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Yentob, Alan (1947-)

Producer, Presenter, Executive

Main image of Yentob, Alan (1947-)

It is interesting that both BBC Television controllers in the late 1980s, Jonathan Powell at BBC1 and Alan Yentob at BBC2, arrived about the same time to take up their respective positions. They were immediately bracketed as the BBC's 'new men'. As a programme-maker, Powell had struck out away from the classics, with two John le Carré productions that were to secure BBC Television's footing on the world stage: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (BBC, 1979) and Smiley's People (BBC, 1982). The same mood and gravity imbued his commissions, notably the award-winning Edge of Darkness (BBC, 1985). Yentob, on the other hand, developed a strong reputation for creativity in music and arts, but one which was also tinged with a suggestion of disorganisation.

Yentob is something of an exotic figure who also happens to be one of the most colourful characters in British broadcasting. Small and dark (he comes from an Iraqi-Jewish family), he joined the BBC as a general trainee in 1968, having been educated at King's School, Ely, the Sorbonne in Paris and at Grenoble University, before studying law at Leeds University. In the beginning, he went straight into BBC arts programming at a time when the small screen genre was still in the shadow of veteran arts magazine Monitor (BBC, 1958-65).

He made his reputation with the arts programme Arena (BBC, 1975- ), which, as series editor, producer and director, he oversaw from 1978 to 1985. His film about David Bowie, 'Cracked Actor' (tx. 26/1/1975), sent shock waves through senior BBC management, although his reputation continued to grow as Arena producer. Through the quality of Arena's programmes, he made his position at the BBC at first respected, and eventually unassailable.

Well aware of the barriers of provincialism and elitism confronting anyone working in the arts in Britain, he was conscious, too, that television itself could be a barrier between viewer and performer, and could drain the life out of a concert, ballet or opera that in actuality may be vibrant and engaging.

Another area which he saw as deficient was BBC2's contribution to youth programming. He recognised that youth audiences are relatively evasive, and enticed presenter Janet Street-Porter over from the Network 7 (Channel 4, 1987-88) series to rejuvenate a BBC2 that Yentob described as "a bit dull and middle-aged". The result was DEF II (BBC, 1988-94), an early evening programming strand aimed at the teenage market. Despite the early hype, the strand evolved a strong style which just about managed to encompass its heterogeneous contents (Rapido, 1988-92; Rough Guide to Europe, 1988-89).

Yentob re-established himself at the helm of BBC Television in 1997 as director of drama, entertainment and children's, with an enhanced role putting him in overall charge of BBC1, BBC2 and the corporation's then new digital services. His extracurricular activities include a spell as chairman of the Institute for Contemporary Arts during a turbulent period (2002-10). Maintaining his position as a major influence on British arts broadcasting, he devised the flagship arts programme Imagine... (BBC, 2003- ) and raised some eyebrows when he took the presenter's role himself.

A fervent believer that television has a contribution to make in raising the UK's low levels of literacy in the visual arts, Yentob continues his attempts to put those beliefs into practice both in front of the camera and behind the scenes.

Tise Vahimagi

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