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Yoko Ono ponders a question during a panel discussion on the PBS special "LennonNYC" at the PBS Television Critics Association summer press tour in Beverly Hills, Calif., last week. (Chris Pizzello/AP)
Yoko Ono ponders a question during a panel discussion on the PBS special "LennonNYC" at the PBS Television Critics Association summer press tour in Beverly Hills, Calif., last week. (Chris Pizzello/AP)

John Doyle: Television

The magical mystery tour of Yoko Ono Add to ...

We're going to be hearing a lot about John Lennon this year.

In December, he will have been dead for 30 years. If he had lived, John Lennon would be 70 years old in October.

Such dates and anniversaries stir not only memories, but inspire deeper contemplation and, of course, TV specials. In November, PBS will air Lennon Naked, a BBC film with Christopher Eccleston (Doctor Who) as John Lennon, and it's about the tribulations of the former Beatle's last years in England. The next night, PBS's American Masters series has a two-hour special called John Lennon in New York, which chronicles his years there making music and living with Yoko Ono and their family.

Nothing of the BBC drama was shown to us here, but a chunk of material from the American Masters special was, and it looks fabulous - plenty of rare or never-seen footage of Lennon in the recording studio and audio recordings never heard before, plus interviews with Ono and Lennon's music cronies.

To talk up PBS's Lennon-athon, Yoko Ono came here and spoke to the TV critics in one of the more surreal and memorable sessions of this press tour. She's 77 years old now and her persona is as mystifying as ever. In tight black jeans, a bosom-hugging jacket and a hat, she has an elfin quality. She peers at us over dark glasses perched at the end of her nose and begins by saying that her English still isn't very good, so she might not understand the questions. But she does, and uses her answers to appear by turns gentle, sarcastic, angry and witty. She's messing with our minds, and she knows it.

First, there's the saintly part, as Ono presents herself as the devoted preservationist, nurturing the memory of Lennon. Asked about what New York meant to Lennon and to her, she says, in a low, hushed voice, "Well, even after John's passing, when I think about New York, even when I'm in Europe or something like that, I think [long pause]of John in New York because New York was [long pause]well, he loved New York. He loved New York so much. He said, 'Well, I wish I was born here.' I don't know why. But you see, the other thing is that he used to say, 'You know that New York has a docks and all that. It's very Liverpool.' And the taxi drivers are not speaking normal English, so he thought, 'Well, it's very, very Liverpool.' "

Then a very reverent journalist asks her, gently, about the emotional impact of dealing with her loss again by collaborating on the PBS special. "You know, since John's passing,' she says, "I felt sort of empty and I thought, 'What am I going to do?' Because I was putting all my energy focusing on our relationship. And suddenly he's gone. And then I thought, 'Okay, I can put my energy into my feelings for his fans because they had John, but now they need me to sort of bring John back in a way.' And I said, 'I promised that I would put out something of John's every year, just one thing every year.' But it turned out to be not just one thing. I've been doing this for 30 years, actually. So in the beginning, it was very, very difficult, and I would faint when I'd hear John's voice or something. But now, you know, I'm now used to listening to John's songs. And this time I have to listen to so many of his songs. This was very, very heavy. And I loved it in a way because it was like John coming back to let me know that those are the songs that he created when we were together."

But, soon after, she's asked to talk about why she didn't leave New York and why it is still a big part of her life. And she reacts with rage: "I think people say, 'Why are you still living in the Dakota?' And you know, I think it is a slightly racist remark, and maybe sexist too, because I'm sure that many people are living in their own house, their own home, that he or she shared with their spouses, even after the spouse has passed away, because there's a lot of memory, and also you built the place with the spouse. I'm not going to leave that and go to some strange house that I never went to."

When her rage rises and someone tries to change the topic, she won't let go of it. She rants about being seen as "not part of your culture" and how the way she lives is perceived as "a little bit more barbaric or something." She also suggests that men in America can go to "whorehouses" after a wife dies, but nobody criticizes that. The journalist who asked the question is embarrassed and apologetic. He just wants her to stop ranting. As dramatic as it is, we all do.

Now that we've been shocked and intimidated, Ono relaxes. She has lots to say about her presence on Twitter, MySpace and Facebook, and also about how John had a great sense of humour and was a feminist. And, asked about Lennon's killer, Mark Chapman, being up for parole, she says she opposes parole. Firmly.

Then, finally, she's asked about the legend that Paul McCartney visited Lennon once and they were all sitting around watching Saturday Night Live. It was known in New York that McCartney was visiting Lennon so, on SNL, an offer was made that if the duo showed up at the studio to play, they'd be paid with a $3,000 cheque. The legend is that they decided to do it, got in a cab to go SNL and then changed their minds.

Ono confirms much of the story. They saw the show, they heard the offer, they were tempted to do it, but they didn't get in a cab. As the TV critics hang on her every word, she pauses and wisecracks, "It's not because they weren't interested in $3,000." The room erupts in laughter. She has conquered us. That's Yoko. From saint to scold to joker. Since she appeared at Lennon's side decades ago, people have been trying to figure her out. And still are.

Airing tonight

Cheaters (HBO Canada, 8 p.m.) is a fine movie, made in 2000, about the real case of Chicago high-school students who, in an academic decathlon, beat an elite school by cheating. They had the encouragement of their teacher, Dr. Plecki (Jeff Daniels). It's a good, tough-minded movie about winning and losing and who gets to fudge the details.

The Cupcake Girls (W, 9 p.m.) is about Heather White and Lori Joyce, friends who attempt to build a cupcake empire in Canada. When I wrote recently about a cupcake show on TLC, this show's existence was pointed out. In tonight's episode, Heather and Lori attend couples counselling, but they wonder if they can ever see eye to eye again. There you go, eh?

Follow on Twitter: @MisterJohnDoyle

 

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