Danny Dorling on the young: They are being taken for a ride. Photo: Getty
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Danny Dorling: If you are young in Britain today, you are being taken for a ride

The young are discriminated against in ways in which it would be illegal to differentiate between men and women, or between more and less disabled people, or on the basis of race or religion.

If you are young in Britain today you may well be being taken for a ride. Your parents also know this is happening to you but they don’t know what to do. In the media they learn of anonymous “Whitehall sources” claiming that the government already knows there is a strong risk that the next generation of adults will end up worse off than today’s older generation. They drip-feed this news out, managing down expectations.

The anonymous voices explain that many children and younger adults face the prospect of having lower living standards than those of their parents. These were the same sources that released the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission report of autumn 2013 explaining that now, for the first time ever, a grandmother in her eighties can expect to enjoy higher living standards than someone in their twenties who is in work. They said it was because housing costs for the young are now so high and wages, if you are young, are usually so poor. But that was not the only reason the young are worse off. Another factor is that the rich see them as an easy target.

Today a few older people are making ever more money out of a lot of younger people. Look at the steep and accelerating rise in private renting in Britain, especially the increase among families with young children. If you are a young couple today you may well find yourself bringing up your new family while moving from one privately rented home to another. Soon a quarter of all children in Britain will see this as normal. Most do not stay longer than a year or so in any rented home. They continually have to move schools and lose friends. And why is this all happening? It is so that a few mostly older and much richer people can become very rich by renting out homes that used to be bought by those same families. It began under New Labour around 2003 and it has accelerated with the coalition. It is as if the wealthier old have convinced the young to look away from their money and towards the poorest of their own younger generation to blame for their plight. The young are told to blame other young adults for taking the dole.

It is in London where the young are most gullible and to which the affluent young flock after graduating. New findings from the Office for National Statistics show that the average age of people in the capital has recently fallen to 34 and that the average London wage is now £613 a week. However, half of all Londoners, including almost all younger adults, don’t receive this much. And that much is just £15 a day more than the national average wage of £506 a week.

For the median worker, London weighting is a “bonus” of less than £15 a day. Even if you have a good job and are paid as much as people often older than you, is this extra £15 enough to pay for you to live in London as a young adult? House prices in London now average £425,000; the UK national average is £242,000.

At the current rates of change, London house prices, inflated by the forces of globalisation, will be twice the national average within just two years and rents will rise to an even higher ratio. Average prices in London are already more than six times two average people’s combined wages. House prices in London are rising by 8.1 per cent a year, prices in the UK overall by 3.1 per cent, wages by less. If these trends continue, the cost of housing in London will be three times higher than the UK average by 2025 and ten times higher by 2050.

We can tell that the current housing-price trends are unsustainable just by looking at what would happen if they were to continue. By 2050 an average three-bedroomed home in London would cost £7.5m and the same house elsewhere in the country would fetch £750,000 – ten times less! But this is only if prices continue to rise as they are doing. The rich know that never before have prices risen so high for so long. But they also know it does not matter to them, as long as they cash out in time, or so long as they are the ones lending the money rather than borrowing it. It is as if the rich are trying to get the young into ever greater debt because the young are such a good “investment”. The young have so many years ahead of them to pay the interest.

A few people are making a great deal of money out of young adults in Britain today. At the same time many of the crumbs that were given to the young to compensate for harder times to come have been taken away. Until recently many youngsters received the Education Maintenance Allowance to help with the costs of going to college and, on a much smaller scale, a child trust fund to build up money for entering adulthood. Now these are mostly gone and the basic child allowance has also been cut for families in which any parent earns twice the average wage (over £50,000 a year). But if you think high earners need to contribute more, why make savings only from families with children? Why did the government not decide to raise money from all people earning over twice the average wage, and not just those who are parents? It has to be because they see they can get away with discriminating against the young.

The young are discriminated against in ways in which it would be illegal to differentiate between men and women, or between more and less disabled people, or on the basis of race or religion. Young people can be paid a lower minimum wage if in work, and a much lower wage if they are an apprentice. If aged under 30 and on low pay or no pay, a young person receives fewer housing benefits than would someone in the identical position but aged 30 or over. However, the greatest recent take from the young has been based on exploiting their gullibility, hope and optimism: university fees.

Half of all young women in England go to university and just over a third of young men. The tuition fees increase will hit women harder than men, but crucially it will not affect people now aged over 20, although it might add to the incomes of a very small minority. For all the many losers to come, there are a few potential winners waiting in the wings. When student loans are privatised the company will be bought by rich investors who will expect to profit from the interest that current students will pay in future.

Some potential investors in the proposed privatisation of student loans may be private pension funds. Those funds mostly pay out to richer pensioners. Hardly any young adults have private pensions and the numbers who do are falling. Only 2.9 million (mostly quite affluent) people have a private pension, half the number in 2000 and the lowest number recorded at any time since 1953. However, although the numbers of better-off future pensioners are small and falling, what they expect to get in pensions is large and rising. The pension funds need new sources to “invest” in. Student loans are one such source.

As private money moves from the young and poor towards the older rich, so public money, too, is being diverted in that direction. The government’s £12bn “Help to Buy” scheme helps maintain the value of housing prices. It is especially important to London, to upholding the assets of the rich, as it encourages younger people to borrow and to try to buy a home of their own. It allows a young adult to borrow to buy property worth up to £600,000, money that almost always then goes to older adults. If that scheme and other such subsidies for the rich are to be funded from the public purse and taxes are not to rise, in future our government will need to make more cuts for the young. It has begun by proposing to cut their benefits entirely, but this will just make matters worse.

Cutting unemployment benefit for under- 25s is the wrong policy because it damages the power of the market: it makes the market dysfunctional. When there is a dole, young people do not have to take any work, no matter how bad it is. A floor is put on quality. It is a very low floor. A job worth less to you than receiving £8.11 a day (Jobseeker’s Allowance for those aged under 25) need not be taken; £8.11 is not much, but at least there is a limit below which you need not go.

At present, people aged under 25 are told they are asking for too much in seeking to claim the Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) of £56.80 a week. David Cameron proposes removing this altogether if a Conservative majority is returned at the next election. He always looks first to the children and to adults younger than himself for efficiency savings. There are 1.09 million people between the ages of 16 and 24 not in work, education or training in the UK. But if a young adult was unlucky enough to claim the dole for a whole year they would receive just £2,927 to live on.

Cutting benefits for young adults will have a hugely detrimental effect on education and training because of the way it will remove the element of market choice from provision. We know that when the compulsory Youth Training Scheme (YTS) for school leavers was introduced in the 1980s, its impact was detrimental to the long-term well-being of those who were forced to take part. Parasuicide rates among young men who were unemployed were between ten and 25 times higher than for employed young men.

The compulsion on employers to take a scheme also had a long-term damaging impact on the reputation of the word “training”. It was from the start of the 1980s that “training” began to be associated with failure, and it was also from then that the adjective “higher” began commonly to be put in front of other forms of education to make it clear that there was a continuum from “training” through “further” and up to the dizzy heights of “higher”. Education was no longer a general good. Some types of education had become much better than others. More and more, the message was that the people at the bottom were being trained to do jobs to serve those above them. And if they didn’t do those jobs there should be no other option –no dole.

A year ago analysts noticed that the longterm youth unemployment rate was rising and that the sharp rise in the charts matched perfectly the introduction of the Work Programme in June 2011. The chart on page 27 shows a tenfold rise since then among the very long-term young unemployed. By September 2013 over 25,000 young people in the UK had been claiming JSA for more than two years. Hardly any did so in May 2010.

I grew up in Oxford, where David Cameron was a student, in the years when he was a student there. But I am a few years younger than he is, and was educated on the other side of that city before I went to university, too. I left school, signed on and then took a job working on a children’s play scheme during the summer before I went to university. I did this for three summers in the late 1980s. The play scheme operated only when the children were off school for six weeks. I was at university in Newcastle, where the terms were shorter than school holidays. The dole filled the gap when I was not being paid.

I can see that if you’ve never been turned down, if you’ve never found it hard to get a job, if you’ve never needed some space and time, you might find it hard to understand that asking for £8 a day to live on is not asking for much. I can see that if you’ve never had a job on a below-average wage, or are so rich that you think mortgages are for the lower orders, you might find it hard to understand why housing costs are unfair.

The Prime Minister claims that his policy is not callous; I agree with him, because callous means unfeeling. It is not unfeeling. It is not the result of his indifference to the suffering of others. I believe he feels strongly that young people should not get the housing benefits and dole to which they are entitled at present. It is obvious that he believes they are not suffering enough when they are living on JSA. He thinks the young of today need to suffer more if they are to be persuaded to try hard enough. I think the proposal to cut state benefits for the under-25s is calculating and cruel. It is calculating because it is aimed to secure more votes than it might lose. Does he think that it is possible to tell the young to wait because one day they, too, will be able to exploit those younger than themselves?

People err towards being optimistic; many think that these benefit cuts will not hurt them, or that they will not harm their family and friends, but in future they will. If at first they cut the rights of those aged under 25, how long will it be before they cut rights for older people, and rights to other things we once took for granted? How long before there are student loans for education at ages 16 and 17? In the future, what else will they cut that in the past they suggested was safe?

The Conservative message relies on optimism and on people not thinking too deeply. It relies on a majority of Tory voters, or of putative Tory voters, believing that somehow they or their children could all become as affluent as the minority of Conservatives who run their party. They call that “aspiration”. The Conservative message relies on at least 10 per cent thinking they can get into the top 1 per cent – or, if not them, their offspring. In truth, the message relies on innumeracy.

Take the housing market, but look at it from afar. Michael Goldfarb wrote recently in the New York Times about terraced houses in the area of London where he lives that have tripled in value since 2000. This is where two-bed-and-a-boxroom homes cost over a million pounds and where people in their fifties begin to live more on the money they make from remortgaging or selling their property than on any income from work. “It’s as if the whole British economy is based on housing speculation in the capital,” wrote Goldfarb. And all that speculation relies on the young being naive and buying at inflated prices on enormous mortgages, or paying inflated rents and never being able to save.

The Help to Buy scheme has been introduced as a short-term measure to try to keep the housing market rolling forward to the next election. Right now you don’t need to save to buy a home in London, as long as a parent will give you 5 per cent of the asking price – say, £30,000. But most people do not have such rich parents. Most people who buy housing in Britain today, and especially in London, are not younger adults, but increasingly a small subset of older ones – the landlords. By some estimates, landlords make up as little as 2 per cent of the population, yet they are taking a rising share of our money.

The Conservative message can be conveyed convincingly only by someone who believes in it. However, that someone needs others not quite to understand how 10 per cent cannot fit into 1 per cent. They need to turn the majority, who once fought for and won the welfare state, against welfare. They need to convince most people that if someone wants to say no to doing a job, any job, it is because they are lazy.

Work gets better only when we have a choice to say no to some work. We need to be able to say that it is too demeaning, too poorly paid, too dangerous or too dirty. Then the employers need to offer us enough money in return if they want that work done. That is what a well-functioning labour market looks like. It is what you get in a good society –a truly free labour market in place of servitude.

For work to be good work, there needs to be choice, including the choice to say no to bad work. The same is true of education and training. Young adults need a choice. It can become good when there is a choice not to take it, when there is a selection of provision and when there is no provider of last resort that you have no option but to endure. No sin-bin unit for the losers.

The same is true of the housing market; it works best where people have a choice, and some housing is regarded as unfit. Markets work when we have a choice to say no. The housing market does not work when governments spend billions to inflate prices artificially so that you have to buy whatever tiny dilapidated property you can afford, and are then made to feel grateful for being able to borrow so much money from people so much better off than you. House prices should have been falling as wages fell but that would have reduced the wealth of the richest.

Good choice can be provided in a private market, or in a mixed market, or in a wholly state-owned market, as was the case with the National Health Service when you could still choose your doctor and there were enough NHS dentists between whom to choose. Good choice is supposed to be the hallmark of the private market but it does not exist if most of those who are supposed to be choosing have no proper options. Make the poor much poorer and push more of the average towards poverty, and you reduce the power and energy of the majority to wield influence in all sectors of society.

If the Conservatives win a majority at the next election, all under-25s will lose the right to housing benefit. Yet 45 per cent of young housing-benefit claimants are parents. Young parents are the very opposite of the fictional, indolent youths with nothing to do. Because young families also need a room for their children, it is those young parents, mostly single mums in their twenties, who claim the large majority of the housing benefit that Cameron is seeking to cut. Those mums claim it purely to hand over to their private landlords, who then let them live in what are invariably among the poorest flats and houses in town.

What will happen when all these benefits for the under-25s are cut, should the Conservatives win an outright majority in 2015 and implement their proposals? How much more overcrowding will there be in the poorest homes? How much more hunger? How poorly clothed will the poorest become? How easy will it be for any unscrupulous employer to find cheap labour to work any hour of the day and night at any job? The employers might still have to pay the minimum wage, although even that is lower for those aged under 25, but they do not have to provide a minimum-quality job. They know their employees cannot say no.

Already it is compulsory to take any job offered should you be claiming JSA; however, you have a little freedom for a little time over which jobs you might apply for, and then a little choice over your enthusiasm at the job interviews because you are not yet required to lie and say how much you’d like to do a job you’d hate.

At the sharp end, cutting benefits for young adults makes us all worse off. All those who will be working as teachers and trainers on the schemes that become mandatory should know that many of their pupils do not want to be there. All those employing people to do those jobs that both they and their employees know should not be done on such low wages should realise that their workers despise them and would not choose to work for them freely. And as for the cuts to housing benefit, how much more stress, violence and abuse will continue in households because a young adult cannot leave home until he or she turns 25?

It is the very poorest of the young who are suffering most, but the living standards of the average young person in Britain are also deteriorating and young people’s hopes are evaporating. Young people who do comparatively well are also being hit hard. The £9,000-a-year university tuition fee looks very similar to a 49 per cent marginal rate of tax for future graduates, a rate being held in reserve, ready for when they achieve a modest income in the future. However, unlike a general tax that can be used for the common good, their 9 per cent top-up tax rate will go to the rich who buy the loan book.

Finally, what of the most successful of university graduates, the ones who go on to get a starter job in the City, and look to buy that tiny flat close to work? What will happen when they take out their 95 per cent mortgage and start repaying one-twenty-fifth of the borrowed capital out of what they take home after tax? For a few years they might be able to do it, just – until interest rates rise.

The vast majority of our young people are being ripped off. Have we taught them so badly that they do not know it?

Danny Dorling is the Halford Mackinder Professor of Geography at the University of Oxford

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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?