Gone to the dogs

Barking in east London was once such a Labour stronghold that the party barely needed to canvass. Now the BNP threatens to seize control. Daniel Trilling follows both far-right and anti-fascist activists on the campaign trail.

 

As gap-year activities go, canvassing for a far-right party is not on most teenagers' wish-list, but that's what George, 18, has volunteered to do. With his public-school quiff and Union Jack tie, and armed with a clipboard, he is spending Saturday afternoon working his way along a street of squat 1920s semis on the Becontree estate in Barking, Essex. He is joined by Phil, a 34-year-old mental health worker from Lincoln. They have both answered the British National Party's nationwide call for activists to help the party's leader, Nick Griffin, seize a Westminster seat on 6 May.

After winning two seats in the European Parliament last June (Griffin in the north-west and Andrew Brons in Yorkshire and Humber), the party is putting up a record number of parliamentary candidates - more than 200 at the last count. It may have little chance of winning outside Barking and Stoke Central (where Griffin's deputy, Simon Darby, is standing), but by campaigning it has been able to influence mainstream debate - not least on immigration. "The rhetoric of the Express and the Mail could come from one of our own newsletters," George tells me. "But then they have to say, 'Don't vote for those fascists!' It's ridiculous."

In a neat cul-de-sac, two men in their thirties are sitting on the front step of a house, drinking lager in the sun. "Is it true the BNP want to get rid of all the Gurkhas?" one of them asks, referring to the retired Nepalese soldiers who have been granted the right to settle in the UK. "No," George says. "In fact, our chairman Nick Griffin said he'd gladly replace 100,000 British-born Muslims with 100,000 loyal Gurkhas who fought for this country." The man looks impressed. "Yeah, I'd go for that."

Back on the main road, George and Phil are given a shout of support from a man across the street: "You're doing a good job, boys! Get rid of all those niggers." A black mother and her two daughters who are walking past at that moment quicken their pace. George and Phil exchange an awkward look. "He's probably had a bit too much to drink," George says.

Barking has become the heart of perhaps the most bitter battle of this year's election. Located on the eastern fringes of London, its high street is a mix of shops run by black, white and Asian people; you hear eastern European languages as you walk through the market crowds. Yet immigration has increased more recently here than elsewhere, and it has become a source of resentment among the white population.

The BNP has won support by exploiting local concerns. In 2006, it published two leaflets that claimed "various Labour councils are giving Africans grants of up to £50,000 to buy houses under a scheme known as 'Africans for Essex'". It wasn't true, but the BNP now has 12 seats on Barking and Dagenham Council and there are fears that the party may take control here in May's local elections. Anti-fascist groups and local Labour activists are making frantic efforts to ensure it doesn't win the 14 extra seats it needs to make that happen. The Hope not Hate campaign has temporarily moved its base of operations to a warehouse in Dagenham.

There was a time when Labour was so dominant in the area that it barely needed to canvass. When the Barking MP Margaret Hodge was first elected in 1994, she won with 72 per cent of the vote; in last year's European elections, Labour's share across Barking and Dagenham was 31 per cent. This mirrors a drop in Labour support nationally, but because neither the Tories nor the Lib Dems have ever had much presence here, the BNP has stepped in to fill the vacuum.

In an attempt to regain support, Hodge is hosting a question-and-answer session in a school hall with the former EastEnders actor Ross Kemp. But despite the star guest, there is little enthusiasm for Labour in the audience. Ann Steward, a member of a Becontree tenants' association, tells Hodge: "The only politician who attends our meetings is Richard Barnbrook [a BNP councillor] and that's why the BNP do so well. They come round and trim our hedges. Now the elections are looming we see Labour, but where have you been? We need your presence."

Steward, like many of her neighbours, has lived in Becontree her whole life. "I still have my mum's old rent book from the 1930s," she says. "For two weeks, she paid 8s and 6d." A vast estate built for skilled workers who were moved from the East End slums after the First World War, Becontree remains the largest such development in Europe. People here have never been wealthy, but they could once count on at least one certainty: a home provided by the council.

Since the Conservative government's Right to Buy scheme began in the 1980s, however, the number of homes provided by the council has been in decline - from 26,969 in 1990 to 19,303 today. Many former council houses have been sold on and the plentiful supply of properties has made Barking one of the cheapest places to rent or buy in London. As a result, it has become an attractive destination not just for immigrants, but for people across the capital pushed eastwards by rising house prices.

Yet it is also one of the most deprived places in the country, and the growing population puts an extra strain on public services. The problem is compounded by other London councils being allowed to place their own tenants and homeless people in private rented accommodation in the area. Even Tory-controlled Westminster - located on the other side of London and with some of Britain's most expensive streets - has placed 56 families here.

There are 11,695 families on Barking and Dagenham's housing list and local anger has been directed at the new faces they see down the street. As I follow Hodge canvassing, complaints about housing crop up again and again. We hear tales of families that have had to wait three, five or even more years to get a home. One man has spent eight years living in a one-bedroom flat with his wife and four children. Hodge and her team patiently explain that this is because of the Right to Buy, but few seem convinced. Many seem to have accepted the BNP's line that immigrants are the problem. A young mother says she's considering voting BNP because she likes the party's insistence that "local people get local housing". She adds hurriedly: "I'm not racist, though - half my family are black."

Hodge, who has been dashing between doorstep conversations with a bright "Hello, I'm your MP", turns to me and grimaces, as if to say: "You see what we're up against?" Hodge has made an effort to turn around Labour's fortunes in the borough. She has moved her office here from Westminster and last year oversaw moves to rejuvenate the local party and boost recruitment. Several councillors were deselected and the party has taken on a wave of younger, ethnically diverse members.

But is Hodge dealing with a problem partly of her own making? In 2006, shortly before that year's local elections, she told the Daily Telegraph that eight out of ten of her constituents were considering voting for the BNP. "They see black and ethnic-minority communities moving in and they are angry," she said. "They can't get a home for their children."

The BNP went on to win 12 seats on the council and the GMB trade union called for Hodge to resign. A year later, she said British families had "a legitimate sense of entitlement" to housing. The then education secretary, Alan Johnson, said her words were "grist to the mill" for the BNP. In February this year, Hodge argued that migrants should be made to wait up to 12 months before they could get access to the benefits system.

“The left don't like what I've been saying," she concedes. "But I think you can puncture racism by dealing with the feeling of unfairness that people have." But don't her statements - particularly given the dominance of anti-immigration newspapers - simply encourage racism? "Politicians always shy away from talking about immigration and the difficult issues that are associated with it. If we don't address those issues, we allow that territory to be captured by the extreme right."

This talk of "capturing territory" is a reminder of Hodge's intimate role in the New Labour project (in 1994, she co-nominated her Islington neighbour Tony Blair for the party leadership). Over the past 13 years, senior Labour figures from David Blunkett to Gordon Brown - with his speech on "British jobs for British workers" - have tried to sound tough on immigration in an attempt to head off criticism from the right. The 2010 Labour manifesto even carries a section titled "Crime and Immigration", as if the connection was obvious.

Yet none of this has stopped support for the party ebbing away in its former heartlands. Under pressure from figures on the left of the party, including the Dagenham MP Jon Cruddas, Labour has in recent months begun to address the lack of affordable housing. But is it too little too late? "Both main political parties should have invested far more in affordable social housing much sooner," Hodge admits. "But social housing is not universal, it is something that has to be rationed, and socialism has always been about the language of priorities."

Her team knocks at another door. The white-haired man in his fifties who answers says he'll vote "for whoever is going to stop all this
immigration. I drive a bus, and no one on it speaks English any more."

“Well, they all should speak English," Hodge replies.

In her 2006 interview, Hodge claimed that Barking had undergone "the most rapid transformation of a community we have ever witnessed", and she echoes that view during our conversation. But Ludi Simpson, a leading social statistician based at Manchester University, observes that between the 1991 census and the one in 2001, Barking and Dagenham's boundaries were redrawn to include 9,200 people, mainly from nearby Redbridge. So the "rapid" change is partly a statistical anomaly.

Simpson points to the most recent evidence, the 2008 School Census, which indicates that Barking and Dagenham still has a lower proportion of ethnic-minority pupils than most other London boroughs. "Hodge is wrong," Simpson tells me, "if she suggests that her constituents' local services, community spirit and jobs will be raised by restricting immigration or by diminishing immigrants' rights as citizens."

Josephine Channer, a 31-year-old small business owner, is one of the Londoners who have been attracted to Barking by its cheap property prices. She is also a Labour council candidate, but sees things differently to Hodge. "With a lot of the white community, I think support for the BNP is just plain racism," she says.

In the five years she has lived in Barking, Channer has seen her estate change from being largely white to a more typical urban mix. "Barking and Dagenham is experiencing what the rest of London experienced 50 years ago. I'm of West Indian origin and my mum had all this rubbish when she first moved to Britain. People say they're worried about housing and jobs, but they don't like to see a black face around here." She claims to have encountered prejudice within the Labour Party. "One councillor who was deselected said that they would run as an independent if they were going to be replaced by a black candidate."

Such attitudes would not have helped build support for Labour among Barking's black and Asian communities. In particular, Hodge has had difficulty winning over the area's African residents, even though they have been victimised by the BNP. Pastors in Barking's Pentecostal churches have been urging their congregations to vote for the fundamentalist Christian Party, whose leader, George Hargreaves, is also standing for parliament.

Hodge acknowledges this may split the anti-BNP vote, but plays down the threat. "I'm getting a mixed response. But I think the Christian Party is not about what I've done locally, it's about my attitude to abortion and stem-cell research." Channer takes a bleaker view: "We've pissed off the white community, the black community, the Asian community, and now we've got to try and mend it in four weeks."

In the garden of a Barking pub called the Cherry Tree, Nick Griffin is launching his party's campaign. Standing by the party's advertising bus - they call it the "Truth Truck" - he is giving interviews to television crews and wilting a little in the warm spring sunshine. He has been busy of late: aside from his duties as MEP for England's north-west (for which he receives a salary of £82,000), he has been trying to keep the lid on a crisis in his own party.

On 5 April, an urgent meeting was called to discuss an attempt at a "palace coup" by the party's publicity director Mark Collett. Police also took statements relating to an alleged threat to kill Griffin. The dispute is reported to have centred on money. An investigation by the anti-fascist Searchlight magazine this year found that many party members are unhappy about the extent to which the party's fundraising consultant Jim Dowson, a hardline Protestant Northern Irish businessman and anti-abortionist, now "practically owns" the party.

When we speak, however, Griffin tells me morale is "excellent", and he is bullish about his party's chances. "We're going to give Margaret Hodge the fight of her life. We want to win this seat, and we want to take control of the council." He seems to have borrowed some of Hodge's language, saying that the BNP offers "fair play for local people" and that "the key issue is housing". He tells me that a BNP council in Barking would build 5,000 new homes for "sons and daughters of local people". Presumably, for a party whose constitution commits it to restoring "the overwhelmingly white make-up of the British population that existed in Britain prior to 1948", this would mean housing for white locals. "Not at all," Griffin says. "We've had West Indians who have been here 25, 30 years, why should they be at the back of the housing queue?"

In fact, what BNP councillors in Barking and Dagenham have already proposed is to place people in urgent need of housing on a brownfield site "equipped with previously used caravans". ("That's a temporary measure," Griffin says, irritably.) Party election material promises to cut "politically correct projects" and translation services, while the party's 2009 county council manifesto declared that mixing white and non-white children was "destroying perfectly good local secondary schools".

Yet Griffin is adamant that the party has left its racist past behind. "The British National Party has changed already over the last ten years. We're here in the modern world, we listen to what people say. And the simple fact is that people who've come here and assimilated into our society and our communities aren't a problem; it's the recent incomers and those who want to change our country in some way foreign, that's the trouble."

Alby Walker, a former BNP councillor in Stoke-on-Trent, tells a different story. He describes to me the racist atmosphere that existed behind closed doors. "When you went to a social occasion, you'd get a feeling of what they truly believed. You'd have to be very careful how you talked about football, for example - you couldn't praise black players. I support Stoke City and they've got a good Jamaican forward, Ricardo Fuller. You couldn't say ,'Did you see that great goal Fuller scored at the weekend?'"

Walker is dismissive of Griffin's claim to have modernised the party. "He says that publicly, but when we stood for the Euro elections last year, we were given media training on how to avoid questions about the Holocaust.

“I realised then that it [Holocaust denial] went up a little bit higher in the party than I'd previously seen." Griffin says Walker's claims are "lies". But I press him on the issue of media training. Does it include the Holocaust?

“That subject does come up, yes."

I am hurried away by one of Griffin's bodyguards. In the pub garden, as the leader's wife collects empties and jokes with supporters, it is tempting to dismiss the BNP's campaign as a mere sideshow to the election. But now that British politicians across the board are talking about immigration as a threat, lasting damage has been done.

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 April 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The big choice

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?