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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