Gilbey on Film: in praise of Peter Yates

He was no auteur, but the veteran director should be fondly remembered all the same.

Auteurs are all very well, but what happens to those directors who don't quite fit the bill? Well, the answer is simple. They fall through the cracks in cinema history, and don't really get noticed until they're gone forever.

Did anyone ever look forward with excitement to the next Peter Yates film? I mean no disrespect to Yates, the British director who died last Sunday, aged 81. We don't really have any words to describe the sort of director he was, and the ones we do have (pro, journeyman) sound like euphemisms for "hack", which would be selling him terribly short.

Yates was a steady hand with an attentive eye for human behaviour; having started out in 1963 with Summer Holiday, he peaked in 1979 with one of the most winning of all American coming-of-age movies, Breaking Away. He also notched up some memorable thrillers: Bullitt (1968) , The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), which used Robert Mitchum's plangent weariness as judiciously as any of that star's more well-known pictures, and The Janitor (1982), known outside the UK as Eyewitness, which featured a terrifying scene in which William Hurt is attacked by his own Doberman, which has been fed cocaine by the bad guys. (Okay, it sounds funny written down; on film, it's anything but.)

In an industry where critical appreciation is as predicated on brand loyalty as its commercial equivalent - the column inches, arthouse screens and big-splash interviews going to an Almodóvar or a Haneke as automatically as the school-holiday crowd flocks to anything with the words "Harry" and "Potter" in the title - there is no way to sell the non-auteur to either the press or the public (not unless that filmmaker's last film was a smash, in which case the posters can proclaim: "From the director of..."). It would have meant nothing when promoting Krull, Yates's 1983 bandwagon-jumping science-fiction fantasy, to herald it as "From the director of Breaking Away" since there's no helpful continuity there.

Wide-ranging directors like Michael Winterbottom, Danny Boyle or Roger Michell, to take three British examples, are equally eclectic, but they have a sensibility that connects their genre-hopping movies, as well as a cachet to ensure press coverage (though Boyle has moved way beyond that niche since Slumdog Millionaire's Oscar trawl). Even Blake Edwards, who also died recently, at least had the tag of being the Pink Panther guy. Peter Yates, in the absence of an auteurist sensibility, can only be cast more as a man simply doing his job, neither showbizzy nor rarefied.

I say this not to mourn or rail against the way things are now, more than half a century on from Truffaut's 1954 auteurist essay "Une certain tendance du cinema Français", but simply to point out that if a director is to have a shot at artistic longevity, he or she needs to build a fanbase as loyal as that of any pop group. No wonder so many filmmakers have taken to social networking sites to shoot the breeze with their fans; keep your friends close and your potential future income-generators closer, as the saying almost goes.

Not that all directors even crave the auteurist tag. Winterbottom, even as a devotee of Bergman and Fassbinder, has no time for it. And I once tried to claim for the auteur cause the great Australian director, Fred Schepisi (The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Roxanne, Six Degrees of Separation, Last Orders). He was having none of it. "Auteur theory just denigrates everyone else's job," he sniffed. That told me. For the record, I think he was wrong about that. But everyone else seems to agree with him, at least in regard to himself: he's slipped through the cracks of critical opinion.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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We knew we’d become proper pop stars when we got a car like George Michael’s

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

One of the clichés about celebrity life is that all celebrities know each other. Back in the Eighties, when we were moderately famous, Ben and I did often bump into other famous people, and because of mutual recognition, there was a sort of acquaintance, if not friendship.

There was a random element to it, as well. Some celebrities you might never catch a glimpse of, while others seemed to pop up with an unexpected regularity.

In 1987, the car we drove was a 1970s Austin Princess, all leather seats and walnut dashboard. In many ways, it symbolised what people thought of as the basic qualities of our band: unassuming, a little bit quirky, a little bit vintage. We’d had it for a year or so, but Ben was running out of patience. It had a habit of letting us down at inconvenient moments – for instance, at the top of the long, steep climbs that you encounter when driving through Italy, which we had just recklessly done for a holiday. The car was such a novelty out there that it attracted crowds whenever we parked. They would gather round, nodding appreciatively, stroking the bonnet and murmuring, “Bella macchina . . .”

Having recently banked a couple of royalty cheques, Ben was thinking of a complete change of style – a rock’n’roll, grand-gesture kind of car.

“I wanna get an old Mercedes 300 SL,” he said to me.

“What’s one of those?”

“I’ll let you know next time we pass one,” he said.

We were driving through London in the Princess, and as we swung round into Sloane Square, Ben called out, “There’s one, look, coming up on the inside now!” I looked round at this vision of gleaming steel and chrome, gliding along effortlessly beside us, and at the same moment the driver glanced over towards our funny little car. We made eye contact, then the Merc roared away. It was George Michael.

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

We’d always had a soft spot for George, even though we seemed to inhabit opposite ends of the pop spectrum. He’d once been on a TV review show and said nice things about our first album, and I knew he had liked my solo single “Plain Sailing”. We’d done a miners’ benefit gig where Wham! had appeared, slightly out of place in their vests, tans and blond bouffants. There had been a bit of sneering because they’d mimed. But I remember thinking, “Good on you for even being here.” Their presence showed that being politically active, or even just caring, wasn’t the sole preserve of righteous indie groups.

A couple of weeks later, we were driving along again in the Princess, when who should pull up beside us in traffic? George again. He wound down his window, and so did we. He was charming and called across to say that, yes, he had recognised us the other day in Sloane Square. He went on to complain that BBC Radio 1 wouldn’t play his new single “because it was too crude”. “What’s it called?” asked Ben. “ ‘I Want Your Sex’!” he shouted, and roared away again, leaving us laughing.

We’d made up our minds by now, and so we went down to the showroom, flashed the cash, bought the pop-star car and spent the next few weeks driving our parents up and down the motorway with the roof off. It was amazing: even I had to admit that it was a thrill to be speeding along in such a machine.

A little time passed. We were happy with our glamorous new purchase, when one day we were driving down the M1 and, yes, you’ve guessed it, in the rear-view mirror Ben saw the familiar shape coming up behind. “Bloody hell, it’s George Michael again. I think he must be stalking us.”

George pulled out into the lane alongside and slowed down as he drew level with us. We wound down the windows. He gave the car a long look, up and down, smiled that smile and said, “That’s a bit more like it.” Then he sped away from us for the last time.

Cheers, George. You were friendly, and generous, and kind, and you were good at being a pop star.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge