Italy celebrate winning the World Cup in Berlin, July 2006. Photo: Getty
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The last World Cup: after Brazil 2014, is the tournament finished?

Football is a supreme instrument of soft power and can unite people as little else can. But allegations of Fifa corruption have tarnished the image of the beautiful game. Can anything be done to save it?

The imagination is always at the end of an era.

Wallace Stevens

In the spring of 2006 I was working on the Observer when, one quiet afternoon, the editor, Roger Alton, called out to me across the newsroom: “Jase, d’you fancy going to the World Cup?” This was a question to which, if you liked football, the answer could not be “no”. Alton was an inspirational editor. He combined charm with just a hint of menace. He was menacing because capricious and unpredictable. But it was his very unpredictability that made him such a good editor – this and his high intelligence, which he tried to disguise by speaking in a kind of hectic demotic. The writer Geoff Dyer once described him to me, accurately enough, as being like a “cross between an Oxford don and a London cabbie”.

There was no budget for me to go to the World Cup in Germany but Alton sent me all the same for five thrilling weeks. I’m pretty sure, in retrospect, that the amiable sports editor, Brian Oliver, whom Alton affectionately called the Gaffer, had no idea what to do with me, yet he took my being crashed into his team of reporters with grace and good humour.

This was perhaps one of the last assignments of its kind there was to be on a British Sunday newspaper. I was not required to blog or tweet or write daily reports for the website. (Nowadays I’d be told to live-blog every England press conference, or something to that effect.) Rather, my only responsibility was to write a weekly essay, travel the country (all accredited journalists were provided with a complimentary first-class rail pass) and watch football matches. My sense of good fortune was heightened by the extraordinarily warm and settled weather in Germany during those weeks of the tournament.

I rented a small apartment in Berlin, in a building just off Pariser Platz and a short walk from the Brandenburg Gate. My apartment was directly opposite the Hotel Adlon, where Fifa’s blazered officials were holed up for the duration of the tournament in five-star luxury. This was also the hotel from a high window of which Michael Jackson, in an act of demented exhibitionism, precariously dangled one of his baby children, for the amusement of himself and the world’s media. From the window of my flat, I could see Peter Eisenman’s Holocaust Memorial, a forbidding grid of grey, coffin-like concrete slabs, or stelae, occupying a five-acre site, reminding all visitors to the city of the traumas of the German past.

Each morning, if I was not travelling, I bought a selection of newspapers and international magazines from the nearby Hauptbahnhof, the magnificent redevelopment of which had been completed to coincide with the start of the World Cup. Then I’d buy a coffee from the café of a local art gallery and sit on the pavement terrace and watch football fans of all nationalities idle and loiter – you could tell which team was in town that day by the colour of the replica football shirts being worn.

It was obvious that the World Cup was having a transformative effect on Germany. A large screen, on which matches were broadcast live, was positioned near the Brandenburg Gate, the main attraction of the Berlin Fan Fest. There were public viewing areas such as this in cities across the country and they proved to be enormously popular. By the end of the tournament hundreds of thousands were gathering at the Berlin Fan Fest for Germany matches.

Yet the mood inside the country at the outset of the tournament was one of anxious self-scrutiny. Franz “the Kaiser” Beckenbauer, Germany’s greatest player and the chair of the World Cup 2006 organising committee, had spoken of how football “makes a better world, it’s a game that brings tribes together. It is our historic opportunity here now in Germany to be good hosts, to show the world who we are.” He could have added, though the subtext was obvious, “and how we have changed”.

His optimism was not altogether widely shared. Germans are understandably unsettled by ostentatious displays of patriotism. When I arrived in Munich, just before the opening game between the hosts and Costa Rica at the Allianz Arena, I was struck by the absence of German flags on public display. By contrast, in England that World Cup summer, with expectations of success inflated by the promise of Sven’s so-called golden generation of players, the flag of St George was ubiquitous.

 

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There was also the small matter of Jürgen Klinsmann, the German national team coach, who was being caricatured as the “reviled reformer”. The son of a baker, Klinsmann is a Swabian, but rather than live in Germany he was stubbornly resident in California (he is married to an American). He had enjoyed a distinguished and itinerant playing career, in Stuttgart, Milan, Monaco, London and Munich, and spoke fluent English with a North Atlantic accent. He had the calm and good manners of an experienced airline pilot. The German press didn’t like or trust him: he was too cosmopolitan, too committed to a culture of change, too confident in his own certainties.

Klinsmann wanted Germany to play in an entirely new way: a much more expansive, high-energy, attacking game. He and his assistant Joachim Löw (who succeeded Klinsmann as coach in July 2006), had spent time together in London studying Arsène Wenger’s Arsenal, the fast-paced, highly technical multinational team of many talents, the team of Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, Robert Pirès and Patrick Vieira. They wanted to emulate the style of Wenger’s Arsenal, and would do so with a new generation of players, many drawn from immigrant families. “We need to question every single ritual and habit,” Klinsmann said on becoming national coach. “And we need to do it continuously – and not just in football . . . Reforms don’t happen in phases. They need to be part of an ongoing process, one that doesn’t stop when the World Cup is over.”

Germany had hosted great international sporting events before – the World Cup in 1974, the Olympic Games twice – but never fully successfully. The tournament of 1974 was played in a country divided between a free west and a communist east. Indeed, the old German Democratic Republic surprisingly beat West Germany 1-0 after they were drawn together in the same group. It was the first and only occasion the two Germanys contested an international football match. The game itself was played in Hamburg in torrential rain and it was as if that night even the gods were weeping for the divided nation.

Two years earlier, Munich had been the host city of the 1972 Olympics. But these Games will be for ever remembered for the so-called Munich Massacre, the kidnap and subsequent murder of 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team after a raid on the athletes’ village by the Palestinian militants of Black September. Once again Jews were being terrorised and murdered on German soil as the world looked on and recoiled. Before that, in 1936, the Berlin Olympics were scarred by Nazi propaganda and the grotesque posturing of Hitler.

The mood was so different in 2006. During the weeks of the tournament, as Klinsmann’s attack-minded team progressed to the semi-finals, and as the sun continued to shine and people, bashfully at first but then with much more confidence and obvious joy, began to drape themselves in the German flag, and as more and more Germans and overseas visitors began to gather each day at the Fan Fests to drink beer and watch the games in a spirit of mutual celebration, and as a sceptical press stopped worrying and began to declare the tournament a resounding success, something changed inside Germany. It was as if a nation no longer felt ashamed and suddenly began to experience a kind of relaxed patriotism. The world was watching Germany and the world liked what it saw: a tolerant country, welcoming to outsiders, and one that had become a model of benign liberal democracy. And the trains still ran on time.

By the end of the tournament – Germany were beaten 2-0 in the semi-finals by Italy, the eventual winners, in an enthralling game at Borussia Dortmund’s 80,000-capacity Westfalenstadion that I attended – Angela Merkel was pleading publicly with Klinsmann to renew his contract as coach. She understood what the World Cup had done for her country and how it had brought people together and lifted their spirits. True to his restless nature, Klinsmann accepted the applause and his nation’s gratitude, and promptly returned to America. Job done.

The Netherlands manager gives his players a pep talk in Brazil ahead of this year's World Cup. Photo: Getty

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When Franz Beckenbauer spoke of football’s potential to unite and inspire and to bring tribes together he was surely right. Talk to any Nigerian, for instance, about Nigeria, an unstable post-colonial construct of multiple rivalrous ethnic groups and more than 500 languages, and you will be told that one of the few things that can unite Africa’s most populous nation – perhaps the only thing – is the national football team, the Super Eagles. Even in a more mature democracy such as England, where some of us mourn the passing of anything resembling a common culture, football can create a sense of unity and fellow feeling of a kind that has all but disappeared from daily life in an era of zero-hour contracts, virtual friendships, declining newspaper sales and multi-channel
television: something we can all share in and talk about. This sense of togetherness, of an enlarged and enraptured imaginary community, feels never more palpable than during a World Cup summer, when it can sometimes seem as if every second person you meet is preoccupied by the football. “The imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of 11 named people,” as Eric Hobsbawm wrote.

The game of football has become the lingua franca of our globalisation. It is one of the supreme instruments of soft power, hence the desire of nations to host World Cups and of oligarchs and plutocrats to own great football clubs, the “superbrands” of international sport, as we have been coerced into calling them.

The top European leagues, especially the English Premier League, operate a rapacious winner-takes-all capitalism: the richest are getting richer and the rest can merely dream of catching up or go to hell. The game’s greatest players – Ronaldo, Messi, Ibrahimovic – are some of the most photographed, idolised and imitated people on the planet, their talent remarkable, their wealth stupendous, their influence reaching even into the world’s remotest towns and villages.

Absurd it may sound, but some of the most intense and emotionally draining experiences of my life have come from watching football. Even today, nearly 24 years later, I cannot think of England’s loss to West Germany in the 1990 World Cup semi-final at the Stadio delle Alpi in Turin, following an anguished penalty shoot-out, without feeling a sense of deep regret. Partly, of course, I’m mourning the person I used to be, the lost time and the lived experience that can never be recovered. I was only a year out of university back then and giddy with hope at what the future might hold but also unsettled by what seemed to me to be the sheer strangeness and wonder of the world – its randomness, its infinite variety, its essential mystery. There I was that night, a long way from Italy, gathered with friends around a television set in a rented house in the north London suburbs, watching as England tried and failed, so gloriously, to reach what would have been only their second World Cup final.

Italia ’90 – Gazza’s tears, Pavarotti’s “Nes­­sun Dorma”, Roger Milla’s dance – was when many people in England, those who had been so repelled by the violence and the hooliganism and the stadium disasters of the1980s, succumbed and began to fall in love with football again. They dared to believe that the game, so undermined by racism and the brutality of terrace culture, could be beautiful once more – something that appealed to all classes, to men and women, boys and girls: indeed, just as it does today.

The moneymen sensed the zeitgeist and seized their opportunity. Within two years the Premier League had been launched, after the leading clubs broke away from the old Football League. The new league would be bankrolled by Rupert Murdoch’s Sky Television and marketed as a “whole new ball game”. The fans were described as a “captive market”: it was correctly calculated that they would be willing to pay for satellite television subscriptions and, if the best players began playing in England, for high ticket prices, because they had no choice but to pay, prisoners of their own desires and fantasies.

There is something fundamentally irrational about fandom, about committing yourself so completely to something over which you have no control. The true fan makes that bond of allegiance to club and country in early childhood and it can never really be broken, no matter how helpless you feel or how unhappy or irritated being a supporter makes you. How to account for this? How to account for the hold sport has on the collective imagination?

An estimated 715 million people watched the 2006 World Cup final between Italy and France in Berlin, and South Africa 2010 was broadcast to 204 countries. Fifa has sold the worldwide television rights for Brazil 2014 for $1.7bn; the tournament is expected to generate $4bn in total revenue for football’s governing body. Does any other event have such global appeal?

 

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By the time you read this, the 20th World Cup in Brazil will have begun. But it takes place in the shadow of the corruption allegations over the decision to award the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to, respectively, Putin’s Russia (whose national football league is blighted by rumours of match-fixing) and the repressive pseudo-state of Qatar. Even before the Sunday Times reported the extent of the alleged bribes and bungs used to win the vote for Qatar – such an eminently sensible choice, when you think about it, with its 50° summer temperatures and its hatred of homosexuals, alcohol and liberated women – the stench of corruption hung over Fifa. We should not forget that David (Lord) Triesman was forced to resign as chairman of the Football Association and of the England 2018 World Cup bid team for stating the obvious: the right to host the World Cup can be bought.

The whole opaque process by which Fifa’s 24-man politburo selects the host nation is open to continuous abuse and manipulation, and the English FA has not been a blameless bystander. It was all too willing to play the game rather than attempt to rewrite the rules. It was unedifying to witness the elaborate dance of seduction with which the FA and its associates attempted to woo Jack Warner, the now-disgraced Trinidadian politician who was then vice-president of Fifa. David Beckham and Prince William (aka the Duke of Cambridge) were among the useful idiots the FA took to Trinidad in an attempt to secure the support of Warner who, as president of the Concacaf federation, controlled three votes. In the event, England received only two votes, from Japan and the representative of the English FA, and was eliminated in the first round of voting for 2018. It was as if Warner had accepted their hospitality and favours and then spat at them.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to bring the World Cup to the world’s emerging powers – 2010 was a dull tournament but the South Africans were deserving hosts, even if that country of poverty and mass illiteracy paid billions of pounds it could not afford for the “privilege”. Brazil, the self-mythologising samba nation, is reported so far to have spent £11bn on new stadiums and transport infrastructure. But the people are not yet in the mood to party: Brazil has been destabilised by riots, strikes and street protests and just this past week 10,000 marched on Arena Corinthians, the stadium in São Paulo that will be the venue for the opening game between Brazil and Croatia, to protest against World Cup excess and government indifference. Meanwhile, Qatar has said that it would spend more than £200bn on its World Cup project, and so the decadence and extravagance become more extreme with each tournament.

Yet the greater problem resides less with those wishing to act as hosts than with Fifa. Under the long rule of the megalomaniacal Sepp Blatter, football’s governing body has allowed the World Cup to become ever bigger and more bloated, which suits Fifa just fine. For Fifa, the World Cup is a well-oiled engine of cash generation. It brings prestige and the world’s attention to the hosts, for a transient period – but at what ultimate cost, especially when, as in the case of Qatar, the country has no football culture to speak of and impoverished migrant workers are dying needlessly there as they labour in the horrific heat to build Fifa’s air-conditioned stadiums in the desert?

“It’s a money machine, World Cup after World Cup. For them, that’s more important than serious and clean governance,” said Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, chairman of Bayern Munich and the European Club Association, long before the Sunday Times revelations appeared. “I will give them a chance [to clean up] but I’m ready for a revolution.”

Europe’s leading clubs – Bayern, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester United, Juventus, AC Milan – resent having to lend their players to national associations for matches and tournaments, only to have them returned injured or fatigued. The clubs understand that history is moving in their direction; that club football, at the very highest level, is superior to the international game, with its round of meaningless friendlies and tedious, one-sided qualifying matches against the likes of San Marino and Moldova. The clubs naturally despise Blatter and also resent the machinations of Michel Platini, the former player-turned-head of Uefa, which from 2016, in another act of grandiose expansionism, will increase from 16 to 24 the number of countries playing in the finals of the European Championship (the tournament was at its best when the finals comprised just eight nations).

Perhaps only the clubs and the corporate sponsors have the power and the will to blow Fifa apart and effect the necessary change. Led by Sony, five of the six main Fifa sponsors have expressed public concern so far about the Qatar corruption allegations.

On 14 June, England play their opening group game of the World Cup against Italy in Manaus, capital city of the state of Amazonas in northern Brazil. Many millions of us in this country will be watching on television, despite the match kicking off at 11pm BST. For a while at least, we shall forget, or try to forget, all about how football is administered and sold around the world and allow ourselves to become absorbed by what is happening on the field of play, by the drama or otherwise of the game itself.

But this time, for me at least, it feels different. It fells like the end of something. It feels like the end of an era. After Brazil 2014, unless there is urgent and fundamental reform of a kind that would seem unlikely, the tournament is finished. In Vladimir Putin and the secretive autocrats of Qatar, Fifa has the partners it deserves – and the world should turn away in disgust.

Jason Cowley, editor of the New Statesman, is the author of a memoir, “The Last Game: Love, Death and Football” (Simon & Schuster, £7.99)

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Now listen to Jason Cowley discussing this article on the New Statesman podcast:

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The last World Cup

LAURA HYND FOR NEW STATESMAN
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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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?