Desecrated graves at a Jewish cemetery in Prestwich, Lancashire, in 1965. (Getty.)
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Britain's last anti-Jewish riots

Why have the 1947 riots been forgotten?

In 1947 a washed-out summer had followed a harsh winter, and Britain was in the grip of recession as it struggled to restart its economy after the Second World War. On the August bank holiday weekend, the weather in Manchester had turned hot and stuffy. Trade in the shops was poor, rationing was in full swing and many workers had opted to stay in the city for the long weekend.

In cinema queues and on street corners, one topic dominated the conversation: the murder of two British army sergeants by Irgun paramilitaries in Mandate Palestine. The Irgun was one of several Zionist groups fighting a guerrilla war to force British troops out of the territory and establish the state of Israel. It had kidnapped the two sergeants in retaliation for death sentences passed on three of its own fighters. The three men were executed by British forces on 29 July, and two days later the bodies of the soldiers were discovered amid the trees of a eucalyptus grove near Netanya. They had been hanged and the ground beneath them booby-trapped with a landmine.

It was just one incident of many in a vicious conflict. Militants had bombed the King David Hotel in Jerusalem a year previously, and even set off small bombs in London. But the “ser­geants affair”, as it came to be known, caused public outrage in mainland Britain.

On 1 August, a Friday, the Daily Express reported the story on its front page, prominently displaying a photograph of the bodies which, it promised its readers, would be a “picture that will shock the world”. British Jewish leaders condemned the killings, but more lurid details followed in the next day’s papers. That weekend, as Walter Lever, a working-class Jewish resident of Manchester recalled, “There was nothing to do but walk the streets . . . discussing the newspaper,” the story of the hanged sergeants “taking precedence over the week’s murders and rapes”.

There were already signs that a backlash was imminent. In Birkenhead, near Liverpool, slaughterhouse workers had refused to process any more meat for Jewish consumption until the attacks on British soldiers in Palestine stopped. Around Merseyside, the anger was starting to spill on to the streets as crowds of angry young men gathered in Jewish areas.

On Sunday afternoon the trouble reached Manchester. Small groups of men began breaking the windows of shops in Cheetham Hill, an area just north of the city centre which had been home to a Jewish community since the early 19th century. The pubs closed early that day because there was a shortage of beer, and by the evening the mob’s numbers had swelled to several hundred. Most were on foot but others drove through the area, throwing bricks from moving cars.

Soon the streets were covered in broken glass and stones and the crowd moved on to bigger targets, tearing down the canopy of the Great Synagogue on Cheetham Hill Road and surrounding a Jewish wedding party at the Assembly Hall. They shouted abuse at the terrified guests until one in the morning.

The next day, Lever said, “Cheetham Hill Road looked much as it had looked seven years before, when the German bombers had pounded the city for  12 hours. All premises belonging to Jews for the length of a mile down the street had gaping windows and the pavements were littered with glass.”

By the end of the bank holiday weekend, anti-Jewish riots had also taken place in Glasgow and Liverpool. There were minor disturbances, too, in Bristol, Hull, London and Warrington, as well as scores of attacks on Jewish property across the country. A solicitor in Liverpool and a Glasgow shopkeeper were beaten up. Nobody was killed, but this was the most widespread anti-Jewish violence the UK had ever seen. In Salford, the day after a crowd of several thousand had thrown stones at shop windows, signs appeared that read: “Hold your fire. These premises are British.”

Arsonists in West Derby set fire to a wooden synagogue; workers at Canada Dock in Liverpool returned from the holidays to find “Death to all Jews” painted above the entrance. And in Eccles, a former sergeant major named John Regan was fined £15 for telling a crowd of 700: “Hitler was right. Exterminate every Jew – every man, woman and child. What are you afraid of? There’s only a handful of police.”

Just two years after British troops had liberated Bergen-Belsen, the language of the Third Reich had resurfaced, this time at home. Anger about what had happened in Palestine was one thing, but it seemed to have unleashed something far more vicious.

Hidden history

Whitechapel, London, 2012. I am waiting outside the library – a glassy new building just up the high street from the Victorian edifice where a generation of self-educated Jewish intellec­tuals and artists congregated in the early years of the 20th century – to meet Max Levitas. It’s a Thursday afternoon and I have interrupted his weekly ritual: a trip to the Turkish bath in Bethnal Green, a walk that Levitas still makes, alone, at the age of 97.

Born in Dublin in 1915 to Jewish refugee parents from the Baltic, Levitas has lived in White­chapel since 1930. In 1947 when the rioting erupted, he was a local councillor and member of the Communist Party. Although London was spared riots on the scale of those in the north, he recalls how the hanging sergeants incident compounded “animosity” towards Jews in the East End. “I opposed the hanging when I spoke at meetings, but the main fight was dealing with racism that foreigners were getting jobs and Jews were getting jobs.”

This was one sign that the anti-Jewish feeling had a deeper source than any act of terrorism in the Middle East. Postwar austerity was at its harshest. Contrary to the cheery “Keep Calm and Carry On” nostalgia with which the period is recalled today, it was a time of hunger and poverty. A fuel shortage during the winter of 1946-47 had led to soaring unemployment; in the spring of 1947 it peaked at 1.9 million. Hopes that anti-Semitism, which had re-emerged during previous economic downturns, would have disappeared with the defeat of Hitler were short-lived. Instead, as the historian Tony Kushner has written in an essay on the links between austerity and the 1947 riots, a popular stereotype persisted of Jews as “black marketeers gaining from the war but not contributing to the effort”. The extension of rationing kept the stereotype alive. Ernest Bevin, the foreign secretary, had made remarks about the Jews of Europe “pushing to the front of the queue” and during the fuel crisis he made a quip about “Israelites”, insinuating that Jewish black marketeers were hoarding fuel. Worse still, Jewish loyalty over Palestine was being questioned openly. In the opening days of 1947 the Sunday Times had addressed an editorial “to British Jews” in which the paper accused them of failing to perform their “civic duty and moral obligations” by denouncing the anti-British violence in Palestine.

In Glasgow, Liverpool and Manchester, where the worst rioting took place, the downturn was at its most painful. These cities had the highest levels of unemployment in Britain and even though the disturbances initially targeted the Jews they quickly progressed to generalised looting. “Get the Jews, get the stuff and get into the shops,” was one shout heard in Manchester. Not for the first (or last) time, racism and economic exclusion combined and formed a poisonous resentment.

Levitas had been part of the crowd that faced down Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts on Cable Street in the East End in October 1936. Like many trade unionists, he was alarmed at the resurgence of violence. “There was a feeling that we’d just had a war against fascism, and that we’d got to ensure that the fascists didn’t do again what they did in the Thirties.”

Although the violence in 1947 was not orchestrated by fascist political parties, it emboldened the remaining adherents. Jeffrey Hamm, a former member of the British Union of Fascists who was now in charge of the League of Ex-Servicemen, visited the north-west of England and attempted to stir up trouble. Fascists displayed copies of the Daily Express’s “hanging sergeants” front page at their meetings. And in 1948 Oswald Mosley, who had been interned in Holloway Prison during the war, launched a new party, the Union Movement.

At the end of the war, 43 Jewish ex-servicemen had set up a clandestine group to infiltrate fascist meetings and break up their opponents’ rallies by fighting in the street. The 43 Group was the first of several such organisations. Levitas believes that one reason the fascists were kept at bay, and why east London stayed relatively calm through the late 1940s, is that the lessons of the 1930s had been learned.

“Only through the integration of society could we play a major part in stopping racism,” he told me. For him, this “integration” went beyond anti-fascist protest; it involved “people demanding for themselves jobs, housing and education for their kids. To ensure that whatever religion you’ve got, whatever your colour, you play a part in society.”

“National disgrace”

On 5 August, four days after its sensationalised coverage had triggered the riots, the Express appealed for calm. “No more of this!” it implored readers, arguing that the attacks on innocent shopkeepers had become a national disgrace. In Manchester, the violence had subsided, leaving an ugly atmosphere. “For the rest of the week,” Lever recalled, “one overheard behind one in the bus, over one’s shoulder at the next café table, a row ahead in the cinema, whispering anecdotes and muttered abuse relating to the events of the Sunday night.”

A dividing line had been drawn through daily life where none appeared to exist before. Rachel Barash, who had worked for the Jewish “hospitality committee” that brought refugee children over from Germany and the Netherlands during the 1930s, remembered how the riots sparked a “nasty” stand-off between boys from rival youth clubs. Until that point, the refugees, who were housed in the suburban village of Withington, had been welcomed and treated as “our children” by their neighbours. Now Jewish boys across Manchester gathered together, ready to defend themselves.

Yet the tension dissipated almost as quickly as violence had surged: in the words of another Manchester resident, Agnes Sussman, “It all passed over as if nothing had happened.” Today, there is little mention of the riots in the official histories. There are only a couple of academic essays beyond Kushner's study, and the violence in Liverpool forms a backdrop to the play Three Sisters on Hope Street, the 2008 retelling of Chekhov by Diane Samuels and Tracy-Ann Oberman. Elsewhere, they are viewed as an insignificant footnote to the story of the creation of the state of Israel.

Why have the riots been forgotten? According to Dave Rich, deputy director of communications at the Community Security Trust, a charity established in 1994 to ensure the “safety and security” of British Jews, one reason was that there were much bigger things to worry about then. The full horrors of the Holocaust were still coming to light; efforts to establish the state of Israel were ongoing; and in Britain, for Zionist and non-Zionist Jews alike, there were more pressing economic concerns. “Given that few people were actually hurt in the riots,” Rich says, “it’s understandable that, in the wider picture of what is on the mind of Jews at that time, it would very quickly get relegated.”

British politicians, too, were keen to sweep things under the carpet. James Chuter Ede, the postwar home secretary, dismissed the rioting as mere “hooliganism . . . rather than an indication of public feeling”, while magistrates condemned rioters as “un-British” and “unpatriotic”. Nations need their feel-good stories and as Rich points out, “The thought that those popular anti-Jewish riots could happen two years after the Holocaust in Britain . . . runs counter to the anti-fascist mythology of Britain’s role in the war. Who wants to go digging that up?”

Yet the riots were neither an aberration nor the product of an unruly working class. Britain was experiencing an identity crisis: it had won the war but appeared to be losing the peace, with recession at home and the break-up of its empire abroad, in which the events in Mandate Palestine played only a small part. As colonised peoples increasingly demanded independence, Britain turned to a more inward-looking nationalism. Along with it came the question of who would be included and who would be left out.

In 1948, with cross-party support, the Labour government passed the British Nationality Act, marking a shift from a situation where all those living in the empire – in theory, although quite evidently not in practice – were equal subjects under the Crown to one where each country in the Commonwealth could determine its own version of citizenship. Although in the years to come it would be non-white immigrants from the Commonwealth who would most strongly challenge received notions of Englishness and Britishness and who would bear the brunt of racism, Jews, too, were caught up in this, for a brief period.

There is one other reason why this episode is worth remembering. On the face of it, there are striking similarities with the way modern Britain has responded to Islamist-inspired terror. Now, as then, events in the Middle East have violent repercussions on Britain’s streets. Home-grown terrorists have set off bombs in London; tabloid newspapers give sensationalist coverage to attacks on “our boys” fighting abroad and question the loyalty of British people of a different faith, this time Muslims. This in turn has provoked an angry backlash in the form of the far-right English Defence League.

At the same time, “integration” is a demand made of outsiders to adopt “our” values, to become more like us. In doing so, some of today’s integrationists hold up British Jews as a kind of “model community”. In 2006 at a ceremony to commemorate the 350th anniversary of Crom­well’s readmission of the Jews into England, Tony Blair told a congregation at Bevis Marks Synagogue: “As the oldest minority faith community in this country, you show how identity through faith can be combined with a deep loyalty to our nation.” Less was said about how we arrived at this point.

Yet it is best to see the events of 1947 as the end of a chapter rather than the beginning of one. A year later, the state of Israel was formed and Chaim Weizmann, who had lived and worked in Manchester, was appointed as its first president. Britain’s duplicitous conduct towards Jews and Arabs since it had taken control of Palestine in 1920, the dispossession of the Palestinians and the nasty guerrilla war were events that it suited both sides to pretend had never happened. Relations were soon “normalised” and nobody cared to recall the brief moment when the messy end to a colonial misadventure was played out on British streets.

Today Cheetham Hill, the old Jewish quarter of Manchester, is home to people of many faiths and none. Most of the old buildings were knocked down in the 1970s and one ornate former synagogue is now a clothing warehouse, its stained-glass Star of David window cracked and boarded up. But this is no cause for mourning; many Jews simply moved further up the road, taking their places of worship with them. At least 35,000 still live in Manchester, which has the largest Jewish population in the UK outside London. The “sergeants affair” is a fading memory, snatches of which are preserved on a handful of reel-to-reel recordings in local history archives. Yet somewhere amid the ghostly swirl of recollections, a painful irony remains: one of the murdered soldiers, Clifford Martin, was Jewish.

Thanks to the Manchester Jewish Museum

Tony Kushner's essay "Anti-Semitism and austerity: the August 1947 riots in Britain" is published in Panikos Panayi (ed.), "Racial Violence in Britain in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries" (Leicester University Press, 1996)

Daniel Trilling’s “Bloody Nasty People: the Rise of Britain’s Far Right” will be published by Verso in September. Follow him on Twitter @trillingual

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Who speaks for British Jews?

LAURA HYND FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Rebel with a realist cause

Michael Winterbottom, Britain’s busiest film-maker, discusses cinema, social mobility and how we are returning to the 19th century.

In the early 1960s, Lindsay Anderson was enjoying the power and esteem that he had always thought the English would be too philistine to grant him. His Free Cinema movement, launched in February 1956 with a series of modest, hand-held documentaries and a strident manifesto, had mutated into “kitchen-sink realism”, a series of popular feature films that included Tony Richardson’s Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and his own This Sporting Life. Anderson seemed dangerously close to becoming the  leading spokesman of mainstream British cinema. But then, as he recalled, “Realism gave way to the myth of Swinging London. The Americans, God bless them, put up a lot of money and the British made a lot of bad films.”

When, bored and broke, the Americans went home, taking many of his colleagues along with them, Anderson stayed behind. He made if . . ., which won the 1969 Palme d’Or at Cannes, and a sequel, O Lucky Man!, and then – nothing. For most of the 1970s, British cinema was virtually an oxymoron. But when the industry came back to life at the start of the next decade, with GandhiChariots of Fire and the formation of Channel 4 Films, he refused to celebrate or capitalise, preferring to tut and clutch his brow.

In November 1985, the month when his former protégé Stephen Frears first startled a general British audience with My Beautiful Laundrette, which updated kitchen-sink realism with new causes (multiculturalism, gay rights) and villains (Thatcher, the National Front), Anderson was making gentle progress on a backward-looking endeavour – a television documentary about Free Cinema, to form part of an initiative he despised called British Film Year. A born dawdler, equally petrified of success and failure, he was having trouble with the stills and inserts. “I finally get the operation organised,” he wrote in his diary, “by insisting that the attractively cherubic Michael Winterbottom be my assistant.”

When I spoke to Winterbottom last year, he told me, “Lindsay Anderson was a director I really admired and I wondered why he had made so few films. Then I met him. There was a lot of messing around” –bickering, procrastination, mischief. And perfectionism: “Even on the Free Cinema documentary, he ended up reshooting ­everything.” Winterbottom wanted to emulate Anderson’s work – the intransigence, the looseness – but he realised that in order to follow those examples and still have a career, he needed to make peace with prevailing industrial conditions and devise a plausible, even hard-nosed working method.

Three decades later, he is constantly in work. Alongside Frears, he is Britain’s busiest film-maker. At any given moment, he occupies two or more points in a process that goes something like: development, financing, casting, filming, editing, festival circuit, domestic release. But where Frears has graduated to working with Hollywood studios, Winterbottom relies on independent financing and employs a no-fuss, often hand-held, digital shooting style. David Thompson, the former head of BBC Films who is now an independent producer, told me, “Michael pioneered a way of working that we tried and failed to get other directors to adopt: if you can’t get the crew in a minivan, then you’ve got too many people.”

The results so far have included 24-Hour Party People, a comedy about the Manchester music scene that captured Winterbottom’s own philosophy of productive chaos, and 9 Songs, in which a climatologist recalls a relationship through nights at rock concerts and uncensored days in bed. Winterbottom’s most recent film, The Emperor’s New Clothes, a documentary about inequality, presented by Russell Brand, was his 28th. And that doesn’t include The Trip, the BBC2 comedy series starring the comedians Steve Coogan – a Winterbottom regular – and Rob Brydon, which was released outside Britain as a pair of films, The Trip and The Trip to Italy: to date, his only sequel.

***

Working alongside the producer Andrew Eaton, Winterbottom has established an atmosphere of rigour and determined focus that allows him to take risks. Eaton, who has known Winterbottom for more than 30 years, told me that “no other director comes to set with such a strong sense of what he’s trying to get combined with a complete openness to what could happen in the day”. When Winterbottom was making the family drama Wonderland in the late 1990s, he took his skeleton crew into London bars that were open for business. Punters became extras. “The people in a place are so much part of the environment,” Winterbottom said. “We were trying to get a different texture, to let the characters interact with the real world.”

Winterbottom and I were having breakfast in a London hotel restaurant. When I arrived, he had just finished a television interview about The Face of an Angel, a rumination on the Amanda Knox trial starring Daniel Brühl and Cara Delevingne, which opened in 2014 to baffled reviews. Winterbottom, who turns 55 in March, still looks like a cherub, but a cherub going grey at the sideburns. He is affable, even happy-go-lucky, but also remote – withdrawn. His gaze carries a slight air of wistfulness, as if he is distracted by some opportunity five yards beyond your shoulder. And though he talks very quickly, he is a specialist in prevarication and reversal. Assertions are parried, questions dodged. But when he’s comfortable, he’s fluent.

Winterbottom continued to tell me about the thinking behind Wonderland, which many consider his greatest film. He compared it to Notting Hill, which was being shot further west around the same time. “As soon as you go in and control everything, you’re destroying the essence of what London is. If you want to catch what normal life is like, you have to work in quite a small way, a hand-held way, in real places.”

Yet Wonderland is never dowdy. Shots of, say, an average night at the Slug and Lettuce or the bingo hall, or yet another frustrating afternoon at Selhurst Park, are offset by the lithe, buzzing images (a 16mm negative blown up to 35mm), the restlessly inquisitive editing and Michael Nyman’s soaring symphonic score. The result far exceeds anything made during the kitchen-sink period in the breadth of its humanism and the range of its social portraiture, and deserves to be recognised as one of the great achievements of British cinema.

The Scottish actress Shirley Henderson said that working on Wonderland, the first of six collaborations, wasn’t like being on a film set, with “caravans” and co-stars. “You were just waiting on a pavement somewhere.” To help Henderson research her role as the working-class Londoner and single mother Debbie, one of three troubled sisters, Winterbottom sent her on what she called “errands”: going clubbing in character, or visiting the sort of hairdresser at which Debbie worked. Henderson added the details garnered on these field trips to a screenplay, written by Laurence Coriat, that was treated as far from sacrosanct. Speaking generally of her work with Winterbottom, she said: “You know the lines – and you might get to say them, you might not. He might run the scene another five minutes after your lines are finished.”

I asked Henderson how Winterbottom’s toss-the-script-aside approach compared with the process favoured by Mike Leigh, who directed her in Topsy-Turvy. With Leigh, she said, “You improvise for hours to find a honed scene that you shoot the next day. With Michael, it’s a quicker process. You don’t rehearse as such. You’re improvising on film. If he’s not got enough, he’ll just go again and again and again.” At breakfast, Winterbottom, who recoils from analysis, defined his ambitions with a shrug: “Try to keep it simple, get as close to the characters as possible, encourage actors to be spontaneous.”

Wonderland was Winterbottom’s sixth feature film and marked a breakthrough for him, in particular a turn away from the professionalism of Welcome to Sarajevo, his polished, starry account of TV journalists covering the Bosnian War, in favour of a realist aesthetic. He told me that he doesn’t see himself as part of any movement – “What, like Free Cinema? No, no” – but his desire to find an alternative to conventional dramatic narrative connects him to a loose group of artists and writers intent on bringing more “reality” into their work. Prominent among them are the authors David Shields, who mentions Winterbottom in his manifesto Reality Hunger, and Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose My Struggle series Winterbottom has been reading (“I’m very impressed”). But where Shields and Knausgaard have turned away from the novel in favour of more direct, less dissembling forms such as the memoir and the essay, Winterbottom’s desire to get as far away from artifice and as close as possible to hectic, complex, undramatic life has resulted not in a choice of one form that solves all the problems but a sensibility that he brings to a range of genres.

Winterbottom’s war against tidy artifice has taken various forms. Sometimes it is built in to a project’s conception: he made 9 Songs because he thought that his previous love story Code 46 had been timid in the way it presented sex. It has determined his approach to source material. When he was adapting Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles as Trishna, he combined the roles of the “spiritual” Alec and the “sensual” Angel because, he told an interviewer, “most people are a combination of both”. But with Jim Thompson’s novel The Killer Inside Me, he took the opposite approach: he found Thompson’s portrait of psychosis so complete, so convincing, that he treated the book “like the Bible”.

Winterbottom’s widely acknowledged formal innovations are a means to an end. I mentioned the editing in his 2008 film, Genova, which constantly prevents exchanges and encounters from settling down into a set piece. He dismissed the idea that he was consciously experimenting. “When you’re making a film, you’re worried about the specifics of what you’re trying to do and then building out from that,” he said. The starting point of Genova is the dynamic between the dad and the two daughters. “I have two daughters [from his 13-year relationship with the teacher and novelist Sabrina Broadbent] and one aspect of the film, like with Wonderland and London, was to portray a relationship that I would recognise. The aim was to not make it dramatic, because your relationships at home aren’t very dramatic.”

***

In his diary, Lindsay Anderson – who often quoted the ancient maxim “Character is destiny”– marvelled at Winterbottom’s ability to attend to things that mattered and ignore the things that didn’t. Where Anderson was an idealist and a perfectionist, Winterbottom was “wholly unsentimental” – “conscientious” in tracking down stills, his assigned task, but “quite happy to absent himself from crucial, if routine stages of finishing”.

It was partly a product of breeding. Where Anderson, scarred by boarding school, loved to defy those with power (having a private income helped), Winterbottom attended the local grammar school in Blackburn and grew up in kitchen-sink territory; a scene in John Schlesinger’s 1962 film A Kind of Loving was shot at the factory where his father worked. When he was a teenager, his favourite book was Jude the Obscure, Hardy’s novel about a farm labourer who dreams of going to Biblioll College, Christminster. Winterbottom made it to the real-world version – Balliol College, Oxford – where, in a desultory, distracted way, he studied English. (In 2012 he returned to Oxford to become the first Humanitas Visiting Professor in Film and Television.)

Winterbottom likes to say that he’s simply attracted to good stories and interested in the same things as “everybody else”, but The Emperor’s New Clothes, which came out in April last year, emerged from his personal history. A product of grammar schools and grants, he considers himself a beneficiary of the “social mobility and access” that burgeoned after the Second World War. (He campaigned for Jack Straw in Blackburn in 1979.) “The idea that to be ‘modern’, you need an unregulated free market that helps the rich get richer is bullshit,” he said, adding that its widespread acceptance has been “one of the triumphs of that ideology”. He continued, “We had a phase of about fifty years where what was ‘modern’ was the idea that things will get fairer – there will be a narrowing of the gap, maybe not in a radical way, but at least a general trend in that direction.

“It’s fairly hard to believe that we used to collectively own the water, gas, coal, trains, telephone. People were being taxed at 98 per cent on unearned income, 83 per cent on earned income. Instead, we’ve returned to the 19th-century idea that if you’re born poor, you’re going to stay poor.”

After his English degree, he completed a one-year course in film-making in Bristol. Then he needed a job.

“There was no way I would have been able to hang around and do ‘internships’,” he told me. “I became a trainee assistant film editor at Thames Television” – which is how he came to work for Anderson and where he was given his first professional directing job, on a pair of documentaries about the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, from whom he learned that if you establish fruitful partnerships and retain a clear sense of what you’re trying to achieve, film-making is “not that hard”. (Bergman may have been “just as complicated psychologically” as Anderson, “but when it came to the work, he was disciplined”.)

In 1993, after the Bergman documentaries and then a run of commissions in television drama, including the opening episodes of Jimmy McGovern’s ITV series Cracker, Winterbottom was itching to make his first feature film. Frank Cottrell Boyce, a friend from Oxford, had written a script entitled Delirious, about car thieves in Liverpool, but it was failing to attract a backer, so they moved on to a new idea: another crime thriller set in Lancashire, but with a difference – it could be done cheaply, with money cobbled together from public funding bodies. “All our anger and frustration about not making the other one went into it,” Winterbottom recalled. “We did it for nothing. It was a very stressful phase. And that was Butterfly Kiss” – in which a pair of chalk-and-cheese lesbians cause havoc on the M6.

In Icons in the Fire, an attack on “practically everyone in the British film industry”, in which Winterbottom is one of the few heads spared, the critic Alexander Walker recalled his surprise when the director followed up Butterfly Kiss with a “period drama”. But Jude – the first of Winterbottom’s three Hardy adaptations – was fast-moving and stark, not at all Merchant-Ivory. After Jude, there came, in swift succession, “Bosnia war reportage, period western, East End soap opera, Ulster social comedy, glam-rock clubland, overland asylum-seeking” – the films in question being Welcome to SarajevoThe ClaimWonderlandWith or Without You24-Hour Party People and In This World. (Walker forgot I Want You, which should probably be characterised as Hastings psychosexual noir – still, somehow, a genre of one.) “Bewildering,” Walker concluded: “at the same time, curiously courageous for a British director.”

***

Winterbottom has continued in this bewilderingly courageous way, combining speed with variety, adding to his genre hoard and keeping the operation small. While former collaborators such as Rachel Weisz and Kate Winslet have been starring in globetrotting thrillers and 3D blockbusters, or, in the case of Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant and Peter Capaldi, playing Doctor Who, Winterbottom has carried on telling intimate tales about what he calls “home, family, things like that”; among them Everyday, a drama about a struggling mother (played by Shirley Henderson) that was shot over five years. Where his near contemporary Danny Boyle went off to make Slumdog Millionaire, Winterbottom made Trishna, an Indian adaptation of Tess, described by its star, Freida Pinto, who was also the lead actress in Slumdog, as “a hardcore independent project”.

Generally, his dealings with the US have been marked by resistance. On its release in 1997, Harvey Weinstein’s company Miramax distributed Welcome to Sarajevo – even screened it at the White House for Bill Clinton. But when Weinstein offered Winterbottom $1.5m to direct Good Will Hunting the director said the script wasn’t good enough. It took him months of conversations with the novelist John Irving to reach the same conclusion about another Miramax project, The Cider House Rules. (Each film won an Oscar for its screenplay.) Winterbottom didn’t make a film on American soil until 2009, when he went to Oklahoma to shoot The Killer Inside Me, a thriller whose violence against female characters prompted outrage and earned him a nomination for the Sexist Pig Award from the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. (He lost out to Mel Gibson.)

On two occasions – both before the sexist pig accusation – he had been approached by women bearing offers too good to refuse. In 2004 Angelina Jolie brought him A Mighty Heart, an adaptation of Mariane Pearl’s memoir about her husband, the murdered journalist Daniel Pearl. Then, a few years later, Naomi Klein approached him to make an archival documentary based on The Shock Doctrine, her book about disaster capitalism. (Klein later changed her mind about the format – she wanted something more topical and responsive – and the film was made without her input.) But on the whole, the ideas for Winterbottom’s films have emerged from Revolution Films, the production company he started with Andrew Eaton in 1994.

In 2001 Winterbottom and Eaton were developing a project about illegal immigrants but couldn’t decide on a starting point. Then the 9/11 attacks happened, and within a few weeks Winterbottom and the writer Tony Grisoni were wandering around a refugee camp in Peshawar, looking for young Afghan men willing to play a version of themselves and do the trip to London for real. (“I thought it was going to be in English,” David Thompson, one of the executive producers of the film that emerged from the trip, recalled. “I was somewhat surprised when it came back in Pashto.”)

The year 2003 marked the high point of Winterbottom’s acclaim. In February, barely a year after Winterbottom had touched down in Peshawar, In This World – the asylum film’s eventual title – was accepted to show at the Berlin International Film Festival, where it won three prizes, including the Golden Bear. When it was released in Britain, the critic Sukhdev Sandhu, who was born in 1970, called it the best British film of his lifetime. Soon afterwards, Winterbottom appeared in a Guardian critics’ poll of the best directors currently practising. The citation announced: “British cinema would be lost without him.”

Peter Bradshaw, the Guardian critic who wrote that citation, has been less impressed with the films he has made in the past decade. “It’s all very good letting narrative and all those traditional things go hang,” he said recently, “but it does make for a rather miscellaneous experience in the cinema.” He described the films’ “rough-and-ready quality”, which he identifies in all Winterbottom’s recent work except for The Killer Inside Me and The Trip, as “more lax than loose”, and added: “I often wonder whether he’s thinking about the next project.”

Eaton identifies misunderstanding in both criticisms. To the idea that Winterbottom’s work since around Wonderland has been lax or slapdash: “Do you have any idea how hard it is to make stuff as natural as that, to have that flow?” To those who say Winterbottom makes too many films: “If Michael was a plumber, and you asked him to do work on your house, he wouldn’t say, ‘Oh, I’m far too creatively exhausted, I couldn’t possibly do it.’ It’s just the next job.”

Thompson offered a more matter-of-fact reflection. “That’s just the way he works –he does these things in a white heat,” said. “He’s finished them before you realise he has shot them. It’s like writing a song. Some film-makers spend two years fiddling with a film. Michael would go crazy. And I don’t think the result would be any better.” (Bradshaw conceded that “part of his mojo is to keep moving – something we critics don’t understand”.)

Thompson added, “Some of his films work better than others – he knows that.” In 1997, when he had made four films, ­Winterbottom reflected on the benefit that Ingmar Bergman derived from a hefty back-catalogue: “There’s actually enough volume that if he does a comedy that doesn’t succeed, it’s merely a blip in the overall work.”

***

A few days after I first interviewed Winterbottom, I went to the Revolution Films office in Clerkenwell, central London, to meet Melissa Parmenter, the composer who is now his regular producer (Eaton serves as an executive producer). Parmenter has a fondness for rhyme: “totes mahotes”, “okey-dokey”, “good plan, Stan”. Instead of “meltdown”, she says “granny panic”. She described Michael Nyman’s music for Wonderland, not inaccurately, as “an insane score – the best score ever”.

At first, Winterbottom and Parmenter, who live together and have a four-year-old son, seem an unlikely partnership. Where Winterbottom can be evasive, perhaps defensive, Parmenter is open and unguarded. She seems clearer about who Winterbottom is than he is. She is also more outwardly passionate. During my talk with Winterbottom, he used the word “love” twice – about Nyman’s music and Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs Miller. Parmenter, by contrast, said she “loves”, among other things, The Killer Inside MeGenova, “the melancholy bits of The Trip to Italy”, Nyman, and “the fact that Michael does what he wants”. But under the Noughties colloquialisms and granny-panic veneer, Parmenter is grounded and – to use a phrase that she might – on it, a total convert to Winterbottom’s heads-down ethos. She resembles her own description of Tracey Emin, whose 2004 film Top Spot she produced: “She looked like she had no idea what she was doing, but she knew totally what she was doing.”

“We make quite different films,” she told me. “It’s weird. What’s Michael’s most commercial film? But he doesn’t aim for that. He just makes what he wants to make.”

I asked Parmenter why he is so good at winning permission to do that. “Well, the idea of all his films is interesting. I mean, Road to Guantanamo: who wouldn’t want to see the story of the Tipton Three? It’s got to be made. Or 9 Songs – we’re going to show real sex. Filming Everyday over five years – that’s an amazing idea. We went to Tessa Ross at Channel 4 and said, ‘We’re going to film these people doing nothing.’ She said, ‘Here’s £1.1m. Bye!’ Obviously we reported back to them.”

It must help, I said, that there hadn’t been any disasters.

“That’s down to Michael. He’s so aware of all levels of the film-making process. He’s got his fingers in all the pies. It gets a bit much sometimes. [As Winterbottom told me, “When you’re a director, everything that happens is kind of your fault.”] But if you’re doing a small film, you can’t say, ‘Actors aren’t allowed trailers’ – if there’s a trailer even anywhere near, he goes mental – and then turn around and say, ‘I don’t want to know anything about the budget.’”

When I caught up with Winterbottom last summer, he expressed some frustration that The Emperor’s New Clothes – the documentary with Russell Brand – hadn’t been shown more widely, and that The Face of an Angel – the Amanda Knox drama– had been rounded on by British critics. Yet it was clear that his heart wasn’t really in it: both films were well on their way to becoming past obsessions. He’d been up at 6.30 that morning, doing rewrites for a new project, Russ and Roger Go Beyond, a comedy starring Will Ferrell, about the making of Russ Meyer’s camp musical Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. (I asked if Ferrell was someone he knew socially and he replied: “No, strangely not.”) Although the script originated in Hollywood and the production, based in Los Angeles, would almost certainly involve trailers, Winterbottom talked about Russ and Roger less as a necessary commercial compromise (“the money isn’t vastly better”) than as a much-needed break. He reminded me that “developing a film from scratch comes with a burden of effort”.

Still, it turned out that his heart wasn’t really in that one, either. Just before the end of the year, he quit. Someone muttered something about creative differences. Burdensome or not, it seems he prefers success – and failure – on his own terms: working under the Revolution banner with a small, familiar crew and room for improvisation with actors he calls friends. It is said he’s getting ready to shoot The Trip to Spain.

Leo Robson is the New Statesman’s lead fiction critic

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Should Labour split?