The chameleon-like John Freeman, pictured in 1946. Photograph: National Portrait Gallery/Elliott & Fry, 1946
Show Hide image

John Freeman: Face to face with an enigma

A 2013 profile of the war hero, Labour MP, New Statesman editor, diplomat and TV interviewer, who has died aged 99. 

“I wish everybody would forget I was alive,” he said. And most people did. But John Freeman, now in his 99th year, is still living a very private life at a nursing home in south London. He is one of the most extraordinary public figures of the postwar period; an achiever and thrower away of high office after high office; a celebrity who sought anonymity. “John Freeman,” said an old friend, “has spent his life moving through a series of rooms, always shutting the door firmly behind him and never looking back.”

In the 1940s he was a war hero, and then an MP who reduced Winston Churchill to tears in the Commons. In the 1950s he was tipped to become Labour leader but resigned from politics and became a TV interviewer. In 1961 he resigned from the BBC and became the editor of the New Statesman. Four years later he resigned and became a diplomat, working first as Britain’s high commissioner to India and then as the ambassador to Washington. In 1971 he resigned and became the chairman of London Weekend Television and then Independent Television News. In 1984 he moved to California to teach, until his return and retirement in 1990. In old age, he still did not look back. In 2005 he wrote: “When I retired from even the outer reaches of public responsibility, I resolved to put that life completely out of mind – to forget it all, in fact.”

The paradox of Freeman the private celebrity was symbolised by the TV series that made him famous from 1959 onwards, Face to Face. The viewer never saw his face. He sat with his back to the camera, in the shadow, smoke from a cigarette curling up between the fingers of his right hand. “John is the only man who has made himself celebrated by turning his arse on the public,” said Kingsley Martin, the then editor of the New Statesman. Freeman was the Grand Inquisitor, exposing the person behind the public figure, but never his own.

Thirty years later the BBC repeated Face to Face and sent the radio psychiatrist Anthony Clare (of In the Psychiatrist’s Chair fame) and me to California to film an introductory interview in which the roles were reversed. The programme was a failure. Freeman had an intimidating physical presence and a manner that combined an old-fashioned, somewhat insincere charm with his thoroughgoing put-downs: “I’m sorry, I don’t want to sound rude to you – but that’s the sort of portentous question I don’t think I want to answer.” As always, he gave nothing away. An old friend of his had warned me: “John has a capacity to put up the shutters that is excelled by nobody except a shopkeeper during a time of riots.”

A few years later I spotted Freeman engaged in a game of bowls by the side of the South Circular Road in London. At the age of 78, he was about to become Southern Area champion in bowls, a sport that obviously played to his strengths, as it requires a cool nerve and a killer instinct. I was by now fascinated by Freeman’s life, and particularly by this combination of public celebrity with impenetrable privacy. I wanted to write his biography. His third wife, Catherine, was discouraging: “Don’t think he has mellowed and will say, ‘Now is the time to review my life.’ He hasn’t and won’t.” Nevertheless, I went ahead and asked him with the proviso that if he objected I would go no further. He replied: “I do not feel able to take any part in the project you propose.”

I asked Nigel Lawson, the former chancellor of the exchequer and a friend of Freeman’s, to intercede on my behalf. He tried and replied: “Unsurprisingly, knowing him, he is not prepared to approve your project, even grudgingly. However, he did make clear that, equally, he does not disapprove and will not sue.” So, despite feeling a chill air of non-approval at the back of my neck, I obtained a commission from a publisher and began to do the research.

It was never easy. Freeman’s Who’s Who entry has become ever briefer over the years. He has written no autobiography and very little about himself, despite many years as a journalist. He has even destroyed private correspondence. But his story quickly became tantalising. Like with other celebrities who give nothing away about themselves, anecdotes have stuck to him that might be true, might be myth. Was it true that hearing Mahatma Gandhi speak when Freeman was a schoolboy was what made him decide to become a socialist? Was it true that, as a staff officer at Lüneburg Heath in May 1945, he conducted the German generals to surrender to Field Marshal Montgomery? The answers lay in his school and war records, which I required his permission to view. And why would he withhold it? It seemed little enough to ask. He’d had a distinguished education as a scholar and head of house at Westminster School and a heroic, decorated war with the Desert Rats, during which Monty called him “the best brigade major I have”. Or was this also a myth?

I wrote to him again. Once again his reply combined flowery charm with blunt dismissal. Why was he so pathologically private? Why was he determined to forget what other old men would be proud to remember?

John Freeman was born in a large house bordering Regent’s Park on 19 February 1915, the son of a chancery barrister from whom he inherited a hard, analytical mind. His father was nothing if not remote. He invited his son to eat with him once a week; after that, it was by appointment. The family moved to the dull suburb of Brondesbury in north-west London, from where John and his younger brother James would ride the train into town, jumping from carriage to carriage. He spent hours wandering through London on his own, once watching a play at the Royal Court Theatre and wondering if it was suitable entertainment for a boy of his age – he was seven. He seems to have spent a loveless and lonely childhood, from which he emerged self-reliant but withdrawn from relationships.

By the time John arrived at Westminster School with an exhibition he was a worldly boy with a mind of his own. Presumably if he held political views at all they were those of his parents, vaguely progressive Liberals belonging to the comfortable middle class. But then, in 1932, he came face to face with the reality of the Depression. Hunger marchers from Scotland, Wales and the north of England assembled opposite Westminster Abbey and John met their leader, the socialist politician Ellen Wilkinson. Confronted by desperate poverty and inequality, he must have reacted emotionally, however repressed his adolescent feelings were, because he joined the Labour Party and remained in it for the next 34 years. “The outstanding fact of the year,” he wrote as head of house in the house ledger, “is that the school has heard the voice of England’s forgotten people.”

Freeman wasted his time at Oxford. He drank heavily, gambled and chased women, only just emerging from his father’s college, Brasenose, with a degree. Perhaps he found success too easily as he would through all his future careers. Certainly he found womanising easy. He was handsome, with wavy red hair, blue eyes and a fit, slim body. Above all, he had a distant self-sufficiency that women considered a challenge. According to Susan Hicklin, one of his girlfriends at Oxford who later became the first wife of Woodrow Wyatt: “John did not really engage. He was a Mr Something-Else.”

Freeman edited the Cherwell magazine and co-founded the Experimental Theatre Club. Later, in one of his slightly more forthcoming Who’s Who entries, he listed theatre as his hobby. He was a role player. He found it easier to act than to be himself, perhaps because, so he once said, he disliked himself as much as he disliked the rest of the world.

After Oxford, Freeman joined the advertising firm Ashley Courtenay; he said that writing copy was like writing Latin verse. In 1938 he married Elizabeth Johnston and claimed two years later, when he enlisted in the Coldstream Guards, that he was doing so to get away from her. That December he was commissioned into the Rifle Brigade.

He fought with the brigade throughout the Second World War, seeing action in the Middle East, North Africa, Italy and north-west Europe. As brigade major in North Africa with the 1st Battalion of the Rifle Brigade, he was attached to the 7th Armoured Division, the Desert Rats, as deputy assistant, quarter master general (DAQMG). It was a post that required organising efficiency on a large scale and steady nerves under fire. “To listen to John directing armour and artillery hour after hour on the brigade radio was a marvellous lesson in coolness under stress,” said a fellow combatant. He was awarded the MBE for conduct at Medenine during the British advance on Tunis. That much is fact, but the story that he was the only officer in Monty’s army to have a girl waiting for him in Tunis sounds more like another Freeman myth.

Now a major, Freeman was sent to the Staff College at Camberley, Surrey, in preparation for the invasion of Europe and as a result he joined General Montgomery’s headquarters staff. A year later he was in north Germany. “Did I ever tell you I was conducting officer at Lüneburg Heath?” he asked a friend rhetorically not long ago. “Yes, I led the German generals to surrender to Monty.” In my last letter, I asked him to confirm this; he ignored the question.

With Freeman at Staff College was Captain Raymond Blackburn, an ardent socialist and member of the new Common Wealth Party. He annoyed his fellow officers at dinner with voluble “bolshie” talk, so that one by one they left the mess until only one remained, an immaculately turned-out, perfectly mannered major in the Rifle Brigade, who then spoke. “I want you to know that I have been a passionate socialist ever since I was at Oxford,” he said, “and I am today an even more convinced socialist than ever.”

Blackburn persuaded Freeman and another DAQMG, Woodrow Wyatt, to stand for parliament as Labour candidates. In February 1945 he was adopted for Watford after his wife, Elizabeth, pitched in his place while he was away in Germany. He had a somewhat casual approach to crucial political occasions. A few months later, at Labour’s victory conference, Ellen Wilkinson announced proudly from the platform: “I give you a Desert Rat, who has just received the German surrender of Hamburg”; but at that moment Freeman was in the bath reading his favourite magazine, the New Yorker. Later, distancing himself as always, he said he had stood for parliament only because he was asked and he thought he would lose.

The parliamentary set piece from which he did extract the full dramatic effect took place on 15 August 1945, when George VI opened parliament and Freeman was chosen to move the Loyal Address in response to the Gracious Speech. It was an occasion that the new Labour intake of MPs would never forget. Barbara Castle wrote in her memoirs: “John was a charismatic figure who seemed to have a dazzling career in front of him. As he stood there in his major’s uniform, erect, composed and competent, everyone felt his star quality.”

The “hon. and gallant” member (Hansard) rose to the occasion:

. . . on every side is a spirit of high adventure, of gay determination, a readiness to experiment, to take reasonable risks, to stake high in this magnificent adventure of rebuilding our civilisation as we have staked high in the winning of the war [Cheers] . . .  Today we go into action. Today may rightly be regarded as D-Day in the Battle of the New Britain. [Loud and prolonged cheers]

Churchill was seen to weep, saying: “Now all the best young men are on the other side.”

Freeman shared offices with another officer back from the war, Roy Jenkins, who recalled: “He was the very model of a modern Labour major.” His progress was startling. While such contemporaries as James Callaghan and George Brown remained on the back benches he became a junior minister, first at the War Office and then at the ministry of supply. Perhaps this owed something to Hugh Dalton, the chancellor of the exchequer, a notable patron of rising young men, who found Freeman “very attractive and glamorous”. In the former post an incident occurred that establishes as probably true another Freeman conversation stopper of later years; “I bumped into an Israeli freedom fighter who once tried to kill me”. On 4 June, 1947, the Irgun posted Freeman and seven other ministers miniature bombs because of the Government’s policy over Palestine.

“We wanted him to be our leader,” Michael Foot told me. But in April 1951, with promotion into the cabinet his for the taking, Freeman sensationally resigned together with Aneurin Bevan and Harold Wilson, who were both members of cabinet. The presenting reason was Chancellor Hugh Gaitskell’s Budget, which maintained very high expenditure on defence to the detriment of the welfare state; charges were imposed on “teeth and specs”. Clement Attlee tried hard to keep Freeman, summoning him to the hospital where he was recovering from a duodenal ulcer and offering him Wilson’s post in the cabinet as president of the Board of Trade. He saw him as a mediator between Gaitskell, who thought highly of Freeman, and Bevan; quite possibly as a future leader. But once Freeman made his mind up he never changed it. He knew he was a favoured son: as he said in his resignation speech: “In laying down the responsibilities of office I am also giving up the fruits of office.”

Yet years later he said he resigned because he had given Bevan his word and did not want to renege on it as others had done. This seems nearer the truth, as Freeman’s personal principles were stronger than his political convictions. It would explain, too, why he seemed to lose the stomach for the fight. Barbara Castle travelled around the country with him, expecting him to take a lead in arguing the “Keep Left” case to Labour supporters, but she was disappointed. In one stormy meeting after another he stood against the wall, almost hiding himself behind the window curtains, but did not speak. After years of studying his complex personality [on intimate terms it should be added as they were lovers] I decided he was afraid of giving himself too fully to anything or anyone. I once told him his motto ought to be "Je me sauve" ("I protect myself").

Freeman was extraordinarily reticent, but it was more than that. Some said he stood on an icy peak, that beneath the cold charm he considered himself above the fray. Others said that his socialism was already intellectual rather than emotional, and politics without a gut feeling, without tears and wounds, must be a lost cause. “A deliberate decision seems to have been taken to root out feeling, like a cancer, and to put in its place the radium of the intellect,” wrote Anthony Howard in a memorable profile a few years later.

Freeman narrowly retained his seat for Watford in the October 1951 election but then, with Labour out of office, he idled away the “purgatorial boredom” of parliamentary evenings by playing canasta with his louche friend Tom Driberg, Wyatt and, surprisingly, Jenkins. Neither Wyatt nor Jenkins was a Bevanite but this did not seem to matter. To some on the left his socialism was insincere rather than intellectual. Tony Benn wrote in his diary about “Freeman’s respectable humbug rebelliousness”. In 1955 Freeman left parliament in disgust, despite being offered a safe seat at the eleventh hour in Durham. He wrote in the New Statesman:

I have in my mind a disenchanted vision of parliamentary man at his worst: at 45 he is pallid, bald and ulcerated: arrogant, narrow-minded and periphrastic. And worse, he is complacent about it all. Too many MPs cease to look outside. They perceive one another with the vapid intensity of a goldfish. 

He then joined Woodrow Wyatt, Aidan Crawley and Christopher Mayhew, all former Labour junior ministers, working in the burgeoning BBC TV current affairs department at Lime Grove – a bias perceived by Winston Churchill, among others, and one that would not be tolerated now. Panorama used him as an interviewer, but it was the one-to-one interview show Face to Face that made Freeman a household name. “The programmes were dominated by his matchless voice, ultrapolite, devastatingly persistent,” Paul Johnson wrote. The camera was mercilessly close to the face of the victim, “scrutinising”, in Freeman’s words, “every bead of sweat, every flicker of the eyelid”.

Not surprisingly, some wilted. The television and radio quiz panellist Gilbert Harding burst into tears when Freeman asked him if he had ever been present at a dying person’s bedside. It turned out that Harding’s mother had died recently in similar circumstances. The story got around that Freeman had found this out in advance by speaking to Harding’s psychiatrist and achieved what he had intended. This is not true. The only interview that gave Freeman satisfaction, he told Anthony Clare in 1989, was with the racing driver Stirling Moss. He had thought Moss a playboy but his interview revealed him as a driver with “cold, precise, clinical judgement... a man who could live so close to the edge of death and danger, and trust entirely to his own judgement. This appealed to me”.

Against all expectations, he became friends with two of his interviewees. This is even more inexplicable because the psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung and the comedian Tony Hancock came from completely different worlds. But Freeman the charmer, the roleplayer, had this chameleon quality of merging with the company he was in. “I always felt Freeman had the measure of me, but I never had the measure of him,” said another friend recently.

The Jung encounter was extraordinary. Jung was 84 and the interview took place at his home in Zurich. When Freeman asked on camera: “Do you now believe in God?” Jung replied, “I don’t need to believe. I know.” For once, Freeman’s presence of mind appeared to desert him because he changed the subject and asked Jung why he had become a doctor. Afterwards, realising the enormity of the question left unasked, he sent Jung a letter: “But how do you know?” The Face to Face interview had been watched by the publisher Wolfgang Foges. He thought there should be a book based on it for the educated reader who understood Freud’s basic theories of psychoanalysis but was unfamiliar with Jung’s. He asked Freeman to invite Jung to write it and this he did:

Jung listened to me in his garden for two hours almost without interruption – and then said no. He said in the nicest possible way, but with great firmness, that he had never in the past tried to popularise his work, and he wasn’t sure he could successfully do so. Anyway, he was old and rather tired.

That might have been the end of Man and his Symbols but Jung’s subconscious intervened. He had a dream in which “a multitude of people were listening to him in rapt attention and appearing to understand what he said” (Freeman’s italics). Crucial to Jungianism is the belief that man should be guided by his ‘unconscious’ as revealed in dreams so Jung changed his mind, on two conditions: Freeman had to be the editor and he had to include essays from disciples chosen by Jung. This latter condition tried Freeman’s patience beyond the limit. Urbane and charming he was but he was used to getting his way without fuss and neurotic European psychoanalysts were not his company of choice. He wrote in the margin of the essay by Jolande Jacobi “I puke on this” and, scarcely dissuaded from throwing it in the bin, handed over the entire manuscript to his friend Norman MacKenzie. Man And His Symbols was completed in the month of Jung’s death, June 1961, and published with an introduction from Freeman. 

After 35 editions of Face to Face, with a British Academy award and another series in the offing, Freeman had had enough of the BBC. “It was extremely tiresome to be treated as a sort of celebrity,” he said. He does not mention his experience as a TV presenter in Who’s Who. That year, 1961, he became editor of the New Statesman ten years after he had joined the paper as an assistant editor. It was the most influential left-wing weekly in the English-speaking world, with a circulation of more than 70,000. Nevertheless, Kingsley Martin, the outgoing editor, had been in the job for too long – 30 years – and the paper was drifting. Freeman had been the heir apparent since the mid-1950s and the de facto editor from week to week much of the time, despite Martin’s interference. Now he set himself the task

. . . to tidy things up, modernise the paper a bit, and then hand over to someone else who should preferably be a generation younger. I did think that what had been a marvellous operation until the middle Fifties had sadly deteriorated, and that what
was needed now was a short incumbency by a non-genius to see if a certain amount of order could be put back into it.

Freeman had a sense of service and was contemptuous of those who did not do what they had promised. He was absolutely no respecter of office. “I’ll put some backbone into that little runt,” he said, referring to Prime Minister Harold Wilson after Labour returned to power. He reminded Norman Mackenzie, who had worked at the New Statesman since 1943, of a Cromwellian officer with a radical streak. He ran the paper like a quartermaster general, efficiently and with organisational control. Unlike Kingsley Martin, Freeman found writing the Londoner’s Diary column (under the pseudonym Flavius) hard work. Readers considered it stiff and dull because he did not write about himself; as ever, the shutters were up. Once, Freeman was walking in a London park with Anthony Howard, whom he had just recruited to write for the NS, when a photographer persisted in taking photographs because “I was hoping to catch you at an unguarded moment”. “Alas,” Freeman said, “I’m afraid there are very few of those.”

Under Martin, the Statesman had regarded socialism as a political and moral certainty. Some readers found it a crusading bible, others an irresponsible journal of dissent. Freeman was neither preacher nor teacher, and times had changed. He wrote that the cold war and the welfare state required a more questioning, sceptical socialism and he moved the paper nearer the centre. According to Edward Hyams, the author of The New Statesman: the History of the First Fifty Years (1913- 63), under Martin the cry of dissent was “You are wicked”, whereas under Freeman it was “You are mistaken – and we will prove that by the force of reasoned argument”.

The big issue in these years was The Bomb. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) had practically been founded in the New Statesman offices in 1957 when J B Priestley wrote the seminal article “Britain and the nuclear bombs”. Kingsley Martin chaired the meeting that gave rise to CND. Nevertheless, he was equivocal about unilateral disarmament when wearing his editor’s hat. Perhaps he did not want to commit the NS; perhaps he simply could not make up his mind. Priestley said he was “dodging in and out of this” and Freeman accused him of having “a halfbaked love affair” with CND. Freeman told a colleague:

I think there are two kinds of journalists. One that wants to expound a situation and one, like Kingsley, who wants to redress a situation. Kingsley is a preacher and he doesn’t care much about facts. When he was absolutely certain about his tenets he wrote like an angel. The decline in his writing is to do with the decline in his certainty.

Freeman had no such doubts. He thought it would be self-destructive at the height of the cold war for Britain to leave Nato, which unilateral disarmament would necessitate. When he became editor, the journal’s quasisupport for CND ceased. During the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 the NS backed President Kennedy throughout: more so, in fact, than even the Daily Telegraph, which stated that the United States should have acted through the United Nations.

Freeman’s mentor on the New Statesman was Aylmer Vallance, an assistant editor during the war years, then Deputy until his death in 1955. He was one of the few men that Freeman not only admired but with whom he became close friends. In fact he helped nurse him through his final illness and named his elder son after him. The character of Vallance offers clues in the quest for Freeman because they were very similar. Vallance was calmness itself in a crisis, charming but hard to know. Vallance had a louche streak. In the 1930s he had been Editor of the News Chronicle until he was sacked for a sex scandal. The Quaker owner of the paper, Lord Cadbury, had discovered Vallance in flagrante with the female motoring correspondent on his office table. Vallance had been a socialist with an attachment to communism (he named one of his own sons Tito) but by the 1950s, according to Edward Hyams, he had lost his faith in political causes. This did not stop him advocating socialism for a political weekly: nor did his personal lifestyle, giving “the appearance and manner of a Scottish laird who liked wine, women and fly fishing” (Hyams). Above all, he was a master of disguise. During the War he had worked for military intelligence, liaising between the War Office and the Political Warfare Executive. MacKenzie noted that whenever Vallance went off on trips to Eastern Europe, which was frequently, he collected his foreign currency from a Highgate travel agent that had money-laundering links with MI6. This is not to say that Freeman had lost faith in socialism nor that he was a spy; but he was attracted to someone who was both. 

Freeman’s private life was about to be beset by scandal. In 1948 Elizabeth Johnson had divorced him and he married Margaret Kerr, who died in 1957, leaving him with a stepdaughter, Lizi, whom he adopted. In 1962 he married his third wife, the Panorama producer Catherine Dove, who had been married previously to another Panorama staffer, Charles Wheeler. While he was still at the NShe also began an affair with Edna O’Brien, who later wrote a short story about it called “The Love Object” (1968). The “love object” was Freeman. He had been uncharacteristically indiscreet about the affair and O’Brien did not try hard to disguise his identity. Nor did she spare the intimate details:

“Hey,” he said jocularly, just like that. “This can’t go on, you know.” I thought he was referring to our activity at that moment. Then I raised my head from its sunken position between his legs and I looked at him through my hair, which had fallen over my face. I saw that he was serious. “It just occurred to me that possibly you love me . . .”

“Much harm is done by words,” said Freeman to Sue Hicklin at about this time. Ironic, considering he made his reputation by them. Freeman may have been referring to a 1960s play by Terence Rattigan about a TV interviewer who drank too much and was a womaniser. It was called, suggestively, Heart to Heart and not surprisingly Freeman thought it was libellous. He protested in the New Statesman office: “The allegation of alcoholism I just about accept; that of amorousness I reject absolutely,” to which Catherine retorted years later, “That should have been the other way round.” Freeman consulted a lawyer and settled with the BBC, who had commissioned the play, after “an amicable exchange of letters”, he said. 

In 1965 he became high commissioner to India. Bored with the New Statesman after just four years as editor, he had angled for a diplomatic posting. Richard Crossman said that, having “seen through” politics and journalism, Freeman said to himself: “Let me find a career so chilly and austere that I can never see through it or be bored by success.” How wrong he was. The Freemans arrived in Delhi with their sons, Matthew and Tom, and soon Lucy was born. It was nearly 20 years after Indian independence and British influence was more of a memory than a reality.

Indian diplomats in Delhi at the time remember that the Freemans responded by acknowledging that the old British paternalism and nostalgia for the Raj were quite out of place. Now the high commission was open to new faces: opposition MPs, dissenting writers, young journalists. However, it is Catherine who is remembered for her social skills and enthusiasm for all things Indian. John hated protocol and small talk and, once again, there was that formidable barrier. The writer Khushwant Singh recalls: “I found Freeman cold and distant. Despite his socialist pretensions he behaved like a pukka sahib.”

Freeman said afterwards that he found diplomacy difficult, particularly dealing with economic and financial matters. Where he came into his own was in the writing of despatches. “I don’t think I would have been too ashamed,” he said later, “to send a newspaper some of my despatches from India.” A case in point was the customary valedictory despatch he wrote before returning home in 1968. He excelled himself, ending in a style reminiscent of an 18th-century tombstone:

Perhaps a regenerate sinner, plucked  by a somewhat whimsical government from the stews of Fleet Street and the limelight of Shepherd’s Bush, may be allowed to pay a disinterested and most affectionate tribute to the kindness, the devotion to duty, the professional skill and sheer quality of mind and imagination which he has encountered during his three and a half years as the guest of HMG.

When Freeman returned to London he met Crossman by chance at 10 Downing Street. Crossman wrote in his diary:

. . . John used to be a rather willowy, elegant young man with wonderful wavy hair but he’s thickened out and his complexion has roughened so that he looks like an extremely tough colonel of a polo-playing regiment just back from India – big and bluff. Beside  him was little Harold [Wilson], relaxed and gay.

The prime minister had just given Freeman the plum job of ambassador to Washington. It was a rash choice because he had frequently been rude about President Nixon in the NS, calling him “a man of no principle whatsoever”. So when Nixon visited London soon after his appointment, the cabinet was nervous. It need not have been. At a formal dinner in Freeman’s presence, Nixon referred to the appointment in a forgiving and witty speech: “Some say there’s a new Nixon. And they wonder if there’s a new Freeman. I would like to think that’s all behind us. After all, he’s the new diplomat and I’m the new statesman.”

Freeman formed a fruitful relationship with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. This gave rise to an extraordinary despatch marked “SECRET, PERSONAL AND GUARD ADDRESSEES EYES ONLY”. Writing to Sir Denis Greenhill at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Freeman reported an indiscreet conversation with Kissinger about Nixon’s staff. “I have never met such a gang of self-seeking bastards in my life,” Kissinger remarked. “I used to find the Kennedy group unattractively narcissistic, but they were idealists. These people are real heels.”

That evening, Freeman reported, “a very bizarre incident took place”. Nixon rang him at home, “appearing completely rational”, and said he was grateful that he (Freeman) had “had such a long and intimate talk with Kissinger earlier in the day. He hoped we would do this again whenever the opportunity offered.” Freeman concluded: “I am completely unable to interpret this incident, which astonished me.”

He left Washington in February 1971, after only 16 months. He was the first ambassador in 55 years who went and returned without a knighthood or a peerage. He rejected both, saying “when it can be proved that I can do my job better by changing my name, then I might consider it”. Freeman claimed to dislike power and status: “Those who have power have disagreeable elements in their personality and I include myself.” By now he considered Nixon as a leader with “courage and guts, the qualities I most admire in public life”

It was common knowledge that Freeman was bored with diplomacy. Among the frequent guests at his Washington soirées was the young economist Robert Cassen. The ambassador gave him the sort of career advice that sticks in the mind: “I believe you should change your life as much as possible every decade.” Freeman was as good as his word, because he was having another affair, with his social secretary, Judith Mitchell. (She became his fourth wife in 1976 after his hurtful, protracted divorce from Catherine.) He and Judith would have two daughters, Jessica and Victoria, the second when he was 71.

Freeman found a house in London and it was here, a few weeks later in 1971, that he was visited by a desperate David Frost, the joint founder of London Weekend Television. Frost’s company was in a mess and the Independent Television Authority (ITA) was threat ening to remove its licence. The managing director, Michael Peacock, had been fired and the heads of several programme departments had resigned. Viewers were switching off; shareholders wanted out. The company, in fact, was being run by Rupert Murdoch, who had saved it by buying £500,000 worth of shares, then taking his coat off and directing the day-to-day management although he had no right to do so as a non-executive director. The ITA disapproved of Murdoch. He was breaking the rules; he was not a UK resident and he was a major newspaper proprietor. Murdoch was “dangerously angry”. LWT had been given six weeks to find a new managing director.

Enter Freeman, deus ex machina. LWT’s chairman, Aidan Crawley, was pushed upstairs to become the nominal president and Freeman became the new chairman and managing director, with a free hand to control Murdoch and impress the ITA. He wrote: “I had very strong views about how the company should be run, but frankly I didn’t give a bugger whether I stayed or not – I merely had to do the best I could.”

He moved into bleak, 17th-floor offices on the North Circular Road. A month later he led a delegation of ten for an all-day crunch meeting at the ITA. According to Jeremy Potter’s Independent Television in Britain: Politics and Control (1968-80): “He fielded most questions himself and was authoritative and convincing. No one doubted he was in control.”

The company was saved. A thousand employees kept their jobs. Freeman, it is worth recalling, had been out of the country for the previous six years and had no experience of running a big company. “He was,” the official history continued, “one of those rare men of parts who seem to be able to do anything better than anybody else.” No wonder he became bored quickly. Even the most demanding job was just too easy.

LWT became a hotbed of talent and ideas. One recruit was John Birt who held Freeman ‘in awe’. In the 1990s, when Birt was trying to modernise the BBC, Freeman supported him from the wings. Yet, while colleagues and journalists testified to his charisma, his ‘austere authority’ (John Birt), his ‘bearing like a great ship’s captain’ (Ivan Rowan in the Sunday Times), no- one claimed to know him. Rowan said he arrived for an interview determined to find out who Freeman really was, but he got nowhere:

It was like being greeted by a tall, sandy-haired man with flat blue eyes and a smile and voice as delicate and precise as a vicar’s: ‘I’m afraid the real Mr Freeman was called away five minutes ago. I know he would have been delighted to see you. Is there any message?’

Ever since he was a brigade major, John Freeman had excelled at taking charge of organisations, and now additional top jobs were his without even asking – chairman of Independent Television News and the publisher Hutchinson, governor of the British Film Institute, vice-president of the Royal Television Society. He was the archetypal establishment chairman.

In 1984, aged 69, he decided to move on again. Giving up everything, he moved abroad with his third family to the unfashionable university campus at Davis, California. He was now in his seventh major job, as a visiting professor of international relations.

Teaching was a profession he liked. Paul Johnson stayed with the Freemans in California while giving his own lectures and found him “universally revered as everything an English gentleman and scholar should be”. He came home in 1990 only because of his daughters’ education.

At last, in retirement in Barnes, south London, he could live in obscurity, reading and writing little but watching American football and racing on TV. No longer a Labour voter (he said his left-wing politics had “done a lot of harm”), he found Tony Blair “ineffably insufferable” – a typical Freeman phrase. He discouraged outsiders’ interest with the disclaimer, surely insincere, “I can’t see why my life can be of any possible interest to anybody.”

In 2012 Freeman removed himself to a military care home in south London so as not to be a burden to his family. He lives from day to day, with stoicism.

What might Anthony Clare have revealed if his interview in 1989 had penetrated the charm? He thought that Freeman was something of a social psychopath, defined by the Psychiatric Dictionary as “. . . a poorly developed sense of empathy leading to unfeeling and insensitive behaviour but disguised with a superficial charm and absence of ‘nervousness’; an egocentricity and incapacity for love. Aetiology: emotional deprivation early in life.” Whatever the truth of this, it is surely a pity that John Freeman airbrushed himself out of his own history, his own “magnificent adventure”.

Hugh Purcell's most recent book is "The Last English Revolutionary: Tom Wintringham" (Sussex Academic Press, £19.95)

This article first appeared in the 04 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The fall of Pistorius

LAURA HYND FOR NEW STATESMAN
Show Hide image

Rebel with a realist cause

Michael Winterbottom, Britain’s busiest film-maker, discusses cinema, social mobility and how we are returning to the 19th century.

In the early 1960s, Lindsay Anderson was enjoying the power and esteem that he had always thought the English would be too philistine to grant him. His Free Cinema movement, launched in February 1956 with a series of modest, hand-held documentaries and a strident manifesto, had mutated into “kitchen-sink realism”, a series of popular feature films that included Tony Richardson’s Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and his own This Sporting Life. Anderson seemed dangerously close to becoming the  leading spokesman of mainstream British cinema. But then, as he recalled, “Realism gave way to the myth of Swinging London. The Americans, God bless them, put up a lot of money and the British made a lot of bad films.”

When, bored and broke, the Americans went home, taking many of his colleagues along with them, Anderson stayed behind. He made if . . ., which won the 1969 Palme d’Or at Cannes, and a sequel, O Lucky Man!, and then – nothing. For most of the 1970s, British cinema was virtually an oxymoron. But when the industry came back to life at the start of the next decade, with GandhiChariots of Fire and the formation of Channel 4 Films, he refused to celebrate or capitalise, preferring to tut and clutch his brow.

In November 1985, the month when his former protégé Stephen Frears first startled a general British audience with My Beautiful Laundrette, which updated kitchen-sink realism with new causes (multiculturalism, gay rights) and villains (Thatcher, the National Front), Anderson was making gentle progress on a backward-looking endeavour – a television documentary about Free Cinema, to form part of an initiative he despised called British Film Year. A born dawdler, equally petrified of success and failure, he was having trouble with the stills and inserts. “I finally get the operation organised,” he wrote in his diary, “by insisting that the attractively cherubic Michael Winterbottom be my assistant.”

When I spoke to Winterbottom last year, he told me, “Lindsay Anderson was a director I really admired and I wondered why he had made so few films. Then I met him. There was a lot of messing around” –bickering, procrastination, mischief. And perfectionism: “Even on the Free Cinema documentary, he ended up reshooting ­everything.” Winterbottom wanted to emulate Anderson’s work – the intransigence, the looseness – but he realised that in order to follow those examples and still have a career, he needed to make peace with prevailing industrial conditions and devise a plausible, even hard-nosed working method.

Three decades later, he is constantly in work. Alongside Frears, he is Britain’s busiest film-maker. At any given moment, he occupies two or more points in a process that goes something like: development, financing, casting, filming, editing, festival circuit, domestic release. But where Frears has graduated to working with Hollywood studios, Winterbottom relies on independent financing and employs a no-fuss, often hand-held, digital shooting style. David Thompson, the former head of BBC Films who is now an independent producer, told me, “Michael pioneered a way of working that we tried and failed to get other directors to adopt: if you can’t get the crew in a minivan, then you’ve got too many people.”

The results so far have included 24-Hour Party People, a comedy about the Manchester music scene that captured Winterbottom’s own philosophy of productive chaos, and 9 Songs, in which a climatologist recalls a relationship through nights at rock concerts and uncensored days in bed. Winterbottom’s most recent film, The Emperor’s New Clothes, a documentary about inequality, presented by Russell Brand, was his 28th. And that doesn’t include The Trip, the BBC2 comedy series starring the comedians Steve Coogan – a Winterbottom regular – and Rob Brydon, which was released outside Britain as a pair of films, The Trip and The Trip to Italy: to date, his only sequel.

***

Working alongside the producer Andrew Eaton, Winterbottom has established an atmosphere of rigour and determined focus that allows him to take risks. Eaton, who has known Winterbottom for more than 30 years, told me that “no other director comes to set with such a strong sense of what he’s trying to get combined with a complete openness to what could happen in the day”. When Winterbottom was making the family drama Wonderland in the late 1990s, he took his skeleton crew into London bars that were open for business. Punters became extras. “The people in a place are so much part of the environment,” Winterbottom said. “We were trying to get a different texture, to let the characters interact with the real world.”

Winterbottom and I were having breakfast in a London hotel restaurant. When I arrived, he had just finished a television interview about The Face of an Angel, a rumination on the Amanda Knox trial starring Daniel Brühl and Cara Delevingne, which opened in 2014 to baffled reviews. Winterbottom, who turns 55 in March, still looks like a cherub, but a cherub going grey at the sideburns. He is affable, even happy-go-lucky, but also remote – withdrawn. His gaze carries a slight air of wistfulness, as if he is distracted by some opportunity five yards beyond your shoulder. And though he talks very quickly, he is a specialist in prevarication and reversal. Assertions are parried, questions dodged. But when he’s comfortable, he’s fluent.

Winterbottom continued to tell me about the thinking behind Wonderland, which many consider his greatest film. He compared it to Notting Hill, which was being shot further west around the same time. “As soon as you go in and control everything, you’re destroying the essence of what London is. If you want to catch what normal life is like, you have to work in quite a small way, a hand-held way, in real places.”

Yet Wonderland is never dowdy. Shots of, say, an average night at the Slug and Lettuce or the bingo hall, or yet another frustrating afternoon at Selhurst Park, are offset by the lithe, buzzing images (a 16mm negative blown up to 35mm), the restlessly inquisitive editing and Michael Nyman’s soaring symphonic score. The result far exceeds anything made during the kitchen-sink period in the breadth of its humanism and the range of its social portraiture, and deserves to be recognised as one of the great achievements of British cinema.

The Scottish actress Shirley Henderson said that working on Wonderland, the first of six collaborations, wasn’t like being on a film set, with “caravans” and co-stars. “You were just waiting on a pavement somewhere.” To help Henderson research her role as the working-class Londoner and single mother Debbie, one of three troubled sisters, Winterbottom sent her on what she called “errands”: going clubbing in character, or visiting the sort of hairdresser at which Debbie worked. Henderson added the details garnered on these field trips to a screenplay, written by Laurence Coriat, that was treated as far from sacrosanct. Speaking generally of her work with Winterbottom, she said: “You know the lines – and you might get to say them, you might not. He might run the scene another five minutes after your lines are finished.”

I asked Henderson how Winterbottom’s toss-the-script-aside approach compared with the process favoured by Mike Leigh, who directed her in Topsy-Turvy. With Leigh, she said, “You improvise for hours to find a honed scene that you shoot the next day. With Michael, it’s a quicker process. You don’t rehearse as such. You’re improvising on film. If he’s not got enough, he’ll just go again and again and again.” At breakfast, Winterbottom, who recoils from analysis, defined his ambitions with a shrug: “Try to keep it simple, get as close to the characters as possible, encourage actors to be spontaneous.”

Wonderland was Winterbottom’s sixth feature film and marked a breakthrough for him, in particular a turn away from the professionalism of Welcome to Sarajevo, his polished, starry account of TV journalists covering the Bosnian War, in favour of a realist aesthetic. He told me that he doesn’t see himself as part of any movement – “What, like Free Cinema? No, no” – but his desire to find an alternative to conventional dramatic narrative connects him to a loose group of artists and writers intent on bringing more “reality” into their work. Prominent among them are the authors David Shields, who mentions Winterbottom in his manifesto Reality Hunger, and Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose My Struggle series Winterbottom has been reading (“I’m very impressed”). But where Shields and Knausgaard have turned away from the novel in favour of more direct, less dissembling forms such as the memoir and the essay, Winterbottom’s desire to get as far away from artifice and as close as possible to hectic, complex, undramatic life has resulted not in a choice of one form that solves all the problems but a sensibility that he brings to a range of genres.

Winterbottom’s war against tidy artifice has taken various forms. Sometimes it is built in to a project’s conception: he made 9 Songs because he thought that his previous love story Code 46 had been timid in the way it presented sex. It has determined his approach to source material. When he was adapting Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles as Trishna, he combined the roles of the “spiritual” Alec and the “sensual” Angel because, he told an interviewer, “most people are a combination of both”. But with Jim Thompson’s novel The Killer Inside Me, he took the opposite approach: he found Thompson’s portrait of psychosis so complete, so convincing, that he treated the book “like the Bible”.

Winterbottom’s widely acknowledged formal innovations are a means to an end. I mentioned the editing in his 2008 film, Genova, which constantly prevents exchanges and encounters from settling down into a set piece. He dismissed the idea that he was consciously experimenting. “When you’re making a film, you’re worried about the specifics of what you’re trying to do and then building out from that,” he said. The starting point of Genova is the dynamic between the dad and the two daughters. “I have two daughters [from his 13-year relationship with the teacher and novelist Sabrina Broadbent] and one aspect of the film, like with Wonderland and London, was to portray a relationship that I would recognise. The aim was to not make it dramatic, because your relationships at home aren’t very dramatic.”

***

In his diary, Lindsay Anderson – who often quoted the ancient maxim “Character is destiny”– marvelled at Winterbottom’s ability to attend to things that mattered and ignore the things that didn’t. Where Anderson was an idealist and a perfectionist, Winterbottom was “wholly unsentimental” – “conscientious” in tracking down stills, his assigned task, but “quite happy to absent himself from crucial, if routine stages of finishing”.

It was partly a product of breeding. Where Anderson, scarred by boarding school, loved to defy those with power (having a private income helped), Winterbottom attended the local grammar school in Blackburn and grew up in kitchen-sink territory; a scene in John Schlesinger’s 1962 film A Kind of Loving was shot at the factory where his father worked. When he was a teenager, his favourite book was Jude the Obscure, Hardy’s novel about a farm labourer who dreams of going to Biblioll College, Christminster. Winterbottom made it to the real-world version – Balliol College, Oxford – where, in a desultory, distracted way, he studied English. (In 2012 he returned to Oxford to become the first Humanitas Visiting Professor in Film and Television.)

Winterbottom likes to say that he’s simply attracted to good stories and interested in the same things as “everybody else”, but The Emperor’s New Clothes, which came out in April last year, emerged from his personal history. A product of grammar schools and grants, he considers himself a beneficiary of the “social mobility and access” that burgeoned after the Second World War. (He campaigned for Jack Straw in Blackburn in 1979.) “The idea that to be ‘modern’, you need an unregulated free market that helps the rich get richer is bullshit,” he said, adding that its widespread acceptance has been “one of the triumphs of that ideology”. He continued, “We had a phase of about fifty years where what was ‘modern’ was the idea that things will get fairer – there will be a narrowing of the gap, maybe not in a radical way, but at least a general trend in that direction.

“It’s fairly hard to believe that we used to collectively own the water, gas, coal, trains, telephone. People were being taxed at 98 per cent on unearned income, 83 per cent on earned income. Instead, we’ve returned to the 19th-century idea that if you’re born poor, you’re going to stay poor.”

After his English degree, he completed a one-year course in film-making in Bristol. Then he needed a job.

“There was no way I would have been able to hang around and do ‘internships’,” he told me. “I became a trainee assistant film editor at Thames Television” – which is how he came to work for Anderson and where he was given his first professional directing job, on a pair of documentaries about the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, from whom he learned that if you establish fruitful partnerships and retain a clear sense of what you’re trying to achieve, film-making is “not that hard”. (Bergman may have been “just as complicated psychologically” as Anderson, “but when it came to the work, he was disciplined”.)

In 1993, after the Bergman documentaries and then a run of commissions in television drama, including the opening episodes of Jimmy McGovern’s ITV series Cracker, Winterbottom was itching to make his first feature film. Frank Cottrell Boyce, a friend from Oxford, had written a script entitled Delirious, about car thieves in Liverpool, but it was failing to attract a backer, so they moved on to a new idea: another crime thriller set in Lancashire, but with a difference – it could be done cheaply, with money cobbled together from public funding bodies. “All our anger and frustration about not making the other one went into it,” Winterbottom recalled. “We did it for nothing. It was a very stressful phase. And that was Butterfly Kiss” – in which a pair of chalk-and-cheese lesbians cause havoc on the M6.

In Icons in the Fire, an attack on “practically everyone in the British film industry”, in which Winterbottom is one of the few heads spared, the critic Alexander Walker recalled his surprise when the director followed up Butterfly Kiss with a “period drama”. But Jude – the first of Winterbottom’s three Hardy adaptations – was fast-moving and stark, not at all Merchant-Ivory. After Jude, there came, in swift succession, “Bosnia war reportage, period western, East End soap opera, Ulster social comedy, glam-rock clubland, overland asylum-seeking” – the films in question being Welcome to SarajevoThe ClaimWonderlandWith or Without You24-Hour Party People and In This World. (Walker forgot I Want You, which should probably be characterised as Hastings psychosexual noir – still, somehow, a genre of one.) “Bewildering,” Walker concluded: “at the same time, curiously courageous for a British director.”

***

Winterbottom has continued in this bewilderingly courageous way, combining speed with variety, adding to his genre hoard and keeping the operation small. While former collaborators such as Rachel Weisz and Kate Winslet have been starring in globetrotting thrillers and 3D blockbusters, or, in the case of Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant and Peter Capaldi, playing Doctor Who, Winterbottom has carried on telling intimate tales about what he calls “home, family, things like that”; among them Everyday, a drama about a struggling mother (played by Shirley Henderson) that was shot over five years. Where his near contemporary Danny Boyle went off to make Slumdog Millionaire, Winterbottom made Trishna, an Indian adaptation of Tess, described by its star, Freida Pinto, who was also the lead actress in Slumdog, as “a hardcore independent project”.

Generally, his dealings with the US have been marked by resistance. On its release in 1997, Harvey Weinstein’s company Miramax distributed Welcome to Sarajevo – even screened it at the White House for Bill Clinton. But when Weinstein offered Winterbottom $1.5m to direct Good Will Hunting the director said the script wasn’t good enough. It took him months of conversations with the novelist John Irving to reach the same conclusion about another Miramax project, The Cider House Rules. (Each film won an Oscar for its screenplay.) Winterbottom didn’t make a film on American soil until 2009, when he went to Oklahoma to shoot The Killer Inside Me, a thriller whose violence against female characters prompted outrage and earned him a nomination for the Sexist Pig Award from the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. (He lost out to Mel Gibson.)

On two occasions – both before the sexist pig accusation – he had been approached by women bearing offers too good to refuse. In 2004 Angelina Jolie brought him A Mighty Heart, an adaptation of Mariane Pearl’s memoir about her husband, the murdered journalist Daniel Pearl. Then, a few years later, Naomi Klein approached him to make an archival documentary based on The Shock Doctrine, her book about disaster capitalism. (Klein later changed her mind about the format – she wanted something more topical and responsive – and the film was made without her input.) But on the whole, the ideas for Winterbottom’s films have emerged from Revolution Films, the production company he started with Andrew Eaton in 1994.

In 2001 Winterbottom and Eaton were developing a project about illegal immigrants but couldn’t decide on a starting point. Then the 9/11 attacks happened, and within a few weeks Winterbottom and the writer Tony Grisoni were wandering around a refugee camp in Peshawar, looking for young Afghan men willing to play a version of themselves and do the trip to London for real. (“I thought it was going to be in English,” David Thompson, one of the executive producers of the film that emerged from the trip, recalled. “I was somewhat surprised when it came back in Pashto.”)

The year 2003 marked the high point of Winterbottom’s acclaim. In February, barely a year after Winterbottom had touched down in Peshawar, In This World – the asylum film’s eventual title – was accepted to show at the Berlin International Film Festival, where it won three prizes, including the Golden Bear. When it was released in Britain, the critic Sukhdev Sandhu, who was born in 1970, called it the best British film of his lifetime. Soon afterwards, Winterbottom appeared in a Guardian critics’ poll of the best directors currently practising. The citation announced: “British cinema would be lost without him.”

Peter Bradshaw, the Guardian critic who wrote that citation, has been less impressed with the films he has made in the past decade. “It’s all very good letting narrative and all those traditional things go hang,” he said recently, “but it does make for a rather miscellaneous experience in the cinema.” He described the films’ “rough-and-ready quality”, which he identifies in all Winterbottom’s recent work except for The Killer Inside Me and The Trip, as “more lax than loose”, and added: “I often wonder whether he’s thinking about the next project.”

Eaton identifies misunderstanding in both criticisms. To the idea that Winterbottom’s work since around Wonderland has been lax or slapdash: “Do you have any idea how hard it is to make stuff as natural as that, to have that flow?” To those who say Winterbottom makes too many films: “If Michael was a plumber, and you asked him to do work on your house, he wouldn’t say, ‘Oh, I’m far too creatively exhausted, I couldn’t possibly do it.’ It’s just the next job.”

Thompson offered a more matter-of-fact reflection. “That’s just the way he works –he does these things in a white heat,” said. “He’s finished them before you realise he has shot them. It’s like writing a song. Some film-makers spend two years fiddling with a film. Michael would go crazy. And I don’t think the result would be any better.” (Bradshaw conceded that “part of his mojo is to keep moving – something we critics don’t understand”.)

Thompson added, “Some of his films work better than others – he knows that.” In 1997, when he had made four films, ­Winterbottom reflected on the benefit that Ingmar Bergman derived from a hefty back-catalogue: “There’s actually enough volume that if he does a comedy that doesn’t succeed, it’s merely a blip in the overall work.”

***

A few days after I first interviewed Winterbottom, I went to the Revolution Films office in Clerkenwell, central London, to meet Melissa Parmenter, the composer who is now his regular producer (Eaton serves as an executive producer). Parmenter has a fondness for rhyme: “totes mahotes”, “okey-dokey”, “good plan, Stan”. Instead of “meltdown”, she says “granny panic”. She described Michael Nyman’s music for Wonderland, not inaccurately, as “an insane score – the best score ever”.

At first, Winterbottom and Parmenter, who live together and have a four-year-old son, seem an unlikely partnership. Where Winterbottom can be evasive, perhaps defensive, Parmenter is open and unguarded. She seems clearer about who Winterbottom is than he is. She is also more outwardly passionate. During my talk with Winterbottom, he used the word “love” twice – about Nyman’s music and Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs Miller. Parmenter, by contrast, said she “loves”, among other things, The Killer Inside MeGenova, “the melancholy bits of The Trip to Italy”, Nyman, and “the fact that Michael does what he wants”. But under the Noughties colloquialisms and granny-panic veneer, Parmenter is grounded and – to use a phrase that she might – on it, a total convert to Winterbottom’s heads-down ethos. She resembles her own description of Tracey Emin, whose 2004 film Top Spot she produced: “She looked like she had no idea what she was doing, but she knew totally what she was doing.”

“We make quite different films,” she told me. “It’s weird. What’s Michael’s most commercial film? But he doesn’t aim for that. He just makes what he wants to make.”

I asked Parmenter why he is so good at winning permission to do that. “Well, the idea of all his films is interesting. I mean, Road to Guantanamo: who wouldn’t want to see the story of the Tipton Three? It’s got to be made. Or 9 Songs – we’re going to show real sex. Filming Everyday over five years – that’s an amazing idea. We went to Tessa Ross at Channel 4 and said, ‘We’re going to film these people doing nothing.’ She said, ‘Here’s £1.1m. Bye!’ Obviously we reported back to them.”

It must help, I said, that there hadn’t been any disasters.

“That’s down to Michael. He’s so aware of all levels of the film-making process. He’s got his fingers in all the pies. It gets a bit much sometimes. [As Winterbottom told me, “When you’re a director, everything that happens is kind of your fault.”] But if you’re doing a small film, you can’t say, ‘Actors aren’t allowed trailers’ – if there’s a trailer even anywhere near, he goes mental – and then turn around and say, ‘I don’t want to know anything about the budget.’”

When I caught up with Winterbottom last summer, he expressed some frustration that The Emperor’s New Clothes – the documentary with Russell Brand – hadn’t been shown more widely, and that The Face of an Angel – the Amanda Knox drama– had been rounded on by British critics. Yet it was clear that his heart wasn’t really in it: both films were well on their way to becoming past obsessions. He’d been up at 6.30 that morning, doing rewrites for a new project, Russ and Roger Go Beyond, a comedy starring Will Ferrell, about the making of Russ Meyer’s camp musical Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. (I asked if Ferrell was someone he knew socially and he replied: “No, strangely not.”) Although the script originated in Hollywood and the production, based in Los Angeles, would almost certainly involve trailers, Winterbottom talked about Russ and Roger less as a necessary commercial compromise (“the money isn’t vastly better”) than as a much-needed break. He reminded me that “developing a film from scratch comes with a burden of effort”.

Still, it turned out that his heart wasn’t really in that one, either. Just before the end of the year, he quit. Someone muttered something about creative differences. Burdensome or not, it seems he prefers success – and failure – on his own terms: working under the Revolution banner with a small, familiar crew and room for improvisation with actors he calls friends. It is said he’s getting ready to shoot The Trip to Spain.

Leo Robson is the New Statesman’s lead fiction critic

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Should Labour split?