Imagine there's no "Imagine" and no Al Yentob, too . . . Call me cynical, but if there were no floundering arts programme called Imagine on BBC1, would BBC2 have come up with the idea of a 90-minute Arena devoted to John Lennon's dippy hymn to peace on earth? But as an in-joke, the title Imagine Imagine (20 September, BBC2) proved too good to miss. Fortunately, so was Frederick Baker's film - ironically, a throwback to Yentob and Arena's finest hour, its documentary on Sinatra's "My Way".
Since the song was inconveniently released 32 years ago in 1971, apart from the "news" that "Imagine" had been voted the world's most popular lyric (I think, although we were not told, by Virgin Radio listeners two Christmases ago), there was no peg for this essay. So the film fudged dates and used archive footage to conflate Apollo missions, the carpet bombing of Vietnam, and Lennon and Yoko Ono's bed-ins for peace. But, broadly speaking, it was right to locate the song's genesis in the late Sixties rather than the following decade. It was the product of the era's collective nervous breakdown and retreat into psychiatry and psychedelia. Lennon, who had been born in the middle of an air raid in 1940 and then given away by his mother, was in urgent need of a rebirth and signed up for primal scream therapy before composing "Imagine".
In a broader historical context, as John Carey pointed out, this hippie song, like the hippie movement itself, was a continuation of a 19th-century Romantic tradition which insisted, contra Plato, that the imagination was a wonderful tool. "Imagine", however, is a curiosity in that it asks so little of the imagination, wanting it, in fact, not to imagine things - no heaven, no hell, no countries, no religion, no possessions. Except for its fleeting "ooo-ooo" moment, a yelp in the direction of ecstasy, it is, as the musicologist Wilfred Mellers identified, a lullaby.
The comparison is doubly apt, given the childishness of its sentiments. "It's the sort of thing Miss World contestants say," fumed the radio presenter Robert Elms, who elected himself the song's chief prosecutor. And although Lennon, short-changed by love as a child, was as entitled as anyone to demand bigger rations of it for all, to hear Jesse Jackson name him in the same breath as King, Gandhi and Mandela was more than cringe-making.
"It's not the politics of the left or anything else. It's the politics of the infants school," Elms went on. "Imagine" certainly has school-assembly credibility, though here it can pose difficulties. A little girl at Dovedale Primary in Liverpool, whose most famous old boy was Len- non, said her favourite line was "above us only sky" because "it's true". She was a clever thing, but her headmistress, Wen Williams, would presumably disagree. The "no religion, too" line was "a difficult bit" for a school, she said - though it didn't seem problematic for the Buddhist Reverend Sato, who hailed it as a religious text just as surely as the scientist Harry Kroto claimed it as a marching tune for militant atheists. (But imagining a world without religions is not the same as declaring there is no God.)
A bigger problem should be the next impossible thing Lennon wanted imagined: "no possessions". Sandra Quayle, curator of The Beatles Story museum in Liverpool, started a sentence intending to praise this sentiment, stuttered and ended up admitting that, personally, she had a certain fondness for collecting memorabilia. For Lennon, the line was an own goal. The video that accompanied the song's re-release after its author's assassination was shot in his country mansion in Ascot, in which he had a room devoted to storing his fur coats at thermostatically controlled temperatures. The material man's lyric remains hot property. At a licensing meeting at "BrandBASE, London", we watched Ono's rep choose which wallpaper and nursery toy deserved to bear the copyrighted lyrics. "Above us only sky" is now the slogan for John Lennon Airport in Liverpool.
George Galloway, whose political career turns out to have been inspired by the ditty, countered that these were petits bourgeois criticisms; Lennon and he were fighting for the collective ownership of fur coats; when utopia dawned, they would give theirs up. Elms scowled in reply that his late father was a trade unionist who fought for his members to have more possessions, not none.
This was the level of debate: rather high. But there were playful Arena touches. An avian goldfish swam over and between scenes. For a Russian sequence, the film burst into a mini-dramatisation of a Kafkaesque confrontation between a Lennonist protester and a Leninist commissar. The documentary's clever-cleverness complemented the song's simplistic simplicity, and was its own proof that the song had failed in its ambitions at every level. Far from inspiring "a brotherhood of man", few can agree even about the meaning of "Imagine". One disgruntled Liverpudlian at John Lennon Airport even turned "above us only sky" into evidence that Lennon considered himself God. Rather than finally playing the song straight through, the end credits rolled up against a babble of squabbling voices.
Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times