In his memoirs, the writer Clive James describes the process of making a show for the BBC. Your idea is approved. The budget is found. And then the whole thing hits a bureaucratic blockade that can only be overcome by one man: Alan Yentob.
Except Yentob has disappeared. He may be in the Aleutians with Lord Lucan, writes James, or “in the Red Sea, in conversation with the Dalai Lama”. Only as the deal collapses does his voice come on the line — from Charles Saatchi’s yacht in the Mediterranean — and proclaim, “This is one of the worst moments of my professional career . . . Why didn’t you phone me?”
I think of this as I try to arrange a meeting with Yentob. He is in Cuba with Carlos Acosta; he is in Colombia with Hanif Kureishi; he is at Alan Rickman’s funeral. At the last minute he calls to confirm that, yes, lunch is on. Although he is going to Calais with Stephen Daldry two days later.
He has chosen the River Café, perhaps the best Italian restaurant in London. You can’t get a lunchtime reservation here at 24 hours’ notice. But Yentob can. “I was practically brought up here,” explains the 68-year-old, as we are led to a spacious table near a bright pink oven. The restaurant’s co-founder, Ruthie Rogers, is one of his dear friends.
Back in the days of Tony Blair, the River Café was once described as “New Labour at dinner”; today, it is still full of vim. The same is not true of two other institutions in Yentob’s life. Kids Company, the charity that he chaired for 12 years, collapsed six months ago in one of British philanthropy’s most controversial episodes. The BBC, where he has spent his entire 47-year career, is facing the tightest funding squeeze in its history — partly because of anger at the salaries paid to executives like him.
For some, this is overdue proof that Yentob’s mystique was always a mirage. The Daily Mail, which has long branded him a fat cat, celebrated his resignation from his £183,000 a year role as the BBC’s creative director in December, following the Kids Company debacle. Earlier this month a select committee of MPs charged that he had acted negligently when chairing the charity.
And yet Yentob is no fool. He has made brilliant documentaries, nurtured star performers and commissioned some of Britain’s most enduring television, including the current affairs satire Have I Got News For You. Staring at his faded floral shirt, I wonder how did Yentob go from the sublime to the ridiculous? And where does he go next?
The waitress asks if we would like bruschetta. Yes please, I say. “I’m not going to eat too much,” says Yentob, with a melancholy gesture to his midriff. “Yes or no?” the waitress says, reaching lovingly for his arm. “Yes.”
If name-dropping were an Olympic sport, Yentob would be suspected of doping. I haven’t even asked a question and he’s already mentioned John Birt, Harold Pinter and Stephen Fry. Are all these names just a sign of his insecurity, I ask later? “Well, who dropped them first — you or me?” You, I think.
Like many successful insiders, Yentob sees himself partly as an outsider. Born in 1947, he grew up in Manchester in a family of Jewish immigrants from Iraq, who ran a textiles firm. “I never knew which bed I was going to be in because people were always arriving from Baghdad,” he says.
He studied law at Leeds University but found it “a bit boring”. “I wanted to save the world,” he says. He was the only one of the 1968 intake of BBC general trainees not to have been at Oxbridge. Once ensconced, he developed a line in playful art documentaries. “The possibilities were endless, although the technology was cumbersome,” he recalls.
Yentob’s trump cards were inventive editing and unrivalled access. It started with David Bowie, an admirer of one of his first short films. “He said, ‘Would you like to make a film about me? I’m going on this big tour in America. I can’t tell you how much time I’ll be able to give you.’”
It was 1974 and Bowie was at his most vulnerable. “Cocaine, milk and milk were the main ingredients of his diet,” says Yentob. The resulting film, Cracked Actor (1975), is an unmatchable insight into rock excess. Before long, Yentob wasn’t just an observer of creative lights — he was one of them. Perhaps no one else could have lured the author Philip Roth into a discussion of masturbation.
We still haven’t ordered. Yentob has said that, when he arrived at the BBC, money was “a flexible concept”. But today, wary of his fat cat image, he insists on the set lunch. He is “familiar with everything on this menu” but I am still debating between the mozzarella and the tagliatelle. “After you, Alan,” I say. “So Henry’s going to have the tagliatelle as a starter,” he begins, and it seems as good a choice as any. I opt for an aperitif, and Yentob for a glass of white wine.
By the time the Parmesan-sprinkled starters arrive, Yentob has moved on to Orson Welles, subject of his 1982 documentary. “If you talk to anyone about the film and in the film industry who’s seen it — It’s an amaz — It’s a hundred years since the birth of Orson Welles and you saw the clip — You saw Arthur Miller, who became a great friend of mine, and how he talked to me about Marilyn Monroe. And also — So then after that, Orson and I when we went out for dinner . . . If we were at lunch now with Orson he’d be looking at mine,” he says, thrusting a fork in my pasta, as if to steal a mouthful.
By now I have realised that opportunities to interrupt Yentob are like turnings off American freeways: if you miss one, there is often a long wait. I think my chance has come when he nears the end of a long yarn in which Stanley Kubrick insists that Steven Spielberg install a fax machine in Spielberg’s bedroom. But I am mid-mouthful at the crucial moment, and the junction flashes by.
“Now the final story about Stanley,” Yentob resumes. I reach for my water glass.
Yentob’s bruschetta is taken away intact; he pushes away his pasta half-eaten. Rogers comes over to ask how the food is. “I was more preoccupied by talking my head off than eating,” he admits endearingly.
The main courses — mine a light risotto, his red mullet — arrive, and I turn to Kids Company, the charity that hoovered up more than £42m from the government over its 19-year existence, but never built the cash reserves that would have allowed it to survive a storm. It is fairly obvious what went wrong; it is less clear that its protagonists will admit it.
Yentob, his wine almost drained, wants to focus on the good the charity did in educating and counselling neglected children. “I feel that’s got lost in all this. The model — which actually was not about box-ticking or filling things in or keeping a distance from everyone and saying, ‘Do you fit into this category or that category’ — it was very much a holistic view. It’s not to say it was the perfect organisation — it was never meant to be that.”
He picks at his fish, and returns fire at the MPs who alleged “a lack of proper attention to his duties as chair of trustees and a continuing inability to recognise [the charity’s] failures”. “There is an issue about what select committees’ job is. And whether it is a court of law. If it is, can’t you bring in your own witnesses and your own evidence?”
Unlike a privately run young offenders centre recently exposed by the BBC’s Panorama programme, Kids Company was probably not malicious. But there was excess: cash handouts to the kids; two drivers for founder Camila Batmanghelidjh. Did Yentob know that the charity was paying for a Grade II mansion with a swimming pool? “No, I didn’t know about that. The point is it was a therapeutic centre and happened to have a pool in it.”
The charity’s demise was costly to Yentob. “I put £150,000 in at the end — so did others.” Does he regret that? “No. I regret we closed.” But no one seems to have learnt any lessons — least of all Batmanghelidjh, I say. “She’s got about 18 honorary doctorates — they’re not all stupid . . . She’s got to learn from what went wrong — as we all do.” What exactly? “We were learning that lesson throughout the year — that you can’t rely on the same people to keep coughing up the money.”
A few minutes later, Yentob’s phone rings. It is Batmanghelidjh. He sighs, seeing the amusement. Yentob’s phone was hacked thousands of times by journalists at the Sunday Mirror, partly because he left so many calls to go to voicemail, and this one goes unanswered too. I strain my neck and see the screen showing 27 unread text messages and 322 phone notifications.
The set menu offers three desserts but Yentob enthuses about a fourth: caramel ice cream, “which is quite strong but kind of amazing”. He orders one scoop of caramel and one of blood orange sorbet. “That’ll be interesting,” warns the waitress. “No, I love that,” he replies.
After he became creative director of the BBC in 2004, Yentob wandered the corridors, dropping into any meeting that took his fancy. Such traits made him unsuitable for the corporation’s top job. “I’m glad I didn’t get it,” he reflects.
Instead he became a bridge to the stars, and a person who could make things happen. “Who the fuck’s going to be Alan?” one BBC executive still mutters, six weeks after Yentob’s resignation. He delves for his phone to show celebrities’ continuing support: “This is really just a couple of the letters I’ve had — and I’ve had hundreds.”
The ice cream has arrived, each scoop in a little glass bowl. The caramel is twice as strong as I expected; my tongue feels like it has been rugby-tackled. Yentob’s spoon bounces from one bowl to the next until both are muddy-coloured. He’s on to the BBC, a public broadcaster that is now competing with tech giants.
“Amazon probably knows more about my children’s lives than I do,” he says of the new breed of competitor. “Electricity’s gone up, gas has gone up, your newspapers have gone up. So why shouldn’t the BBC licence fee have risen a little, given people’s demands of it?”
Did Yentob ever feel his salary — over £300,000 a year as creative director and documentary-maker — was excessive? He points out that he had worked his way up at the BBC since the age of 21. Exactly, I contend — he would have stayed at the corporation even without such a salary. For the first time, Yentob’s face tightens with indignation.
“Do you think I haven’t been offered? Do you think that because I’m of a certain age that people in America, independent companies or whatever, aren’t asking me if I would come and join them? Well, I make no comment about that.” He pauses, and I wonder if he might be doubting himself. “All I mean is, that’s ridiculous.”
Yentob’s resignation means he is once more largely a film-maker. Critics have called his Imagine arts documentaries hagiographies, but his ambition continues. His trip to Calais with Daldry is focused on the jungle refugee camp. “There are musicians there,” he says. “What we’ve heard from the jungle are terrible stories — but what about the people and their lives and their expectations? Not just the sad stories.”
Another idea is a documentary about the internet that he would film without leaving his bed. “I thought the Daily Mail would love that because they’d say it doesn’t spend any money,” he enthuses. The newspaper is not known for its sympathetic take on people who spend all day horizontal, I say. “But hey, who cares?” says Yentob.
Someone who might care is a BBC press officer, who has just texted Yentob to discuss another story in the same newspaper. Yentob shrugs. “I’ve never challenged anything that’s been written about me, because in the end the wounds stop hurting. It’s just noise. And when you look at the Twittersphere, that’s just so full of shit . . . ”
We touch on the recent deaths of Bowie and Rickman. Does it make Yentob want to get on and do things? Characteristically, he falls into a succession of half-sentences, as if his thoughts are crabs in a bucket, each preventing another from escaping. Then he refers to advice from his friend Philip Roth. “He said, ‘Alan, go and interview all the old people. Because there’s a point in people’s lives when they will tell the truth, and they will open up — because they’ve got nothing to lose any more.’”
I suppose he hasn’t reached that point himself? “I have of course been asked a lot to write my memoirs. It’s always tricky — firstly, I don’t keep a diary. Secondly, if you tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth . . . Even the people I interview I don’t expect them to tell the truth — that’s theirs.”
I am sadly unequal to the caramel ice cream. It is now nearly 4pm, which even the media industry struggles to call lunchtime. I pay the bill, and look for the nearest bathroom. But Yentob is not ready to move on.
He returns to the BBC. “It’s got less and less money and [is] doing better and better things with it. But I think we’re struggling now — it’s going to be difficult.”
But it isn’t your problem any more, I protest. “You say it’s not my problem — it’s not my problem,” he says. “David Attenborough doesn’t run any part of the BBC, but his advice and what he has to say are important.” Is he an Attenborough for the arts? “No one can be an Attenborough for anything,” he smiles, with genuine warmth, and points to the 89-year-old naturalist’s recent knee replacement. “Now David’s got his knees back, he’s got another life.
“This hasn’t been an easy year . . . but I intend to carry on being driven by curiosity and friendship. And I will never stop supporting the BBC.”
We finally head to the exit, and shake hands goodbye. At last glance his phone had 327 phone notifications and 29 unread text messages. “Henry,” he calls over once we are three steps apart. “Ring me if you need me.”
Henry Mance is an FT political correspondent
Illustration by James Ferguson