Nick Broomfield: “She very much reminded me of Margaret Thatcher”

The documentary maker on Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney and sex in Bedford.

After your last two projects, the drama films Ghosts and Battle for Haditha, what inspired you to return to your old style?

I’ve worked with lots of different styles. I did a couple of low-budget features using real people to act as themselves and I had embarked on a feature, The Catastrophist, using actors, and there was this endless process of getting it off the ground, so I thought it would be good to recharge my batteries and go back to my roots. Plus there were other things. There’s always an interaction between the personal and the work. My father had just died and was anxious to go and do something on the spur of the moment. The thought of going off to Alaska was actually rather appealing at that time.

Many of your subject seem to see themselves as victims, even when they’re not. Is that fair?

I think that’s true. [Palin] very much reminded me of Margaret Thatcher, who in her later years would only allow herself to be interviewed by designated interviewers. Sarah Palin was exactly like that. She only would be interviewed by Fox News. I think the paranoia you’re talking about comes with power. It’s somebody with an absolute philosophy who isn’t interested in people who disagree with them. None of them were interested in democracy and open discussion, or a belief that several brains looking at a problem will come up with a solution better than your own. They’re all very reluctant to embrace criticism and regard it as a destructive thing.

How big a role do you think Palin’s parents play in her life?

I think she’s incredibly close to her parents. Her father was her science teacher and track coach. Apparently as well as being somebody who was rightfully very popular as a teacher – he had all these mammoths and dead animals – he was incredibly brutal to people. I don’t think Sarah was a natural athlete and she was always trying to get his respect and approval. Basically, nothing was ever good enough. It’s interesting she married Todd, who was the best basketball player, the one star they had. She was always devoted more than anything else to impressing her father and having him on board, and he’s somebody who absolutely sees the world in black and white tones: you’re either with him or you’re against him.

Why are those who loved her so reluctant to embrace Mitt Romney?

Well, firstly he’s a Mormon. He’s not a fundamentalist Christian. He doesn’t embody all those fundamentalist positions. He’s changed his position on abortion, which is a fundamental thing for them. He’s changed his position on things like health care, so I think he’s basically toadying to the extreme right because he knows he needs their support to carry the Republican party in the election. But no one really believes that he’s a dyed-in-the-wool fundamentalist in the way Sarah Palin or Michele Bachmann are. I think Romney is regarded as an outsider.

I see she has a TV show now.

She’s been under contract with Fox for some time. I think Murdoch regarded her as a rising star and believed in a lot of the stuff she was saying. Believed in her populism. That she was a great demagogue and had a loyal following. Maybe believed mistakenly that she was going to be vice-president and that his empire would benefit from her philosophy...

How many of you were there working on the film?

In Alaska there was a researcher who was looking at archives, contacting people and making phone calls, then somebody doing all the technical side of things – film making has become more and more technical: downloading footage, coming along on shoots, keeping everything going – and then Joan Churchill was the camerawoman and I was doing sound. So there was basically four of us. In post-production we probably had another three researchers. The Sarah Palin film was a frustrating film and it was very hard to get footage for stuff. It required more people than normal.

Do you think people have started to distrust you?

I think certain people do. I guess Sarah Palin obviously did. I think when I was doing things like Aileen or Kurt & Courtney, Biggie and Tupac, everything was fine, but I think probably right-wing politicians and those kinds of people do distrust me. And of course everything has got more difficult with the internet. You can find out what somebody’s done and how they’re perceived.

What are you up to now?

I’m just finishing an undercover film I did with the same journalist who I worked with on Ghosts, Hsiao-Hung Pai. She did a stint as a housemaid in a Chinese brothel in Bedford. Based on those studies we did another undercover film which is called Sex in Bedford and should be out some time in the new year.

Did you manage a cameo?

I did actually visit once, but no, I didn’t make a guest appearance as an evening customer.

"Sarah Palin: You Betcha!" and the "Nick Broomfield Documentary Collection" are available now on DVD from Universal Pictures (UK).

Nick Broomfield. Photo: Getty Images.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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