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 Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle