On the Box: Lennon Naked | A Century of Fatherhood | The Biology of Dads

In 2005, Christopher Eccleston walked away from the biggest job on British TV. Whether he quit Doctor Who through fear of typecasting, boredom, ambition or simply an allergy to the sonic screwdriver has never really been revealed, but after a hugely successful revival of the series, he chose not to cash in on his sudden accession to family favourite but to drop off the radar with as much determination as a snake shedding its skin.

The screen roles that followed seemed random, even perverse: a by-the-numbers ITV drama about pushy parents (never shown in Scotland), beneath-him generic villains in bad Hollywood blockbusters, a small role in the Amelia Earhart biopic. Given that Eccleston only gives cautious, impersonal interviews and stays firmly out of the tabloids, when he turned up in a couple of episodes of Heroes playing an invisible man, it was tempting to wonder whether he'd turned his whole career into some kind of post-modern joke.

And yet now he returns to British TV with a role which, if not quite made for him, certainly has resonance. Lennon Naked is at least the seventh film or TV drama to cover John Lennon's life; this one mostly focuses on 1967-71, when he gave up on his marriage, the Beatles and Britain, walking away from it all with a skip in his step and giddily embracing art shows, experimental sounds, naked photo shoots and bed-ins for peace. You can see why Christopher Eccleston might have felt drawn to the role.

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This John Lennon, in a script by Robert Jones, is darker than some of the portrayals: self-pitying, melancholy, arrogant, selfish. You want to shake him as he moans yet again about his parents' abandonment while ignoring his own son Julian. But it's far from a stitch-up as the sheer fascination of the man comes through, too: his wit and intelligence, too fast to be constrained by the comfort of mainstream popularity ("The Beatles, all that, it's music hall," he says here); and the intriguing contrast between his constantly defensive banter and the openness of his emotions.

The drama wobbles around getting started, with an opening scene in 1964 that introduces Rory Kinnear as a potentially interesting Brian Epstein, only to move swiftly on to his death a few years later. Epstein having, in this version anyway, deliberately nudged Lennon away from re-establishing a relationship with the father, who'd left him aged six but resurfaced with The Beatles' fame, his death prompts the singer to try again. But though Christopher Fairbank is fine as the twitchy Freddie Lennon, their scenes don't really go anywhere.

That old dramatic stand-by, the psychiatrist's session in which someone emotionally faces up to his childhood issues, also makes an appearance and though it's valid enough with Lennon's documented interest in primal scream therapy, it doesn't make it any less of a clich.

It's far more interesting watching Eccleston's Lennon show how jaded he's become with fame and the conventional, if successful, path his life has taken. As reporters beg for crumbs of wisdom from the band – asking who their new gurus are, after they give up on the Maharishi – he tries walking on water in his swimming pool, just checking that he's not, in fact, the new Messiah, but a very naughty boy.

His wife Cynthia has taken on, or been pushed into, the role of the nag who moans: "You don't even know what a family is." So when he meets Yoko Ono, whose chat is more gnomic – "I'm thinking about acorns" – he embraces the possibilities of breaking away into randomness.

Eccleston dominates every scene as much as Lennon must have dominated every room he was in, but there's one big obvious problem: he's clearly around 15 years too old for the role (23 years in the opening section). But you can suspend disbelief a bit by thinking of it as a way of showing Lennon being older and more cynical than his years. And he has the distinctive voice down near-perfectly. It's a fearsomely watchable performance and a fine comeback.

Due to the appearance of his father, Lennon Naked has been spuriously shoehorned into BBC 4's latest grandiose season, on Fatherhood, which attempts to wrestle that large subject into some kind of pattern. It also features A Century Of Fatherhood, setting out to redress the apparently negative image of 20th-century dads. Its aim is set out by Professor Joanna Bourke, who argues: "The image that we have of fathers in the past is absolutely, totally wrong ... the absolute majority (were] loving, warm fathers."

Okay, fine, though did anyone have a fixed conviction that they were all monsters? With such a generalised premise, the documentary finds it hard to prove its point. It makes lots of assertions – that many working-class fathers were involved in childcare; that fathers made a point of educating their children and some trained them to follow in their jobs; that soldiers wrote loving letters home – which it is impossible to disagree with. But there is a distinct absence of real hard facts, in favour of personal anecdote from elderly people remembering their beloved fathers with affection. It's nice, but massively vague, and proves nothing other than that each family is different.

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The Biology of Dads is rather more scientific, from its assertion that 1970s dads spent an average 15 minutes a day involved in child-related activity and today's spend nearly two hours, to its study showing how hormone levels change in new fathers to make them more nurturing. Though it's a bit simplistic about the differences between male and female behaviour, it's interesting stuff.


Wednesday, BBC4, 9.30pm


Monday, BBC4, 9pm


Tuesday, BBC4 9pm

• This article was first published in The Scotsman on 19 June.