Imagine: the Fatwa – Salman's Story – review

Interviews should never be between friends.

Alan Yentob and Salman Rushdie
Alan Yentob and Salman Rushdie. Photograph: BBC

Imagine: The Fatwa - Salman's Story
BBC1

Interviews, profiles, features: what’s the first rule when it comes to this kind of journalism? Not to be boring, probably. The second, surely, is that one should never interview a friend, however tempting the possibility of such a love-fest might be. I make the greater part of my living doing interviews and I take this rule extremely seriously, for all that I don’t have the kind of friends my editors might require me to interview. If someone emails me telling me they liked a piece I wrote about them, I tend to feel anxious rather than flattered. It’s not my job to please my interviewees and my hunch is that if someone dislikes a piece I’ve written, it’s because I’ve struck a nerve. In other words, I’ve done my job properly.

It was, then, with a certain amount of astonishment that I took on board the news that Alan Yentob had made an Imagine film about his friend Salman Rushdie. I can see the attraction, obviously. On the February morning in 1989 that Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for Rushdie’s execution, it was Yentob’s car that whisked Rushdie away from the massed ranks of photographers waiting outside the church where they’d been attending a memorial service for Bruce Chatwin.

Yentob must have felt an irresistible claim on the story, having been centre stage at such a key moment. He must have felt, too, that he could open doors – and it’s true that the film included interviews with Andrew Wylie (Rushdie’s agent), Elizabeth West (Rushdie’s third wife) and Ian McEwan (he and Yentob reminisced about a dinner they held for Rushdie in a rented country cottage; McEwan, who’d packed a hamper for the evening, was convinced someone was following him down the M40). I’m prepared to accept, at least in the case of Wylie and West, that these interviews might not have been granted to another journalist. Nevertheless, I wonder that Yentob didn’t worry about perspective and that his bosses (does Alan Yentob have a boss?) didn’t worry about appearances. A film like this – incestuous, chummy, occasionally self-congratulatory – can confirm in an instant the worst preconceptions of a certain kind of BBC hater.

I’m not going to pretend the film wasn’t fascinating; it was. I was awed by the determination of the cool-handed Wylie, who ensured The Satanic Verses was published in paperback in the US when New York’s lily-livered publishers refused to have anything to do with it (Wylie created an imprint called The Consortium, which allowed them to pretend that they’d all stepped up to the plate, when in fact the opposite was true). And it made me smile to discover that for the last seven years of the fatwa, Rushdie and West – as literary a couple as it is possible to meet outside the biography section of Waterstones – were safely ensconced in a house on the Bishop’s Avenue in Hampstead, otherwise known as London’s most vulgar street. (My dear! The neighbours!) As Rushdie said to me when I interviewed him, the Ayatollah turned him into a character in a bad novel – and perhaps a little of this rubbed off on Yentob. Why else did he decide to interview one of Rushdie’s former protection officers in a parked car?

Mostly, though, I was struck by Rushdie himself. The fatwa was an appalling, disgraceful thing and it’s impossible not to see it as a foreshadowing of many of the horrors that have come our way since (as he puts it, “9/11 was the main event”). The intolerance it revealed clambers ever more relentlessly over our national discourse. But, still. I can never get over the perverse effect Rushdie’s years in captivity seem to have had on him. Yentob’s film included footage of the young writer travelling around Britain on a train. In his tweed suit, he looked so attentive, so interested, so delightfully gracious. Then you cut to 2012 and it is as though he has inflated, like a balloon (I don’t mean this literally, though his apple cheeks certainly are a bit fuller these days).

My abiding memory of having lunch with Rushdie in 2008 is that he seemed disappointed when no one in the restaurant noticed him. Here, I think, is a man who has come to believe his own publicity – and for a writer, that, surely, must be almost as crippling as a fatwa. It was uncomfortable, to say the least, that when he described the telephone call he had with William Nygaard, the Norwegian publisher of The Satanic Verses, shortly after he was shot in his own back yard, Rushdie finished up with a plump finale about the “very large reprint” Nygaard had just ordered. Which brings me, neatly, back to Yentob. I’m in two minds about his editing of this film. Did he leave in this line, and others like it, because they were telling? Or was their inclusion more accidental – more loving – than that? I don’t know. If I were him, I would explain it to the critics one way and to my friends quite another.