Arts in broadcasting and television: Leonardo on BBC 3

Four million viewers tuned in to Alan Yentob’s three-part series on the wonders of Da Vinci


BBC 1’s three-part series Leonardo was surely the media art event of the season, launching the BBC’s renewed commitment “to broadcasting the best in arts and cultural programming … for a diverse audience”. Alan Yentob presented, with Mark Rylance as the handsome, courtly, if somewhat untidily coiffed genius, Leonardo. Professor Martin Kemp, a leading Leonardo scholar, ensured the academic integrity of the series and plugged the private passions of Mr Yentob and his producers into the solid research that continues around Leonardo (see The Art Newspaper, No. 134, March 2003, p.9, “The Universal Leonardo Project”).

Informed voices lent further authority: art historians Professor Rona Goffen of Rutgers University, and Dr Evelyn Welch, University of Sussex; Sherwin Nuland, Professor of Clinical Surgical, and geologist Dr Cherry Lewis. They were used sparingly and well in programmes, which deliberately avoided a didactic tone. Alan Yentob is a programme-maker with a starred executive career in BBC television arts, who now assumes the role of a latter-day Huw Weldon. His “Leonardo” is not for cognoscenti. It thickens the popular plot of the man and his genius in accessible terms, and for anyone, whatever their age, with a feeling for art and history these programmes are a thrilling introduction.

As it turned out, this flagship attempt to win the hearts and minds of millions hit its target. Audiences of four million tuned in for each programme. Ten thousand viewers rang a number for free postcards and information about a short course offered by the Open University, which has part-funded the series. And to judge by the success of Channel 4’s recent two-parter “Leonardo’s dream machines”, a good number of viewers might have taken up the invitation at the end of “Leonardo” to switch over to BBC 3 and watch Leonardo’s amazing inventions. The key to the BBC’s new strategy is cross-fertilisation: “Hit as many audiences as possible with one strike,” as insiders put it.

Leonardo was a canny choice. Artist, engineer, geologist and botanist, a man unschooled, but with an insatiable curiosity “to know everything”, and an unstoppable inventiveness, he can be everyman’s hero. The programme avoided the exclusive “art” tag, while aiming to net its elusive audience. It is probably true to say that the man in the street wants beauty and sensation rather than facts and visual analysis. So how to capture the imagination of a large audience without over-simplifying? How to gain a reputation for television arts for publicising new ideas and theories, and yet remain comprehensible? It’s a long road from “Leonardo” to a degree.

In purely pictorial terms “Leonardo” was visually luxurious, and with a budget of £1.5 million for three hour-long programmes, it had the means to be so, although that is still less, as the BBC points out, than three hours of drama. The money told in the details, not in indulgent photography. It was well spent on the experiments to build and test Leonardo’s engineering designs by experts. Dramatised sketches brought intrigue to life and put faces on Leonardo’s famous patrons, such as Lodovico Sforza (James Faulkner). It should also be said that the programmes were textually rich. They packed in a life and a lot of information, all the well known anecdotes, all the familiar areas of speculation. They managed to synthesise existing research and weave it into a taut narrative, compellingly contrived, smooth flowing and purposeful. The first two biographical programmes, “The man who wanted to know everything” and “Dangerous liaisons” took us to the 1500s. The third plumbed “The secret life of the Mona Lisa”, with a winning combination of secret life, art crime, and the mysteries of creation.

Mr Yentob kept us on the qui vive: “So what’s going on here? How does the Mona Lisa connect with the strange primeval landscape? Let’s go to the Tuscan landscape where it all began.” And he tied the ends: “Drawing together all these threads it seems to me that the Mona Lisa provides us with a snapshot of the nature of Leonardo’s mind, a distillation of all that he had discovered through a lifetime’s observation of the secrets of nature.” Towards the end of programme three, Professor Kemp brought us back to where we began in the Royal Collection in Windsor Castle, searching for insights into Leonardo’s mind in his drawing. “The Deluge drawings are in a sense the ultimate reflection of this idea that there is a superior force; these are vast forms, and what happens in the human heart, what happens in the mind, are all little microcosmic reflections of these vast forces.”

When the glider failed to lift off, those same insights gave him the authority to argue that if Leonardo had been doing the test “the natural reaction would be to say, let’s have a tail on it. So, that’s fine.” Success. The machine took to the air for the very first time.

Two substantial exhibitions of Leonardo’s drawings are currently on show in the Louvre, Paris (until 14 July), and in The Queen’s Gallery, London (“Leonardo da Vinci: The Divine and the Grotesque”, until 9 November).

Leonardo, 3-part series for BBC 1; 20, 27 April; 4 May. Mark Rylance as Leonardo. Writer / presenter Alan Yentob. Series consultant Professor Martin Kemp. Executive producer Michael Mosley. Programmes 1 and 2 The man who wanted to know everything and Dangerous liaisons, BBC/Discovery Channel co-productions in association with the Open University. Producers / directors Sarah Aspinall and Tim Dunn. The secret life of the Mona Lisa, BBC 1 in association with the Open University. Producer / director Nick Rossiter.

Leonardo’s amazing inventions, BBC 3, 2-parter, 27 April, 4 May. Presenter Charlie Luxton. Executive producer Michael Mosley. Producer / director Tim Dunn.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Leonardo on the beeb'