James Thurber, whose work "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" has been remade as a film starring Ben Stiller. Photo: Getty.
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The rules for being Walter Mitty

These rules reveal that few of us qualify as full-blown Walts. But all of us are fantasists.

The basics of being a Walter Mitty are simple. Your delusions of grandeur must take the form of fantastical dreams and pretensions, and you must be their hero. Do you tick those boxes? Brilliant. You’re following in the footsteps of James Thurber’s most durable creation, the protagonist of his 1939 short story, and its 1947 film adaptation, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. He’s the kind of guy who imagines a drive with his wife to be a death-defying military air mission, one that only ends when Mrs Mitty screams at him to slow down. Two-thirds of a century later, Ben Stiller’s sugared adaptation (released Boxing Day), is about a daydreamer who must become a real hero. But Walter Mitty has already been re-made thousands of times, for whenever journalists chuck his name at fantasists, its meaning is refined. These are the rules of its definition.

Rule One: all Walts are clowns, especially when caught out. Think of Grant Shapps, who has provided us with a particularly deep well of schadenfreude since it was revealed that the Tory Party Chairman had constructed a false personality to front his business, and that he allegedly promoted it by faking testimonials. Oh, how we laughed as Channel 4’s Michael Crick followed Shapps backstage at party conference, asking embarrassing questions while the Member for Welwyn Hatfield repeatedly failed to find the exit.

When someone like Shapps gets branded a Mitty, the sadism of our condemnation is on show, as well as the individual's supposed dishonesty. But when the label's not applied, it's equally telling.

Former Co-op Bank chairman Paul Flowers seems like the perfect candidate for such a branding. In his vainglorious dreamland, a deficit in banking knowledge constituted the capacity to preside over £36 billion in customer deposits, while long term use of Class As was disguised as the quiet moralism of the Methodist movement.

However, his sad case avoided the Mitty label because the people surrounding Flowers actively bought into his deceit. His CV was well known, but as one act of groupthink led to another, the Co-op appointed him, the FSA approved and the Labour leadership put him on their finance and industry advisory board. It seems that, by contrast, real Walts must have patsies with no inkling of the truth. Rule Two: Mittys must be alone with their lies.

Like Flowers, Dr David Kelly was also not-a-Walt. But the man who may or may not have told Andrew Gilligan that Alastair Campbell had sexed up the dossier on Iraqi WMD was nonetheless branded as such by Tom Kelly, Tony Blair's favoured spokesman.

The accusation was devastating because it seemed to make sense. With his reticent manner, wary eyes and tired, hanging jowls, the weapons inspector appeared too small for such a significant role in the greatest political scandal of the decade. But the moment Kelly was spun as a Walt, the story became digestibly coherent once more.

We ignored that he was a Nobel-nominated UN adviser on biological warfare, so it seemed like he was just a nobody pretending to be a somebody. The spin doctors, the journalists and the public relied upon Rule Three: all Walts are somehow undistinguished.

David Kelly’s tale shows that however big you are, you can always seem small. Even Harold Wilson, twice Head of Her Majesty's Government, felt the need to show off. Once, when Margaret Thatcher was still Leader of the Opposition, he chastised her for demanding the freedom of Soviet prisoners. But he also announced that he had saved more of them than her, only he was too well-mannered to disclose how many.

On that occasion, the 'Mitty' label was so obviously deserved that the Times' political correspondent used it to describe him, not in a sketch, but in a front page report, and devoid of scare quotes. The British Establishment knows no greater shame.

Here we have evidence for Rule Four: Walts are "pathetic" in our laughing and sadistic sense of the word, but not so according to the piteous classical definition. Even after he left Downing Street, the politician suffered the indignity of having to sue for libel the publishers of a biography entitled "Sir Harold Wilson: Yorkshire Walter Mitty".

All the Walts so far have shared one trait, which points to Rule Five: Mittys are men, and the only women ever described as such are those who give up their traditional gender roles by becoming leaders. This label has been slapped on Hilary Clinton a number of times, most memorably when she made the fictional and tellingly macho claim of having escaped sniper fire in Bosnia.

Women are rarely branded as Mittys because in a sexist society, their being out of touch with reality is treated as a given. If on one side of the coin, women are represented as a priori Walts, then on the other we have Rule Six: men who are Mittys are always emasculated. Indeed, Wilson was portrayed by his libellous biographer as a cuckold who only sought power because his mother never loved him.

This self-deception can be a strength. After Wilson won the February 1974 general election, the Times described his Walter Mitty tendencies as having "allowed him to bounce back every time he was thrown down".

Even so, these rules are really a list of off-limit activities for anyone with ambition. Our rulers need arrogance, but they must make it suit them, and that brings us, finally, to Rule Seven: Walts are not posh. Grammar schoolboy Wilson could never wear his pretensions as well as Blair and Cameron later would, because Britain's public schools teach pupils how to convince people with their hubris.

Consequently, X Factor contestants are today’s perfect Walter Mittys. The majority are in low-pay jobs with no prospect of career progression, and we laugh as millionaire panellists mock them for having ideas ‘above their station’.

That is the sad truth about Mitty: he has survived as a ploy in the sport of name-or-be-named. Every time we identify one of his ilk, we can ignore the fear that while few of us are Walts, all of us are fantasists.

ANTONIO OLMOS / EYEVINE
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How Ken Loach's radical vision won him a second Palm d'Or

In Loach's films, authenticity is everything, and when his quest for realism pays off, there's nothing as raw in all of cinema.

On 22 May, at the age of 79, Ken Loach became the first British director to win the top prize twice at the Cannes Film Festival. His previous Palme d’Or, in 2006, was for The Wind That Shakes the Barley, which dramatised the British occupation of Ireland and the origins of the IRA. This time, he won for I, Daniel Blake, the story of an ailing carpenter wrongly declared fit for work by the callous UK benefits system. No wonder Ed Vaizey, the culture minister, could issue only the most grudging acknowledgement, alluding vaguely to “Brit success!” in a tweet that failed to mention either Loach or the film.

The actor and Cannes jury member Donald Sutherland, on the other hand, called I, Daniel Blake “an absolutely terrific movie that resonates in your heart and soul”. It was an incongruous delight to see Loach posing before swarms of paparazzi. He usually disdains such frivolities; he might be red but he’s hardly red carpet. “As a film-maker, you’re forever involved in things that constantly inflate their own importance,” he once complained. Artifice, hyperbole and celebrity hold no appeal. Even film-making itself is full of irritating impediments. “If Loach could make a film without a camera, he would,” said Trevor Griffiths, who collaborated with him on Fatherland (1986).

Authenticity is everything. Unusually, Loach shoots in sequence, even if it requires moving back and forth at great cost between locations. In the days of celluloid, he would forfeit much of his fee to buy more film stock so that his beloved improvisations could roll on and on. When I visited the set of Carla’s Song near Loch Lomond in 1995, Loach gave the actor Robert Carlyle a good-natured ticking off for speaking to me between takes. “I’d rather he didn’t talk to anyone,” he said, “because then he’ll start thinking about things in terms of technique and who he really is, and it’ll all become conscious.”

When the quest for realism pays off, there is nothing as raw in all cinema. Think of the chilling attack on a family home by loan sharks in his 1993 drama Raining Stones, one of the films that began his most successful period, or the climax of Cathy Come Home, made for the BBC in 1966 and arguably his most groundbreaking film. As Cathy (Carol White) has her children taken off her by social workers and police, Loach films the entire traumatic episode in a wide shot with a hidden camera to preserve the reality. The movie led directly to the founding of Crisis.

Conversely, Loach at his worst can be one of the most simplistic sentimentalists out there. The characterisation of the salt-of-the-earth heroes in recent films such as Jimmy’s Hall and Route Irish, or the pantomime-villain Brits in The Wind That Shakes the Barley, shows what happens when action is overpowered by agenda.

Born in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, Loach read law at Oxford but became seduced by theatre directing and acting: he was in a revue for which Dudley Moore composed the music, and understudied in the West End in One Over the Eight. He joined the BBC in 1963, where he brought extra earthiness to Z-Cars before finding his ideal outlet in The Wednesday Play slot that went out after the news. “We were very anxious for our plays not to be considered dramas but as continuations of the news,” he said. He made ten TV films under that banner but it was with his second movie, Kes, in 1969, that he took flight, proving that the gritty and the lyrical need not be mutually exclusive.

His politics was fully formed by this point. Though he has rejected claims that he is Marxist or Trotskyist, he admits that the analysis to which he turned after his disillusionment with Harold Wilson in the mid-1960s was a Marxist one. “The idea of a class analysis was the one we identified with,” he said of himself and his collaborators the producer Tony Garnett and the writer Jim Allen. “What we realised was that social democrats and Labour politicians were simply acting on behalf of the ruling class, protecting the interests of capital.”

This stance was consolidated by a series of run-ins in the 1980s, when he saw his work banned and thwarted by political forces. The transmission of his four-part 1983 television documentary Questions of Leadership, which asked whether the trade union leadership was adequately representing its members’ interests, was delayed and blocked by Labour string-pulling. Which Side Are You On? – a documentary about the miners’ strike – was rejected because of footage showing police violence.

Since his full-time return to cinema in the early 1990s, acclaim has eclipsed controversy. Even if he had not won a Palme d’Or, his stamp is all over other directors who have won that award in the past 20 years. The Belgian social realists Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (Rosetta, The Child) have never hidden their debt to him, while recent winners such as Jacques Audiard (Dheepan) and Cristian Mingiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days) exhibit his mixture of directness, compassion and realism.

If there is anything that defines him, it is his fight, which has made it possible for him to remain one of cinema’s angriest and most effective voices. “In the long term, I guess I’m optimistic because people always fight back,” he said. “The reason to make films is just to let people express that, to share that kind of resilience because that’s what makes you smile. It’s what makes you get up in the morning.”

“I, Daniel Blake” is released later this year

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.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad