A pro-independence Scot at a rally in Edinburgh. Photo: David Moir/Reuters
Show Hide image

The rise of Borgen nationalism

The conundrum of Britishness and the condition of Scotland.

Bannockburns: Scottish Independence and Literary Imagination (1314-2014) 
Robert Crawford
Edinburgh University Press, 288pp, £19.99

Acts of Union and Disunion 
Linda Colley
Profile Books, 192pp, £8.99

The Battle for Britain: Scotland and the Independence Referendum 
David Torrance
Biteback, 384pp, £14.99

The battle has been joined and it is growing more bloody by the moment. It took the unionist establishment in London quite a long time to notice how real the prospect of Scottish independence was becoming. Now, after a fusillade of speeches, comes the heavy attack: George Osborne and Ed Balls are united in telling the Scots that they will stop them keeping the pound if Scotland goes its own way.

This is clearly a long-prepared response to so many Scots being undecided and to the rate at which, recently, those undecideds have begun to fall more into Alex Salmond’s Yes camp than the Better Together, pro-Union one. It is brutal and will feel like bullying. The Scots don’t react well to bullying, as the polls show; nevertheless, there are few things more unsettling than not knowing what currency your pensions and wages will be paid in.

Some of us have been arguing for several years that Salmond is one of the most formidable politicians in the UK and that London has been remarkably slow to wake up to the mood in Scotland in the 21st century. Things are changing but there are many “what ifs” still unresolved. If Scotland votes for independence in September what, exactly, will happen to the 2015 general election? There are no contingency plans for what to do about Trident. And suddenly a common currency across the main island of Britain is under threat.

Plenty to think about and not much time. For those willing to educate themselves quickly, however, there is now a wonderful range of books on the subject.

The most straightforwardly political and carefully researched of these is The Battle for Britain by David Torrance. The writer, a meticulous political journalist, picks his way through the echoing labyrinth of recent developments in Scotland. He devotes generous space to the questions of currency, economic performance, pensions, defence and foreign affairs. Like Iain Macwhirter’s Road to Referendum, it’s an essential primer.

Torrance is best on the detailed politics. For most of the book, he manages to do something that has become almost impossible – he maintains an impartial tone. Only at the end, when he offers two rival versions of the future, can I detect any kind of bias: he suggests that if Scotland votes to stay in the Union it will not be the end of the matter, and at the same time his vision of an independent Scotland is, by and large, a benign one. Although Torrance is Alex Salmond’s biographer, unionists can trust this book as much as nationalists can.

He is least convincing when explaining the underlying, passionate urge that has driven the rise of nationalism – the poetry, if you like, behind the policies. This is an important deficit, particularly when addressing southern Britons. On the whole, the modern English disdain nationalism. It isn’t much talked about and is largely looked down on as a dangerous perversion, fit only for foreigners and the unbalanced extreme fringes. Patriotism, in the sense of a generalised love of the land, or broad approval of the political dispensation, is still an acceptable watery substitute, though even this is draining away.

But the nationalist phenomenon is beginning to look almost as normal in the contemporary world as modern English secularism. Scotland is not unusual. From Russia and Ukraine to Egypt, China, Japan and Argentina, nationalism remains a powerful force. Even inside the EU, a project designed to send nationalism quietly to sleep, it is stirring: in the Nordic countries, and in Hungary and Bulgaria.

What are the most important aspects of nationalism that the English could do with being re-educated about? First, it is a mighty force. Its emotional power to mobilise and upend should never be underestimated. Second, it is a force that is hard to control, a political impulse notoriously unaware of its proper limitations – which is why it became unrespectable in the first place.

Even inside the SNP, there is an uneasiness about the word “nationalism”. It is not the Scottish Nationalist Party, remember; it’s the Scottish National Party. I long ago lost count of the times I’ve heard friends intending to vote Yes to independence insist, “I’m not a nationalist: I’m in favour of an independent Scotland.”

Part of Salmond’s achievement – the key, I’d say, to all he has achieved – is to have distanced the SNP from the dark nationalism of the 20th century. He has wrenched it away from its bigoted history as part of Scotland’s old anti-Catholic mindset. He has muted its rhetorical Anglophobia and loses no opportunity to laud the English as good friends and neighbours.

Salmond’s SNP makes much of its Sikh Indian, Pakistani and Polish supporters; it would be hard to imagine anything further removed from the “blood and soil” views of some of the old Nats I knew in Scotland 30 years ago. Radovan Karadzic would feel profoundly uncomfortable in the SNP.

This has allowed support for independence to move well beyond its old heartland. Some of the most vocal groups in the debate backing the Yes campaign are from what we might call civic politics: mostly left-leaning but politically uncommitted. And this has helped extend the appeal of the case for independence deep into the arts and literature. Most of Scotland’s leading writers and many of its major performers are lined up on Salmond’s side of the argument.

As the poet and academic Robert Craw­ford’s excellent Bannockburns, a survey of nationalist thinking across Scottish literature, makes clear, this is not an insignificant point. Poets may no longer be the world’s “unacknowledged legislators” but the cumulative impact of the literary (and cine­matic) imagination on our sense of identity remains central. Scots can turn to their formidable national poet Liz Lochhead, or the novelists Alasdair Gray and James Kelman. In Kathleen Jamie, they have one of the sharpest poets and essayists writing in Britain; in James Robertson’s And the Land Lay Still, they have a novel of ideas about the struggle for independence.

If you want to understand, in a single volume, the emotional energy behind this year’s drama, go first to Robertson. He has the cadences of Scotland’s greatest 20th-century novelist, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, welded to a panoramic understanding of British politics and history. Among contemporary Scottish writers, his is the most ambitious intervention.

Most of the leading names of the past century were on the pro-independence side: Gibbon; Edwin Morgan, Scotland’s first modern national poet; the Highland novelist Neil Gunn; and, towering over all, Hugh MacDiarmid – communist, fascist and Anglophobe but also one of the most formidable geniuses of modernism.

Of the SNP’s founders, MacDiarmid is the one about whom the party feels least comfortable talking. Yet his power is that he never lost sight of the proposition that nationalism must be “for” something. The answers MacDiarmid gives may seem profoundly out of date in the 21st century but the questions he poses are not. The SNP, however much it emphasises equality, neighbourliness and moderation, poses classic nationalist questions. There seems little point in asserting an independent national community if it is going to mimic all the other national communities clustered around it. The point of independence is surely to do something different.

In the collection of essays Acts of Union and Disunion, Linda Colley gives us many historical and geographical reasons to question the present British status quo. We talk about Britain being “the island nation”; but did you know that our archipelago is made up of more than 6,000 islands? You knew that England accounts for the lion’s share of the UK population; did you know that its numbers had grown hugely over the past few centuries? In 1801, 54 per cent of the UK’s population lived in England; now, it contains over 53 million people, more than five times the total number of inhabitants of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland combined. “This growing demographic disparity,” Colley explains, “is one reason why support for Welsh and Scottish devolution or independence has increased.”

Her most powerful writing is about the distinctions and divisions inside England: “England is bottom-heavy. In wealth, status, power, population, and in key cultural terms, it is heavily weighted towards the south. The prime archbishopric of the Church of England is in Canterbury in Kent. Traditionally, the most prestigious English universities have been Oxford and Cambridge. British army officers are trained at Sandhurst in Surrey, while their naval counterparts train at Dartmouth in Devon. Then, of course, there is London . . . a pathological swelling on the face of the nation.”

Whereas, seen from Scotland, England can appear an enormous undifferentiated mass, the great cities of the north of England (and, indeed, their landscape) are much closer in terms of experience to the cities of Scotland than they are to London or to the tellingly titled “Home Counties”. This has a direct relevance to the earlier question: what is independence for?

The people of Leeds, Liverpool and Newcastle – never mind Birmingham and Manchester – in general have voted for the post-1945 Labour welfare settlement more consistently than the Scots have done. The fundamental challenge Salmond throws down to the London establishment is to ask whether, by voting through Westminster, social-democratic Scots can ever get a government of which they approve. It’s a good question, as Labour struggles in the polls. Yet the same question faces swaths of England. There is no great gulf of values sep­arating Liverpool from Dundee, or Leeds from Lanarkshire.

My only criticism of Crawford’s book is that by defining the Scottish question from medieval times onwards as overwhelmingly one of “freedom”, he risks underestimating the importance of more conventional politics – the “for what?” – in all of this. Is national freedom for peasants in the Middle Ages, tied to their feudal superiors, in any way relevant to the modern condition? Freedom is clearly a good thing; but it is only a starting point. It is the lever for change, the entrance gate to a different society.

Crawford shows how, again and again, two medieval epics – John Barbour’s Brus and Blind Harry’s Wallace – were reprinted and subtly diluted until Wallace became a bland representative of British liberties, celebrated by the Victorian boys’ novelist G A Henty. Yet in the earlier accounts when the commoner Wallace confronts the aristocrat Bruce and berates him for betraying Scotland because, in essence, he prefers his own Anglo-Normans to his fellow Scots, there is already a class element to the story, even a proto-republican one.

So questions of class (or “fairness”, as we now call it) cannot be avoided. Crawford’s great scoop is the influence of James H Whyte – the American enthusiast for Scottish nationalism who edited the magazine The Modern Scot in the 1930s – in creating a more modern, pluralist version of nationalism opposed to his friend MacDiarmid’s national Marxism, and thus indirectly influencing Alex Salmond and today’s SNP. Alasdair Gray, misunderstood over his “settlers and colonists” remarks (distinguishing between the positive and negative contributions of English people living in Scotland), follows in the pluralist Whyte tradition; so do websites such as Bella Caledonia.

And so we have this new nationalism: well behaved, impeccably monarchist, politically correct and eager, always, to please. It’s a social-democratic, Borgen nationalism of a kind that would have had MacDiarmid spitting tacks.

What Scots are going to have to decide in September is whether this milky alternative is worth the risk of legal separation from the rest of the UK. It’s a big question that just now seems to be collapsing into a welter of competing scare stories. Whose national indebtedness is the scarier? Which is more likely to be controlled by monster-sized banks, Edinburgh or London?

And yet, in fact, everything is driven by national consciousness. It can’t be dodged. Not this year. I named some of the writers who have thrown themselves into celebrating Scottishness. But where are the alternative celebrants for Britishness? Who are the great poets, novelists and thinkers reviving the Union? All I see is a yawning gap. There are postmodern metropolitan writers des­cribing the multi-ethnic experience you get in London. And the beginnings, perhaps, of a Northern Renaissance – Simon Armitage, Philip Hensher.

But Britishness itself? Where would it even start, geographically or imaginatively? Linda Colley, like others, proposes an English parliament and a written constitution, but we are talking of a deeper and livelier sense of identity than that. Are the British generations left with nothing more than yet another celebratory programme about the First World War? Institutions such as the NHS, the monarchy and even the BBC have already been reimagined for Scottish circumstances, so they won’t do. Like many others, I was much moved by the opening ceremony for the London Olympics but it was, in its 1945-welfarist way, as nostalgic as any kilted Bannockburn gathering.

In 19th-century Britain the urge to explain and define Britishness (and, to an extent, Englishness) was almost uncontainable, from Tennyson and Kipling to H G Wells and the libertarian suffragettes. The 20th-century wars produced an upsurge in what we might call emergency nationalism, in which writers, artists and film-makers co-operated. The English patriotic consciousness of J B Priestley, Low, Ealing Studios and John Piper seems, from this distance, the last chorus of that “auld sang”. South of the Tweed, people have been insouciant about the power of nationalism for too long; they may be running out of time.

Scots who have the vote this September will be thinking about economics, individual leaders, welfare payments and security – but they will be thinking also, inevitably, about what nationalism means at the start of this new century. Around Europe, there are once again plenty of bad answers being given to that conundrum. The Scots, however they vote, have been looking for better solutions. Kathleen Jamie was chosen as the winning poet in a competition to celebrate the Battle of Bannockburn. Her poem, which Crawford refers to but does not quote, is the most inclusive and least threatening answer to the challenges of identity politics I have ever come across.

It begins by celebrating “our land”, which belongs “to none but itself” and in which the Scots “are mere transients . . . Small folk playing our part”. It ends:

“Come all ye”, the country says,
You win me, who take me most to heart.

It’s hard to imagine anything more opposed to the “wha’s like us?” jingoism of an earlier Scottish nationalism. Those English who see what’s happening north of the border as nothing but greedy, welfare-state-driven chippiness need to look further.

 

Andrew Marr is a broadcaster and journalist. Formerly the BBC’s Political Editor, he presents the Andrew Marr Show on BBC1 on Sundays and Start the Week on Monday mornings on Radio 4.

This article first appeared in the 26 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: a special issue

LAURA HYND FOR NEW STATESMAN
Show Hide image

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?