The interior of the Old Bailey criminal court in London in May 1910. (Photo: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
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The decline of the British trial

Once, UK courts were full of reporters and members of the public. Now, with the exception of rare spectacles, the press and public benches are usually empty – and we are all poorer for it.

“What thrill at the theatre or cinema compares with the excitement of attending a criminal trial, of beholding in the flesh the man or woman who may be guilty of some secret or bloody deed, and watching, half fearful, half shrinking, the great game played by judge and counsel with the accused’s life as stake?” So wrote Harry Hodge in his introduction to the first edition of Penguin’s Famous Trials series, launched in 1941 at the height of the Second World War.

The trials Hodge chose to introduce the series were of notorious cases from the preceding several decades: Madeleine Smith, the 21-year-old Scottish beauty charged in 1857 at the high court in Edinburgh with poisoning her lover; Dr Crippen, accused in 1910 of murdering his wife and fleeing the country with his lover, Ethel Le Neve, disguised as a boy. “All Great Britain was agitated over the trial,” wrote Hodge of the Smith case, which ended in the Scots law verdict of “not proven”.

By the time of the fifth edition of the series, in 1955, with the price now raised from a florin to half a crown, Hodge’s son James, the new editor, wrote that “the real murders described in this book are even more horrifying that those usually found between Penguin green covers”. They included that of Neville Heath, the sadistic killer of two young women in the immediate postwar period, and of George Lamson, a doctor who was hanged for poisoning a relative with a slice of Dundee cake to secure his share of an inheritance. “Factual and unbiased accounts of criminal trials broaden our outlook and give us fleeting glimpses of other modes of life,” wrote Hodge junior.

Heath’s trial in 1946 was such a hot ticket that people queued all night under blankets outside the Old Bailey in London for admission to the 30 seats in the public gallery, as if it were Wimbledon.

In some ways, the opening days last month of the Old Bailey trial of Rebekah Brooks, Andy Coulson and others, all pleading not guilty to charges related to the News of the World phone-hacking affair, were just like old times: the crowds, the queues, the bustle and excitement. Seventy journalists, representing all the British press, not to mention Al Jazeera, El Confidencial, and the Wall Street Journal, were on hand to report. Curious onlookers hung around in the street outside, gazing at all the frantic activity. But this was very much a throwback to another era.

When I first started covering criminal trials in the early 1970s, long queues were still common for high-profile murder cases. The public gallery would be full, people craning their necks to see the accused brought up from the cells. Today many murder trials take place without a single person in the press box or a single member of the public in the gallery.

So, whatever happened to British trials and why do they often pass us by unnoticed, except for the opening day’s prosecution case and the jury’s verdict?

One reason is that before daytime television the warm, centrally heated public galleries of courts provided the enthralling – and free – entertainment of which Harry Hodge wrote so enthusiastically. What could be a more absorbing way of spending a day than seeing the accused in a murder or kidnap case being cross-examined by a scathing QC (or, previously, KC) or sentenced by an unforgiving judge? But now, with a hundred television channels offering entertainment that blurs the lines between real and fictional crime, why bother to leave the house?

The other major reason for the decline of trials in the public consciousness is that the press no longer stimulates interest in them by sustained coverage. When there were three London evening papers with a total circulation of more than two million, trials accounted for a significant section of the news in the capital. A major murder case would lead to increased circulation.

An important factor in the interest in a murder trial was that cases could end with the judge donning his black cap and proclaiming that the accused be taken from this place and hanged by the neck until he was dead. The former editor of the Evening News Lou Kirby once told me that the abolition of hanging in 1965 significantly decreased interest in such trials. But even after Albert Pierrepoint had hung up his noose, with its 450 notches in it, there was still a healthy interest in and coverage of murder trials in the national press.

When Rosemary West stood trial in Winchester in 1995, charged with the murders of ten young women, every national paper had a reporter in court every day. Such was the demand for press seats that we were informed by court officials at the start of the trial that if we failed to turn up for a single session, we would forfeit our seat for the entire trial. The Times had two full-time reporters there and some papers regularly sent in their “colour” writers so that they could stare at West for a moment or two and tell their readers that they had “locked eyes with the face of evil”. There were no fewer than five authors – Gordon Burn, Andrew O’Hagan, Howard Sounes, Brian Masters and Geoffrey Wansell – also present. An overspill court had to be provided to hear the opening address from a smart, up-and-coming prosecuting counsel called Brian Leveson.

But the days when criminal trials were reported in detail have ended. Forty years ago, there were seven Press Association reporters at the Old Bailey, while the Mail, Express, Times and Telegraph all had staffers there. Now there are only two PA staffers and no national paper still has a dedicated reporter there, the last incumbent being the Telegraph’s admirable Sue Clough. Like much of the press, they have switched their attention to greater coverage of celebrities – a mere tweet being enough to justify a story and an accompanying photograph – without the bother of time-consuming staff absence from the office. Few papers can still afford to dedicate a reporter to cover court cases in anything more than a sketchy fashion and too often the court report you read will have been written by a hard-pressed but uncredited agency reporter. Much of the detail, in which the devil operated, has been lost.

“The glory days are certainly over,” said one veteran reporter in the press room in the bowels of the Old Bailey in late September, when I visited the court. A significant murder trial with nine defendants in the dock was kicking off, the jury sworn, but there was little interest from the national media. Experienced court reporters shake their heads sadly and regret the drift.

“Newspapers and broadcasters are so driven by focus groups and marketing surveys that they have lost sight of what news actually is,” says Guy Toyn, director of Court News, Britain’s only specialist court agency. “When we publish material on our website, we often get responses like, ‘Why haven’t we seen this in a national newspaper?’ The fact is people are still absolutely fascinated by the dark and surreal side of life that is only ever revealed in court stories . . . For a regional newspaper, it is easier and cheaper for them to rewrite a company press release than actually dig out a great story – or to pay someone to do it for them.”

Local newspapers, also now a dying breed throughout Britain, relied on the courts as a staple of their coverage, a role noted approvingly by the judiciary. As Lord Denning wrote in The Road to Justice in 1955, “a newspaper reporter is in every court. He sits through the dullest cases in the court of appeal and the most trivial cases before the magistrates. He says nothing but he writes a lot. He is, I verily believe, the watchdog of justice.” No more.

Currently more than 1.5 million cases make their way through the 330 magistrates courts of England and Wales every year and around 130,000 cases through the 91 crown courts. Who notices? In Scotland, there are attempts to cut the number of courts to save money, which has met resistance; Sheriff Kevin Drummond told the Scottish Parliament’s justice committee: “I do not care whether the court is conducted in the back of a large furniture van; it should go to rural locations.” Quite right.

This is an international issue, too. Ed Vulliamy, in his haunting book about the aftermath of the Balkan conflict, The War is Dead, Long Live the War, noted that, when the stories of the appalling atrocities visited on the Bosnians were rehearsed in front of the International Criminal Tribunal in the Hague, “the public and press galleries were often empty”.

It was the Scottish lawyer William Roughead, who recognised the importance of the trial in society and pioneered its coverage. Joyce Carol Oates has acknowledged this in the New York Review of Books: “Roughead’s influence was enormous and, since his time, ‘true crime’ has become a crowded, flourishing field, though few writers of distinction have been drawn to it . . . his accounts of murder cases and trials have the advantage of being concise and pointed, like folk tales.”

So, perhaps it should be no surprise that Scotland has pioneered the televising of trials. This summer, the Scottish courts authorised the televising of a murder trial, shown on Channel 4. The retrial of Nat Fraser, for the 1998 murder of his wife, Arlene, was filmed with the (eventual) permission of the participants over a period of six weeks at the High Court in Edinburgh.

England and Wales followed suit this October and the filming of legal arguments and the final judgments at the Court of Appeal are now allowed. “Justice must be seen to be done,” said the then courts minister, Helen Grant, announcing the move. The next step will be the filming of the sentencing process in crown courts, although “victims, witnesses, offenders and jurors will . . . not be part of broadcasts.”

The media organisations that use filmed court proceedings will supposedly cover the costs. This will not solve anything. As Helena Kennedy QC has written: “Voyeurism and money is behind this agenda and the justice system will not be the beneficiary.”

Nick Davies, the reporter who put in heroic work on the phone-hacking scandal, has written in the Guardian that criminal and civil courts “are probably the most productive single sources of stories in this country”. He is right. A morning in a magistrate’s court will tell you more about the state of the nation in terms of education, class, family, employment, immigration, consumerism, honesty, addiction to drink and drugs, sexual politics, housing, health and alienation than a dozen think-tank reports.

During the Olympics last year, I reported for the Guardian from the special court set up to deal with offenders arrested in connection with the Games. The court became a microcosm of world attitudes to the whole business of the Olympics and sport but it was almost empty of press or public. One case I covered was that of a Lithuanian man arrested for making Nazi salutes and monkey noises during his country’s basketball game with Nigeria; his puzzled defence was that this was perfectly normal behaviour where he came from and no one had ever complained before.

I also reported from Edinburgh’s Sheriff Court during the Festival there last year. What emerged was a portrait of a society where drink and drugs were the almost inevitable lubricant of social and criminal life. “No drink was involved,” said the prosecutor in one case, adding “unusually for this court”. Again I was alone in the press gallery in three different courts, where once would have been reporters from the Evening News and the (now defunct) Evening Dispatch.

Not for nothing has the trial formed such a key part of our film and television lives, from films such as Witness for the Prosecution back in 1957 to those 250 episodes of Crown Court that ran between 1972 and 1985. Neither is it a coincidence that so many of our most eloquent politicians come from a background in the courts, where an ability to charm and convince are important.

The late Labour leader John Smith, who had been an admired criminal advocate, was once said – and I hope this story is true because I have told it a few times – to have gone below court to express his regret to a client who, despite Smith’s best efforts, had been convicted. “Don’t worry,” said the defendant, albeit in dialect, “you were so good, I almost believed you myself.”

I am always amazed when someone says that they have never attended a trial. When friends come to London from abroad, I often encourage them to visit the Old Bailey or the Royal Courts of Justice, which seem just as vital to an understanding of the country as Tate Modern or Hyde Park. Does it matter? Yes, it does. Partly for the old reason (see above) that “justice not only has to be done, it has to be seen to be done” – or, as J B Morton wickedly added, “has to be seen to be believed”. But also because trials are essential to our understanding of how our society operates.

In the oft-quoted words of Lord Atkinson, in his judgment in Scott v Scott, in 1913, “the hearing of a case in public may be, and often is, no doubt, painful, humiliating, or deterrent both to parties and witnesses . . . but all this is tolerated and endured because it is felt that in the public trial is to be found, on the whole, the best security for the pure, impartial and efficient administration of justice, the best means of winning for it public confidence and respect”.

To win that respect, the criminal justice system has to smarten up its act. There are far too many interruptions for legal arguments that could have been dealt with by email prior to the trial; far too many delays because a defendant has been brought late to court by whatever lackadaisical private security company has the job that week; far too many sighing judges because barristers or advocates arrive in court unbriefed.

Next year will be the 100th anniversary of the writing of Franz Kafka’s great novel The Trial, (although it was not published for a further decade). How fitting for the memory of Josef K if we were once again to take seriously the trial as a legal process that directly or indirectly affects the lives of millions of us, costs us billions of pounds a year, both in terms of its actual processes and its consequences behind the bars of our jails, but that now receives far too little attention. Time to halt the decline of the British trial.

Duncan Campbell is a former crime correspondent for the Guardian

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.

***

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?