All the world is his stage: Alan Yentob's works of art
Alan Yentob, the creative director of the BBC, sips champagne with superstars like Jay-Z and hangs out with rock heroes like The Edge – but he is a serious documentary maker and knows the BBC must take risks to prosper. He tells Ian Burrell his stories
Monday 22 September 2008
It is one-third of a century since Alan Yentob made Cracked Actor, his stunning Omnibus documentary on David Bowie in the wake of the "killing off" of the singer's alter-ego Ziggy Stardust, yet the man who Private Eye calls "Botney" is, at 61, still hanging out with rock gods.
These days he does it while simultaneously holding down one of the most senior positions at the BBC and being chairman of the Institute of Contemporary Arts. For his latest – and one of his most important ever – television projects, he has been kicking back and talking "Gee-tar" with the likes of The Edge from U2, Johnny Marr from The Smiths, Slash from Guns N' Roses, Pete Townshend, Jack Black, BB King and his pal David Gilmour from Pink Floyd.
The BBC's creative director doesn't look like much of an axeman – he's generally happy to leave the chopping to his director-general Mark Thompson – but he has had a fascination with strumming instruments since his Iraqi-Jewish father and friends used to play on the Oud at family gatherings when he was a child. And for much of the time he hasn't been shooting the breeze with rock heroes, Yentob has been an access-all-areas member of the entourage of the Hip Hop megastar Jay-Z. The BBC veteran swigged the rapper's favoured Armand de Brignac champagne prior to a recent show at the Hollywood Bowl, then met up with "Jigga" at Glastonbury (where Yentob could be seen standing on stage during the performance), before the pair headed off to check out some modern art exhibitions, that sort of thing.
"When I walked in to see Jay-Z for the first time, I was given champagne from Jay Z's own brand, which he delivered himself and cost no less than 800 bucks a bottle. He saw me and handed me my own bottle, he was already in the midst of going on stage at the Hollywood bowl," recalls Yentob as he sits in his office at White City. "As he walked off I could see Diana Ross arriving to give him a hug and Jerry Seinfeld was walking down the corridor. It's the champagne and the bling. I remember thinking I feel rather stupid standing in the middle of this lot – but that's showbusiness."
Indeed, and though Yentob may claim to have felt out of place, this has been his world for much of the last four decades, since he arrived at the BBC to work at the World Service and soon found himself interviewing Harold Pinter. He remains personal friends with Bowie, Mel Brooks, Charles Saatchi and countless other stars of the arts and entertainment industries, many of them former subjects of his programmes.
It is because of his close relationship with some of his interviewees that Yentob's own programming strand, Imagine, has been dubbed 'Al's Pal's' by jealous critics. "People say they're all puffs, they're not puffs," he snorts. "If something amazes me or enthuses me I want to share it." He backs his claim by outlining the breadth of the new series of Imagine, which will feature not just the Jay-Z piece, but challenging programmes on the sculptor Richard Serra, the Venezuelan-based Simon Bolivar youth orchestra and complex themes such as the use of light in art.
Akram Khan – "one of the most talented dancers and choreographers for a generation" – has agreed to let Yentob film his new project with Juliette Binoche and Sylvie Guillem. "These are very private people being prepared to share their process with you," exclaims the delighted programme-maker, adding that he was given a similarly privileged position by "Damon and Jamie", a reference to an earlier piece he made on an opera project by Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett of the band Gorillaz.
Artists seem to trust Yentob to make these in-depth studies of their work. Jay-Z apparently agreed to co-operate because he had seen and enjoyed Yentob's old film on Bowie. "To be honest I was impressed with Jay-Z and with his seriousness. What you have to understand about rap music is that the whole tradition is talking about your life and who you are and your aspirations, and if you have come, as he has, out of the projects in Brooklyn you are out there to tell your story. Also he is an entrepreneur, he's an impresario, a lot of things I discovered. He is also someone who is learning voraciously about modern art."
Yentob – who made a film on Hip Hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa, 25 years ago for Arena, the arts strand he himself set up – paced the Brooklyn streets and accompanied the rapper to a Richard Prince art exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery. The BBC man says his task with famous interviewees is to remember that "these people have been asked the same questions a million times before" and that the "real trick is to get people to talk about themselves and their lives as if it's the first time". Thus in a previous series, he managed to get Doris Lessing to open up by saying "I know you're a fearsome woman, you always get asked the same stupid questions and you can bite people's heads off". Lessing, he says, "unravelled at that moment".
The Ofcom review of public service broadcasting is approaching and Yentob is keen to make the right noises about the corporation's output. "The BBC's brow is neither high nor low brow, one of the glories of the BBC is that it has a wide compass," he says, resplendent in a flowery Paul Smith shirt and looking forward to lunch at the French ambassador's residence.
Asked about the economic climate and the BBC's position in relation to commercial media, he says: "The BBC has got less funding than it would like, but we can't complain about that at a time of recession when ITV is struggling and Channel 4 is demanding a lot of attention, even though it's still relatively secure. I think the BBC has to earn the support of the viewers and listeners and consumers every day of the week. Do you ever pick up a paper which isn't scrutinising the BBC, regulating it, complaining about it, and every now and again celebrating it?"
Yentob loves mixing with young programme-makers – "directors, researchers, runners" – but knows that the BBC is struggling to retain the attention of the nation's youth. "There's a whole generation out there for whom the BBC isn't necessarily as salient as it once was," he concedes, stressing the importance of the youth-orientated BBC3 and the need for 20-somethings to appreciate they might need the BBC's children's channels when they start a family.
He is a BBC lifer, and in his analysis of the corporation's adventures online he doesn't seem to fully appreciate the tribulations of other media organisations in monetising the net. "Look at the BBC's entry into the web at a time when others didn't go there, the BBC's embrace of digital and the long learning curve before we arrived where we are now. Others could have done that – other broadcasters – because hey, look at Google, there's money in it as well. The BBC had the imagination to make that move."
Though the director-general's job is one major post this former controller of BBC1 and BBC2 has never held, he stresses that he is a key component of the organisation's senior management. "I'm very much involved in the BBC's future – perhaps more than some people imagine."
He agrees that some in the industry, even in his own building, don't give him credit for that. He has found himself in the firing line of critics, possibly envious of his unique role. It was suggested that his life with the stars was funded by an improperly managed expense account (an inquiry cleared him but criticised him for taking "insufficient care over some aspects of his affairs") and he was accused of fakery after a clumsy comment about the processes of programme-making (another investigation found that he hadn't faked his presence at interviews).
"If you are in the public eye you have to put up with stuff and I've had to put up with my fair share of it. There's no point complaining about it," he says. He hopes the fakery scandals will not deter young programme-makers from taking chances. "I'm a great believer that people need to be able to take risks when they make programmes," he says. "What we don't want is people feeling fearful about doing stuff and imagining that things aren't possible."
He thinks the BBC can make more friends by increasingly sharing its wealth of content with partners – "the schools, universities and colleges" – and that the move of some of its departments to Salford will make it more inclusive. "We want to make the new BBC in Salford porous so more people can come into it from different backgrounds," he says. "Mark (Thompson) today is in Salford and Jana (Bennett, BBC director of Vision) is in Manchester, so we are getting around."
All this talk brings him to stress his own Northern roots, and like Jay-Z singing "Wonderwall" at Glastonbury he comes over a bit Liam Gallagher. "I was from Manchester and I went to Leeds University," he says, stressing the unusualness of his background for a 1968 BBC trainee. He is indeed a Mancunian, though one that moved to Park Lane, Mayfair, as a child, before boarding at the elite King's School in Cambridgeshire, then heading off to the Sorborne in Paris, Grenoble University and, finally, reading law at Leeds. Though Yentob is able to move comfortably from high art (the French sculptor Louise Bourgeois was a recent subject) to popular culture (another Imagine show will examine the success of the video game Grand Theft Auto and the Scottish expertise in the games industry), he is essentially a serious programme maker. So his three-part special Imagine: The Story of the Guitar is neither a trite gallery of celebrity power-chording nor a Spinal Tap-style bore-fest of musos musing about their instrument's capacity to "sustain" a note. Instead, he has unravelled the fascinating history of this great symbol of rock'n'roll, with its Moorish origins and its journey across America and, eventually, into the culture of these islands.
In one delightful sequence, he interviews the celebrated guitarist Bert Weedon (from whose books The Beatles learned to play) and hears that the guitar was such an exotic object in Forties London that none of Weedon's friends knew what it was.
Yentob has to hurry off to his French dinner, and thence to "Damien's sale" (that's Hirst this time, not "Damon" as in Albarn) because the artist is raising money for the disadvantaged children's charity, Kid's Company, of which the BBC man is also chairman.
He's chuffed with his guitar programmes is "Botney" (his name spelled backwards) and plans to continue with such ambitious projects. "I don't think there's any point in the BBC if programmes like that are not made," he says, before calling up his driver.
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