Interview: Watch it] He's in control: Alan Yentob decides what you will see on both BBC channels. He is far from a Corporation man, but then he's only been there for 26 years

Hunter Davies
Sunday 23 October 2011 05:35
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At lunchtime today Alan Yentob will tell us how he is going to spend pounds 180m of our money. And gosh, isn't he going to have fun.

The BBC has called a press conference at London Zoo (because the BBC is like a zoo?) to unveil its excitements for the next six months. They're a regular thing, these fanfares, but it so happens that, just for once, the Controller of BBC 1 is also the Controller of BBC 2. So, step forward Mr Yentob. Step forward? Try to stop him.

He is the most powerful programme controller in the country, so naturally he will have great things to announce. But it's the manner of the telling that will be interesting, such as a video in which Mr Yentob, Controller BBC 1, wearing glasses, will appear with Mr Yentob, Controller BBC 2, wearing no glasses. He'll do a jokey, Mel and Griff-style routine, all on his own. Mainly in-jokey, such as Controller 2 will always defer to Controller 1, tee hee, BBC joke.

You won't be seeing this video on your screen, as it's just for the hacks, but you'll be reading about the contents in your papers tomorrow. TV reporters faithfully give space to next season's TV viewing. (Next week in this space, by the way, I'm doing Terence Conran. Pass it on).

Why should a BBC mandarin be poncing around, acting silly buggers? Ah, then you don't know much about Alan Yentob. They don't come more unusual.

On Saturday evening he was sitting in his large house in Notting Hill, playing with his two- year-old son, Jacob. Jacob has blond curls, blue eyes, small nose, milky white skin. Alan hasn't. 'I'll probably have to give him nose surgery when he gets older, unless his nose grows with age. After all, a big nose is a real advantage in life.'

Jacob's mother, Philippa Walker, has lived with Alan for 12 years. She is tall, thin, blonde. Why aren't you married? 'If it's not broken, why fix it?' she says, getting Jacob's tea. She is a TV director but has taken two years off to have Jacob. Her parents don't mind her not being married, or that Alan is Jewish. Alan's mother, however, was a bit upset when they set up house together, because Philippa is Catholic.

'I was there when Jacob was being born,' says Alan. 'When I saw him coming with those blond curls I thought, is this mine?'

'He had no curls when he was born,' says Philippa.

'Well, you know what I mean,' says Alan. 'It reminded me of South Pacific - the colours were so lurid, especially the reds and greens. It was a Caesarian, so it was top-lit.'

On the shelf sits a grotesque Spitting Image puppet of Alan, highlighting his features. 'It probably counts as racist, but that's the nature of satire, to exaggerate. Jacob calls it Daddy, just to wind me up.'

Alan is proud of his immigrant background - Sephardic Jews, from Iraq. His father was a first-generation immigrant, arriving in Manchester and opening a textile factory there. His mother's family had been here for some time, living in Kirkcudbrightshire. They did well and moved to London when Alan was about 12, to an apartment in Park Lane. Very posh, but very noisy. 'I couldn't do my homework for the traffic outside.'

Or for the endless relatives, coming and going. 'Uncle Saul used to approach me, as if he was going to hit me, then grab my coat, feel it and say 'Quality'. Great Uncle Isaac was the one I often shared a bed with, which I didn't like. He had a bad leg and spent ages unwrapping his bandage. I can still smell the horrible medicine. Uncle Isaac got himself on the BBC news once, during the Anthony Blunt affair. When the story broke, the press besieged the block Blunt lived in, which happened to be Uncle Isaac's. In every shot of Blunt, you see this sweet stooped old man, walking very slowly, right across the shot. We sat shouting 'That's Uncle Isaac]' '

Alan was sent away to King's School, Ely, for reasons he never quite understood, along with his twin brother, Robert. He discovered they were the only Jews in the school. 'I resented being sent away, but I wasn't resentful of the school. There was no anti-Semitism. Philip Roth, who's a friend of mine, says there's a lot in Britain, but I've never been a victim of it. I became what I think I still am - a comfortable outsider.

'It was a Cathedral school and I went to services in my early years, for aesthetic reasons. When I got older, I opted out, just through laziness. I wasn't religious. I'm still not.'

He was useless at games but made up for it by having a good haircut and being in touch with the latest pop music. At 16, he sat his A-levels, in French, English and History, getting Bs, then went off for a year to Grenoble University. He did think of trying Oxford but heard he had to have Latin, so he went to Leeds to read law. From the very beginning, he threw himself into student theatre, acting and directing. He had the lead part in The Chinese Wall, by Max Frisch, which won a Sunday Times/NUS award. 'Harold Hobson didn't think I was much good, but I didn't care. We played for a week in the West End, at the Garrick, and my face was on a big poster outside.'

On graduation in 1967, with a 2:2, his father hoped he would join the family firm, as his twin brother did. (It's still going strong - Dewhurst Dent. Very big in gloves). Instead, Alan joined the BBC as a general trainee, one of only five, the others being from Oxbridge. Did you feel any chip on your shoulder, coming from a provincial university? 'I have no chips on my shoulder, and I've never felt provincial.'

His first job was in radio, working for the World Service at Bush House. 'I loved it, especially the canteen. It was filled with these eccentric, brilliant people, from all over the world, speaking in strange languages. I felt immediately at home. Actually, it did feel like home. . . .'

He was good at thinking up programmes, not so good with the razor blade and the Sellotape. He's always been a bit clumsy. After nine months, he moved to TV as an assistant director in Arts. The first programme he worked on was called Tommy Steele and Things. 'Cute title, huh.' During the filming, the director slapped his face. 'He was Irish and I'd been making jokes about the Kennedys. The crew said they'd walk out, in my defence, but I said no, let's get the film made.

'In those early years, I looked upon the BBC as my education. I never thought of what I could give but what they were giving me. I learnt so much about books, music, painting. I'd go to work and think, my God, I'm getting paid for this.'

He specialised in high-class arty stuff, usually managing to give his programmes his own stamp, or at least a smart title, such as I Thought I Was Taller - A Short History of Mel Brooks. He worked on Omnibus, then helped create Arena, which, so he says, he took over without really planning to. 'I was very happy making my own films, but I could just see this new series and nobody else seemed interested in running it. I was never really appointed. I just did it. Nobody interfered and I didn't show the programmes to anyone before they went out. Catch me allowing that today. I'm very watchful of what happens under me.'

Thus began his rise through the hierarchy - but all the time, so he likes to think, without being sucked into it, still dressing in jeans, still getting involved in the final editing. 'When I became Head of Music and Arts, I inherited a secretary who'd been there 20 years. She gave me this diary which was full for a week ahead. I looked at it, and realised the person in it was me. I got rid of some of the meetings, but you can't eliminate them all. I try to have stimulating meetings, in which I pitch ideas at people as often as they propose programmes to me.'

He became Controller of BBC 2 five years ago, giving us Oranges are Not the Only Fruit and Rab C Nesbitt. He's organised whole evenings round one theme, such as Birthright, or chucked out whole evenings when a better theme came into his mind. A few weeks ago he was at Covent Garden, watching a rarely performed Verdi opera, Stiffelio, starring Jose Carreras. 'It was so fantastic that I thought, why can't we show this live, on BBC 2? Why can't it be shared with another million people?' So he ordered it to be shoved in the following week, which meant it wasn't even in the Radio Times. A few of his colleagues thought he was mad. 'But I encouraged them round to my point of view. No, I wasn't being cavalier or self-indulgent. I call it bold. Of course we had complaints, mostly from people furious that we'd had to drop Sounds of the Seventies. But we got far more letters of thanks.'

Now, as the new head of BBC 1 - with a watching brief over BBC 2, regardless of who will be appointed in his place - he realises he won't be able to be so bold. 'They'll be fewer decisions to make, but much bigger ones. But I still hope to spring a few surprises.'

Last weekend, apart from playing with Jacob, and trying to sort out changes in Saturday night's schedule because of a bomb scare in the Noel Edmonds studio, he was watching tapes of Eldorado, making up his mind whether to kill it or not. Any decision yet, Alan? He shook his head, smiling. Now what does that mean? In between times he did manage to play tennis, at which he says he's pretty useless. 'Actually, I won this time, so there. I've been having strategy meetings with Liz Forgan about the future of the BBC. I think that's helped me play a tactical game, instead of just rushing at every ball.'

He's 46 on Thursday. 'Dear God, give me a break. Let me have my two more days being 45. I want the epithet 'young' to go on as long as possible.' He is young, in a bouncy, studentish, cocky sort of way. His innate confidence probably explains his lack of apparent chips. .

His well-known friends come into his conversation a lot. Not just Philip Roth, but Arthur Miller or the late Orson Welles. 'OK, so I do have some famous friends. That's because I've always had one foot in showbusiness, but I'm not a star groupie.' Yet he has no side, willing to listen to any tea lady telling him her views on TV.

He gets upset at being called a workaholic, preferring to see himself as perfectionist. And he hates to be called trendy. 'That smacks of being superficial and shallow, which I'm not.' OK, trendy in the sense of having a nose for what's happening in the arts, who's coming through. 'Thanks. I'll buy that.'

Isn't it a bit pathetic, only having worked for the BBC all your life? 'I have had many offers but each time, I've been starting a new job which I've loved.' As you go higher, the attacks will increase, from within and without. Will you cope? 'I'm not going to stay in a closet. I'll be out and about, listening to what people say. I also understand the politics of the BBC. I haven't got this far without being able to work the system.'

So you are not an outsider now, whatever you say? 'OK, that was affected. Let's say I don't feel uncomfortable in the BBC, but I'd hate to think that as a person I'd ever become clubbable.'

As the Big Controller, you are doomed to even more meetings, however stimulating you try to make them. With your entrepreneurial and creative skills, wouldn't you rather have gone into films and made a couple of good movies - and some money? 'I've never been that interested in money, though recently it has struck me, because of Jacob, that I should have something to leave him. I do miss making films, but there is a pleasure in helping others to realise what they want to do. I enjoy making things better. And I love television. There is this feeling abroad that TV is transitory, and that movies last longer. I think TV has more influence and more immediacy. And we cover the world. Think of the things we have seen on TV in our lifetime, such as the Berlin Wall coming down. It's the TV images we all

remember.'

Right, the big one. Would you like to be director-general? 'I have no such ambitions,' he says, then pauses. 'Not right now anyway.'

He has always been on PAYE, since joining the BBC as a lad. So that might help, should the call ever come, but alas he can't wear his one and only Armani suit. He's up to twelve and a half stone. It doesn't fit him any more.

(Photograph omitted)

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