Inverness: the new Shangri-La?

It's the fastest-growing city in western Europe - a dazzling beacon of new opportunity and enterpris

"Vibrant, exciting and cosmopolitan. Fabulous mountain scenery. A very low crime rate, and the schools are excellent. Without doubt a great place to live and work . . ." Stuart Black, area director at Highlands and Islands Enterprise, sounds genuinely excited, as well he might. Inverness, the unofficial capital of the Highlands, is now the fastest-growing city in western Europe. Scotland's new Shangri-La is expanding at a dizzying pace.

The A9, the longest and most dangerous road in Scotland, stretches from the central belt to the Highlands, taking you through some of the most dramatic and awe-inspiring scenery imaginable - gnarled mountain ranges, pine forests, castles. Beyond Perth is a desolate and sparsely inhabited world until, roughly 120 miles further north, the road climbs steadily, curves to the right and there, somewhat out of the blue, is Inverness.

In 2001, the population was 51,000. In the six years since, it has climbed to more than 60,000, and there are plans to double it over the next three decades. In many ways, it is an extra ordinary success story in an area where depopulation is the norm. Two new towns, a huge business park and a new university campus are planned; a £20m culture and conference redevelopment is nearing completion; numerous cultural festivals are taking place; major golf courses are being designed; the airport is on course to reach its target of a million passengers a year. The city has a booming healthcare industry, boasting one of the world's leading centres for diabetes research.

You would expect a director of Highlands development to paint it as a picture of paradise, but there are many others who agree with him, es pecially the large number of "downshifters" and retirees who have swapped life in the south-east of England for the far north of Scotland.

On the outskirts of Inverness, plush Wisteria Lane-style housing developments have appeared. Spacious three- and four-bedroomed detached homes, which would cost millions in the south-east, are being snapped up for between £250,000 and £300,000.

Stuart and Alayna Robins moved to Inverness three years ago after 20 years in London working in the City and the civil service, respectively. They were able to sell up and, with the proceeds, buy a much bigger property, start a schoolwear clothing company and still have cash left over. "We got sick of the rat race," says Stuart, 42. "We got sick of the long hours, the constant commuting, not being able to drive anywhere, constantly being stuck in traffic jams."

Alayna, who is two years younger, loves the different pace of life. "I regularly go down to London to see friends and I can't wait to come back. My friends are all stressed out and depressed. Here you get the best of both worlds. It has the economy of a city, but maintains the feel of a town."

Indeed, the cobblestoned city centre is quaint, compact and, apart from some awful 1960s town-centre development, a singularly attractive place. The waterfront on the broad and silvery River Ness is undergoing a major revamp. The west bank is lined with a host of stylish restaurants, which might not seem at all out of the ordinary, until you remember that, until recently, the concept of "dining out" in Inverness amounted to little more than eating a fish supper on a bench after a night in the pub.

The new inhabitants

So change has come, but it is not just those from south of the border that regard this as their utopia. Although English incomers account for a significant proportion of the new inhabitants, the vast bulk of the influx is made up of im migrants from eastern Europe, mainly Poland. At least 5,000 (some say as many as 8,000) have flocked to these parts since 2004, when the Scottish Executive launched an aggressive marketing campaign.

Many of them are qualified professionals: teachers, engineers, social workers. The unemployment rate in Poland, however, is running at just under 20 per cent, and white-collar workers who manage to find work there earn only about £120 a month. Highly skilled Poles can earn more in a week at a Highland fish factory, on a building site or as a cleaner than they do in a month in schools and offices back home. And, despite their qualifications, that is exactly the sort of work that many are doing. The majority are here for the short term, earning as much as they can before they return home.

There are exceptions. Monika Gajda and Gab riela Cabaj, both 28 and both graduates, are employed by Orion Engineering, one of the world's leading oil-industry recruitment agencies. They are planning to settle long term in Inverness. Monika says the quality of life is far higher here. "I sometimes miss big-city life and the weather could be better, but here we don't have to worry about having enough money to pay bills and buy food."

Gabriela joined her husband, who is also from Poland, in Inverness two years ago. "I wouldn't like to live anywhere else," she says. "Life in general is much easier here than in Poland. It's a very nice and pretty area and Scottish people treat foreigners very well."

But naturally one person's heaven is another's hell. There are many native Invernessians who lament the loss of their old way of life. There is no doubt that the population boom has brought problems and there is, at least among a minority, a simmering resentment towards those who have relocated here.

Local people call this "Tescotown", such is the dominance of the retailer. With no competition from Asda or Sainsbury's, 51 pence out of every £1 spent on food shopping in the High-land region goes into a Tesco till. There are three superstores already in the city, and only after fierce protest have planners refused permission for a fourth.

This is the kind of place where people go home for lunch, resulting in the previously unknown problem of gridlock four times a day. The roads are often seething with traffic and the infrastructure is urgently in need of investment and modernisation. Road and rail links to Glasgow and Edinburgh are appalling, and with only one main road through the city, a journey that used to take five minutes can now take an hour.

Drugs and homelessness

Crime has also increased. For the first time, the police are threatening to use dispersal orders to tackle the growing antisocial behaviour problem in some of the more run-down parts of the city. Homelessness is another issue. Figures released in February showed a 200 per cent increase in the number of people living on the street. Although the council has a policy that requires 25 per cent of any new housing development to be made available for social and affordable accommodation, there is a sense that this is too little, too late. The manager of one housing association told me that, for the 11 new flats he had just been given, he had a waiting list of 400.

Drugs are another problem. Dealers from northern England, aware that Scotland's main cities are saturated, see the Highlands as an area of huge potential. Rarely a day passes with out news of a drugs bust at the bus station or on the A9.

There is also concern over the influx of Poles. Zosia Wierzbowicz-Fraser is a teacher at a secondary school in the city and the founder of the Inverness Polish Association. She is dismayed at what she sees as the gross exploitation, in many cases, of young Polish workers and feels many have been lured to the Highlands under false pretences.

She recounts horror stories of Poles sleeping in the bus station, under bushes, and five or six to a caravan, and claims there are unscrupulous landlords charging ex orbitant rents for dorm-style accommodation. "Some of these young Poles," she says, "are living like pigs."

Wierzbowicz-Fraser also says many highly qualified Poles who thought their skills would be put to good use have ended up doing menial jobs. "Poles will do the jobs that no one else wants to do," she says wearily. "They are excellent workers and they are so desperate for money, for a better standard of living, that they will never complain.

"They work the extra hours, the long hours, because, even at the minimum wage here, it is 37 per cent higher than in Poland."

There are, she says, some excellent employers who provide accommodation and language assistance for staff, but they are few and she fears that unless urgent action is taken to address this it will become a big issue.

But perhaps the biggest problem for Inver-ness and the Highlands as a whole is one that is rarely talked about: the stubbornly high and rising suicide rate among men. Young and middle-aged men in this area are three times more likely to take their own lives than their coun terparts in London. New Scottish Executive figures, published at the beginning of this month, showed that the male suicide rate across Scotland as a whole had risen by 22 per cent over a 15-year period, with the Highlands and the Western Isles suffering a disproportionately high rate.

End of a way of life

The researchers blame isolation, alcohol and drug abuse. Other experts have suggested the death of the old Highland way of life. Not long ago, women here raised the children while men supported their families as farmers or fishermen. Such traditional industries have all but disappeared, however, and it is often women who support the family, working in seasonal service industries, while men struggle to find employment and spend long periods on the dole.

There is also the fact that Highland men are notoriously proud and self-reliant. They would never dream of visiting their GP if they were feeling anxious or lonely, and it is still seen as a sign of weakness for a man to talk about emotional difficulties or to say he needs a helping hand.

Drugs and alcohol are undoubtedly another huge factor. Much of Highland life centres on drink, and there is a well-known local say- ing about man's relationship with the bottle: You've got an alcohol problem only if you're drinking two bottles a day instead of one. The most recent figures show that there were 50 suicides last year, and many more attempts.

John Burnside is the reluctant founder of the Inverness Suicide Awareness Group. A former psychiatric nurse-turned-publican, he lost his son, Richard, who was 36, to suicide three years ago. In the three months leading up to his death, two of Richard's closest friends, Ivor Robertson, who was 35, and Mark Thow, who was 40, had taken their own lives.

All three had known each other since primary school and had played for a local pub football team since 1998. They lived within walking distance of each other in Hilton, a housing estate on the outskirts of the city. Their deaths stunned Inverness. At Mark's funeral, Richard turned to his father and gave him some unexpected words of reassurance.

"Dad," he said, "I know I've caused you and Mum a lot of problems over the years, but that is one thing you don't have to worry about - because I would never dream of doing that. I couldn't."

Burnside put a comforting arm around his son and thought, "Thank God", because he didn't believe that he or his wife, Edna, would be able to cope. Three months later Richard, too, had hanged himself. Like Mark and Ivor, he left no note, so those left behind have had to fathom their own explanations.

His father says: "'Why' is the hardest question to answer. Richard had had long spells of unemployment and a painful relationship break-up. Drink was also a problem, but you never expect this."

These days, Burnside devotes his time to raising funds for suicide awareness and support. "Inverness used to be this lovely royal burgh where everyone knew everyone else and always had time to talk," he says. "That has gone. Everyone's rushing about trying to keep up with each other and feeling like a failure if they don't have the big house, the big car and all the material trappings.

"That is the story I'm hearing more and more often - our young men and women feeling like failures."

As the editor of the Inverness Courier told me: "This is no longer Brigadoon." To some, that is a blessing. To others, it is a curse.

Lorna Martin is Scotland editor of the Observer

See also What does Scotland mean to you? - a selection of interviews with Scottish personalities.

This article first appeared in the 26 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: Time to break free?

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?