A love-in with the luvvies

The celeb-on-celeb interview is back, and as you'd expect, it's a cosy affair

Chain Reaction Radio 4

Imagine: the Secret of Life BBC1

How's this for a joke? Alan Yentob on self-help books. Yes, I know. I was in hysterics, too. Like he needs them. But I guess it was one way of dealing with the whole "noddie" controversy: rather than sending someone else to do interviews on his behalf and then naughtily inserting shots of himself later, this film (broadcast 19 February, 10.35pm) gave him a perfect excuse to appear in every frame.

Even when he wasn't actually talking to a guru, there he was, staring at the London skyline, acting mildly bewildered, or sitting on the floor surrounded by piles of paperbacks. I do think, however, that he might have tried to make these "at home" scenes a little more convincing. At one point, a look of studied befuddlement on his cherubic face, he pondered a copy of He's Just Not That Into You by Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo. Alan! This book is for girls: the clue is in the title.

Am I being mean? Not really. Let's leave Yentob, the super-networked creative director of the BBC, out of it for a moment (though I bet I wasn't the only viewer who read it as a statement of fact rather than intent when he wrote "I am connected" on a Post-it note and stuck it to his mirror). Self-help books are hardly unfamiliar territory; if you're going to make a film about them, you must either be madly incisive and witty, or deliver some hot new angle. This was just a greatest hits.

Yentob and his team used as their peg the success of The Secret, a DVD and subsequent book that has sold five million copies in the United States (the secret in question is the "law of attraction" that runs like a "golden thread" through the universe; open yourself to this law, and you'll attract success like fluff to a dark sweater). Yentob met one of the 24 contributors to The Secret, pronounced himself smitten with "positive vibrations", and then set off on a US tour, during which he wore sunglasses and met all the usual suspects, including Susan "Feel the Fear" Jeffers and Anthony "Fire Walker" Robbins.

These encounters drove me nuts: first, because Yentob was so uncritical, and second because he appeared to be trying out their techniques ("I can handle it," he wrote in the sand of a California beach after Jeffers told him her exceedingly dull mantra) without ever explaining why. Is he anxious? Demotivated? Searching for meaning in his life? And if so, what implications does this have for the bit of our licence fee that goes on his whopping salary? He wasn't saying.

Worse, when he got round to interviewing someone who really does use self-help books, who should it be but Amy Jenkins, writer of This Life. Why couldn't Yentob have talked to someone non-media? Perhaps there's no one non-media in his address book. Jenkins, with whom he wandered on what looked like Hampstead Heath, wittered on about how much she loves the first line of M Scott Peck's The Road Less Travelled - "Life is difficult." She might just as well have been talking about Jilly Cooper or Jane Austen. Her dog was nice, though.

The psychotherapist Adam Phillips was predictably down on self-help, though he was not much cheerier about analysis; when it comes to dealing with life, said Phillips, "nothing works". David Burns, the cognitive behavioural therapy pioneer, also put in an appearance, but we never got to the bottom of how CBT works, despite Yentob telling us that Burns's books have even been prescribed to psychiatric patients by doctors at the Maudsley Hospital in London.

By now, the water was not just muddy, it was as silted as the Thames itself. Lumping together the work of a professor of psychiatry, such as Burns, with that of a motivational speaker like Robbins is not only dumb, it's probably dangerous, too. And what conclusions did Yentob draw from his odyssey? "There's more to it than I thought," he announced, on his return from a Buddhist retreat. He did not elaborate on this, but he did unfurl a very nice scroll given to him by his Zen master. "I have arrived," it said. "I am home." Oh, Alan, dear: you arrived years ago. Everyone knows that.

Pick of the week

The Woman Who Stops Traffic
Starts 26 February, 9pm, Channel 4
Gridlock in a market town, and one woman’s crusade against it.

The Hard Sell
Starts 26 February, 10.30pm, BBC4
Series showing what 50 years of TV has done to us. It’s not good.

27 February, 10.35pm, ITV1
(Mildly) controversial US import whose hero is a serial killer.

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan reborn