Weather makers

As storms break around Gordon Brown and David Cameron, politics is being shaped not by the party lea

On the evening before Gordon Brown's career-defining speech at the Labour Party conference in Manchester, he met James Murdoch, the 35-year-old who is chief executive in Europe and Asia of his father Rupert Murdoch's media conglomerate, News Corporation, and whose position includes control of the British newspaper group News International. The two men talked for nearly an hour, discussing in particular the global financial crisis. It is unprecedented for Brown to have spent so long on anything other than refining his leader's speech on the night before he delivered it. That this meeting took place when it did and for the length it did confirms what many already suspected: James Murdoch has become the most powerful figure in the British media.

Before Tony Blair became leader, Labour politicians would complain about the deep-rooted Conservatism of the British press, and with good reason. In the Eighties, only the Daily and Sunday Mirror, the Guardian and the Observer supported Labour. The Mail and Telegraph titles were robust backers of the Conservatives, as were the Daily and Sunday Express. Murdoch's market-leading publications - the Sun, News of the World, the Times and the Sunday Times - were Thatcher's cheerleaders. The Sun and News of the World continued to endorse John Major following his election victory in 1992, even as they chronicled the collapse of his fatigued and divided government. Winning the support of the Sun, in the run-up to the 1997 election, was a pivotal moment for new Labour, the culmination of a sustained campaign to woo Murdoch that began when Peter Mandelson became Labour's director of communication in 1985. This meant that a Labour administration could operate in a climate where the political weather wasn't being created by an overwhelmingly hostile press.

When Gordon Brown and his advisers first surveyed the media landscape after he became Prime Minister in June 2007, it was agreed that it was imperative they retain the support of the Murdoch titles. But there was also optimism in the Brown camp that a hostile Tory press could be neutralised. There was a feeling that old allies in the press, including the Guardian, edited by Alan Rusbridger, would embrace Brown after losing faith in Blair over the Iraq W.ar. The Guardian columnists Polly Toynbee, Jonathan Freedland and Jackie Ashley were all trenchant supporters of Brown. The Daily Mail had been vitriolic in its criticism of new Labour and of Tony Blair personally, but Brown has long enjoyed good relations with its editor-in-chief, Paul Dacre. Dacre, it is said, admires the Prime Minister's probity and moral convictions, if not his politics, and the decision to shelve the construction of several planned "super-casinos' delighted the Mail. The Daily Telegraph is broadly supportive of the Conservatives, but senior executives as well as commentators such as editor-at-large Jeff Randall and associate editor Simon Heffer are sceptical of David Cameron's social liberalism. The Sunday Telegraph is close to the Brown government; the political editor, Patrick Hennessy, is a friend of Ed Balls and he was given an exclusive interview by Brown on the eve of the Manchester conference.

Yet the tectonic plates have started to shift beneath Fleet Street. The Daily Mail leader columns still occasionally profess admiration for Brown while also fiercely denouncing his government elsewhere in the paper. Last month, the Mail also published a significant editorial in which David Cameron was acclaimed as a possible future Prime Minister. The Guardian has begun to take the Conservative revival more seriously, and Toynbee, Ashley and Freedland have turned against Brown; they now call weekly for his departure. That might explain why Brown made only a fleeting visit to the paper's late-night party in Manchester, choosing instead to spend half an hour at the rival Daily Telegraph party, where he chatted at length to its editor-in-chief, Will Lewis.

Over the summer, as the Tories built a 20-point lead in the opinion polls, the media became less sceptical of Cameron, choosing to focus instead on Brown's diminished popularity and party disunity. That became the central story around which every other political event was made to fit. In those circumstances, the Prime Minister's widely maligned press adviser, Damian McBride, deserves credit for ensuring that his employer did not receive harsher treatment from the press during his annus horribilis. McBride has been accused of briefing against members of the government, and some cabinet ministers are urging Brown to sack him, but there are some political correspondents who believe that without him the Prime Minister's position would be irrecoverable.

The Prime Minister does not have the same close relationship with James Murdoch as he does with his father. Rupert Murdoch - and his economic adviser Irwin Stelzer - respects Brown's intellect and knowledge of global economics. Last week's conversation between Brown and James Murdoch was an attempt to bring the two closer together. Sources close to the government say that Rupert Murdoch remains important to Brown internationally, pointing out that his experience and opinion is valued by other world leaders. They believe that if Murdoch told the White House that Brown was finished, he would wield far less global influence. As it is, Murdoch urges world leaders to seek the Prime Minister's advice, particularly on economic matters, which is one of the reasons Bush granted Brown a 90-minute audience in the Oval office during an unscheduled visit to Washington last week. "Murdoch's respect for Brown's understanding of the world economy is absolutely key to his ongoing respect for him," says one source. "Murdoch's critics might argue politicians are too quick to credit him with power he does not possess, but they will continue to court him as long as he remains influential on the world stage."

In an era when ideological differences between the two parties are less pronounced, personal relationships have more currency, and No 10 has worked hard to strengthen links with the press, although it is a source of frustration for some in Downing Street that Brown does not engage with members of the so-called commentariat, many of whom enjoyed regular access to Blair. The Prime Minister is, unlike his predecessor, unwilling to spend time having coffee with commentators such as Peter Riddell of the Times or Anne McElvoy of the London Evening Standard, not because he doesn't respect or like them, but because he thinks he has more important work in hand. Blair's good and open relations with newspaper commentators and opinion formers meant he could generally rely on supportive columns, even after a terrible week. Brown has not been so fortunate.

Relations with Fleet Street executives are more cordial. The Telegraph editor Will Lewis knew Brown well when he was a young Financial Times journalist and Brown was shadow trade and industry secretary. They subsequently drifted apart, but the respect remains mutual. The Prime Minister is also friendly with Murdoch MacLennan, chief executive of the Telegraph Media Group, and a fellow Scot.

Alliances with News International remain strong, thanks in large part to the work of Sarah Brown, who, in a brilliantly executed piece of political theatre, introduced her husband's main speech in Manchester. Sarah has been described as Gordon's "secret weapon", but those close to her point out that she has been carrying out an emissarial role for some time, effectively acting as an unofficial press attaché for her husband. She hosted a recent charity dinner in New York with the Sun's editor Rebekah Wade and Wendi Murdoch, Rupert's third wife. A plan to take Wade on the Prime Minister's plane to the United States was scrapped, but the Murdoch clan's close relationship with Sarah was much in evidence on the American trip. His daughter Elisabeth Murdoch, who runs her own TV production company, delivered a glowing tribute to the Prime Minister's wife at the function, which was attended by bankers, models and actresses. Wendi was seen at a private dinner at Soho House, in the Meatpacking District of Manhattan, attended by Sarah the following night. Sarah also organised a trip with Paul Dacre to see Hamlet at Stratford, and she helped plan Rebekah Wade's 40th birthday party earlier this year. As befits a former professional public relations executive, Sarah has good relations with the editors of some of the bestselling, and most influential, women's lifestyle magazines.

Further evidence of the deep ties between the government and the Murdoch family were on display earlier this month at a party to celebrate Elisabeth Murdoch's 40th birthday, held at the country home in Oxfordshire she recently bought with her husband Matthew Freud. At the gathering, Rupert Murdoch read out a message from Gordon Brown apologising for his absence, explaining that he and Sarah were with "the other Liz" in Balmoral that weekend. Etiquette may have required the PM to visit the Queen, but there is little doubt which is the more powerful family. Other guests at the Murdoch party included Tony Blair, David Miliband, the Times editor James Harding and Will Lewis of the Daily Telegraph. David Cameron was there, too, but he is still largely on the outside, waiting in hope for an endorsement from Rupert Murdoch. That Cameron's director of com munications and planning, Andy Coulson, a former News of the World editor, is a member of Cameron's inner circle may help to change that. Steve Hilton, Cameron's director of strategy, has wide influence, but he has few direct dealings with the press and, in any event, is living in California (his wife works for Google). James Murdoch's friendship with the shadow chancellor George Osborne, whose social liberalism is consistent with his own, may ultimately have more influence on the Murdochs' position - and, by implication, that of their British newspapers - on the Tories.

But are we at the end of an era? The next election may be the last at which national newspapers exert such a decisive influence over the way the country votes. Although newspapers still reflect the nation's mood, and help to shape it, sales figures suggest they are no longer as powerful as they once were. The combined circulation of daily newspapers (excluding the Daily Star) has fallen from 11.3 million to 9.68 million since the last general election; the decline since 1997 is even more pronounced. Those circulation figures obviously do not take account of the growing power and influence of newspaper websites, or the startling transformations media groups have made in their online operations in the past year, but no one doubts that the information industry is fragmenting.

Unlike in the US, where sites such as the Huffington Post and the Drudge Report often break stories followed by the national media, this country has not produced a truly influential online commentator with power to set the news agenda, though bloggers such as Iain Dale and Guido Fawkes are read. They are both right-of-centre commentators, and it is notable that the left has been particularly slow to harness new technology, as Barack Obama has done so successfully in the US.

The internet has changed the news cycle, rendering front-page exclusives out of date long before they are read. Newspapers looked slow and flat-footed when they told readers last week that the US treasury secretary Hank Paulson had won support for his $700bn bailout deal hours after it was scuppered by Congress. Broadcasters, now regarded as more important than the press by No 10, still take their lead from Fleet Street, however. The BBC regularly follows Daily Mail scoops, although senior BBC sources say they uncover enough stories of their own and follow newspaper exclusives regardless of where they are published.

There is some disgruntlement at No 10 about new arrivals at the BBC, which is placing former Conservative supporters in executive roles, such as John Tate, the BBC's new director of policy and strategy, and hiring senior producers on flagship programmes in anticipation of a change in the government. Tate, who formerly ran the Opposition Policy Unit, co-wrote the 2005 Tory manifesto with Cameron. But a senior BBC News executive says the atmosphere of mutual distrust between the corporation and spin-doctors in both parties has been replaced by one of co-operation. When Cameron visited Georgia, the Tories were eager for the BBC to cover his press conference. But, instead, its camera crews and reporters were employed at the border, where Russian tanks were advancing. A polite conversation explaining that covering the conflict had to take priority was enough to assuage complaints, according to one BBC News executive, even if some programme editors tell a different story. Many describe Coulson as "a shouter" and claim he has tried to exert control over the questions Cameron is asked in interviews, though he ensured that the BBC's political editor Nick Robinson had unfettered access to the Tory leader for a Panorama special screened on Monday 29 September. There is no doubt that Coulson has professionalised the Conservatives' media operation. Senior Tories who seldom ventured into daytime TV studios now regularly appear on the GMTV sofa, for example.

With the rest of Fleet Street neatly divided along party lines, with the possible exception of Roger Alton's Independent and the Financial Times, the value of a Murdoch endorsement is magnified. Some observers believe it is inevitable that the Murdoch newspapers will ultimately support the Tories if they retain their poll lead as an election approaches, citing the old adage that Murdoch "only ever backs winners". But senior News International executives counter by saying that its four titles have never backed the same party, and a senior source at the Times insists he has little idea which party his paper, or the other titles, will come out for. Intriguingly, he adds that much will depend on who leads the Labour Party into the next election. If Brown is deposed, his successor may have to fight harder than the current Prime Minister to win Murdoch's backing.

In the meantime, the global financial crisis has provided Fleet Street with a dramatic new narrative, and boosted Brown's standing in the opinion polls. At the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham, some delegates muttered that the unprecedented turmoil in the markets might prove to be Brown's equivalent of the Falklands War: a crisis that offers an opportunity to reclaim lost credibility and restore his electoral appeal. Much has been written about the power of the Murdoch newspapers, and Rupert Murdoch's willingness to use his papers to promote and protect his commercial interests. But at a time of international emergency Murdoch is likely to support only those politicians whom he believes are best placed to deal with the crisis. Perhaps that is what Gordon Brown and James Murdoch were discussing last week.

James Robinson is media editor of the Observer

This article first appeared in the 06 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Perils of power

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?