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The NS Interview: Terry Gilliam

“Making films is just a cheap version of being God”

Do you vote?

Yes, I do.

You renounced your US citizenship in 2006, partly in protest against George W Bush. Did you vote there before that?

I haven't been in America for 43 years. It didn't seem to be my country any more. It wasn't just a protest. There was the fact that my wife would have had to sell the house to be able to afford to pay the taxes when I died.

You have no plans to go back?

No, no. Even though America has been blessed with possibly the best leader the world has got at the moment, I don't feel the need to go back and help him. He's on his own.

In all your films, you spill your imagination on to the screen in a way other directors don't.

Maybe they're just more cautious and career-oriented. I just do what I do. Things take me over, then I want to get them out of my system. My films are exorcisms, auto-exorcisms!

Your new film, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, is also about imagination, isn't it?

I find it hard to describe my films. That's why I always find it difficult to raise money, because I can't give a tidy little explanation. Yeah, it's about encouraging imagination in those who watch it. I hope they come out saying, "More things are possible." I think that, if anything, is what I'm trying to do -- not just get my imagination on the screen, but to try to encourage other people to develop their own. And that's one of the problems of having an imagination: trying to communicate it and keep people interested.

There's a political element to that -- the idea that another world is possible.

It's that kind of social statement that's really political. I grew up in the 1950s, with the threat of communism and the bomb. The 1960s opened it up, and now we're back in a very closed state with fear outside the gates.

So do you think human history swings between fear and optimism?

Roger Miller sang, "England swings like a pendulum do". He's a great singer in America! I don't know -- it's either a pendulum or, in the east, it's a circle. What it isn't, though, is linear.

You talked about the east there. There's a kind of metaphysics implied in the film. Passing through the imagination is like passing through the veil of illusion into something like the Buddhist realm of truth or a Platonic realm of eternal forms.

I don't subscribe to any particular religious belief any more, but I tend to believe that, to break through Maya -- the veil of illusion -- you see it. That's very much what I believe. And then there's enlightenment. When in the film those women come back from the Imaginarium, they've been enlightened - that, or that they've just been fucked! But there's been an orgasmic moment. The creative moment is orgasmic, whether it's enlightenment or sexual energy. I didn't realise it -- good Presbyterian kid, going to college on a scholarship -- but over the years, little by little, I've drifted more eastern because I just find their view of the world more enlightened, more interesting and more open. Polytheism is so much more interesting than monotheism. Monotheism is all about control. Polytheism is: "Oh there's that, there's that over there." It actually seems to be amazed at the world.

Do you see films primarily as a visual medium or as a narrative medium?

I try to make narrative films, but the narrative is only part of the tale. The problem is trying to link together a lot of different ideas -- some are visual, some are musical, some are aural . . . It's kind of a battle of all these elements.

You also art-direct your own films, don't you?

I have to, because you've got to create the world. This is just a cheap version of being God. And you've got to do it in six days. It's never enough time, just like there wasn't for him.

What about technology? Have technological developments in cinema - CGI, for example -- liberated you as a film-maker?

It hasn't liberated me, it's just made things easier. That's all it's about. You can do the same thing with people with two pieces of paper, but there's a certain visceral quality. What I really like about CG work is what the camera can do. Because we used to do the static frame, and we'd do maps, and so it was very clunk, clunk, clunk. But now I can swing the camera all over the place in front of a blue screen and the computer can track what the camera does, and then when we see the CG background or a model background the camera can replicate that move. I couldn't do that before, and that, to me, is the greatest advancement that computers have done for me.

What are the continuities between your early work for Monty Python and your film-making?

I look back at my old cartoons and the stuff is all there. I just get better at some things and worse at others. I never reach any great heights.

Did The Imaginarium come to feel like a monument to Heath Ledger, after he died?

We were just trying to make something worthy of being his last movie, and I think, in the end, we did it. In a sense, it's a monument to how much he was loved and admired. We just saw the tip of the iceberg of what he was capable of. Everyone was willing to do whatever it took to finish that film. For Johnny [Depp], Colin [Farrell] and Jude [Law] to come to the rescue -- that's never happened. Heath's last film was something that will never happen again in the history of motion pictures.

How did it come about, getting those three in the film?

That was the very difficult part of it. The first person I told when Heath died was Johnny. I was commiserating with him 'cause he was a friend of Johnny's as well, and I said, "We have to pull the plug on this whole thing," and he said, "Well, whatever you do, I'm there, I'll help you." And that was a kind of turning point. Johnny was really serious. Everyone was involved in other projects, and trying to juggle their schedules was a complete nightmare. In the end, thanks to Michael Mann's film being delayed by one week at the very last moment, Johnny popped in.

How do you think Heath Ledger will be remembered?

We just saw the tip of the iceberg -- we saw so little of what he was capable of. He was just an extraordinary actor. He was fearless; whatever he did, there was a reality and gravitas about it. It's hard to know. He was nipped in the bud. I'm glad that Parnassus is getting released because I think what Heath is doing in Parnassus is a bit more of who he was as a person.

In what sense?

He was playful, he was charming, he'd do anything. He was just so generous. The character himself is very chameleon-like; his voice is changeable. He's Aussie one minute, cockney the next -- he's everywhere. That was what Heath was capable of and a million times more. As an actor, he could shape-shift, and that's what I love about all actors. I can't do that, and they fascinate me and convince me that what they're doing is real.

Did Dickens and Hogarth inspire the film's vision of London?

They did subconsciously, because those images of London still entrance me. I remember when I first came here, I used to love walking around Shad Thames, which now is a very prosperous place; but then that part of London was so amazing and so derelict. I was seeing Chuck Dickens everywhere.

Do you think London has changed for the better or worse in those 40 years?

I find it a lot worse. It may have been my youthful romanticism, but I felt there was a greater sense of community then. When I got here in the Sixties, it was a costume party. Then you got strikes and socialism - everything seemed to be changing. And now, I don't know what it is; it's a kind of amorphous society. I think I preferred the world of three or four television channels. Now it's so diffuse. I miss that sense of society. Margaret Thatcher got rid of it very successfully.

Was there a plan?

The only plan was a negative plan. When I quit my last proper job, doing the night shift on the assembly line at the Chevrolet plant, I said I'd never work for money again and I would only do things I had control over. That was pretty much the end of my career. It closed all the easy roads that would have been more lucrative.

What would you like to forget?

I don't have a problem with that: my memory is just gone. The one thing I don't forget is the name of the problem I have, which is "nominal aphasia" - I can't remember people's names.

Are we doomed?

Oh, yes. As human beings we're built to be doomed; we can't seem to stop ourselves. But we also have resilience and we love rebuilding. We have to reach the highest part of the cliff and fall off, and then start again.

DEFINING MOMENTS

1940 Born in Medicine Lake, Minnesota
1958 BA (politics), Occidental College, LA
1967 Moves to England
1969 Starts animating Monty Python's Flying Circus
1975 Directs first film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail
1986 Brazil receives Oscar nominations for Best Screenplay and Best Art Direction
2006 Renounces US citizenship
2009 Receives Bafta Fellowship award

Interview by Jonathan Derbyshire “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" (12A) is out on 16 October.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The Strange Death of Labour England

CLIVE BARDA
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The lost magic of England

The great conservative journalist Peregrine Worsthorne reflects on a long life at the heart of the establishment.

In a recent editorial meeting, our subscriptions manager happened to mention that Peregrine Worsthorne was still a New Statesman subscriber. A former editor of the Sunday Telegraph and, during a long Fleet Street career, a self-styled “romantic reactionary” scourge of liberals and liberalism, Worsthorne used to be something of a pantomime villain for the left, a role he delighted in. He had close friends among the “Peterhouse right”, the group of High Tory intellectuals who gathered around Maurice Cowling at the small, conspiratorial Cambridge college. He was a frequent contributor to Encounter (which turned out to be funded by the CIA) and an ardent cold warrior. His social conservatism and lofty affectations offended lefty Islingtonian sensibilities. On several occasions he was the Guardian’s reviewer of choice for its annual collection of journalism, The Bedside Guardian, and he invariably delivered the required scornful appraisal while praising its witty television critic, Nancy Banks-Smith. There is no suggestion, he wrote in 1981, that the “Guardian ever sees itself as part of the problem; itself as having some responsibility for the evils its writers described so well”.

His prose style was Oxbridge high table, more Walter Pater than George Orwell. It was essential not to take Worsthorne too seriously, because he delighted in mischief-making and wilful provocation – one of his targets for remorseless ridicule was Andrew Neil, when Neil edited the abrasively Thatcherite Sunday Times. He ended up suing Worsthorne, who was famous for his silk shirts and Garrick Club lunches, for libel; he was awarded damages of £1, the then cover price of the Sunday Times.

“I wrote that in the old days editors of distinguished Sunday papers could be found dining at All Souls, and something must have changed when they’re caught with their trousers down in a nightclub,” Worsthorne told me when we met recently. “I had no idea he was going to sue. I was teasing. I occasionally run into him and we smile at each other, so it’s all forgotten and forgiven.”

After his retirement in 1989, Worsthorne, although he remained a resolute defender of aristocracy, seemed to mellow, and even mischievously suggested that the Guardian had replaced the Times as the newspaper of record. In the 1990s he began writing occasionally for the New Statesman – the then literary editor, Peter Wilby, commissioned book reviews from him, as I did after I succeeded Wilby. Like most journalists of his generation, Worsthorne was a joy to work with; he wrote to length, delivered his copy on time and was never precious about being edited. (Bill Deedes and Tony Howard were the same.) He might have had the mannerisms of an old-style toff but he was also a tradesman, who understood that journalism was a craft.

Shortly before Christmas, I rang Wors­thorne at the home in Buckinghamshire he shares with his second wife, Lucinda Lambton, the charming architectural writer. I asked how he was. “I’m like a squeezed lemon: all used up,” he said. Lucy described him as being “frail but not ill”. I told him that I would visit, so one recent morning I did. Home is a Grade II-listed old rectory in the village of Hedgerley. It is grand but dishevelled and eccentrically furnished. A sign on the main gates warns you to “Beware of the Dog”. But the dog turns out to be blind and moves around the house uneasily, poignantly bumping into objects and walls. At lunch, a small replica mosque in the dining room issues repeated mechanised calls to prayer. “Why does it keep doing that?” Perry asks. “Isn’t it fun,” Lucy says. She then turns to me: “Have some more duck pâté.”

As a student, I used to read Worsthorne’s columns and essays with pleasure. I did not share his positions and prejudices but I admired the style in which he articulated them. “The job of journalism is not to be scholarly,” he wrote in 1989. “The most that can be achieved by an individual newspaper or journalist is the articulation of an intelligent, well-thought-out, coherent set of prejudices – ie, a moral position.”

His Sunday Telegraph, which he edited from 1986 to 1989, was like no other newspaper. The recondite and reactionary comment pages (the focus of his energies) were unapologetically High Tory, contrary to the prevailing Thatcherite orthodoxies of the time, but were mostly well written and historically literate. Bruce Anderson was one of the columnists. “You never knew what you were going to get when you opened the paper,” he told me. “Perry was a dandy, a popinjay, and of course he didn’t lack self-esteem. He had a nostalgia for Young England. In all the time I wrote for him, however, I never took his approval for granted. I always felt a tightening of the stomach muscles when I showed him something.”

***

Worsthorne is 92 now and, though his memory is failing, he remains a lucid and engaging conversationalist. Moving slowly, in short, shuffling steps, he has a long beard and retains a certain dandyish glamour. His silver hair is swept back from a high, smooth forehead. He remains a stubborn defender of the aristocracy – “Superiority is a dread word, but we are in very short supply of superiority because no one likes the word” – but the old hauteur has gone, replaced by humility and a kind of wonder and bafflement that he has endured so long and seen so much: a journalistic Lear, but one who is not raging against the dying of the light.

On arrival, I am shown through to the drawing room, where Perry sits quietly near an open fire, a copy of that morning’s Times before him. He moves to a corner armchair and passes me a copy of his book Democracy Needs Aristocracy (2005). “It’s all in there,” he says. “I’ve always thought the English aristocracy so marvellous compared to other ruling classes. It seemed to me that we had got a ruling class of such extraordinary historical excellence, which is rooted in England
almost since the Norman Conquest.

“Just read the 18th-century speeches – the great period – they’re all Whig or Tory, but all come from that [the aristocracy]. If they didn’t come directly from the aristocracy, they turned themselves very quickly into people who talk in its language. Poetic. If you read Burke, who’s the best in my view, it’s difficult not to be tempted to think what he says has a lot of truth in it . . .”

His voice fades. He has lost his way and asks what we were talking about. “Oh, yes,” he says. “It survived when others – the French and Russians and so on – were having revolutions. It was absolutely crazy to set about destroying that. There was something magical . . . the parliamentary speeches made by Burke and so on – this is a miracle! No other country has it apart from America in the early days. And I thought to get rid of it, to undermine it, was a mistake.”

I ask how exactly the aristocracy was undermined. Even today, because of the concentration of the ownership of so much land among so few and because of the enduring influence of the old families, the great schools and Oxbridge, Britain remains a peculiar hybrid: part populist hyper-democracy and part quasi-feudal state. The Tory benches are no longer filled by aristocrats but the old class structures remain.

“Equality was the order of the day after the war,” Worsthorne replies. “And in a way it did a lot of good, equalising people’s chances in the world. But it didn’t really get anywhere; the ruling class went happily on. But slowly, and I think unnecessarily dangerously, it was destroyed – and now there are no superior people around [in politics]. The Cecil family – Lord Salisbury, he was chucked out of politics. The Cecil family is being told they are not wanted. The institutions are falling apart . . .

“But there were people who had natural authority, like Denis Healey. I’m not saying it’s only aristocrats – a lot of Labour people had it. But now we haven’t got any Denis Healeys.”

Born in 1923, the younger son of Alexander Koch de Gooreynd, a Belgian banker, Worsthorne (the family anglicised its name) was educated at Stowe and was an undergraduate at both Cambridge (Peterhouse, where he studied under the historian Herbert Butterfield, the author of The Whig Interpretation of History) and Oxford (Magdalen College). “I have always felt slightly underprivileged and de-classed by having gone to Stowe, unlike my father who went to Eton,” Worsthorne wrote in 1985.

Yet his memories of Stowe remain pellucid. There he fell under the influence of the belle-lettrist John Davenport, who later became a close friend of Dylan Thomas. “He was a marvellous man, a famous intellectual of the 1930s, an ex-boxer, too. But in the war he came to Stowe and he was preparing me for a scholarship to Cambridge. He told me to read three books, and find something to alleviate the boredom of an examiner, some little thing you’ll pick up. And I duly did and got the scholarship.”

Can you remember which three books he recommended?

“Tawney. Something by Connolly, um . . . that’s the terrible thing about getting old, extremely old – you forget. And by the time you die you can’t remember your brother’s name. It’s a terrible shock. I used to think old age could be a joy because you’d have more time to read. But if you push your luck and get too far, and last too long, you start finding reading really quite difficult. The connections go, I suppose.”

Was the Connolly book Enemies of Promise (1938)?

“Yes, that’s right. It was. And the other one was . . . Hang on, the writer of the book . . . What’s the country invaded by Russia, next to Russia?

Finland, I say. Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station (1940)?

“Yes. Wilson. How did you get that?”

We both laugh.

***

Worsthorne is saddened but not surprised that so many Scots voted for independence and his preference is for Britain to remain a member of the European Union. “What’s happening is part of the hopelessness of English politics. It’s horrible. I can’t think why the Scots would want to be on their own but it might happen. The youth will vote [for independence]. This is part of my central theme: the Scots no longer think it’s worthwhile belonging to England. The magic of England has gone – and it’s the perversity of the Tory party to want to get us out of the European Union when of course we’re much more than ever unlikely to be able to look after ourselves as an independent state because of the quality of our political system.

“The people who want to get us out are obviously of an undesirable kind. That the future should depend on [Nigel] Farage is part of the sickness. I mean the real horror is for him to have any influence at all. And when you think of the great days of the Labour Party, the giants who strode the stage – famous, lasting historical figures, some of them: Healey, Attlee, who was probably the greatest, [Ernest] Bevin. I’m well aware that Labour in the good days produced people who were superior.”

He digresses to reflect on his wartime experience as a soldier – he served in Phantom, the special reconnaissance unit, alongside Michael Oakeshott, the philosopher of English conservatism who became a close friend, and the actor David Niven, our “prize colleague”.

“I remember Harold Macmillan saying to me, after the Second World War, the British people needed their belt enlarged; they’d done their job and they deserved a reward. And that’s what he set about doing. And he wasn’t a right-wing, unsympathetic man at all. But he didn’t – and this is what is good about conservatism – he didn’t turn it into an ‘ism’. It was a sympathetic feel, an instinctive feel, and of course people in the trenches felt it, too: solidarity with the rest of England and not just their own brotherhood. Of course he didn’t get on with Margaret Thatcher at all.”

Worsthorne admired Thatcher and believed that the “Conservatives required a dictator woman” to shake things up, though he was not a Thatcherite and denounced what he called her “bourgeois triumphalism”. He expresses regret at how the miners were treated during the bitter strike of 1984-85. “I quarrelled with her about the miners’ strike, and the people she got around her to conduct it were a pretty ropey lot.

“I liked her as a person. I was with her that last night when she wasn’t prime minister any more, but she was still in Downing Street and had everything cut off. The pressman [Bernard Ingham] got several of us to try to take her mind off her miseries that night. There’s a photograph of me standing at the top of the stairs.”

In the summer of 1989, Peregrine Wors­thorne was sacked as the editor of the Sunday Telegraph by Andrew Knight, a former journalist-turned-management enforcer, over breakfast at Claridge’s. He wrote about the experience in an elegant diary for the Spectator: “I remember well the exact moment when this thunderbolt, coming out of a blue sky, hit me. It was when the waiter had just served two perfectly poached eggs on buttered toast . . . In my mind I knew that the information just imparted was a paralysingly painful blow: pretty well a professional death sentence.”

He no longer reads the Telegraph.

“Politically they don’t have much to say of interest. But I can’t put the finger on exactly what it is I don’t like about it. Boredom, I think!”

You must read Charles Moore?

“He is my favourite. Interesting fellow. He converted to Catholicism and started riding to hounds in the same week.”

He has no regrets about pursuing a long career in journalism rather than, say, as a full-time writer or academic, like his friends Cowling and Oakeshott. “I was incredibly lucky to do journalism. What people don’t realise – and perhaps you don’t agree – but it’s really a very easy life, compared to many others. And you have good company in other journalists and so on. I was an apprentice on the Times, after working [as a sub-editor] on the Glasgow Herald.”

How does he spend the days?

“Living, I suppose. It takes an hour to get dressed because all the muscles go. Then I read the Times and get bored with it halfway through. Then there’s a meal to eat. The ­answer is, the days go. I used to go for walks but I can’t do that now. But Lucy’s getting me all kinds of instruments to facilitate people with no muscles, to help you walk. I’m very sceptical about it working, but then again, better than the alternative.”

He does not read as much as he would wish. He takes the Statesman, the Spectator and the Times but no longer the Guardian. He is reading Niall Ferguson’s biography of Kissinger, The Maisky Diaries by Ivan Maisky, Stalin’s ambassador to London from 1932 to 1943, and Living on Paper, a selection of letters by Iris Murdoch, whom he knew. “I get these massive books, thinking of a rainy day, but once I pick them up they are too heavy, physically, so they’re stacked up, begging to be read.”

He watches television – the news (we speak about Isis and the Syrian tragedy), the Marr show on Sunday mornings, and he has been enjoying War and Peace on BBC1. “Andrew Marr gave my book a very good review. He’s come back. He’s survived [a stroke] through a degree of hard willpower to get back to that job, almost as soon as he came out of surgery. But I don’t know him; he was a Guardian man.” (In fact, Marr is more closely associated with the Independent.)

Of the celebrated Peterhouse historians, both Herbert Butterfield (who was a Methodist) and Maurice Cowling were devout Christians. For High Tories, who believe in and accept natural inequalities and the organic theory of society, Christianity was a binding force that held together all social classes, as some believe was the order in late-Victorian England.

“I was a very hardened Catholic,” Worsthorne says, when I mention Cowling’s book Religion and Public Doctrine in Modern England. “My mother was divorced [her second marriage was to Montagu Norman, then the governor of the Bank of England] and she didn’t want my brother and me to be Catholic, so she sent us to Stowe. And I used to annoy her because I read [Hilaire] Belloc. I tried to annoy the history master teaching us Queen Elizabeth I. I said to him: ‘Are you covering up on her behalf: don’t you know she had syphilis?’

“Once I felt very angry about not being made Catholic. But then I went to Cambridge and there was a very Catholic chaplain and he was very snobbish. And in confession I had to tell him I masturbated twice that morning or something, and so it embarrassed me when half an hour later I had to sit next to him at breakfast. I literally gave up going to Mass to get out of this embarrassing situation. But recently I’ve started again. I haven’t actually gone to church but I’ve made my confessions, to a friendly bishop who came to the house.”

So you are a believer?

“Yes. I don’t know which bit I believe. But as Voltaire said: ‘Don’t take a risk.’”

He smiles and lowers his head. We are ready for lunch. 

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 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle