Nigel Farndale is surprised to find a somewhat sympathetic Salman Rushdie in an episode of BBC One’s Imagine… about the writer’s fatwa.

Imagine… (Wednesday, BBC One) achieved something remarkable: it made Salman Rushdie seem sympathetic. This, after all, is a man whose new memoir about the fatwa is written in the third person. The third person! Who does that? As a friend of mine noted, instead of referring to himself as “he” throughout, it should have been “moi”.

The book is called Joseph Anton, after the alias he adopted in hiding, taking the first names of Conrad and Chekhov. But his protection officers called him Joe, “much to his annoyance”. It is a testament to his reputation for being insufferable that even some of his fellow writers — well, Roald Dahl and John Le Carré — couldn’t bring themselves to defend him after the fatwa.

Alan Yentob’s personal and touching documentary revealed how grim the fatwa really was. On the day it was issued, Rushdie left the house to go to a memorial service and didn’t return to it for several years. As his friend Martin Amis quipped, he “vanished into the front pages”. Even his family were not allowed to know where he was, for their own protection. Not that that helped them. His son recalled how, when he was a boy, he would sometimes pick up the phone and hear someone threaten to kill him.

Rushdie talked of the deep shame he felt hiding in the Welsh countryside, and how he became so desperate he made an ill-judged attempt to appease his tormenters by declaring himself a Muslim. It didn’t work. At that point he decided freedom of speech was a cause worth dying for and that he wasn’t going to hide any more. So not only did this documentary inspire feelings of sympathy in the viewer, it made its subject look noble. (Around that time, I remember seeing him at a Martin Amis book launch: all the guests were pretending to be nonchalant about his presence, while making sure they didn’t stand too close to him.)

With well-chosen extracts from Midnight’s Children, this edition of Imagine… reminded us what an elegant writer Rushdie used to be. It was also insightful on how he had wanted to find a style of writing about India which was the opposite of EM Forster’s. Where his literary hero’s prose was cool, Rushdie wanted his language to be “hot, smelly, vulgar, crowded”. I was so impressed with that comment, I found myself ordering his memoir.