mark was director of television and was also involved in the big challenge of building BBC1. And the honest truth is that he, as well as, if not more than, I, took his eye off the arts ball. We were all collectively responsible, so it was neat of Mark to say that.

"Actually, I said to him the other day: 'I never did slag you off for that, Mark', and obviously you picked up on the one time I did. He also said," continues Yentob, gleefully reviving old grievances, "that there was a Jacuzzi of cash here, and now he's finding out that there isn't."

Although he is no longer on the BBC's executive board, Yentob remains at the heart of BBC decision-making, sitting on the creative board and regularly liasing with other executives. (His speech is peppered with references to how he had discussed this with "Roly" - Keating, controller of BBC 2 - and that with "Jana" - Bennett, director of television).

What of the proposed moves to the regions? If CBBC and CBeebies move to Manchester, will he go, too? His answer suggests that the children's stations are likely to go - but under new management. "Would I move there? I don't know, I haven't really, I haven't decided that, that may not... I mean, I started them all off, and bluntly they may not need me, and I may be, you know, we'll have to see about that.

"With CBBC or CBeebies we haven't invested in a flagship branded studio, we try to fit them in where we can round here. So they haven't got a kind of physical identity. Would we be better off doing it there? I think more and more people are beginning to see it as an exciting opportunity." Yentob warns that all may not be revealed on December 7, when various BBC reports are due to be announced, but says: "I think we'll be putting flesh on it before Christmas."

He's been through so many BBC reorganisations, I say. "Oh yes," he says. "Oy vey!" But articles have appeared claiming that this one will involve an alarming number of job cuts, even that up to half the staff will be let go. "Let me be clear about that," he says. "That story was bollocks. That doesn't mean to say that there won't be a shift. We are talking about people leaving the BBC, and when I say leaving it, I mean working for it in a different capacity." That sounds like a euphemism, I tell him. "Yes, it is a euphemism, all right. People are going to lose their jobs, there's no question about that."

I ask him about the Barwise Report, which concluded that both BBC3 and BBC4 needed to have more impact, and proposed that BBC3 drop its emphasis on youth and go more mainstream. "The issue is: have the channels got big enough audiences? Well, of course, they haven't. But we need to look a little longer to see what the right balance is. To give up and say: 'Right, let's change the mix because no one's watching' - I don't think that's right."

By this point, I have had to admit that I am among those not watching, because I only have an old-fashioned analogue aerial and can't get the digital channels. Yentob looks astonished. He turns to Vanda Rumney. "Shall we give him a handout? It's very cheap, you know, only £50. Why doesn't The Independent pay me for the interview and I'll buy you the box? That's kosher, isn't it?" He returns to the subject later on, when we talk further about BBC3. "It's a mixed-genre channel," he says, "although I am talking to someone who hasn't got an, erm..." He looks at me accusingly.

Finally, he asks me why I haven't got a box. "Do you feel angry that the BBC is spending money that you pay the licence fee for on channels you don't see?" "Yes," I reply. "And do you feel: 'Why should I have to pay £50?' " I nod again. Yentob shrugs and gives up, in the face of what he clearly regards as lunatic obstinacy. "Hmmm, you're a tough guy. You'll be waiting until it costs £20, or the government just gives one to you. Meanwhile, a lot of the really ace stuff will be on BBC2, but you'll just have to wait a while."

We turn to a programme we can both watch, The Culture Show, the first edition of which went out at 7pm and 11.20pm last Friday to mixed reviews. "My view is that we shouldn't be making big statements about it," he says. "We should see how it works, how it will evolve and change."

Originally, he explains, he was thinking about a replacement for The Late Show, to go out after Newsnight, "because I'd watch it then. I don't watch television at 7pm - nor do you probably. But a lot of people said that's marginalising it, that if you put it out late, it means the BBC isn't serious about it. So we were convinced it was right to put it at 7pm, but with a narrative repeat after Newsnight. Of course, that says something about the material you can show at 7pm and what you can show later."

Does that mean that if, say, Tom Paulin appears on the programme he'll be told to moderate his language? "Well at 7pm he won't be able to say 'fuck'." Yentob talks of the possibility of "versioning" the two editions, so that, presumably, all manner of four-letter words will be welcomed in one and excised in the other.

No one need tell Yentob to mind his language in Imagine. The criticism, to which he is overly sensitive, is that he is too soft with his subjects - not least because some of them are his friends. He detects a note of this when we talk about the forthcoming series, one episode of which is on Arthur Miller. They've known each other for a long time, I begin. Miller is reported to be partial to the chicken soup made by Yentob's mother.

"So it seems," he says drily. "I can't deny that. I have this problem, I do know him. The Al's Pals thing sits around my neck but, actually, I have done 21 programmes and I only knew two of them. That's why I'm glad you've seen the programmes, so we can pass Go."

I wasn't trying to say that it's bad to make friends with the people he interviews, I say. "No," he replies, "and remember, Arthur lives in America and I live here. And he's a literary figure, not a criminal. I feel there's sometimes a sort of sense, even among arts people, that you have no right to speak to him unless you interrogate him about his misdeeds. I think drawing people out - that's what you're really there for."

So that's why Yentob will continue to travel the cultural world, making new pals and, as even his critics would have to concede, making very watchable programmes about areas of the arts that are rare visitors to BBC1. If you want to see the legs, by the way, he says that Saturday morning, when he wanders down the road from his Notting Hill home to the swimming baths in his trunks, is the best time to catch them.


BBC lifer

Alan Yentob was born in 1947. He spent his early years in Manchester before moving to London aged 8, and has devoted his entire professional life to the BBC. He joined the BBC World Service as a trainee in 1968. In 1973 he became a producer and director on the documentary series Omnibus - his most famous contribution was the film Cracked Actor about David Bowie. In 1978 he created Arena, a unique arts series acclaimed for breaking the BBC mould. In 1985 he became head of music and arts and then controller of BBC2 in 1988. He immediately appointed Janet Street-Porter to oversee "yoof" TV, and during his five years at the helm of the channel he introduced classics such as Have I Got News For You and Absolutely Fabulous. He was appointed controller of BBC1 in 1993 and is now creative director and director of drama, entertainment and CBBC. He has never reached the pinnacle of director general, having lost out to Greg Dyke in 2000. One senior and long-term BBC colleague said: "If you cut Alan in half, you will find "public service broadcasting" and "BBC" written right through him.

Those expenses

Alan Yentob was cleared of expense-fiddling last week after a three-month BBC investigation. The corporation brought in a specialist investigator to examine allegations that expense claims filed by Yentob during the filming of his BBC1 documentary Leonardo last year were extravagant. The enquiry scrutinised his use of perks including flights and a chauffeur driven car. Yentob, who flatly denied the allegations throughout, branding them "malicious" will not face any action, although the enquiry did find that he had taken "insufficient care over some aspects of his affairs."

Special Relationship

Despite losing the director-generalship to Greg Dyke, Yentob has remained his friend and ally, especially in the wake of recent BBC upheavals.

Little Black Book

After thirty years of working in television, Yentob's contacts book is understandably bulging, and has spilled over into his private life. Close personal friends include David Bowie, Charles Saatchi and Nigella Lawson, while Anne Bancroft and Mel Brooks are godparents to his children.

The Patron

Yentob sits on the boards of the South Bank and the International Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. He has been governor of the National Film School since 1998, is a trustee of the Architecture Foundation and chairman of the Institute of Contemporary Art.


Yentob is a networker extraordinaire, hosting parties for Hollywood stars and rock royalty at Cannes and Glastonbury. Behind the scenes Yentob is a family man. He has two children with his long-standing partner, TV producer Philippa Walker.