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Interview: Peter Mandelson

Just before being reappointed to the Cabinet Peter Mandelson, one of the key architects of New Labou

"I think if the party were to be taken over by those who want to reject new Labour, reject what the party has done over the past decade and all its achievements - we would be inviting a very long time in opposition."

Standing at the window of his hotel room in Manchester, Peter Mandelson is apprehensive as he talks about what has gone wrong with the Brown government and how best to repair the damage. Before this meeting, he repeatedly said he would not go on the record; that he is wary of interviews. But having spent two days at the party conference, and deciding that the need for a carefully planned revival of the party is more "urgent" than ever, Mandelson agrees to make his most wide-ranging intervention on British politics since leaving the country for the European Commission in 2004.

His message is clear. The government must not move to the left; rather, it must create a fresh and coherent strategy to "renew new Labour" and win the next election.

First, the obvious leadership question. Mandelson finally disappoints those rebel MPs who have been agitating for Gordon Brown's departure by supporting the Prime Minister - but with a strong qualification. "I do not think changing the face at the top is the panacea some imagine," he says. "But the whole of the leadership must remain true to the values and prin ciples that have delivered us success in the past ten years."

Since May, Mandelson has been talking again to his old rival Gordon Brown, and not just about the Doha round of trade talks that have dominated his role as Commissioner for External Trade in recent months. "It would be odd if we didn't discuss domestic issues," he says. "We have a shared interest in Labour's fortunes. [But] the last thing Gordon needs is another full-time adviser."

The relationship between Mandelson and Brown has always been more complicated, and emotional, than is widely thought. Each could not be more different in personality - one a witty, metropolitan sophisticate, the other an intellectual hardened by the machinations of Scottish politics - but their fortunes became interconnected through a mutual desire for Labour to become the natural party of government.

From 1985, when this former London Weekend Television producer arrived as director of campaigns and communications at Labour's then headquarters in Walworth Road, south London, Mandelson worked closely with both Brown and Tony Blair, the two MPs who - in that order - he believed would lead the party into government. After John Smith's sudden death in 1994, Mandelson agonised as he found himself caught between loyalty to Brown and the realisation that Blair would ultimately emerge as leader of the party.

Soon after, it would be reported and accepted as conventional wisdom that Mandelson had duplicitously betrayed Brown by moving early to support Blair; it became part of the myth of how Brown was robbed of the leadership. But in spite of this and their many arguments in the past, there remains a mutual respect. It has been said that Brown's hostility to Mandelson had less to do with Mandelson than with his own, unstable relationship with Blair. The reality is that, with Blair out of the way, relations have become easier.

"I don't think one has to be a brilliant psycho-analyst to see that there was quite a lot of transfer of anger on to Peter that couldn't be inflicted on Blair himself. That came from the Labour Party generally and also from Brown and the people around him," says the novelist Robert Harris, one of Mandelson's most loyal friends.

"We have had our ups and downs," Mandelson says of Brown. "But remember, we have known each other for over 20 years."

Asked if Brown's leadership is the disaster that, in private, some Labour MPs say it is, Mandelson disagrees. "I don't accept that judgement of him, and I really don't think this is simply a matter of personalities."

What of Brown's personality? What are his qualities? "The reason why Gordon's speech at conference was a success was that it opened more of a window on to Gordon Brown," Mandelson says later, speaking from China. "The public want to feel a connection, a personal one, with their prime ministers. They know he has a full head of policy ideas and experience. But they also want to know more about him. These are serious times. But that doesn't mean he has to be only about policy, and he showed another side of him."

His support is not unequivocal. "It's a matter of political choices. A choice of who we are, what we stand for and what we want to do for our country. Do we want to go back to some variation of Seventies/Eighties Labour politics? Why should our voters be interested in that? You are saying to people: Go ahead, vote for the Conservatives instead. David Cameron would just have to sit back and watch the votes come rolling in. Labour would no longer deserve to win."

Walking around the conference halls with Mandelson in Manchester, I was struck by how warmly so many cabinet ministers embraced him. And yet, also present were many of his old enemies, including Charlie Whelan, Brown's old spin doctor who is now political director for Unite, the UK's largest union. Whelan was busy briefing journalists at the conference, as well as speaking to ministers.

Mandelson warns Brown not to be swayed by such voices. "When I listen to some of the trade union leaders and others who are organising hard on the left of the party, demanding renationalisation and an end to new Labour, sneering at the so-called Blairites, I realise there are still those who prefer the comfort of opposition to the hard tasks of government.

"If anyone thinks that the party has a future by splitting the difference between the old left and new Labour, that we can take six of one and half a dozen of the other and rebuild the party around that, we will go downhill fast. Because the country has to have a real sense of what we are about, a clear definition, and there has to be a hard edge to the party in what we stand for and how we present ourselves to the electorate. Not nodding in this direction, then that direction, pleasing this group, reaching out to the other, without any clear, purposeful direction.

"The public will conclude we are more interested in shoring up our own ranks and maintaining the appearance of unity than governing with a real project. The new Labour way is harder because it requires both more imagination and more rigour. It also takes more courage to demand change than unity. I came away from conference having talked to many former colleagues and friends and I've never felt such a sense of urgency for Labour to think through how it's going to win the next election."

There is a sense that the government has been too passive for too long. "We have to have more imagination and better ideas . . . I don't feel resigned to defeat, I don't feel fatalistic. I can't bear these people who, looking over the precipice, are frozen into inaction.

"That's not what got us into government in the first place, that's not what has driven us forward these past ten years, and there's no reason why we should be paralysed by our prospects now."

Born in 1953, Mandelson grew up in Hampstead Garden Suburb, in north-west London, where Harold and Mary Wilson were neighbours and good friends of the family: Tony, Mandelson's father, an advertising manager for the Jewish Chronicle, his mother, Mary (Herbert Morrison's daughter), and his elder brother, Miles. The young Mandelson was active in the Young Socialists while at Hendon County Grammar. After a period as Labour represen tative for Stockwell on Lambeth Council, he joined an elite band of young producers at LWT working on Weekend World, presented by the former Labour MP Brian Walden. In 1985, he applied for the role of Lab our's communications and campaigns director. The successful candidate remembers entering the party's dreary office, with its barely functioning table and chair, and having to start, against the odds, the job of helping remake the party and presenting it to the outside world as changed.

Mandelson was always more than just a PR man; and when, with Tony Blair's help, he sought and won his own seat in Hartlepool in 1992, the then leader, Neil Kinnock, and his chief of staff, Charles Clarke, were angry that such a trusted consigliere should wish to strike out on his own. After Labour's landslide in 1997, Blair made Mandelson minister without portfolio, then moved him to the Department of Trade and Industry the following year. But that December, someone close to Brown leaked news that, in 1996, Mandelson had helped fund the purchase of a house in Notting Hill with a secret loan from his fellow Labour minister Geoffrey Robinson. Mandelson resigned and was forced to return to the back benches. But as early as the following autumn, Blair brought back his old ally as Northern Ireland secretary.

In January 2001, he was brought down again after it was alleged that he had intervened on behalf of Srichand Hinduja, a businessman and sponsor of the Millennium Dome who was seeking a British passport. Mandelson still protests his innocence in the affair - and with some justification, given that he was cleared by the sub sequent Hammond inquiry. At this point, the cabinet career of one whom even the fiercest of critics accept is a man of rare talent was prematurely ended.

Robert Harris thinks these incidents should not be allowed to overshadow Mandelson's qualities and achievements. "Peter has a very good strategic sense," he says. "Of all the politicians I've ever spoken to, I think he's the sharpest, the most analytical. Oddly enough, I think that probably his most important time was before Labour came to power and during the government's early days. It may be that, when one looks back on it, this was always going to be his biggest contribution."

Reflecting now on the period during which Labour was preparing for a return to power, Mandelson says: "Recovery has got to be fought for. I hate the fatalism that some seem to have about Labour's prospects. If you battled your way through the Eighties and early Nineties as I did, when the situation in the party was dire compared to what it is now, you realise that you have to fight back. You don't resign yourself to losing or to thinking your opponents have found some magic formula for success.

"But what we also learned in the Nineties is that to win, you have to have purpose and direction. You need a very clear proposition to put to the electorate, and you have to have a clear sense of what you want to use your power for. Inevitably, it's more difficult when you've been in office for as long as Labour has, but it doesn't mean it is impossible to do."

Despite this, he qualifies his support for the "campaign for a fourth term" launched by John Prescott and Alastair Campbell in the New Statesman a fortnight ago. At the Labour conference, Prescott - who once compared Mandelson to a crab - was energetically handing out "Go Fourth" stickers to delegates.

Without being prompted, Mandelson says: "Rather than talk about the fourth term as if we are owed it, and that all we need to do is shout loudly enough for it, you have to work out what your project is. It has to be an extension of what you've done to date, built on what you've done so far, but it has to be about the future, not the past. If the Labour Party can renew new Labour afresh, I believe it has a real chance of winning the next election. But it has to be worked for and earned, not just demanded."

What does he say to the rebel MPs, led by Charles Clarke, who called for a leadership election before conference? "There is an attempt to brand all critics of the government as Blairites in order to isolate them and present their cause as one half of a destructive civil war." In a direct rebuke of the formula used by Prescott, he adds: "They are not Blairites or Brownites or bitterites. They are people who want the party to be successful, to win again."

Does he accept the media assumption that the Conservative Party has changed and "modernised" under David Cameron? "They have managed to change their image rather quickly by shedding some of the dogma, but I don't think they have done the equivalent major changes and I don't think they have carried the party entirely with them. [But] it is no use just attacking the opposition. We need to be confident in our own message. Labour's renewal has to come from within, not from simply refining our anti-Tory strategy, as some seem to think. That's not the way to a fourth term. When you have been in office this long, your main challenge is to renew yourself. If we cannot do that we will lose."

At his most “Mandelsonian”, he remains a constant scourge of the left, critical of those who take the dark view that Labour has run out of ideas

Earlier in the summer, while on holiday in Corfu, Mandelson dined with the shadow chancellor George Osborne. "[It was] by chance, rather than by choice, with 20 other people," he explains. "But I did enjoy talking to him, because I haven't known him previously and I wanted to find out what he's made of." And what is he made of? "I decided that a chance encounter in a Greek taverna didn't equip me well enough to form a judgement."

Mandelson looks pained - almost haunted - as he describes the reversal of the opinion polls over the past year, and accepts that Labour's plight is more grave than at any time under Blair. "I think that Labour has been thrown by what's happened. A lot of people active in the party now haven't known a time when we're not ahead in the polls. It's only in the last year that we've experienced such a reverse in support. But polls are like share prices - what goes down can come up as long as there's a change in performance."

At his most "Mandelsonian" - some might say paranoid - he remains a constant scourge of the left, critical of those who take the dark view that Labour has run out of ideas and should seek "to renew itself in opposition".

"I think the people eager for Labour to renew in opposition are those who see the chance to overturn new Labour and revert to the vote-losing policies of the old left. They are the same people who talk about a core vote and how we should return to our heartlands. In other words, cease to be a broadly based party, north and south, young and old, across geographical and professional boundaries.

"Those who say that are simply inviting defeat at the next election. That is exactly what the left said as the Labour government came to a close at the end of the Seventies; indeed, listening to some in Manchester, I'm rather reminded of that time where the old left were feigning support for the government and the leadership, but in reality were hastening its end.

"They wanted to take over the party and lead it backwards into the nearest cul de sac. We all know where that led. We spent the next 18 years languishing in the wilderness."

Instead, he says, the non-partisan, all-encompassing nationwide appeal that contributed to Labour winning two landslide election victories must be rediscovered. "We have to look at the whole country as our constituency, in the way that we did in 1997. We didn't look at Labour voters and non-Labour voters, heartland voters and non-heartland voters in 1997 - we looked at the voters as a whole, we looked at the country as a whole, everyone a potential Labour voter. People who agreed with what we wanted to do for the country, who recognised that we had put our class instincts behind us, and who were ready to embrace a modern economy in a sensible and disciplined way."

The work Mandelson did as one of the three principal architects of new Labour wasn't "about heartlands or Labour people and non-Labour people - it was about everyone". So what does he think of the left's mobilisation and agitation for a change of direction under the banner of Compass and the unions? "If the Labour Party reverts to that sectional, class-based way, then we can say goodbye to power altogether."

Later, as he walks in the Manchester sunshine on a lovely late summer evening, Mandelson speaks for the first time about his future beyond his present job, a job that has made him more powerful than most in the cabinet. "I enjoy my job. I couldn't have asked for a better brief than world trade. But I don't know what I am going to do next year when my term runs out. I am not seeking a second term. It's odd, because on the occasions that I come to London now I feel like a bit of a tourist, and I don't like that."

In person, Mandelson has the presence of a man who has learned much from his travels. "I will always want to remain in the world, in an international role, whatever I do, because I've enjoyed going to so many countries, learning so much. But, equally, it would be nice to have my home base back again."

Some ministers - especially those close to David Miliband, whose speech he watched from the front row after being excitedly greeted by a party steward - talk of a return to government for Mandelson. To others, the idea is absurd. But every previous former EU commissioner has been appointed to the Lords, and it is common for ministers and shadow ministers to be appointed from the Upper House.

Does he want to return to front-line politics? Mandelson says he hasn't given it a "second's thought", but adds: "Well, I care a lot about British politics, and as I travel I realise that British politics are among the best, the cleanest and the most civilised in the world . . .

"I'll always be contributing to Labour in one form or another, but I don't know what I will do professionally. You can be active in politics without being in parliament, and obviously I don't see a return to the House of Commons."

In 1935 Mandelson's grandfather Herbert Morrison was returned to parliament for the second time - and ran unsuccessfully against Clement Attlee for the Labour leadership. Mandelson once said that his ultimate ambition was to become foreign secretary. That hope may now seem unrealistic. Yet, given his experience from the past few years, after his second, reluctant resignation from the cabinet, it would be unwise to rule out some future international role for a natural-born politician who has come back many times before.

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.

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.

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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.”

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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?