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The vagabond king

When 25-year-old Valentine Strasser seized power in Sierra Leone in 1992, he became the world’s youngest head of state. Today he lives with his mother and spends his days drinking gin by the roadside. What went wrong?

There are two ways to drive inland from Freetown. The first is to go through the eastern, poorer quarters of the Sierra Leonean capital. There decrepit vehicles jam narrow streets lined with mouldering clapboard houses. With such heavy congestion, it can take many hours to make the journey. The alternative is to take the so-called mountain road. You drive up into the hills, past the camp of the British army-led training team left over from Tony Blair's little war in 2000. Soon the tarmac ends and a dirt road threads past straggling villages into the forest.

The track of reddish laterite – which bypasses the city and its traffic – is treacherous after rain, and traces a route down into a broad valley. A mile or so before it rejoins the main highway leading inland, a side road branches off to the left through a quiet village. At the far end of the settlement stands a faded sheet-metal advertisement for Goodyear tyres. And there, most afternoons, a tall man with close-cropped, greying hair sits on an open porch by the side of the road, often dressed in just a pair of shorts. If you arrive late in the day he may be drinking gin from a plastic sachet. His name is Valentine Strasser; he is 45, and was once the youngest head of state in the world.

It is ten years since the end of the 11-year civil war in Sierra Leone. In 2007 power changed hands at the ballot box – and yet, to the outside world, the iconography of that long war – child soldiers, violent amputations and conflict diamonds – is ineradicable.

The story of Strasser, who seized power in a military coup at the age of 25 in 1992 and ruled for four years until he was deposed by the same method, is unusual even by the experience of West African dictatorships. His improbable rise to executive power and his precipitous fall to roadside penury is a parable of the human consequences of premature kingship.

Strasser says he was born on 15 September 1966 in Freetown. His father was a teacher, his mother a small-time businesswoman. After attending the Sierra Leone Grammar School (founded in 1845), he became an army officer, serving in neighbouring Liberia as part of a regional peacekeeping mission, the Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group (ECOMOG). Like Sierra Leone, Liberia was established as a colony of freed slaves. Civil war had broken out there in 1989, and in 1991 ECOMOG was attempting to secure order in the capital, Monrovia. "Fighting was going on every corner from three factions," Strasser told me one evening, speaking softly and with a slight lilt.

After seven months in Liberia, he returned home. The war followed him. In March 1991, rebel fighters crossed over from Liberia into the remote eastern part of the country. This incursion of as many as 2,000 men, most of whom were on loan from the Liberian warlord Charles Taylor, marked the beginning of Sierra Leone's decade-long conflict.

Led by Foday Sankoh, the rebels came to be known as the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). Sankoh was a former army corporal and one-time jobbing photographer and, like others among the initial RUF leadership, he had received training at al-Mathabh al-Thauriya al-Alamiya, Muammar al-Gaddafi's World Revolutionary Headquarters in Benghazi, Libya.

By 1991 Sierra Leone was close to ruin. After independence from Britain in 1961, there had been a brief period of relatively functional democracy under the leadership of Sir Milton Margai. He died in 1964 and was succeeded by his less respected stepbrother Albert, who disbursed vital positions in government to people of the Mende tribe regardless of qualifications.

The decline accelerated under Siaka Stevens, a trade unionist who was elected in 1967 but did not become prime minister until the following year because of a series of coups. In 1971, Stevens declared himself president. Charming but spectacularly corrupt, he systematically degraded state institutions and operated a system of personal patronage. He plundered Sierra Leone's diamond wealth and even entered into negotiations with an American company to have toxic waste dumped in the country in exchange for a fee of $25m.

“At the age of 80, Stevens left office with an estimated fortune of US$500m," says Sareta Ashraph, a London-based lawyer formerly at the UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone who is now working on a history of the civil war.

"The sheer corruption and violent repression of the Stevens regime extinguished the hopes of an entire generation and laid the foundation for the country's brutal civil war."

Following riots in Freetown, Stevens stepped down in 1985. Two years later, at a ceremony held in the grounds of parliament, a local preacher compared the former head of state's reign to a "17-year plague of locusts" in an address that was broadcast on national radio.

The next president was Joseph Momoh, a military officer. Despite his initial promises of reform, corruption persisted under him. He acquired the nickname Dandogo, which means "idiot" in the language of the Limba people of northern Sierra Leone. By 1991, Momoh had been in power for six years and the nation was ripe for revolt.

Wounded in action

On Strasser's return from Liberia, he joined a unit fighting the rebel incursion in the east. The conditions for the government troops were wretched. Logistical support was poor, supplies of weapons and ammunition were limited and there was scant medical provision. On 1 May 1991, he received a shrapnel wound to the leg while defending a bridge.

“I was inside a bunker and I got blasted," he said. "It was a shell that actually landed on the sandbags." On another occasion when we spoke he said: "No casevac [casualty evacuation] procedures were made. In terms of helicopters or ambulances to shift the casualties . . . the problem was not with the level of training, but with the equipment that was available and the manpower. My disgruntlement stemmed from the fact that after I got wounded in action, I could not be evacuated, either by an ambulance or a helicopter."

Aware that they were fighting a war that their political masters would not resource properly, Strasser and other junior officers began plotting a coup. On 29 April 1992, they launched Operation Daybreak, raiding the office of the president in central Freetown as well as the lavish old presidential lodge off Spur Road in the West End of the city. They found President Momoh hiding in the bathroom of the lodge, wearing a dressing gown. He was bundled into an army helicopter and taken over the border to Guinea.

Strasser emerged as the public face of the uprising, in part because of his language skills – he spoke English well enough to read out a statement on the radio. As a captain, he was also of a higher rank than his co-conspirators. Some argue, too, that Strasser got the top post because those around him felt that he could be manipulated easily. "He was chosen in spite of, not because of, his leadership capabilities," says Joe Alie, a professor of history at Fourah Bay College in Freetown and the author of a 2007 history of the country since independence.

Joseph Opala, an American historian who first came to Sierra Leone in 1974 as a Peace Corps volunteer and has spent much of his adult life in the country, witnessed the wild early days of the new regime. Avuncular and bearded, he runs a project to restore the former British slave fortress on Bunce Island, near Freetown. Shortly after the 1992 coup, Opala was rounded up by soldiers and taken to State House, the white-walled seat of power in the city centre that bears an odd resemblance to a lighthouse.

The windows in the president's office had been shot out. Momoh's staff stood erect, in abject terror. Sitting around wearing camouflage fatigues and Ray-Ban sunglasses were the young officers who had mounted the insurrection. They were cleaning their Kalashnikovs and were stoned.
Strasser turned to Opala. "A wan know if America go recognise we gobment?" he said, speaking in Krio, the Sierra Leonean lingua franca. Krio is built on an English chassis but has a distinct grammatical structure and uses borrowed words from a plethora of other sources. In response to

Strasser's question ("I want to know if America will recognise our government?"), Opala asked him in turn if he had spoken to the American ambassador. The new leader replied that he had, but that he had not understood what the diplomat had told him. "En English too big," he said. "A no undastan natin way e talk."

An extraordinary scene ensued. At Strasser's direction, Opala left State House and walked through deserted streets to the US embassy, which at the time lay one block away. There he told a jumpy marine guard that he had a personal message for the ambassador from the coup leaders. He was allowed in and explained to the head of mission that the heads of the new government wanted to know if Washington would recognise it. The ambassador, a black American named Johnny Young, said that he had spoken at length to Strasser and had outlined the position of the US administration – that in general it did not acknowledge regimes installed by force but, in this instance, because the previous government had also not been democratically elected and considering the dire condition of the country, it was prepared to make an exception.

Ukrainian connection

In the early days, Captain Strasser's coup was popular. There were promises of a fresh start for the country. Young people mobilised to keep Freetown clean. Celebratory murals and other street art flourished. The new rulers of Sierra Leone called themselves the National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC). Strasser was the council's chairman.

For all the jubilation, there was still a war to fight. Out in the bush, the army continued fighting the rebels. The junior officers who formed the NPRC had experienced the wretched conditions of the government troops. They wanted to improve matters, so besides tripling the size of the army, they went shopping.

There have been few better periods in history to buy guns than in the early 1990s. The Soviet Union had disintegrated, leaving huge arsenals in the hands of often unpaid and unsupervised officers. Dollars went a long way and official documentation was circumnavigable. Crucially, too, Sierra Leone's new leaders had a Ukrainian connection. During the cold war, the Soviet Union had funded scholarships for students from the developing world. Sierra Leoneans were among those who took up the chance to study in the USSR. One such was Steven Bio, who had studied in Kiev. A cousin of Julius Maada Bio, a member of the new junta, he had useful connections with gunrunners in Ukraine. He would be the go-between.

However, as the arms bazaar began to thrive abroad, the jubilation that had greeted Strasser's assumption of power at home began to diminish. In October 1992, the RUF took Koidu Town, capital of Kono District in the diamond-mining east. The capture of the town marked a step up in the conflict.

In Freetown, the NPRC government announced that it had uncovered an attempted coup and disarmed the instigators. Executions followed on a beach on the outskirts of the city, but the 29 people executed were considered to be innocent, and soon afterwards Strasser declared a nationwide period of mourning. "To people who were politically savvy, what it meant was there was no coherent government," Opala told me. "The conclusion was obvious – no one was in charge." (Nineteen years later, the mention of the executions stirred Strasser to anger. "Fuck off, man. In Texas they kill people every day," he said when I pressed him on the subject.)

Power in Sierra Leone was now in the hands of a group of very young men. "The children are running the country," it was said. A photograph of Strasser at the 1993 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Limassol, Cyprus, shows a young man in sunglasses and a T-shirt, emblazoned with the words "Sunny Days in Cyprus".

There were parties, too. Strasser made Valentine's Day a great national celebration, along with Bob Marley's birthday. The junta favoured pale-skinned women, creating a craze for bleaching among girls in Freetown. Women who tried to lighten their skin tone with chemicals were called "wonchee girls". Older Sierra Leoneans still mention that phrase readily when asked about their impressions of the NPRC. But perhaps the most telling indication of the onset of decadence in Strasser himself was his choice of accommodation.

Kabasa Lodge is in many ways the embodiment of all that is wrong with post-independence Sierra Leone. Built by the kleptocratic Siaka Stevens, it is a monumental structure the size of a missile silo or respectable late-medieval castle, and squats on a hilltop in Juba, in the West End of Freetown, with expansive views both out over the Atlantic and to the forested hills of the peninsula south of the city. It was here that Strasser chose to live.

The 1992 coup had decapitated the command structure of the army; brigadiers were expected to take their orders from captains and lieutenants. In the countryside, both rebels and the poorly trained soldiers were often more interested in looting property from civilians than in fighting each other. The line between the resistance and the rebellion became blurred, reflected in the neologism "sobel" – soldier by day, rebel by night.

By late 1993, though, the much-enlarged government army was close to defeating the rebels. In December Strasser called a ceasefire, but that turned out to be a mistake: the RUF regrouped and began setting up jungle bases around the country in 1994 and 1995. The rebels were a threat once more and the government was losing control.

Glittering prizes

In the south, the RUF attacked the facilities of Sierra Rutile, a company mining titanium ore, cutting off a crucial source of state revenue. The rebels set up a base in the town of Moyamba which put them within a day's striking distance of Freetown. Vehicle ambushes left few people willing to travel upcountry.

With the security situation deteriorating, the NPRC was becoming increasingly unpopular. It was then that Strasser turned to foreign fighters. White mercenaries are a charged subject in Africa, conjuring up a host of associations, from "Mad" Mike Hoare in the Congo of the 1960s to Richard Burton and Roger Moore in the 1978 film The Wild Geese and, more recently, the farce of the 2004 "wonga coup" in Equatorial Guinea. However, in Sierra Leone, shortly after South Africa's first multiracial elections in 1994, ex-apartheid enforcers re-engaged as soldiers of fortune and ended up saving huge numbers of lives. They nearly saved the country, too.

In February 1995, the NPRC engaged the services of a company called Gurkha Security Guards (GSG), which employed Nepalese ex-British-army troops led by an American, Robert MacKenzie. MacKenzie had fought in Vietnam and, in spite of an arm injury sustained there, he later passed selection for the Rhodesian SAS. He also worked as a correspondent for Soldier of Fortune magazine. His masterminding of GSG's involvement in Sierra Leone was a debacle: he was quickly ambushed along with Strasser's aide-de-camp, Abu Tarawalli. It is still not known for sure if those responsible were the rebels, or whether he was betrayed by Sierra Leonean army soldiers he was meant to be assisting.

After MacKenzie went missing, his wife asked Al J Venter – a writer with a long interest in mercenary affairs – to visit Sierra Leone to investigate what had happened. Venter discovered that a group of nuns had also been captured and taken to the camp where MacKenzie was held. The nuns were eventually released, but before then they saw the American strung up, and his heart cut out.

The next group of white mercenaries to land in Sierra Leone was Executive Outcomes, which blazed a trail for private military companies of the modern era. Composed predominantly of former South African special forces troops, Executive Outcomes was active in Angola during the civil war there, fighting both for and against Jonas Savimbi's South African-funded rebel army, Unita.

The brokers of the deal that brought Executive Outcomes to Sierra Leone included Simon Mann, later of the botched "wonga coup"; Tony Buckingham, who now runs Heritage Oil, a company whose prospectus hints at the risk that the media may mention his previous mercenary adventures; and Eeben Barlow, a former South African special forces officer. The role of Executive Outcomes was to combat the rebels. The mercenaries would be paid in diamond concessions and cash.

They arrived in Sierra Leone in small numbers – about a hundred on the ground at any one time. Most of the operatives were black but theleadership was white. They used helicopters, they had their own logistical train and they were fearsomely competent. "These people knew Africa," Venter said. "They set up their own supply units . . . they brought everything with them. They drove [the rebels] well away from Freetown, then they launched an operation into Kono. They did it; they turned the war around in record time."

Joseph Opala recalled how Executive Outcomes would give a radio to each of the paramount chiefs, the leaders originally appointed from the ranks of local kings and queens by British colonial administrators at the end of the 19th century. "They said: 'If you call us we will be there in 15 minutes.' And they were."

The mercenaries achieved what thousands of UN peacekeepers five years later were unable to do: they stopped the war. "At a total cost of $35m [just one-third of the government's annual defence budget], the fighting in Sierra Leone had ceased and over one million displaced persons returned to their homes," wrote P W Singer of the Brookings Institution in his book Corporate Warriors: the Rise of the Privatised Military Industry.

“They did what they were here to do – that I can assure you," Strasser told me. "In fact, fighting stopped. It was a war machine that was capable of handling the security difficulties there at the time."

But the mercenaries were soon forced out of Sierra Leone by other countries' disapproval. There was substantial international support for a peace accord that was negotiated in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire, in 1996, and the RUF made withdrawal of foreign forces a provision of signing it. Executive Outcomes left in January 1997. Without a disarmament programme in place, the Abidjan agreement proved ineffective. Clashes continued and after another military coup in May 1997 the violence escalated once more. In January 1999, the war reached its nadir when RUF fighters sacked Freetown in Operation No Living Thing.

As for Strasser, he was deposed in a palace coup on 16 January 1996. He had gone to inspect a passing-out parade at the military trainin academy in Benguema, less than 30 miles from Freetown. In the afternoon he went, without a substantial security escort, to a meeting at the defence headquarters at Cockerill, back in the capital city. There he was overpowered and bundled into a helicopter and flown to Guinea, just as had happened to Joseph Momoh four years earlier. Strasser's successor, the leader of this second coup, was Julius Maada Bio. The new leader was still only in his early thirties.

When I asked Strasser why his reign ended as it did, he refused to accept there had been a coup. He claimed he had merely stepped down at the end of the ten years of military service for which he had signed up. That statement is fantastical, and must be discounted.

Anything for a quiet life

The post-deposition period is perhaps the strangest in Strasser's unusual life, taking him from West Africa to Coventry in the West Midlands. When the international community had negotiated with the NPRC over the reintroduction of civilian rule, one of the incentives offered to members of the junta in return for relinquishing power was the opportunity to study in the west. And even though Strasser had eventually lost power by less graceful means, he was able to take up this chance.

Warwick University's decision to consider admitting him was controversial. "When it became known who he was, there was a lot of disquiet in the law school and the university," recalls Roger Leng, an expert in criminal law at Warwick who later taught Strasser. There was a fierce internal row over whether he should be allowed to enter as a student, despite assurances from reputable sources to the university that Strasser was not responsible for human rights violations.

Eventually he was accepted and took a foundation course to compensate for his lack of formal qualifications. The intention was that he would then progress to a law degree.

Leng was surprised when he met Strasser for the first time. "He was quiet. I don't think really he was equipped to study at this level," he said. "I'd expected a swaggering, arrogant guy and he was quite the opposite."

Strasser's second life as a civilian in England did not go well. His unwanted celebrity was a problem. He took up residence in an anonymous red-brick terraced house at 47 Poplar Road in suburban Earlsdon in Coventry, the city nearest the university, but the local and national press began to take an interest in him. He claims, too, that his stipend was inadequate. It even turned out that among Strasser's fellow students in 1996 was a niece of one of the victims of the extrajudicial killings of December 1992.

According to him, the woman spoke against him on television and lobbied against him. The archives of the Boar, Warwick University's student newspaper, mention inquiries launched into his presence. "The university's belief that Strasser's studies will contribute to the democratisation process has been attacked by those who consider that an individual with such a brutal background should not be afforded acceptance within wider society," the Boar reported in October 1996.

Later he had an unsuccessful affair with a supermarket checkout girl. "She knew who I was, because the papers in Coventry had things about me," Strasser said. "She knew I was a former dictator."

Warwick University closed its file on Strasser in January 1998. A spokesman for the university, Peter Dunn, believes he left campus before then. "My recollection was that he wrote to the university staff saying that he was leaving," Dunn said. "One of his concerns was that he was fed up with his history in Sierra Leone being constantly brought up." Strasser corroborated that account. "I saw front-page articles saying 'former dictator' and 'human rights violations'," he said. "It was impossible."

After dropping out of Warwick he moved to London, but there he found no peace. Albert Mahoi, a Sierra Leonean who goes by the nickname of Carlos, was running a business in south-east London that offered cosmetics, money transfers and international calls when he met Strasser. Mahoi recalled encountering him at a nightclub in Camberwell; another Sierra Leonean exile was abusing him and Mahoi felt he had to intervene.

“I said: 'Don't do that – he was our president,'" Mahoi told me. "I talked to Strasser, I told him to calm down." He bought the former head of state a bottle of Courvoisier. "He was stressed up; you know when someone loses everything. There was no respect for him."

With the Guardian newspaper questioning why a one-time West African strongman was living in London, Strasser left the country. The Home Office would not comment on whether his visa had been revoked. In December 2000, he went briefly to the Gambia and then back to Sierra Leone. And he is still there.

Moving with the times

The civil war finally ended in 2002 after a Blair-led British military intervention stiffened a floundering UN peacekeeping mission. The peace has held, and in November the country will hold its third multiparty election since the war's end. Large iron-ore mining projects are coming on line, and the IMF predicts massive GDP growth of 51.4 per cent this year.

Yet Sierra Leone remains impoverished; it ranks 180th (out of 187 countries) in the UN's Human Development Index and per-capita GDP stands at just $325 a year. The country also has a large pool of marginalised ex-combatants and other young men who continue to pose a threat to stability. Despite enormous expenditure of foreign aid, corruption remains endemic and progress on infrastructure frustratingly slow.

Desmond Luke is a former chief justice who trained at both Cambridge and Oxford. "One of my biggest sadnesses is when I travel out of Sierra Leone and I come back," he told me recently at his house in Freetown. "The only change one really does see is it seems to get dirtier."

Some of the figures from the war years are still in politics, too. Maada Bio, who deposed Strasser and was briefly head of state, is now the candidate for the main opposition party in the November presidential election.

Strasser lives quietly with his mother, Beatrice, in the house he built at Grafton, east of Freetown. The once-elegant white villa is run-down and the walls are stained. Across the potholed road stand the burnt-out ruins of another house that Strasser had built while in office, but which was bombed by Nigerian fighter jets during the civil war.

He receives a government pension of 200,000 leones (£30) a month. That is a recent improvement on the 64,000 leones (£9.40) he used to get. He is desperately poor and does not even have a mobile phone to hand as he sits by the roadside in the afternoons. "It's a new set of circumstances and I've got to accept them," he said of his life with his mother.

I asked Sheka Tarawalie, Sierra Leone's deputy minister of information, why the former leader receives such meagre support. "You know, Strasser was not an elected head of state," Tarawalie said. "That is one of the problems. He came in as a military man."

"Bad dictators"

One evening last summer, at the start of the rainy season, I arranged to meet Strasser for a final dinner. I went to see him with a friend and a British researcher resident in Freetown. We drove over the mountain road and picked Strasser up from his house.

He sat in the front seat of my Land Rover, wearing trainers and cut-off jeans. At his suggestion, we went to eat at a Safecon petrol station on the main road upcountry. There we sat at a table outside in the evening light.

It did not go well. He was drunk at the start of the meal and became agitated. When I raised his time at Warwick, he raged at me – I was his assassin, he said. I was the president of America. He became increasingly unstable and threatened to have us arrested, only to change his tone. "I'm not going to arrest you," he shouted. "Otherwise you'll say I'm Idi Amin or another bad dictator like Colonel Gaddafi."

Then he wrote this, in block capitals, in my notebook: "Europe still continues to underdevelop Africa. Africa's raw materials are Europe's tool to keep black Africa under so that western Europe continues to improve. Answer, 3,500 words."

There was something of Lear in Strasser that evening, the broken king raging at the injustices of the world. I met him again several times after that and he was always sober and lucid. Yet that night I had seen a different Valentine Strasser and begun to understand something of the burdens he carried. As we drove back over the hills in the tropical dark, it was clear to me what a terrible misfortune it was for him to have been crowned by accident.

James Appleton contributed additional reporting from Warwick University

This article first appeared in the 30 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, President Newt

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?