Alan Yentob: 'I'm more involved in running the BBC than people think'
Once better known for his lavish lunches, in the Savile crisis Alan Yentob has been Auntie's authentic voice. Ian Burrell meets him
A trolley carrying the slogan "Experience eating at the BBC" comes into view on an eighth-floor corridor of the splendid, modern edifice that is New Broadcasting House. Standing outside the new studios of Radio 1, the BBC's creative director Alan Yentob is expounding the architectural merits of a wonderful vista that begins with a new paved piazza and extends beyond the iconic spire of John Nash's All Souls Church to the outline of Regent Street, one of Britain's first examples of town planning.
But Yentob's eye is distracted by the food wagon. "I only saw my first one of these a week ago," he says. "Experience eating at the BBC! And yes, get fat." His hand hovers momentarily over a Twix chocolate bar but he thinks better of it and settles for a cup of black tea.
It could be seen as a sign of a new Puritanism at the BBC, chastened by the scandals that have brought down the Director-General George Entwistle, and reflecting the austerity that comes with widespread budget cuts. Mr Yentob is even commuting to his new workplace on a fold-up Brompton bicycle.
More than any other BBC executive, he is the enduring face of the organisation, far more recognisable than Tony Hall, the Royal Opera House chief who will take over at the BBC in March.
As presenter and executive producer of the Imagine arts strand, he is seen hanging out with Gilbert & George, Grayson Perry, Anish Kapoor and Jay-Z. He networks intensely and "Yum Yum" Yentob's lunch expense claims – which are now published – are pored over by the press with a vigour that would shame the National Audit Office. After 44 years at the BBC he is said to have acquired an enormous pension pot and his lifestyle provokes much jealousy. He is "immensely privileged", he admits.
Strange as it may seem, when the BBC is in crisis it has learned to turn to Yentob. He has become a voice of calm and a symbol of the BBC's lasting contribution to British culture. When Newsnight was in meltdown over its Lord McAlpine broadcast, the BBC fielded Yentob to represent it on the programme. He made "soothing comments that sounded slightly like translations of Japanese sonnets", the critic Mark Lawson said.
His experience as a former controller of both BBC 1 and BBC 2 means he is well-placed to defend the licence fee. "I sometimes think of Jimmy Stewart's film It's a Wonderful Life where he is complaining about everything and wakes up in the morning and it's all gone and he's bereft. I think that maybe for a day we should take away all the BBC's services that people ever complain about," he says.
"You would walk into the family home and the grandmother would be screaming because The Archers wasn't on. The younger man would be complaining because Jeremy Clarkson and Top Gear had disappeared. EastEnders wouldn't be there for people and the iPlayer would have gone. That's £145 a year, per household!"
But Yentob can barely contain his ebullience in the wake of the appointment of his old friend as the new DG. As he sips his black tea he talks of the BBC having "hopefully gone through the eye of the storm" and you sense he would rather be cracking open the champagne. Yentob is 65 but, despite his pension arrangements, has no intention of slowing up. He looks remarkably good for a senior executive of an organisation that is rarely out of the line of fire.
During Entwistle's short tenure, Yentob was removed from the senior management team when the 25-strong BBC direction group was cut to a team of 12. With Hall in charge he expects to be back. "That was a structure that George felt was the right structure – it was fine by me but I think Tony will be looking at that again and I do expect to be spending more time helping him," he says. "I think I have been rather more involved in running the BBC than people imagine." He doesn't think the DG job itself should be redefined. "Can he be editor-in-chief? He certainly can and he must be. And he will be."
But come on, Alan, the BBC is not really "through the eye of the storm", not with the Nick Pollard and Dame Janet Smith reviews into the organisation's handling of the Jimmy Savile inquiry still ongoing.
Yentob joked with the DG-in-waiting that "it can all go downhill from here". And – although he pointedly observes that he is keeping his voice down because he is about to head off for a meeting with Mr Hall – he acknowledges now that the BBC faces "challenges ahead".
"In a way this aberration has been both a lesson and a distraction," he says, soothingly and in the style of a translated Japanese sonnet. "But people who work in the BBC love the BBC, they really do – they may not love their bosses but they love the BBC. And they've felt this has been a hurtful period for them."
The Savile scandal, he says, is also an issue for many other organisations, from Stoke Mandeville hospital to the police. "We were shocked and alarmed and I'm sure at the end of that report we will find that there may have been some people who knew about it in the BBC – I doubt that many did myself – but at the same time this man was clearly a psychopath and managed to deceive a great many people."
He is clearly anxious to move forward. "The whole blame resting on the BBC is a bit of a burden to be honest with you. The sooner we look after those people, those victims of Jimmy Savile, and get the report over and start the healing, the better."
As for allegations of a wider culture of abuse at the BBC, where Yentob has been since he pitched up as a trainee in 1968, the creative director points to a "raucous atmosphere" across the music and entertainment industries in the Sixties and Seventies. It was a "different era", he says. "You could go to a pop concert or into a television studio and be 15-years old – you didn't need to have ID in those days and people could lie about their age.
"We need to address criminal acts but not start being censorious about the culture of those times when actually we should be trying to improve the culture of today."
As inquisitors go, Yentob is no John Humphrys. He is happier extending a hand of support to friends such as Salman Rushdie and the broadcaster Peter Fincham (whom he assisted through the earlier BBC crisis over misrepresented footage of the Queen). Such warmth and loyalty underpins the success of Imagine, which is in its 21st series and demonstrates Yentob's popularity and position within the arts world. He rejects the narrative that says the BBC is at war with Sky and ITV, referring to an "ecology of British broadcasting". Yentob wants to be friends with everyone – he even has an "on the other hand" speech to defend Rupert Murdoch at liberal dinner parties.
As such a famous BBC figure, wouldn't he have liked to be DG himself? "No I don't think it was right for me at this point. I think it was absolutely right for Tony. I'm so pleased, I can't pretend that I'm not, that he's coming and I have promised that I am going to be there for him."
He descends into the New Broadcasting House reception area and, for the first time in 90 minutes, appears perturbed. He is meeting Tony Hall and he mustn't be late! Yentob pushes through the revolving doors and, rather theatrically, breaks into a run across the new piazza. Fortunately, along with his dark suit, the BBC creative director is wearing a pair of training shoes.
Al's pals: Yentob on...
Elisabeth Murdoch, daughter of Rupert
"A person I'm a great fan of is Elisabeth Murdoch. You wouldn't hear Elisabeth talking like [her brother] James about the BBC."
Peter Fincham, head of television at ITV
"I'm a big fan and close friend, he's one of my closest colleagues."
Danny Cohen, controller of BBC 1
"I'm very close to the controllers of television, to Danny in particular."
"He's an entrepreneur, an impresario, a lot of things I discovered. He is also someone who is learning voraciously about modern art."
Tony Hall, BBC Director-General
"We are friends and colleagues for years and we share the same passions."
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