Tartan Tories strike back

The Conservatives hold just one seat for Scotland in Westminster, but starting with the help of a 26

Outside the office of Peter Lyburn, Conservative candidate for Perth and North Perthshire, is a tiny private aircraft, visible from his desk in the Scottish spring sunshine. Given the geography of this vast, rural constituency - which stretches from the town of Perth, 40 miles north of Edinburgh, across swaths of agricultural land and up to the Highlands - an aeroplane might not be a bad way to get to some voters. But when Lyburn appears outside the office - a couple of rooms in the control tower of Perth's small, non-commercial airport - it is in something less ostentatious.

His saloon car parked outside, the 26-year-old candidate for the Tories' most winnable seat in Scotland bounds into the room, eating an ice cream. He is confident of his chances of winning the seat, which the SNP holds by a margin of just 1,521 votes. He and his team started their campaign early - 18 months ago, he explains - and these busy final days are being run "almost like a military operation". Today's schedule includes a visit to a Perth care home to meet Andrew Lansley, who is in Scotland for the day. "We don't want to keep the shadow health secretary waiting," Lyburn says as we head for the car. But once we arrive in town, without a map, we can't find the right street. We decide to walk, but the elderly couple we ask for directions don't know either. When, with the help of an iPhone and Google Maps, we finally work out where to go, it's so far away that we have to return to the car and drive.

Unusually young and competing for a pro­minent marginal seat, Lyburn has attracted more attention than the average candidate. But then in most Scottish constituencies, Conservative candidates don't come in for scrutiny at all: what would be the point? At Westminster, Labour has by far the most Scottish seats; the popularity of both the party and its Fife-born leader is holding up. The SNP leads Scotland's minority government at Holyrood, and presents its Westminster candidates as a necessary buffer to protect Scottish interests from "the London parties". This argument has kept it in second place in the opinion polls, though lagging far behind Labour, to which the Nationalists tend to lose support in Westminster elections. As a result, the battles being fought in SNP-Labour marginals, such as the seat bordering Lyburn's, Ochil and South Perth­shire, have become even tougher.

The Conservatives have only one Scottish MP, David Mundell in Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale; David Cameron has conceded that most Tories north of the border have little or no chance of being elected. In some seats, they are fourth, or even fifth, in line. But as polling day draws nearer, and the widely predicted Conservative majority starts to look less and less inevitable, every marginal is becoming more important to the Tories, even in Scotland. The area that now comprises the Perth and North Perthshire seat has a long history of supporting the Conservatives: it has been SNP-held since 1995, but for almost all of the 20th century, it returned a Tory MP.

The half-decade Cameron has spent deodorising the Conservatives has had little impact in Scotland: the proportion of Scots willing to vote Tory has stuck resolutely at between 15 and 20 per cent since 2005. "Partly, it's because [the Conservatives] no longer have a strong hold in Scottish politics," explains Nicola McEwen, co-director of Edinburgh University's Institute of Governance. "If there is apathy towards Labour, ordisappointment, it's not going to benefit the Conservatives - it's going to go elsewhere, mainly. But also, one of the issues that is quite important for Scottish voters is which party can best represent them in the UK. And the Conservatives seem not to be able to do that."

Check mate

However, at this general election, for the first time since 1992, it looks as if the Tories might return more than one Scottish seat. That's not to say there has been a significant shift in Scottish politics. Nobody expects the party to win the 11 seats it has set its sights on; Peter Kellner, of the polling organisation YouGov, is more generous than most in suggesting that the Tories might feasibly add seven seats to their existing one, but points out that "gains of one or two are more likely".

Cameron himself is yet to make headway with most Scots, McEwen says. "I don't think he gets the same reaction as Margaret Thatcher, for instance, but there's no sign that he is especially popular, or turning things around for Scotland."

There is one significant change. In Scotland before 2005, not even Conservatives liked the Conservatives: the Scottish party worked hard under its leader David McLetchie to develop a moderate, "One Nation" identity at Holyrood that was distinct from Michael Howard's British Conservatives. With Cameron in charge, that divide has disappeared. "They're much more comfortable with the 'compassionate Conservative' identity being nurtured just now," McEwen says.

Lyburn is the perfect example of a Scot "energised in the party by David Cameron". He is such a textbook Cameroon, he could have been generated in a lab somewhere deep inside CCHQ. "We need to focus on the bottom 10 per cent of society," he tells me. "David Cameron calls it progressive ends by conservative means, and I agree with him 110 per cent."

He's a local candidate, having grown up on a farm outside nearby Coupar Angus, and has the requisite green credentials, after three years working for a recycling firm owned by the Scottish multimillionaire entrepreneur Angus MacDonald. Indeed, on his first foray into politics as the Scottish parliamentary candidate for Dunfermline West in 2007, Tatler magazine tipped him as a future environment secretary - as well as "top Tory totty". "He looks like a Conservative candidate," remarks the Scottish political commentator David Torrance. "He's got this mass of very Tory hair."

Lyburn is trying to sell the notion of a refreshed Conservative Party, with new candidates like himself. "What we're trying to get across to people is -look at our list of 11 seats. If you're in one of them, don't think you're the only person in your street who thinks the way you do," he says. Yet he denies there is any stigma attached to voting Tory in Scotland.

Lyburn tells me that his previous political campaign in Dunfermline shook the "stereotypical Tory boy" out of him. But at a public meeting that evening in the village of Scone, he tells a polite and attentive gathering of 25 or so that "there is a real and present danger of young people growing up without a 'get out and work' attitude". He relates his own experiences: if his dad hadn't got him up in the mornings to help out around the farm, he would have stayed in bed. Apparently this is the sort of discipline broken Britain needs.

Lyburn is hoping that Scots will respect the "grown-up politics" of Budget rebalancing - including significant cuts to the public sector, which employs a quarter of Scotland's workforce. He may be right, in a sense: despite Alistair Darling's Budget announcement that spending in Scotland is to fall by £400m, 60 per cent of the country's voters still back a Labour government. But the SNP is targeting both the Tories and Labour with one line: "More Nats means less cuts."

Perth's SNP MP, Pete Wishart, is presenting an even less complicated message on the doorstep. Dressed in a coat with a faint check - Black Watch, the regiment founded in the area and reduced to battalion status by Labour, with Conservative support - he tells people repeatedly: "It's us or the Tories in this constituency." Several respond: "Anybody but the Tories."

In this part of the town, there is support for just about everyone else. A few say they're SNP voters; about as many seem unlikely to vote at all. A middle-aged Labour supporter, recently made redundant by Network Rail, agrees to think about the SNP as a tactical anti-Tory vote, while another of about the same age, a builder, is agitated about Perth's Polish population. But it is the BNP's world-view, not the Conservatives' promised cap on immigration, that has caught his eye. "They aren't right on everything, but they've got the right idea on some things. Haven't they?"

Wishart may be working to keep the Conservatives out of his constituency, but he says the SNP's ultimate goal, independence for Scotland, would be served well by a Tory government in Westminster. "It would be an absolute disaster for Scotland," he says, but "this provides other opportunities and contexts. There is a big constitutional question for David Cameron if he is returned as prime minister with only a few MPs for Scotland. [But] I'm not bothered if Brown or Cameron wins. I want Perthshire to win, that's my agenda."

Like the Liberal Democrats, the SNP argues that the two main parties are the same: "They're both committed to cutting Scotland's budget."

Officially, the SNP could hardly be seen to support a Conservative government at Westminster. During general elections, independence takes a back seat, and it would be perverse for the Nationalists to campaign as Scotland's "local champions" while backing a party with so little Scottish support, especially now that Cameron has ruled out the possibility of negotiating with the SNP in return for support in a hung parliament. But a Labour win - or even a good return - may have grave consequences for the SNP. There will be a Scottish parliamentary election next year, and a positive general election for Labour, which has just one seat fewer than the SNP in the Scottish Parliament, should lead to a boost at Holyrood.

Dodging left and right

A hung parliament, meanwhile, would allow the SNP to "Scotland-proof any piece of legislation", as Wishart puts it. But while the SNP is popular - more so than it was in 2005 - it looks unlikely to add many, if any, seats to its present haul of seven. Appealing to the anti-Tory vote is the more obvious route to popularity.

The same tactic is in use in neighbouring Ochil and South Perthshire, another large, rural constituency. But here - a seat that Labour holds by a mere 688 votes, and that the SNP considers to be its top target - it's not the Nationalists who are using it but the incumbents, who are fighting their campaign on a UK platform.

However, the SNP's Annabelle Ewing is out fighting her own negative campaign. In the streets of central Alloa, which have been thrown into chaos by a major redevelopment project, her focus is the failures of the local Labour council, which has fallen £9m into debt. Swaddled in an enormous yellow overcoat, Ewing is a consummate politician - perhaps unsurprisingly: she is the daughter of the former SNP president Winnie Ewing, and her brother is an MSP.

As we stroll through the Continental food market in the town high street, Ewing stops to speak only to shoppers, not stallholders, most of whom are from outside the constituency, so "they're not voters".

What she has to say plays, mostly, very well. Closures of public toilets and local halls have angered residents, and many of them are quite prepared to leave the blame where Ewing lays it, at Labour's door, although one elderly lady interjects "and the SNP at Holyrood". A passer-by in a baseball cap with a Scottish flag on it tells Ewing that he doesn't believe in independence: it's not the English he's worried about, it's "the Arabs and the Yanks". But he speaks warmly about George Reid, a former SNP MP and MSP for the area, and as he walks off he tells her: "Aye, I'll vote for you. That's not a problem."

Ewing emphasises the SNP's support for business and its rejection of Labour's planned National Insurance increase - "another burden that small business, in particular, does not need". The SNP has long stressed it is the party of Scottish enterprise, although its leader Alex Salmond, once an economist at the Royal Bank of Scotland, has had to abandon his vision of Scotland as part of an "arc of prosperity" stretching from Ireland to Iceland. In this constituency particularly, it may be a canny card to play. Like Perth and North Perthshire, Ochil includes a large pocket of Tory voters, who may choose to vote tactically for the SNP to keep the Labour incumbent, Gordon Banks, from holding on to the seat. Asked about the party's ideological positioning, Ewing dodges the question of left or right: she is concerned only with "protecting Scotland's interests".

Promises, promises

Meanwhile, Banks is taking an approach oddly reminiscent of Pete Wishart's. "I don't care what the SNP do, I don't care what the Tories do," the MP says. "What concerns me is my tactics." And those are ultra-local. In keeping with most of Labour's national pledges, he is offering his constituents more of what he has given them so far: he promises to be "as open and available as I have been over the last five years", pointing out that he maintains two constituency offices - one in Alloa, one in Crieff - to make things easy for them.

An unscientific sample of voters in nearby Clackmannan, a historically Labour-supporting area of the seat, suggests it may not be enough. Surrounded by a team of canvassers in bright red Scottish Labour cagoules, Banks makes an argument that is the same as the SNP's in Perth: can you stand to see the Tories win?

A woman on her way out into the evening sunshine tells him that "Labour have let me down so far" - on housing, on immigration - and adds, "I've written to yourself." Banks talks to her at length about her worries, then reminds her that a vote for the SNP is an open back door for the Tories. "I didn't like what they did under Maggie," she concedes.

As we walk on, Banks explains that this argument is not what it was. A woman in a football shirt takes one look at Banks and tells him she won't be voting - she is "not very impressed generally" by politicians. One campaigner approaches to say that they've just met a Tory. "Not a very nice one," he adds glumly, shifting the shoulder bag of leaflets resting against his hip. Tory voters, Banks remarks with resignation, "are no longer reluctant to tell you so".

But perhaps there is a positive side to this for Labour. With the peculiarities of Scottish politics, it is possible - just - that the tiny uptick in the Tories' Scottish reputation could work in Banks's favour. The Conservatives are now claiming to have the backing of 50 Scottish companies and business leaders over National Insurance - including that of Lyburn's former boss Angus MacDonald. If the Scottish Tories recast themselves as the party of Scottish business, the Conservative candidate for Ochil and South Perthshire may drain away a few of Ewing's votes. And if that happens, Gordon Brown may just find himself with one seat to thank David Cameron for.

This article first appeared in the 03 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Danger

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?