Gilbey on Film: in praise of Peter Yates

He was no auteur, but the veteran director should be fondly remembered all the same.

Auteurs are all very well, but what happens to those directors who don't quite fit the bill? Well, the answer is simple. They fall through the cracks in cinema history, and don't really get noticed until they're gone forever.

Did anyone ever look forward with excitement to the next Peter Yates film? I mean no disrespect to Yates, the British director who died last Sunday, aged 81. We don't really have any words to describe the sort of director he was, and the ones we do have (pro, journeyman) sound like euphemisms for "hack", which would be selling him terribly short.

Yates was a steady hand with an attentive eye for human behaviour; having started out in 1963 with Summer Holiday, he peaked in 1979 with one of the most winning of all American coming-of-age movies, Breaking Away. He also notched up some memorable thrillers: Bullitt (1968) , The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), which used Robert Mitchum's plangent weariness as judiciously as any of that star's more well-known pictures, and The Janitor (1982), known outside the UK as Eyewitness, which featured a terrifying scene in which William Hurt is attacked by his own Doberman, which has been fed cocaine by the bad guys. (Okay, it sounds funny written down; on film, it's anything but.)

In an industry where critical appreciation is as predicated on brand loyalty as its commercial equivalent - the column inches, arthouse screens and big-splash interviews going to an Almodóvar or a Haneke as automatically as the school-holiday crowd flocks to anything with the words "Harry" and "Potter" in the title - there is no way to sell the non-auteur to either the press or the public (not unless that filmmaker's last film was a smash, in which case the posters can proclaim: "From the director of..."). It would have meant nothing when promoting Krull, Yates's 1983 bandwagon-jumping science-fiction fantasy, to herald it as "From the director of Breaking Away" since there's no helpful continuity there.

Wide-ranging directors like Michael Winterbottom, Danny Boyle or Roger Michell, to take three British examples, are equally eclectic, but they have a sensibility that connects their genre-hopping movies, as well as a cachet to ensure press coverage (though Boyle has moved way beyond that niche since Slumdog Millionaire's Oscar trawl). Even Blake Edwards, who also died recently, at least had the tag of being the Pink Panther guy. Peter Yates, in the absence of an auteurist sensibility, can only be cast more as a man simply doing his job, neither showbizzy nor rarefied.

I say this not to mourn or rail against the way things are now, more than half a century on from Truffaut's 1954 auteurist essay "Une certain tendance du cinema Français", but simply to point out that if a director is to have a shot at artistic longevity, he or she needs to build a fanbase as loyal as that of any pop group. No wonder so many filmmakers have taken to social networking sites to shoot the breeze with their fans; keep your friends close and your potential future income-generators closer, as the saying almost goes.

Not that all directors even crave the auteurist tag. Winterbottom, even as a devotee of Bergman and Fassbinder, has no time for it. And I once tried to claim for the auteur cause the great Australian director, Fred Schepisi (The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Roxanne, Six Degrees of Separation, Last Orders). He was having none of it. "Auteur theory just denigrates everyone else's job," he sniffed. That told me. For the record, I think he was wrong about that. But everyone else seems to agree with him, at least in regard to himself: he's slipped through the cracks of critical opinion.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

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Why do politicians keep making podcasts?

Nick Clegg is the latest to take to the internet airwaves.

“Rage is the opposite of reason. Discuss!”, Nick Clegg declares jauntily at the start of the first episode of his new podcast, Anger Management. The former Lib Dem leader and deputy prime minister can now be heard on the internet airwaves fortnightly, grilling guests about what he calls “the politics of anger”. Since his show is introduced by a montage of angry politicians shouting, it’s guaranteed to raise the listener’s blood pressure before the host even starts talking.

Clegg is just the latest in a long run of politicians to try their hand at podcasting. Perhaps the most notable example in the UK is the former Labour leader Ed Miliband, whose Reasons to be Cheerful show made in partnership with the former Absolute Radio DJ Geoff Lloyd hit number two in the iTunes podcast chart when it debuted in September 2017 and was recently nominated for a 2018 British Podcast Award. Jacob Rees-Mogg, too, has a fortnightly podcast called the Moggcast, which launched in January 2018 and is hosted by Conservative Home. Where once a politician might do a phone-in show on LBC or guest host The Jeremy Vine Show  on BBC Radio 2 to show how in touch and relatable they are (as in Call Clegg, which aired on LBC from 2013 to 2015, or Ed Milibands lunch time death metal scream), they can now go it alone.

In his column in the i newspaper introducing the podcast, Clegg puts his finger on exactly why it is that politicians find podcasting so attractive: it’s all about control. “I have grown to abhor the tired and tested confrontational interview format,” he writes. On his podcast, “there is no wish to pounce on a slip of the tongue or endure a soundbite being hammered home”. There’s a freedom to this kind of on-demand internet audio, which can be delivered directly to an audience without having to get past the traditional gatekeepers of broadcasting. There’s no need to put up with John Humphrys or work with the BBC’s requirement for political balance. The politician, usually on the receiving end of whatever the interviewer wants to throw at them, is in charge.

Given this, it’s unfortunate that in his first episode Nick Clegg falls foul of his own edicts. His first guest is former Ukip leader Nigel Farage (coincidentally also the host of a podcast called Farage Against the Machine). It’s a slightly odd choice of guest to launch the show — made, no doubt, to generate controversy and a higher iTunes chart position — and it doesn’t exactly show Clegg’s broadcasting skills in a good light.

In a recorded disclaimer that plays before the interview, the former Lib Dem leader and vocal Remainer tries to pre-empt criticism that he’s giving a platform to someone with pretty unpalatable views. He explains that the first half of the 47-minute episode is meant to be about Farage’s “life, not really me cross-questioning him”, and that to hear them “locking horns more on the issues of the day” listeners must wait until the latter part of the show.

This approach results in Clegg letting Farage get away with a number of fact-light statements early on, and then later adopting the Humphrys-style tactic of repeatedly interrupting Farage before he can finish a point. As an interview style, it’s the worst of both worlds — neither spacious enough to allow the guest to explain their thinking fully, nor robust enough to provide an effective rebuttal. Hosting a podcast is a deceptively hard thing to do. It would take someone substantially more skilled behind the microphone than Clegg to completely reinvent the one-on-one discussion format in a single episode.

The lure of podcasting for politicians is in the way listeners react to the medium. The entire burgeoning podcast advert market is founded on research that points to a strong sense of intimacy between podcast host and audience — it’s a level of loyalty and engagement that surpasses many other forms of media. In politics, that can be harnessed for electoral gain: for instance, Hillary Clinton had a podcast called With Her that ran during her 2016 presidential campaign.

The trouble is that politicians aren’t necessarily that good at making podcasts. They’re not journalists, and they don’t often have a good nose for what makes a strong show for the listener, or take the advice of those who do. For those still in office (or, like Clegg, still wanting to participate in politics despite losing his seat), there are other pressures that can prevent them being completely honest on air. As Amanda Hess pointed out in the New York Times in 2017, the best episodes of Clinton’s podcast were made after she lost the election, when she moved out of campaign mode and just tried to process what had happened like everyone else.

The rise of the podcasting politician is the result of a few different factors: an increased dominance of personality in politics; the tendency for us all to gravitate towards our own “filter bubbles” of reassuring content; and an ever-more polarised media climate. For my money, the best show to come out of this trend so far is Ed Miliband’s. He leans in to the “geeky” stereotype that haunted him for his entire career and, guided by veteran broadcaster Geoff Lloyd, is seeking to make something that looks beyond the political bubble.

Podcasts are at their best when they serve a particular niche interest group: there’s clearly a community of people who enjoy listening to Jacob Rees-Mogg intoning bleakly about obscure areas of policy, and best of luck to them. Politicians should realise that it is not a form that works when you try to appeal to everyone. Otherwise, like Nick Clegg, they will end up telling Nigel Farage that he’s “very good at the high horse stuff about how the EU is ghastly” in a strained tone of voice.

Caroline Crampton is head of podcasts at the New Statesman. She writes a newsletter about podcasts.