Of friendly bondage: Eno (left) and Perry won't relinquish their fascination with pushing boundaries. Image: Muir Vidler
Show Hide image

Brian Eno and Grayson Perry on how the internet taught us we are all perverts

Creativity, popularity and pornography – and why great art always involves losing control.

When the musician Brian Eno spoke to the New Statesman in May, he seemed to be irritated about the art world, its inflated prices and its critical language that so few people understand. When the potter and painter Grayson Perry began giving his Reith Lectures last month he paid tribute to Eno’s 1995 “sabotage” of a Marcel Duchamp urinal in New York (Eno siphoned his own urine into the artwork to explore whether the piece might be more valuable if it had been “worked upon” by two people). They had never met before but it made sense to try to bring them together in the New Statesman. They met at Perry’s studio in Islington, north London. Eno came with a Dictaphone and a magazine about electronic music; Perry was dressed as a man.

Brian Eno [Looking at Perry’s new kiln] That’s a big machine, isn’t it!

Grayson Perry Yes, if you want to make a big pot, you’ve got to have a big kiln.

BE So, what shall we talk about today?

GP That’s up to you. I have many well-travelled pathways in interviews, and in many ways I’d rather not go down any of them.

BE Me, too. I did have one idea, coming over, and that’s why I brought this keyboard magazine. I was thinking about the differences between the music and art worlds, and one thing that strikes me is that professional musicians are quite happy to share things with each other – their ideas and techniques, the tricks that made them famous. Is that something more characteristic of music than art?

GP Well, music is more collaborative. In the art world, originality is seen as a precious commodity and it’s increasingly difficult to get because the territory of art is so trampled. I always think that painters are fighting over the last original brushstroke. To find your own voice is incredibly hard. There’s very few people who have a revelatory, original thought; I think they’re almost mythical. Most people start off being someone else and then they make mistakes.

BE I find it interesting that artists are expected to be able to talk about their work in critical art language now – they have to have “personal statements”.

GP As someone who uses words a lot in my work, I’ve always enjoyed that aspect of it; but I’ve always been one for clarity, you know. As for the language of the art world – “International Art English” – I think obfuscation was part of its purpose, to protect what in fact was probably a fairly simple philosophical point, to keep some sort of mystery around it. There was a fear that if it was made understandable, it wouldn’t seem important.

BE Do you think it was primarily economic – in the sense that if you want to charge very high prices for things, you somehow have to make them appear very valuable?

GP Well, intellectual importance is directly linked to financial value in the art world. I mean, that’s the thing you really want – museum quality. You want to go down in the annals of art history.

BE I’ve been thinking recently about artists who were huge stars in their day who disappeared, like Sir Frank Brangwyn.

GP Or Thomas Kinkade. At one point he was the richest artist in the world. He made schmaltzy pictures of woodland scenes with cottages but he never sold the originals. He had a massive print thing going, and they reckon at one point one in six houses in the States had a Thomas Kinkade print. But he’s never going to feature in any art history.

BE It’s funny, because in pop music that kind of career path would be completely acceptable. First of all, we deal only in reproductions and the original doesn’t matter – there’s no difference between the master tape and what you hear on the CD.

GP No. I find myself thinking quite often that the art world has no equivalent of the popular, really. People always mention Jack Vettriano or Beryl Cook. Even Banksy, to a certain extent, is a very popular artist who’s not necessarily welcomed into the fine art world. But they’re exceptions, and they are not the people who line up their paintings on the railings in Bayswater.

BE The problem with fine art is that in most cases people have to make a special excursion to go and look at it: they can’t afford to own it. So it isn’t really part of their life in the way that music can be.

GP Well, in these sorts of conversations, the phrase “3D printer” always comes up – you know, musicians, authors and journalists have all been shat on by the software companies so it’s the artist’s turn soon, and people will just start downloading your works for themselves. I don’t see it happening just yet . . .

BE But even if it did happen, would it really matter? It just means you make work in a different way. People said that making records would take the life out of music, but then recording became a new kind of art. Now, of course, we’re in a slightly different phase where people are so unfascinated by recording that festivals are on the increase like nobody’s business.

GP Yeah, and I think that the art world benefits from the digital natives, too, because they want a live experience – to go to an art gallery, to be in the presence of an object. I think it goes right back to relics and idols. We learned how to look at art from religion. [The German art historian] Hans Belting thought our whole idea of “fine art” started about 1400, when objects weren’t just seen as religious artefacts any more and started to be appreciated as works themselves.

BE I think one of the big sources of confusion in any discussion about art is the difference between “intrinsic” value and conferred value. Nearly all art criticism is based on the idea that there’s such a thing as intrinsic value –

GP No, I would disagree with that. I think beauty’s a constructed notion, and it’s cocreated in the same way as conferred value. It goes back to that idea of looking at something as fine art: why does everyone think “that is a lovely thing”? Because they’ve been conditioned to do so. Different cultures have different ideas of what is beautiful. I’ve never been to China, but whenever I see Chinese art there’s something about their sense of colour, composition, texture, that for me is always slightly off – and I’m thinking, why don’t I just dive into that artwork and completely love it? It’s because I grew up as a westerner and we were completely separate We might as well have been on the moon for most of history.

BE Our experience of any painting is always the latest line in a long conversation we’ve been having with painting. There’s no way of looking at art as though you hadn’t seen art before.

GP Yeah – that’s why I have the rubbish dump test. When I was at college, one of the tutors used to say, “Oh, that won’t pass the rubbish dump test,” which is, if you throw your artwork on a rubbish dump, would people, members of the public, pick it up, thinking it was an artwork? It’s quite a cruel test but, you know . . .

BE I tried this with my friend [the South African artist] Beezy Bailey: we’d been doing some paintings together and we decided just to put some out on the street and see what people did. It was very funny. We hid behind a wall and watched people. Most of them didn’t pick them up.

GP With a lot of art, people wouldn’t! But I do think the Duchampian magic of bringing an outside object into a gallery seems fairly thin these days – what he did was amazing but at the same time, a hundred years later, I want something more. I always come back to the fact that all the urinals you see in the museums around the world, the so-called Duchamp urinals, they all had to be remade by a skilled potter.

BE Because they couldn’t find the original, could they?

GP Exactly! [Sing-song] Nah-nah-nah-nahnah! BEGood point.

GP I was talking to the curator Hans Ulrich Obrist and he said, “When you appropriate something, you have to be smarter than it.” You’ve got to say, “I’m going to make that more rich, more complex, more elaborate . . .” you’ve got to do better with the thing you’re dragging into the gallery.

BE Well, some ideas don’t actually have that much extension left in them. There’s a whole branch of conceptual art that I was very much immersed in at the end of the Sixties and early Seventies, and it kind of petered out. A lot of things that are being done now I call “onelinerism”, where really the description of the work is as good as the work itself.

GP The YBAs did to a certain extent rehash the work of that late-Sixties, early-Seventies period, but what they did on top of it was make it very appealing, very sensual, and sort of covetable. They put it through an advertising agency, almost.

That said, I called it Theme Park Plus Sudoku. People wanted spectacle – they wanted big, shocking, engaging art, colourful and funny – but they wanted a little puzzle, too: “Hmm, what’s this about?” The problem is, the worst of that kind of art leaves you with a feeling of: “Is that it?”

BE One of the messages of contemporary art has been that, well, anyone could do it . . . GP Well, that’s something I would refute. But I was thinking about this – how do you become a contemporary artist? Well, you could just say you are one and start doing something, and in a purely literal sense you’ll be right. But you’re never going to have a career that way. As Constable said 200 years ago, the self-taught artists were taught by a very ignorant person. You have to go to art school. You don’t meet an artist in the art world who’s not been to art school. There will be undiscovered geniuses out there in Mali or Brazil or China because they’re not cultures that have been strip-mined by dealers and curators yet. But in the west [phone starts ringing] – Oh my God, sorry about this, it’s so rare for my phone to ring . . .

BE I’m interested that you don’t have a phalanx of assistants.

GP No. I have an assistant who fights email for me, but there’s not a lot I could delegate, really. I toy with the idea . . .

BE I’ve never been able to delegate either. I’ve tried so often to have somebody who can help me do music, and I just have to look over their shoulder too much, so it’s not comfortable for them, and it doesn’t save me any time.

GP My wife has this theory that the happiest people are people who say, “That will do.” Today, I went to buy a bin, just for the fricking kitchen here in the studio, you know, but the ones they had in the hardware shop I didn’t like, so I’m still without a bin and I’ll waste another hour trying to find the right bin somewhere.

Somebody who goes “that will do” is probably the happier person in the long run.

BE I do have one good working relationship at the moment, with a guy called Peter Chilvers, who’s a software code writer. We’ve been making apps together for iPad and iPhone, and that’s been a good collaboration because there are quite large areas of nonoverlap.

GP Yeah. I’m working on an architectural project where we’re building a house in Essex, and that’s been a pretty collaboration, too. I’d always wanted to make a place of pilgrimage. So I was looking at religious buildings, but I had to be talked down from some of my more kitsch fantasies by the architect, who had a better handle on the dignity of an object in the landscape.

BE Is it a private house?

GP It’ll be a holiday let. It has an altar and will have tapestries and sculptures, and the outside is going to be completely clad in tiles. I’m fascinated by the idea of pilgrimage, again going back to that idea that in a virtual world you want to experience the real thing. I think pilgrimage is more popular now than ever, whether people know it or not. When I rocked up at Santiago de Compostela on my bike, they gave me a form and it said, “Is your purpose spiritual, cultural or sport?” If you put “spiritual”, you got a really elaborate certificate, but I put cultural and sport so I got a much cheaper, more prosaic one. I loved the fact that it was so banal.

BE If you’re making a new place of pilgrimage, how do you make it seductive enough for people to want to go and spend time there? What do you call upon if you haven’t got religion?

GP I think one of the things people always do is have their photograph taken in front of something now. You’ve got to kind of think about what is realistic behaviour for modern people. When we were on the road to Santiago, I saw loads of people who were more likely to be there because of Paulo Coelho’s book than the Bible. I said, “I bet when we get there, you can get a bong with a Santiago St James shell on it” – the logo –and you could. Increasingly, contemporary art overlaps so much with religion. If you look at all the art centres being built over the past 20 years in Britain, they’re all trying in a way to build pilgrimage sites so they can get the tourists in. It’s a good tourist dollar, in a middle-class, organic-quiche-eating way.

BE But so many of the things we like doing really fall under the umbrella of surrender. That’s sort of what a pilgrimage is, isn’t it? We like putting ourselves into situations where we let go of some control and we’re swept along by something. You’re told what to do and you’re told that when you get there – or in the process – something will happen to you. If you think of sex, drugs, art, religion, they all actually offer you the chance to be taken over, or to let go.

GP Yes, because I think there’s a whole horror of not knowing what to do. But I think conservatism is quite a damaging mental health condition. Anybody worth their salt is up for a challenge. If you’ve got lots of things going and you’re willing to branch out, you’re more likely to survive dementia and all sorts of things. The major influence on me in the last 20 years has been psychotherapy. We look at all human activity through the lens of our emotions. The most brilliant people are often the most difficult, because they try and talk themselves out of this the whole time. But all problems need cleverness, and emotional intelligence is something different.

BE This is why the idea of surrender is so interesting to me, because surrendering is what we are most frightened of doing. Everything is telling you to stay in control. One of the really bad things that’s happened in the art world recently is the idea that a piece of work is as valuable as the amount it can be talked about. So these little pieces of paper you see beside every artwork, in every gallery: if you watch people, they look quickly at the painting, then they read for a long time, then look quickly at the painting again. The analytical mind always wants to say, “OK, I understand this. It’s no problem, it’s no threat.”

GP Well, it’s the classic result of the fact that we hate not knowing. I feel it in myself. I want to tidy things up in my mind. My ideal artwork is one where I have the complete idea, it’s watertight, it’s going to look beautiful: all I’ve got to do is craft it; I can relax and put the radio on. And that would be a dream for me, my own tradition. I’m jealous of those artists who rock up in the studio every morning and do a version a tiny little bit different from what they did the day before.

BE Albert Irvin. I love his work, and I look at it and think: “How nice to go into your old age knowing what you’re going to do every day.”

GP One of the things I really enjoy doing is drawing with only half my mind on it – so I’ll have a couple of beers and get my pens out, and I’ll sit in front of X Factor, and I’m half watching the telly and half drawing. I don’t give a damn; I’m really free. And at the same time I’m operating because I’ve got my lifetime of experience to bear on it.

BE Yes, sure – in a way, you liberate that experience.

GP Yes. I wish I’d stop having fricking ideas and trying to make work that’s got somehow socially applicable.

BE Do you finish everything?

GP Not everything, not nowadays. I used to.

BE I finish so few of the things I start. A lot of the stuff that I’m doing is just seeing how new tools work. So, in order to do that, I try to make a piece of music with it. And often it produces a notebook sketch, really.

GP Yeah, I am loath to make a cock-up! But creativity is mistakes and if you can’t accept that, don’t get involved.

BE So that’s a way of saying creativity is letting yourself lose control?

GP Yeah, you’ve got to do risk. When I was young, I smashed a lot of my early pots because they were crap. In your twenties, you’ve got all that energy, and it’s wild and uncontrolled; in your thirties, you corral it somehow; then in your forties you make the money out of it, and in your fifties, you’re suddenly confronted with being secure. And you’ve got your reputation and you suddenly think, “Well, I could just churn out this work.”

BE I want it to keep me alive, actually, I don’t want to be the person keeping it alive.

GP That’s a lovely thought. I was thinking about Henry Darger the other day. Do you know him?

BE Yeah. Fifteen thousand pictures, they found, when he died?

GP Yes, he never lived to see his work selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars but it gave him a rich life. And I thought, “Wow, nobody even knew he did it, pretty much.” You look at his paintings, and he’s obviously got some art-historical knowledge, he’s not completely innocent. But I don’t think any outsider art is completely isolated.

BE I always had the impression it was probably a totally hermetic, personal thing for him. Like someone generating their own pornography; they don’t particularly want to show it to anyone else. Another very interesting area of outsider art now is drawn pornography. God, there’s some amazing things going on. They’re using semi-real images, but they’re just extending the bits they want more of, you know – or much further than that. I’ve started collecting them.

GP Careful! Speaking as a pervert myself, what the internet did was tell you that you weren’t alone. And it was shocking. When I was young, when I was about ten years old, I used to have this fantasy, which used to turn me on greatly, of being in a body cast – lying in hospital, motionless, unable to move. And then when the internet came along, one day I just thought, “I wonder,” and then I just googled “plaster casts” and like – eugh! There’s websites called things like Cast Your Enthusiasm. It’s an offshoot of bondage.

BE It’s an offshoot of surrendering, as well – the same thing. You’re deliberately losing control.

GP And it’s kind of a loving thing, I think. It has to be. If you think about giving up to God, God is always there and is a parental presence, a parental projection. In bondage, there is always somewhere in the fantasy the loving but cruel parent figure.

BE The loving dominator.

GP Yes, we’re all gimps to a certain extent. Often when we look at perversions, you’re seeing an extreme, ritualised version of what everyone else has latent in them.

I see a lot of religious practices as offshoots of kinky sex. If you look at Catholicism and elements of Islam – well, I’ve got quite a thing about headscarves and I’m certainly not alone there. And I remember once, very early on in the age of the internet, I googled “headscarf fetish”, you know, and woohoo! It all comes out.

The fourth and last of Grayson Perry’s Reith Lectures will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 5 November (9am)

LAURA HYND FOR NEW STATESMAN
Show Hide image

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?