The ego and the agony

Britain's best-known film producer is leaving showbiz for politics because he's tired of schmoozing. Does he really expect us to believe that? Roger Clarke meets David Puttnam as the great man struggles to promote his last ever movie
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The Independent Culture

It is clear to anyone leafing through past interviews that 59-year-old David Puttnam, Britain's best-known film producer, has been quietly disenchanted with the movie business for some time. After the glory days of producing Chariots of Fire, Local Hero, The Killing Fields and The Mission back-to-back, his career never quite recovered from his sacking as the director of Columbia studios in Hollywood in 1987 (he was ditched after 18 months after quarrelling with stars and agents over pay-packets, to name but one bone of contention).

There is the odd modest triumph detectable in his later output, freelancing again - the Ralph Fiennes TV movie Lawrence of Arabia in 1990 (directly responsible for Spielberg hiring the actor for his Oscar-winning role in Schindler's List) for example. But now he has announced his retirement from the movies altogether. He is doing publicity for his one last production and then that's it. This swansong is called My Life So Far,(see Anthony Quinn's review), a between- the-wars saga starring Colin Firth. With its rather charming mixture of old-fashioned narrative values and a slight water-wash of indefinable melancholy, it is classic Puttnam fare. It won't shake the world: no, it's far more likely to give it a jolly good hug.

One-time advertising genius and agent to David Bailey in the Sixties, he's ready for another massive career change. Lord Puttnam (as he's known) from now on will work full time for the Blair administration's educational and arts agenda, juggling two actual jobs - Chairman of the General Teachers Council and reporting to David Blunkett and Chris Smith on a succession of various projects (briefly, working on those "inspirational" ads for teacher recruitment), and chairing the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA). One gets the feeling that Puttnam has been angling for a decent public job for some time (witness his abortive attempt to become vice-chairman of the BBC in 1998, when he crossed swords with the dreaded Birtists) and has finally got what he wants.

With that trademark silvery beard, not a million miles away from the one that Millbank wanted Frank Dobson to shave off, he seems the essence of genial contentment. He's so busy telling me about his governmental work that he hardly seems interested in discussing the new movie or his life in the business. It's an impression that solidifies somewhat when he fails to make it for a follow-up phone chat at the appointed hour, and only by accident calls me back after the second missed occasion some days later. Puttnam is known as a past master of media manipulation, and it seems unaccountably careless. Promoting the movie really seems a struggle for him.

I suppose his enemies would say he's maybe a little cloying in his belief of the social responsibility of artists (pace Nabokov, pace Caravaggio etc, etc) and the therapeutic value of the arts. But while he himself is not averse to the odd, indiscreet aside ("I was watching poor old John Birt the other day. He's used to having a staff around him, two or three PRs, speech writers... He's clearly finding it very hard to adapt") it has to be said that Puttnam doesn't really have any enemies, apart from the odd neurotic actor like Dustin Hoffman or sniffy Hollywood power-broker like Mike Ovitz. This is something altogether remarkable in the dog-eat-dog world which he used to inhabit. His friends call him a visionary, an energiser, an old-fashioned patriot. And he certainly has a lot of friends.

A few of them seem to be in the newly formed Film Council, a centralised super-funding project raised from the ashes of the hacked-up and burnt BFI. On the morning I met him at the Langham Hotel, this huge new organisation had just been launched amid great levels of self-congratulation and general fanfare; he pushed its glossy brochure towards me, rather like a father showing his baby to the world. I did that awful thing that you're not supposed to do with professional nurturers and optimists: I expressed scepticism.

What was the use of centralising the three previous film-funding bodies all in one? Wouldn't that mean one huge job for a film Führer with a dubious level of power, able to impose a monolithic taste on the entire film output from lottery funding? Are we to expect endless light comedies chasing the success of The Full Monty, and endless neo-realist urban dramas filling the space left by the BBC Play for Today?

"It's a mistake to think of the BFI as a pluralist organisation," he tells me, earnestly. "It fluctuated hugely, depending on the personal drive, tastes and energy of the head of film production and the chairman. As soon as any aspect of the BFI became successful, it became a barony, and the point of the Film Council was to get rid of all these little baronies."

Since he was keen about education, I moved on to the question of access to film for young people. It is difficult to see non-mainstream films these days - TV has largely given up showing them and most of the rep cinemas have closed in London. "There is a deal," he says, "to be swung by government in carving some screens for this out of the multiplexes. Then there's FilmFour. If I was God, I'd channel money into FilmFour."

All very well, I suppose, if you can afford the new hike in subscriptions since Sky forced FilmFour onto their Digital Service by tripling the Analogue licence fee to the company. And there's no guarantee that FilmFour will be able to continue its commitment to showing "difficult" art-house movies in the context of its increasingly laddish brand identity. Kids interested in non-mainstream films will have to try harder and harder to educate themselves, it seems.

Puttnam does seem quite genuine in his desire to educate. When we talk about other things, however, it just confirms he's heartily sick of the film business after 30 years. "People imagine that being a film producer is just about reading a book or having a great idea," he says with a smoothness that masks the acidity of what he's saying. "That's only a bit of it - it soon degenerates into a choice between two actors, neither of whom you admire, dealing with their agent over the size of their Winnebago and whether or not their wife is going to have three first-class return tickets to the location. My tolerance level for that stuff has evaporated: it takes from you as a human being. I could bullshit with the best of them, but I don't want to do that anymore, having dinners with people I don't want to have dinner with."

Surely there's plenty of bullshit in politics? "No! I'm not a minister, I'm saved from all that. There's a different kind of ego in politics. But I have to say, the percentage of those who are fine people is depressingly slender. I often wonder whether the problem of Britain isn't in the failure of imagination in their elected representatives. A lot of them suffer from poverty of imagination.

"Just take a visual sense: if you go into the Lords or the Commons and look at the furniture, it's execrable! I'm not being snobbish, but because I've worked with people with exquisite taste, you become very conscious of it. I mean, Jesus! I think there's also a problem with the unreal sense of self-importance MPs are given. Just the other day, a minister was asked to agree to a £10m ad campaign - someone who had never in their lives looked at an ad campaign. Well - it's a joke. It's a ludicrous thing to do to someone."

I end by mentioning that joke - I think by Christopher Hitchens - about politics being "showbiz for ugly people". I wonder if he doesn't have regrets leaving real showbiz for the Westminster freak show. "There's a line at the end of Chariots of Fire," he tells, still laughing amiably at the joke. "Eric says 'regrets? I've got regrets. No doubts, though', and that's how I feel. Regrets, but no doubts."