Lennon Naked

BBC4 has made some good biopics – this isn’t one of them.

On the way to visit friends, my husband and I try to work out how many John Lennon/Beatles biopics we've seen between us. Quite a few, it turns out. Before we've pulled out of the street, we've counted four: The Hours and Times, Backbeat, Two of Us, Nowhere Boy.

I tell T that the latest, Lennon Naked (23 June, 9.30pm), which I've seen and he hasn't, shows John L during his very worst period: in the late Sixties, when he dumps the band and his long-suffering wife Cynthia, and goes off with an artist called Yoko Ono (I use the word artist advisedly; in my view, she's about as close to being an artist as I am to climbing K2).

"Basically," I say, "he just acts like a total p**** throughout."

“Well," says T, "he'd earned the right to behave like a total p****."

I suppose this is true, and I'm happy to say that when I listen to Revolver, I don't give two hoots how unpleasant and narcissistic Lennon was. Lucky for me, I haven't yet caught the pathetic modern contagion that makes people expect great artists also to be lovely sorts, kind to children and garden hedgehogs. However, whether I want to spend 85 minutes watching someone pretend to be a genius behaving badly is a different matter. On balance, I don't. About half an hour into Lennon Naked, I could hear - above the din of John (Christopher Eccleston) and Yoko (Naoko Mori) wailing and beating biscuit tins with drumsticks - the sound of a barrel being scraped. It wasn't pleasant; it was worse, in fact, than being forced to listen to Lennon's self-pitying dirge "Mother" on a loop.

But first things first. Christopher Eccleston. He has never been a favourite actor of mine; there is something infuriatingly earnest and slightly histrionic about all his performances. He is so desperate to be great. Here, though, he was just disastrous. Not entirely his fault: he was dreadfully miscast. John Lennon died at 40; Christopher Eccleston is now 46. He made for a laughably raddled Mop Top, and even when Lennon had grown his hair and was deep into primal therapy, he looked pretty stupid (in 1970, Lennon was 30). It was as though Eccleston had turned up, not at a film set, but at a fancy-dress party: "I'm John Lennon! Can't you tell?" His Scouse accent was also too strong; Lennon, remember, was brought up by his aspirational Aunt Mimi. If you closed your eyes, it was like listening to Lily Savage.

The film looked not at the effect on Lennon of his absent slutty mummy, Julia, but at the misery caused by his absent drunken daddy, Freddie (it was screened as part of BBC4's fatherhood season). Oh dear. For a grown man, Lennon cleaved pathetically hard to the slights of his childhood, and if Robert Jones's script was supposed to make us sympathise with him, it roundly failed; self-obsession is never pretty, but here it was just boring and repetitive. "What about me? What about me?" he kept saying, a big baby in silly yellow spectacles and an Afghan coat. Freddie, who was played by Christopher Fairbank, an actor with a face as crêpey as a pair of hotel curtains, turned up at Lennon Towers with only a suitcase and an ancient overcoat to his name. We were supposed to think him sly, a user and a waster. But I was rooting for him; if I woke up and found I had a son like John Lennon, I'd need a stiff drink, too.

There followed an extended scene in Lennon's swimming pool: Eccleston was filmed underwater, as if in amniotic fluid - the most torpor-inducing attempt to pad a film I've seen in a long while. In recent years, BBC4 has screened some good biopics: Enid Blyton, Kenneth Williams, Margaret Thatcher. This film showed the danger of over-reliance on them. I know they're cheap; all the production designers on Lennon Naked had to get their hands on was a silly-looking Roller, a Tudorbethan house and a few second-hand kaftans. When they do Kenny Everett - yes, he's up next - they'll need only a beard and a giant pair of prosthetic breasts. But they should remember: one dead famous person does not a decent drama make.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.