The art of the matter

The BBC's Alan Yentob hopes that his new Imagine series can reverse a much-lamented decline in the corporation's arts programming. But, asks Ciar Byrne, is it too little too late?

Alan Yentob enjoys crossing time zones. International travel leaves him with more hours in the day to perform his multifarious roles as the director of drama, entertainment and CBBC, the digital children's channel, and the public face of the arts on the BBC.

Alan Yentob enjoys crossing time zones. International travel leaves him with more hours in the day to perform his multifarious roles as the director of drama, entertainment and CBBC, the digital children's channel, and the public face of the arts on the BBC.

He has just returned from China, where he has been filming a documentary on skyscrapers - A Short History of Tall Buildings - which is scheduled to be shown later this year. The rest of the day will be spent in the cutting-room putting the finishing touches to the latest film in the new series of the arts strand Imagine.

The controller of BBC1, Lorraine Heggessey, has already been warned that viewing figures for the current season of Imagine might be lower than the two million it has attracted previously, because of the difficult nature of the subjects. Only 1.7 million viewers watched the first documentary in the series, about the American artist Edward Hopper, which was a tie-in with an exhibition now running at Tate Modern in London.

"I hoped Hopper might do more," Yentob says. "I said to Lorraine that this season ratings might be lower because the subjects are more difficult. But that doesn't matter: I suspect that next season the subjects will be more accessible. All you have to do is to make sure that you're not excluding people from programmes. And when you take on tough subjects - well, that's what you're there to do occasionally."

The second film in the current (third) series of Imagine - there are 13 shows a year, split into two seasons - was a profile of the portrait painter Lucian Freud seen through the eyes of his sitters. It prompted The Independent's television critic Thomas Sutcliffe to write: "Occasionally, you come across [an arts documentary] that you know will be fascinating to watch in 100 years' time. This was a keeper."

Future films cover the Man Booker prize winner DBC Pierre; the explosion of children's literature through writers such as Philip Pullman and Mark Haddon (the author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time); Simon Gray's The Smoking Diaries; and, this week, the jazz legend John Coltrane (BBC1, tomorrow, 10.35pm).

"John Coltrane is in many ways the most inaccessible jazz giant of the 20th century," Yentob says. "It's a very difficult subject. In this day and age, committing 45 minutes to this on television for a BBC1 audience is quite tough."

The first film in the Imagine strand, shown last summer, was devoted to Yentob's friend Charles Saatchi, the art patron, and it provoked stinging criticisms that its presenter was too sycophantic and celebrity-obsessed. In the programme's defence, Yentob says: "He's a very controversial figure, Saatchi. I think sometimes people can't quite deal with ambiguity. You got to know him a lot better than you had before.

"Some people felt that he wasn't being challenged enough, but he's not someone who responds well to being challenged. Because he's being challenged all the time, he just curls up and disappears. Frankly, I think you got access to him and then others could make up their minds."

Imagine was launched in response to the criticism that the BBC had lost its focus on the arts. Yentob is convinced the broadcaster has now restored its artistic vision. "I think we just took our eyes off the ball, but I remember a period in the late Eighties and early Nineties when the arts were everywhere. Then, I think, we felt that science was a Cinderella, and we started to shift our attention towards history and science programmes. What happened consequently is that the arts got a bit of a raw deal, so now we're trying to redress that balance."

Thanks to his long experience in arts programming - he founded Arena in 1978 - Yentob, 57, was persuaded to make the change from suit to face, initially to present a three-part documentary on Leonardo da Vinci, and then to front Imagine.

"Lots of people had asked me to do it before. While I was running channels and director of television and stuff, I didn't feel it was appropriate, but this time round I thought it was, because the arts are now central again to the BBC's priorities."

He is disdainful of press criticism of his £20,000 bonus for making Leonardo, as part of a total pay package of £321,000 in the 2002-03 year. "What, for writing and producing and presenting a three-part series about Leonardo da Vinci? How much extra of my time do you think that took? I think that was meant to be a gesture.

"Listen, sometimes you just have to sit back and take it all with a pinch of salt, really, because it's all a bit bonkers, isn't it? Most people, for one after-dinner speech, get paid £20,000. I got that for a year and a half of extra work - and apparently that's terrible?"

Yentob's return to programme-making has turned out to be something of a learning experience. "You learn, you are working with programme makers, you are able to find out what they're thinking: you're in touch with the world out there."

He is enthusiastic about the new director general, Mark Thompson, and what he will do for the arts on the BBC. "Mark loves the arts, genuinely, and I think he's going to be a big champion."

Thompson arrives at the BBC next week, in time to sign off the corporation's key submission to the Government on the renewal of its charter in 2006. The document is snappily titled "Building Public Value".

"The BBC is going to make a greater contribution in the next 10 years than anyone could have imagined, I really believe that," Yentob says. "Why is the BBC there? It's not just about pumping out information and entertainment: it's that, in the end, the tradition of public-service broadcasting - not just on the BBC - enriches people's lives."

He hopes there is "ambition and vision" in the charter renewal document, but says that it is just the beginning of a dialogue, both within the organisation and with the public, about what the BBC is for.

It is a measure of the man that one day he is squirrelled away in a BBC boardroom drawing up strategies, and the next he is taking a road trip across Mexico with the novelist DBC Pierre. The pair went in search of the past that had inspired Pierre's prize-winning novel Vernon God Little.

"He's got this colourful, vivid back story. You ask yourself how much of it is true, and how much it actually informed the novel. I've always thought the documentary form is a bit like a detective story. It's about unravelling something."

A highlight of the trip was ending up in Plaza Garibaldi in Mexico City - "an extraordinary place" filled with "young lovers, priests, beggars, terrorists and musicians". Filming with a small hand-held camera made the experience all the more intimate. "You know those times when you're in a film and you're caught up in it? It doesn't often happen."

Yentob is clearly a convert to the digital technology that is revolutionising programme-making. "Technology is not the route to revelation necessarily, but if you use it intelligently and imaginatively, I think it can be."

Living up to his reputation for name-dropping, Yentob illustrates the advances in post-production technology with an anecdote about his "very close friend" the film-maker Stanley Kubrick, who built a "monster" contraption that allowed him to edit films from the comfort of his own home. "That thing Stanley built must have cost, at the time, half a million dollars. Today you can buy that equipment for £2,000."

At the end of our interview, Yentob confides that the secret to juggling a huge workload is "to be nice to your wife and kids when you get home. And not to complain that it's hard work, because I feel very lucky."

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