He came to mock, but ended up producing one of the best and balanced programmes on self-help books I've seen in a long time.
Alan Yentob, former Controller of BBC 1, gave us a glimpse of many of the self-help greats in The Secrets of Life, the latest programme in his Imagine series.
The programme begun with The Secret, a massive commercial success but an easy target for the sceptic. The "Law of Attraction" which underpins the book goes back a long way but is sufficiently New-Agey to get the "Are you Serious?" treatment from Yentob. "I can't help thinking that the easiest way to make money from self-help books seems to be to write one", he sneered.
Fortunately, though, Yentob wasn't the only voice we heard, and This Life writer Amy Jenkins
provided a balancing and very sane perspective in praise of self-help books. Just as some people like to go for a run in the morning, and others go down the gym, Jenkins likes to read a chapter of a self-help book to get her in the right frame of mind to face the coming day. And why not?
She agreed that The Secret was a bit OTT, but pointed out that it nevertheless contained some useful insights.
Yentob did not seem persuaded, and unsurprisingly neither Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People nor firewalking motivator Anthony Robbins, did anything to improve matters.
A turning point seemed to come when he interviewed Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway author Susan Jeffers. Her catch-phrases -"Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway" and "Whatever happens, I can deal with it" at first sight seem to exemplify the worst sort of trite positive thinking. Yentob wondered out loud whether some situations were too complex and too awful to benefit from such simple advice. "That's when you need it make", Jeffers replied, "for example, when I had breast cancer over 20 years ago." Yentob's expression became noticibly more respectful, and turned positively deferntial when he introduced us to holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning. (A special treat was seeing rare footage of Frankl).
Things got even better when Yentob spoke to David Burns - apparently still wearing the same golfing jumper that features on the cover of The Feeling Good Handbook. Burns is one of the leading writers of self-help books helping people to practice CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy). CBT is one of the most evidence-based therapies, and reading self-help books a crucial component. Burns told Yentob about a suicidal Latvian lady he counselled in his early days as a therapist. Rather than ask her to talk about her childhood, as a psychoanalyst might, he asked her think about some of the positive things that had happened in her life. In effect, he asked her to challenge her idea that she was a worthless person - and sure enough it turned out out that there was plenty of evidence to the contrary. Changing the way you think really can change the way you feel.
Yentob concluded his travels in France, going on a Buddhist meditation retreat led by Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh , author of The Miracle of Mindfulness. The integrity and inner peace of the Buddhist monk contrasted starkly with the salesmanship and mania of some of the Californian-style gurus we had seen earlier. It was clear which impressed Yentob more.
Yentob seemed to have learnt something from giving self-help books a chance. Maybe we all can. To help, I've produced a list of my current top ten personal development books, and also a guide to one of my favourites not mentioned by Yentob, Bertrand Russell's Conquest of Happiness.
If you can access the BBC's I Player, there is at the time of writing still 3 days left to view the programme, and I thoroughly recommend doing so.