Alan Yentob’s BBC series “Imagine”

Alan Yentob has been the driving force behind the BBC’s coverage of the arts for decades. In the 70s he was instrumental in steering Omnibus onto our screens, and in the 80s he was responsible for what was effectively its replacement, Arena. The former produced a justly famous David Bowie profile, Cracked Actor, and the latter the even more celebrated 3 hour Orson Welles portrait. But it was after he was made Controller of BBC2 in 1988 that he truly left his mark, when he gave the station what amounted to a complete overhaul.

One of the many programmes that he introduced there was The Late Show, an arts strand that aired five nights a week from Monday to Friday at 11pm. Inevitably, as seemingly with all attempts at serious arts programming, it was quietly shelved in time. But you can still see its dying embers every Friday night with the usually reliable Late Review, which mostly sticks to its BBC2 remit, and only occasionally slips into BBC1 mode by offering up Cheddar instead of Roquefort.

In ’93 he was made Controller of BBC1, a promotion in their eyes, and in 2004 he was appointed as overall Creative Director for the whole of the BBC. But every now and then he pops up to front Imagine, the latest series of which concluded last week on BBC1, where inexplicably it resides.

As ever, a series of intimate and revealing portraits across the artistic spectrum were each given depth and scope by vividly describing their subjects in terms of the time and place of their life and work. This season’s highlight was the mirror editions on John Lennon in New York, and Harry Nilsson. The former provided wonderfully surprising insights into a figure we thought we knew, and the latter into a man largely and unfairly overlooked.

Nilsson’s first album proper, Pandemonium Shadow Show (’67) showcased his beguiling ability to combine honeyed vocals with apparently effortless song-writing, which he then layered using his unique mastery of the evolving multi-track recording technology. The results managed to be both monumental and intimate and would eventually produce the ultimate torch-song anthem Without You. Both McCartney and Lennon were bowled over, and he joined them in London a year later in ’68 to become yet another unofficial fifth Beatle. But it was the release of the iconic Midnight Cowboy in ’69 which saw Nilsson catapulted into the stratosphere.

The film’s producers commissioned Nilsson, Dylan and Joan Baez to come up with a track for the film (Nilsson offered up I Guess The Lord Must Be in New York City, which was a hit on his next album, and Dylan gave them Lay Lady Lay.). But while they were waiting to decide which track to go with, they used Nilsson’s then current single Everybody’s Talkin’ as filler. And they became so used to hearing it while they were watching the rushes, that that in the end is what they went with.

Nilsson and Lennon clicked immediately, both of them fuelled by an anger born of abandonment. Nilsson had been discarded by his father when he was three, and almost inevitably he did exactly the same thing to his son when he was three in ‘73. And when a disgraced Lennon was dispatched to LA that same year, the damaged soul mates descended together into a vat of alcohol and drugs in a futile attempt at oblivion.

Ever since John and Yoko had arrived in New York in 1970, they’d been hounded by the Nixon administration who’d made persistent attempts to have him deported. When Tricky Dicky was returned into office with a landslide in ’72, Lennon lost the plot. And in a drunken rage at an election night party, he disappeared into a next door room with whoever happened to be at hand, and betrayed a mortified Yoko. Loudly. But this being Yoko, she didn’t actually kick him out per se. Instead, she sent him off to Los Angeles to think about what he’d done. So when Lennon arrived in LA in ‘73, the most lonely, forlorn and unwitting bachelor on the West Coast, he went off the rails. And for two years he and Nilsson left a trail of destruction behind them.

Eventually Lennon snapped out of it, sobered up and dragged himself back to New York where he was eventually rescued by a doleful Yoko. And on his 35th birthday on October 9th 1975, the legal attempts to deport him were finally if improbably overturned. That very night, their son Sean was born. And for the next five years Lennon became a devoted and doting house husband, until fatefully deciding in 1980 to return once more into the recording studio and the public light.

Both episodes were riveting, and as ever, the entire series once again embodied everything that an arts strand ought to aspire to. Every once in a while the BBC reminds us that, whatever about the organization as a whole, there are some things it does that continue to render it peerless. And Imagine, its dreadful, Blairful title excepted, is a celebration of everything that BBC2 stands for at its brilliant best. Which is hardly surprising. Its ethos was moulded largely in Yentob’s image.

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