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Paul Dacre of the Daily Mail: The man who hates liberal Britain

He's the most successful and most feared newspaperman of his generation. But after a bad year in which he was forced to defend his methods, how much longer can Dacre survive as editor-in-chief of the Daily Mail?

Paul Dacre by Ralph Steadman

Every weekday evening at around 9pm, in the Daily Mail’s headquarters in Kensington, west London, the slightly stooping, six-foot three-inch figure of Paul Dacre emerges into the main open-plan office where editors, sub-editors and designers are in the final stages of preparing pages for the next day’s paper. The atmosphere changes instantly; everyone becomes tense, as though waiting for a thunderstorm. Dacre begins with a low growl, like an angry tiger. His voice rises as several pages are denounced, along with those responsible. Imprecations reverberate across the office, sometimes punctuated by the strangely anomalous command to a senior colleague, “Don’t resist me, darling.” Pages must be replaced or redesigned, their order changed, headlines altered. New pictures are required with new captions. Dacre waves his long arms, hammers the air with his hands, shouts even louder and, if particularly agita­ted, scratches himself.

Nobody tries to argue. For all the fear and exasperation – “He never thinks of logistics and he has no idea of what’s an unreasonable request,” says one former sub-editor – there is also admiration. Dacre, Fleet Street’s best-paid editor, who earned almost £1.8m in 2012, has been in charge of the Mail since 1992 and, by general consent, is the most successful editor of his generation. The paper sells an average of 1.5 million copies on weekdays, 2.4 million on Saturdays. Only the Sun sells more but, on Saturdays, the Mail has just moved ahead. Its 4.3 million daily readers include more from the top three social classes (A, B and C1) than the Times, Guardian, Independent and Financial Times combined. Its long-standing middle-market rival, the Daily Express, slightly ahead when Dacre took over, now sells less than a third as many copies.

Under Dacre, the Mail has won Newspaper of the Year six times in the annual British Press Awards – twice as many prizes as any other paper. If anything, its authority and clout have grown in the past two years as Rupert Murdoch’s Sun has struggled with the fallout from the hacking scandal. Politicians no longer fear Murdoch as they once did. They still fear Dacre. The opposition from Murdoch’s papers to the government’s proposals that a royal charter should regulate the press is muted. Dacre’s Mail is loud and clear about the threat to “our free press”. Summoned twice before the Leveson inquiry – the second time because he had accused the actor Hugh Grant of lying in his evidence – he didn’t give an inch.

Everyone who has ever worked for Dacre, who has just passed his 65th birthday, praises his almost uncanny instinct for the issues and stories that will hold the attention of “Middle England”. No other editor so deftly balances the mix of subjects and moods that holds readers’ attention: serious and frivolous, celebrities and ordinary people, urban, suburban and rural, some stories provoking anger, others tears. No other editor chooses, with such unerring and lethal precision, the issues, often half forgotten, that will create panic and fear among politicians. “He’s the most consummate newspaperman I’ve ever met,” says Charles Burgess, a former features editor who also occupied high-level roles at the Guardian and Independent. “He balances the flow of each day’s paper in his head.”

“He articulates the dreams, fears and hopes of socially insecure members of the suburban middle class,” says Peter Oborne, the Mail’s former political columnist now at the Daily Telegraph. “It’s a daily performance of genius.”

But Murdoch’s decline leaves the Mail under more scrutiny than ever. Is Dacre at last running out of road? Rumours circulate in the national newspaper industry that members of the Rothermere family, owners of the Daily Mail, are increasingly nervous of the controversy that Dacre stirs up, notably this year with its attack on Ralph Miliband, father of the Labour leader, as “the man who hated Britain”. More than any other editor since Kelvin MacKenzie ruled at the Sun – and, among other outrages, alleged that drunkenness among Liverpool football fans led to the Hillsborough disaster of 1989 – Dacre attracts visceral loathing. His enemies see the Mail, to quote the Huffington Post writer and NS columnist Mehdi Hasan (who was duly monstered in the Mail’s pages), as “immigrant-bashing, woman-hating, Muslim-smearing, NHS-undermining, gay-baiting”.

The loathing is returned, with interest. In Dacre’s mind, the country is run, in effect, by affluent metropolitan liberals who dominate Whitehall, the leadership of the main political parties, the universities, the BBC and most public-sector professions. As he once said, “. . . no day is too busy or too short not to find time to tweak the noses of the liberal­ocracy”. The Mail, in his view, speaks for ordinary people, working hard and struggling with their bills, conventional in their views, ambitious for their children, loyal to their country, proud of owning their home, determined to stand on their own feet. These people, Dacre believes, are not given a fair hearing in the national media and the Mail alone fights for them. It is incomprehensible to him – a gross category error – that critics should be obsessed by the Mail’s power and influence when the BBC, funded by a compulsory poll tax, dominates the news market. It uses this position, he argues, to push a dogmatically liberal agenda, hidden behind supposed neutrality. Scarcely an issue of the Mail passes without a snipe and sometimes a full barrage in the news pages, leaders or signed opinion columns at BBC “bias”.

To its critics, however, the Mail is as biased as it’s possible to be, and none too fussy about the facts. In the files of the Press Complaints Commission, you will find records of 687 complaints against the Mail which led either to a PCC adjudication or to a resolution negotiated, at least partially, after the PCC’s intervention. The number far exceeds that for any other British newspaper: the files show 394 complaints against the Sun, 221 against the Daily Telegraph, 115 against the Guardian. The complaints will serve as a charge sheet against the Mail and its editor.

This year, the Mail reported that disabled people are exempt from the bedroom tax; that asylum-seekers had “targeted” Scotland; that disabled babies were being euthanised under the Liverpool Care Pathway; that a Kenyan asylum-seeker had committed murders in his home country; that 878,000 recipients of Employment Support Allowance had stopped claiming “rather than face a fresh medical”; that a Portsmouth primary school had denied pupils water on the hottest day of the year because it was Ramadan; that wolves would soon return to Britain; that nearly half the electricity produced by windfarms was discarded. All these reports were false.

Mail executives argue that it gets more complaints than its rivals because it reaches more readers (particularly online, where the paper’s stories are repeated and others originate), prints more pages and tackles more serious and politically challenging issues. They point out that only six complaints were upheld after going through all the PCC’s stages and that the Sun and Telegraph, despite fewer complaints, had more upheld. But the PCC list, though it contains some of the Mail’s favourite targets such as asylum-seekers and “scroungers”, merely scratches the surface. Other complainants turned to the law. In the past ten years, the Mail has reported that the dean of RAF College Cranwell showed undue favouritism to Muslim students (false); the film producer Steve Bing hired a private investigator to destroy the reputation of his former lover Liz Hurley (false); the actress Sharon Stone left her four-year-old child alone in a car while she dined at a restaurant (false); the actor Rowan Atkinson needed five weeks’ treatment at a clinic for depression (false); a Tamil refugee, on hunger strike in Parliament Square, was secretly eating McDonald’s burgers (false); the actor Kate Winslet lied over her exercise regime (false); the singer Elton John ordered guests at his Aids charity ball to speak to him only if spoken to (false); Amama Mbabazi, the prime minister of Uganda, benefited personally from the theft of £10m in foreign aid (false). In all these cases, the Mail paid damages.

Then there are the subjects that the Mail and other right-wing papers will never drop. One is the EU, which, the Mail reported last year, proposed to ban books such as Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series that portray “traditional” families. Another is local authorities, forever plotting to expel Christmas from public life and replace it with the secular festival of Winterval. It does not matter how often these reports are denied and their flimsy provenance exposed; the Mail keeps on running them and its columnists cite them as though they were accepted wisdom.

The paper gets away with publishing libels and falsehoods and with invasions of privacy because the penalties are insignificant. Often the victims can’t afford to sue and, if they can, the Mail group, with £282m annual profits even in these straitened times, can live with the costs. The PCC, even when its rules allow it to admit a complaint, has no powers to impose fines or to stipulate the prominence of corrections.

Besides, many victims don’t pursue complaints because they fear the stress of going to war with a powerful newspaper. They included the late writer Siân Busby who, the paper wrote in 2008, had received “the all-clear from lung cancer” after “a gruelling year”. In fact, the diagnosis had come less than six months earlier and she hadn’t received the “all-clear”. More important, as her husband, the BBC journalist Robert Peston, explained in the James Cameron Memorial Lecture in November this year, she wanted to keep the news out of the public domain to protect her children.

“The Mail got away with it,” Peston said. “As it often does.” (The Mail, in a statement after the lecture, said the information had been obtained from Busby herself and that the reporter had identified himself as a Mail writer.) In his 2008 book Flat Earth News, the Guardian journalist Nick Davies compared the paper to a footballer who, to protect his goal, will deliberately bring down an opponent. “Brilliant and corrupt,” Davies wrote, “the Daily Mail is the professional foul of contemporary Fleet Street.”

Even a list of official complaints and court cases doesn’t quite capture why the Mail attracts such fear and loathing. It has a unique capacity for targeting individuals and twisting the knife day after day, without necessarily lapsing into inaccuracies that could lead either to libel writs or censure by the PCC. For instance, as publication of the Leveson report on press regulation approached, the Mail devoted 12 pages of one issue – and several more pages of subsequent issues – to an “exposure” of Sir David Bell, a name then almost entirely unknown even to well-informed members of the public. A Leveson assessor and former Financial Times chairman, Bell was allegedly at the centre of a “quasi-masonic” network of “elitist liberals”, bent on gagging the press and preventing freedom of expression. This network, based on the “leadership” training organisation Common Purpose, had spawned the Media Standards Trust, of which Bell was a co-founder, which in turn had spawned the lobby group Hacked Off, an important influence on Leveson. To the Mail, this was a perfect illustration of how well-connected liberals, through networks of apparently innocuous organisations, conspire to undermine national traditions and values.

The paper also targets groups, often the weak and vulnerable. The Federation of Poles in Great Britain complained to the PCC that the Mail ran 80 headlines between 2006 and 2008 linking Poles to problems in the NHS and schools, unemployment among Britons, drug smuggling, rape and so on. Most of the stories, as the federation acknowledged, were newsworthy and largely accurate. The objection was to the way they were presented and to the drip, drip effect of continually highlighting the Polish connection so that, as the federation’s spokesman put it, the average reader’s heart “skips a beat . . . with either indignation or alarm”. The PCC eventually brokered a settlement that led to publication of a letter from the federation.

Yet there is something magnificent about the Mail’s confidence and single-mindedness. Other papers, trimming to focus groups, muffle their message, but the Mail projects its world-view relentlessly, with supreme technical skill, from almost every page. It is a paper led by its opinions, not by news. It is not noted for big exclusives, nor even for rapid reaction. “We were often known as the day-late paper,” a former reporter recalls. “Dacre wouldn’t really be interested in a story until he’d seen it somewhere else. We would sometimes give our exclusives to other journalists. Dacre surveys all the other papers, selects the right lines for the next day and follows them.”

Although Dacre has little enthusiasm for new technology – he still doesn’t have a computer on his desk – his paper is perfectly primed for the age of instant 24-hour news, when the challenge is not so much to find and report news as to select, interpret and elaborate on it. Long before other papers recognised the merits of a features-led or views-led approach, the Mail under Dacre was doing it.

The Mail gives its readers a sense of belonging in an increasingly complex and unsettling world. Part of the trick is to make the world seem more threatening than it is: crime is rising, migrants flooding the country, benefit scroungers swindling the taxpayer, standards of education falling, wind turbines taking over the countryside. Almost anything you eat or drink could give you cancer. Above all, the family – “the greatest institution on God’s green earth”, Dacre told a writer for the New Yorker last year – is under continuous assault. The Mail assures readers they are not alone in their anxieties about this changing world. It is a paper to be read, not on trains or buses or in offices, but in the peace and quiet of your home, preferably with an old-fashioned coal fire blazing in the hearth.

“Readers like certainty,” says a former Mail reporter. “Newspapers that have a wavering grip on their ideology are the ones that struggle. The Mail is like Coke. It’s consistent, reliable. Dacre is one of the best brand managers in the business. He lives the brand.”

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Dacre lives mostly in the shadows. His two appearances before the Leveson inquiry gave the wider public a rare glimpse; apart from Desert Island Discs in 2004, he never appears on television or speaks on radio. If the Mail needs to defend itself (and it deigns to do so only in the most desperate circumstances), the job is assigned to an underling. Requests for on-the-record interviews are invariably refused, as they were for this article. A rare exception was made for the British Journalism Review, whose then editor, Bill Hagerty (a former editor of the People), in­terviewed Dacre in the tenth year of his editorship. There was also that audience with the New Yorker last year. Public lectures are equally unusual for him, though he gave the Cudlipp Lecture (in memory of Hugh Cudlipp, a Daily Mirror editor who was an early hero of his) in 2007, and addressed the Society of Editors in 2008.

Even former staff members mostly prefer not to be quoted when talking about Dacre. If they agree to be quoted, they wish the quotations to be checked with them before publication. BBC Radio 4 used actors for several contributions to a recent profile. The journalists’ fear is not only that they may be cut off from future employment or freelance work – “The Mail pays far better than anybody else and you don’t want to jeopardise the £2,000 cheque that might drop through the letter box,” said one writer – but also that the Mail may hit back. These concerns are shared by many politicians, who are equally reluctant to be quoted.

Dacre has few social graces and even less small talk. His body language is awkward, his manner prickly. He seldom smiles and, according to one ex-columnist, “He doesn’t laugh, he just says, ‘That’s a funny remark.’” He treats women with old-fashioned courtliness, opening doors and helping them with coats, but is otherwise uncomfortable with them, perhaps because he was one of five brothers, went to an all-male school and has no daughters. He speaks gruffly, with a slight north London accent and an even fainter trace of his father’s native Yorkshire. He sometimes buries his rather florid face deep in his hands, as though exasperated with the world’s inability to share his simple, common-sense values. He became notorious for the ripeness of his language – so frequent was his use of the C-word, almost entirely directed at men, that his staff referred to “the vagina monologues” – but when Charles Burgess told him women didn’t like hearing it he was profusely apologetic. On Desert Island Discs, he confessed to shouting at staff. “Shouting creates energy,” he said. “Energy creates great headlines.”

He still shouts, but in recent years, as an insider reported, “He’s no longer the expletive volcano he once was; his barbs these days tend to concern the brainpower of his target and their supposed laziness.”

He owns three properties: a home with a mile-long drive in West Sussex (known to Mail staff as Dacre Towers), a more modest weekday residence in the central London district of Belgravia and a seven-bedroom house in Scotland with a 17,000-acre shooting estate. He is a member of the Garrick Club, and sometimes takes columnists to lunch at Mark’s Club in Mayfair, which one recipient of his hospitality described as “very decorous, the sort of place you could have gone to in the 19th century”. He sent both of his sons to Eton.

There are no stories of past or present indiscretions involving women, alcohol or drugs. Jon Holmes, a contemporary at Leeds University who is now a sports agent, recalls him as “a very cold fish; he never, ever, seemed to go out in a group for a drink or a meal or anything”. A former Mail reporter says: “We’d all be in the Harrow [a Fleet Street pub, heavily frequented by Mail journalists], and he would come in, buy a half-pint, take it to the opposite end of the bar, drink alone, and leave without speaking.”

He has an apparently stable and successful marriage to a woman he met at university, which has lasted 37 years. He frequently attends Church of England services, but is not a believer. He likes and sometimes goes out to rugby union matches, the opera and theatre – the last partly because his wife, Kathleen Dacre, is a professor of theatre studies and partly because he has a son who is a successful director and producer with surprisingly avant-garde leanings. Asked what television he watched, he once mentioned Midsomer Murders and nothing else.

He mostly eschews the trappings and opportunities of wealth and power. It is impossible to imagine him as a member of the Chipping Norton set or anything like it. He rarely dines or lunches with the powerful or fashionable, nor does he attend glitzy parties and social events. Frequently, he lunches in his office on meat and two veg. Sometimes he will lunch with politicians, but he has little respect or liking for them as a class and thinks it wise to keep his distance; Oborne recalls how, one evening, he ignored at least five increasingly urgent requests to take a call from a senior Tory minister. He declines nearly all invitations to sit on committees; his chairmanship of an official inquiry into the “30-year rule” (under which Whitehall records were kept secret for three decades) was unusual. “Editorship is not for him a route to something else,” says a former employee.

 

Dacre was born and spent much of his childhood in Enfield, an unremarkable middle-class suburb of north London whose inhabitants, he told the New Yorker, “were frugal, reticent, utterly self-reliant and immensely aspirational . . . suspicious of progressive values, vulgarity of any kind, self-indulgence, pretentiousness and people who know best”. Though his parents divorced late in life, his family was then (at least in his eyes) stable, happy and secure.

But the more important clue to him and his relationship with the Mail’s Middle England readership is the Sunday Express of the 1950s and 1960s under the editorship of John Gordon and then John Junor. “That paper,” Dacre told the Society of Editors, “was my journalistic primer . . . [It] was warm, aspirational, unashamedly traditional, dedicated to decency, middlebrow, beautifully written and subbed, accessible, and, above all, utterly relevant to the lives of its readers.” Talking to Hagerty, he described Junor’s Sunday Express as “one of the great papers of all time”.

After leaving school in Yorkshire at 16, his father, Peter Dacre, joined the Sunday Express at 21 and stayed there for the rest of his working life – mainly as a show-business writer but also, for short periods, as New York correspondent and foreign editor. Each Sunday that week’s paper was discussed and analysed over the Dacre family dinner table.

It was then in its heyday, selling five million copies a week, and it didn’t go into severe decline (it now sells under 440,000) until the 1980s. It was a formulaic paper, which placed the same types of stories and features in exactly the same spots week after week. As Roy Greenslade observes in Press Gang, his post-1944 history of national newspapers, it was “virtually devoid of genuine news”; what it presented as news stories were really quirky mini-features, starting, as Greenslade put it, “with lengthy scene-setting descriptions or homilies”. Its staple subjects were animals, motor cars and wartime heroes. Its biggest target was “filth”, in the theatre, the cinema, books, magazines and TV programmes.

It particularly deplored any assault on the delicate sensibilities of children. Dacre’s father criticised the BBC in 1965 for the unsuitable content of its Sunday teatime serials. Lorna Doone, he wrote, ended “gruesomely”, with a man drowning in a bog, and in the first episode of a spy serial the actors used such expressions as “damn”, “hell” and “silly bitch” at a time supposedly reserved for “family viewing”. “Have the men responsible for these programmes,” asked the elder Dacre, “forgotten that there can be no family without children? What kind of men are they? Do they have families of their own?” Another piece denounced the BBC’s Sunday evening play for “an overdose of twisted social conscience”.

The young Dacre was hooked by newspapers. He only ever wanted to be a journalist and he always had his eyes on editing: “I’m a good writer, but not a great writer,” he told Hagerty. As a child in New York, during his father’s posting there, he would wake to the clattering of the ticker-tape telex machine outside his bedroom. In school holidays, he worked as a messenger for Junor’s Sunday Express and then spent a gap year before university as a trainee on the Daily Express. At the fee-charging University College School in Hampstead, north London, he edited the school magazine, and once ran, he told the Society of Editors, “a ponderous, prolix and achingly dull” special issue about the evangelist Billy Graham. It “went down like a sodden hot cross bus”, teaching him the essential lesson, which the Mail remembers every day on every page, that the worst sin in journalism is to be boring.

To his disappointment, his application to Oxford University failed. He went instead to Leeds, where he read English and edited Union News, taking it sharply downmarket from, in his own description, “a product that looked like the then Times on Prozac” to one that ran “Leeds Lovelies” on page three. It won an award for student newspaper of the year. The paper supported a sit-in (led by the union president, Jack Straw, later a Labour cabinet minister), interviewed a student about “the delights of getting stoned”, wrote sympathetically about gay people, immigrants and homeless families, and called on students to help in “breaking down the barriers between the coloured and white communities of this town”. At the time, he subsequently claimed, he was left-wing, though Jon Holmes, who worked on Dacre’s Union News, says: “I never heard him express a political view except in favour of planned economies for third-world, though not first-world, countries.”

His left-wing period, as he calls it, continued until the Daily Express, which he joined as soon as he left Leeds, sent him to America in 1976. He stayed there for six years, latterly working for the Mail. “America,” Dacre told Hagerty, “taught me the power of the free market . . . to improve the lives of the vast majority of ordinary people.”

The Mail brought him back to London in the early 1980s and made him news editor. According to various accounts, he would “rampage through the newsroom with arms flailing like a windmill”, shouting “Go, paras, go” as he despatched reporters on stories. He climbed the hierarchy until in 1991 he became the editor of the London Evening Standard, then owned, like the Mail, by the Rothermeres’ Associated Newspapers. Circulation rose by 25 per cent in 16 months and Rupert Murdoch sounded him out about the Times editorship. To stop him leaving, the Mail editor David English resigned his chair, recommended that Dacre should replace him, and moved “upstairs” as editor-in-chief, another title that Dacre eventually inherited after English died in 1998.

Dacre’s editorship has been more successful than his mentor’s but most staff do not love him as they did English. English, though capable of great coldness to those who fell into disfavour and no less likely to fly off the handle, had charm and charisma. “He would be delighted when you rang,” a former foreign correspondent says, “and he’d want to gossip and know about everything that was going on. Sometimes we’d talk for an hour. But Paul doesn’t give good phone.”

He will invite writers into his office, push a glass of champagne into their hands and start saying their latest story is rubbish even as he does so. “And you hardly got time to finish the bloody drink,” a former reporter complains. A former executive says: “His track record for creating columnists is nil. He buys them up from elsewhere. He doesn’t home-grow talent because he doesn’t nurture and praise it. That’s where he’s unlike English.”

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Dacre is a passionate and emotional man. Though the story that he sometimes sheds tears as he dictates leaders is probably apocryphal, nobody who has worked with him doubts that he is sincere in the views he and the Mail express. “He’s not an editor who wakes up in the morning and wonders what he should be thinking today,” says Simon Heffer, a Mail columnist. Another columnist, Amanda Platell, a former editor of the Sunday Mirror and press secretary to William Hague during his leadership of the Conservative Party, says: “When I was an editor, I had to second-guess my readership because they weren’t my natural constituency. Paul never has to do that.”

But while his views are mostly right-wing, he is not a reliable ally for the Conservative Party, or for anyone else. This aspect of his way of working is little understood. More than most editors, it can be said of him that he is in nobody’s pocket, not even his proprietor’s. He inherited from English a paper that was slavishly pro-Tory (“David was always in and out of No 10,” said a long-serving Mail editor), firmly pro-Europe and read mainly by people in London and the south-east. Dacre changed the politics of the paper and the demographics of its audience. Today, it is resolutely – some would say hysterically – Euro­sceptic and a far higher proportion of its readership is from Scotland and the English north and midlands. The Mail has ceased to take its line from Tory headquarters or to act as a mouthpiece for Conservative leaders. Indeed, every Tory leader since Margaret That­cher has fallen short of Dacre’s exacting standards. That applies particularly to John Major and David Cameron. According to a former columnist, Dacre regards the latter as “brash, shallow, unthinking and self-advancing” and he takes an equally jaundiced view of Boris Johnson. Twice he backed Kenneth Clarke for the party leadership, despite Clarke’s enthusiasm for the EU.

Clarke is a model for the politicians Dacre generally favours even if he disagrees with most of what they say: earthy, authentic, unpretentious, consistent in their values. Jack Straw and David Blunkett – both, like Clarke, from humble backgrounds – are other examples. For a time, Dacre took a relatively kindly view of Tony Blair, having been impressed by the future prime minister’s “tough on crime” approach as shadow home secretary. But he was always suspicious of Blair’s socially liberal views on marriage, gays and drugs and he told Hagerty that once Labour attained power, he saw the new government as “manipulative, dictatorial and slightly corrupt”. He wished, he added, that Blair had “done as much for the family as he’s done for gay rights”.

Gordon Brown, however, was smiled upon as no other politician had ever been. The two men developed a strange friendship, involving meals together and walks in the park, which one Mail columnist described to me as “the attraction of the two weirdest boys in the playground”. Brown, Dacre told Hagerty, was “touched by the mantle of greatness . . . he is a genuinely good man . . . a compassionate man . . . an original thinker . . . of enormous willpower and courage”. At a Savoy Hotel event to celebrate Dacre’s first ten years as editor, Brown was almost equally effusive, describing the Mail editor as showing “great personal warmth and kindness . . . as well as great journalistic skill”. “We tried to tell Dacre,” says a former Mail political reporter, “that Brown was not a very good chancellor and the economy would implode eventually. But frankly, Dacre has poor political judgement. They were united by a mutual hatred of Blair. Both are social conservatives; they’re both suspicious of foreigners; they both have a kind of Presbyterian morality. Dacre would say that Brown believes in work. It’s typical of him that he seizes on a single word as the key to his understanding of someone else.”

It is inconceivable that the Mail would ever back a party other than the Conservatives in a general election, but Dacre’s support can be cool, as it was in 1997 and 2010. Although he described himself to Hagerty as “a Thatcher­ite politically” and though self-made entrepreneurs are among the few people who can expect favourable coverage in the Mail, Dacre is, to most neoliberals, a tepid and inconsistent supporter of free enterprise. Nor is he a neocon. The Mail opposed overseas military interventions in Iraq, Libya and Syria. It has denounced Guantanamo Bay, extraordinary rendition and torture. It may be hard on immigrants and benefit scroungers, but it is often equally hard on the rich and famous, pursuing overpaid bosses of public-service utilities to their luxurious homes, exposing “depravity” among the well-heeled and high-born, and rarely treating TV and film celebrities with the deference that is the staple fare of other tabloids.

Many Mail campaigns have centred on liberal or environmental causes: lead in petrol, plastic bags, secret justice, the extradition to the United States of the hacker Gary McKinnon, and so on. For a time, the Mail furiously campaigned to stop Labour deporting failed (black) asylum-seekers to Zimbabwe, even though, almost simultaneously, it was berating ministers for allowing too many illegal immigrants to stay. Other campaigns, such as those against internet porn and super-casinos (both of which influenced government action), though reflecting the Mail’s conservative social agenda, highlighted issues that concern many on the left.

Dacre’s most celebrated campaign, which even some of his enemies regard as his finest hour, was to bring the killers of Stephen Lawrence to justice. In 1997, over the five photographs of those he believed were responsible, he ran the headline “MURDERERS” and, beneath it, asserted: “The Mail accuses these men of killing. If we are wrong, let them sue us”.

It was hugely courageous, but did it exonerate the Mail from accusations of racism? Critics point out that the paper rarely features black people except as criminals, though this is not exceptional for the nationals. The “soft” features on women, fashion, style and health are illustrated almost entirely by white faces and bodies.

 

Dacre’s somewhat belated support for the Lawrence campaign was prompted by a personal connection: Neville Lawrence, Stephen’s father, had worked as a decorator on Dacre’s London house of the time, in Islington. The Mail’s campaign, critics argue, was based on substituting one frame of prejudice for another. Young Stephen eschewed gangs and drugs, did his homework and wanted to go to university. His parents were married, aspirational and home-owning. In everything except skin colour, the Law­rence family represented Middle England, while his white alleged killers were low-class yobs who threatened the safety of all res­pectable folk.

In that, as in much else, Dacre’s Mail recalls 1950s Britain, which rather patronisingly welcomed migrants from Asia and the Caribbean as long as they behaved as though they and their ancestors were English. “If you’re in twinset and pearls, your colour is irrelevant,” says a former Mail journalist. “And Dacre’s attitude to gays changed when he realised it’s possible to be an extremely boring gay person.”

The Mail’s attitudes to drugs are also redolent of the 1950s. Writing about the disgraced Co-operative Bank chairman Paul Flowers, Stephen Glover – the Mail columnist whose views, according to insiders, track Dacre’s most closely – criticised commentators who “concentrated on his financial unsuitability”, placing “relatively little emphasis” on his “moral turpitude”.

Most of all, the Mail seems determined to uphold the 1950s ideal of womanhood: the stay-at-home mother who dedicates herself to homemaking and prepares a cooked dinner for her husband on his return home every night. That, the paper’s defenders say, is something of a caricature of the Mail’s position. It objects not so much to working mothers as to middle-class feminists who insist that women can “have it all”. English aimed at turning the Mail into “the women’s paper”, and succeeded: it became the only national newspaper where women accounted for more than half the readership. That remains true, and yet Dacre sometimes seems determined to drive them away. The paper subjects women’s bodies, clothes and deportment to relentless and detailed scrutiny, and often finds them wanting, particularly in the thigh and bottom department. It gives prominent coverage to research that warns of the negative effects of working mothers on children’s lives.

The Mail’s poster girl is Liz Jones, the columnist and fashion editor celebrated for her self-hatred and misery. “She has so much,” says another Mail journalist, “lots of money, expensive houses, the newest clothes. But she’s never had a child, she hasn’t kept hold of a man, and she’s unhappy. The message is: it’s what happens to you, girls, if you pursue worldly success. You can succeed but, oh boy, you will suffer for it.”

The Mail’s punishing hours, requiring news and features executives to stay at the office until late into the evening (not uncommon in national newspapers), and its largely unsympathetic attitude to part-time employment make it an unfriendly environment for working mothers. When Dacre took over at the Mail, he immediately appointed a female deputy, which, said another woman who then had a senior role in the group, “was quite a statement”. But the paper now has few women in its most senior positions, other than the editor of Femail (though sometimes even that post is occupied by a man), and few staff have young children.

Yet in some respects, the Mail, even though it does not recognise the National Union of Journalists, is a good employer. Unlike the Mirror, it is not under a company ruled by accountants who single-mindedly seek “efficiencies”. Unlike the Times and the Sun, it does not have a proprietor who touts his papers’ support to the highest bidder. Unlike the Guardian and Independent, it is not beset by financial problems. The pro­prietor, Viscount (Jonathan) Rothermere, whose great-grandfather Harold Harms­worth founded the paper with his brother Alfred in 1896, allows his editors wide freedom, as did his father, Vere Rothermere, who appointed Dacre. The Mail, alone among national newspapers, has had no significant rounds of editorial redundancies in recent years and its staffing levels (it employs about 400 journalists) are comparable to what they were a decade ago.

Dacre’s paper is his sole domain; MailOnline is run separately (though Dacre, as editor-in-chief, has oversight) and although the website carries all daily and Sunday paper stories, much of its content is self-generated and the editorial flavour is distinct. Dacre demands, and mostly gets, a generous budget, paying high salaries for established editorial staff and columnists and high fees for freelance contributors. Journalists are driven hard but, at senior levels in particular, they rarely leave, not least because Dacre is as loyal to them as they mostly are to him. Outright sackings are rare and nearly always accompanied by large payoffs.

Those who do leave often reach the top elsewhere. The current editors of both Telegraph papers – Tony Gallagher at the daily and Ian MacGregor at the Sunday – are former Mail executives.

****

Despite more than two decades at the helm, Dacre shows few signs of slowing down. After heart trouble some years ago – which caused an absence of several months from the office – his holidays, which he usually takes in the British Virgin Islands, have become slightly longer and more frequent. But he still routinely puts in 14-hour days.

Nevertheless, speculation about his future has grown among journalists on the Mail and other papers. At the end of November, Dacre sold his last remaining shares in the Daily Mail and General Trust, the Mail’s parent company, for £347,564; he disposed of the majority in 2012. His latest contract, signed on his 65th birthday, is for one year only. Geordie Greig, the 53-year-old editor of the Mail on Sunday, is widely regarded as the most likely successor, though Martin Clarke, the abrasive publisher of the phenomenally successful MailOnline, now the most visited newspaper website in the world, is also tipped and Jon Steafel, Dacre’s deputy, is favoured by most staff. The surprising announcement in November that Richard Kay, the paper’s diarist and a long-standing friend of Dacre’s, is to leave his position looks like another straw in the wind, particularly given that his almost certain replacement is Sebastian Shakespeare, previously the diary editor at the London Evening Standard, where Greig was editor before he moved to the Mail on Sunday.

Fleet Street rumour has it that Kay is being moved because he upset friends of Lady Rothermere, the proprietor’s wife, and that she is also behind the abrupt departure of the columnist Melanie Phillips, apparently on the grounds that her style – particularly during a June appearance on BBC1’s Question Time – is too shrill. Lady Rothermere, it is said, is desperately keen to oust Dacre in favour of Greig. Senior Mail sources pooh-pooh such tales, but they stop short of outright denials that Dacre is nearing the end of his days on the paper.

Newspapers, particularly those with strong traditions and consistent ownership (and the Mail can claim these more than any other Fleet Street paper), usually survive their editors. But can the Mail as we know and hate it survive Dacre’s departure? Over the two decades of his tenure, the paper has seemed to defy time and gravity. He has no truck with the fashionable and transitory and he acts, in effect, as a one-man focus group. “The question asked about a story at the Mail,” says a former editorial executive, “is not ‘Will it interest the readers?’ but ‘Will it interest the editor?’.”

His paper is suffused with a nostalgia for a lost Britain. The formula is unique and it will probably be impossible for a successor to reproduce it with anything like Dacre’s manic energy and conviction. Greig, an urbane and sociable Old Etonian and former Tatler editor who is descended from a long line of royal courtiers, would be a very different editor.

“If Dacre goes, it will be the end of the Daily Mail,” says a former columnist. “Dacre is a great man, in so far as journalism can produce great men. I know the left will be cheering when he goes but, believe me, the rich and famous will cheer more.”

Peter Wilby is a former editor of both the Independent on Sunday and the New Statesman

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

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?