David Puttnam: My life in pictures

David Puttnam was the film producer who scaled the heights and then decided that he could do his best work in other fields - as a roving educator with a peerage to his name. But soon he might be behind the camera again, he tells Raymond Snoddy
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The Independent Online

Lord Puttnam is on the stage of the Princess Anne Theatre at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (Bafta), perched at a circular table draped in a white cloth.

The producer of Chariots of Fire and The Killing Fields, the former chair and CEO of Columbia Pictures, the former chairman of the National Film and Television School and the recently appointed deputy chairman of Channel 4 was made a fellow of Bafta in February.

But today the lights are dimmed; the theatre is empty and I am his only company. This is because the Bafta stage was the only convenient quiet place we could find to talk.

Puttnam has sold up his base in Kensington after 35 years and now commutes to London from his main home in Co Cork on the west coast of Ireland.

A near neighbour is former BBC director-general Greg Dyke, now fronting a bid to seize control of ITV. He is glad his friend seems finally to be getting over the hurt of his abrupt departure from the BBC over the Hutton report. "It got silly and it got embarrassing and the person who got most embarrassed was Sue [Dyke's partner] watching him pulling himself to pieces," observes Puttnam.

He is also critical of Charles Allen, the chief executive of ITV and the man Dyke is trying to depose. "If I read one more piece from Charles - a nice man - but one more piece whingeing and moaning about the licence fee. He runs a public company. To say at these levels [of BBC licence fee] he can't compete is just silly. If you can't run ITV let someone else run it."

The Labour peer, who chaired the joint scrutiny committee on the Communications Bill in 2002 (which put a block on Rupert Murdoch buying channel Five), believes that last month's White Paper on the BBC was "terrific", particularly the bit on training on page 43.

"It's an all-industry problem. The BBC has to take responsibility for training for the industry because no one else is going to do it. You can't expect it."

Lord Puttnam, who twice failed in attempts to become deputy chairman of the BBC, is confident that the corporation's chairman Michael Grade will find a way to make a success of the new BBC Trust, which will govern the BBC. If he doesn't, Puttnam notes, there is always the default position - communications regulator Ofcom can take over the governance of the BBC in 12 years' time when the new Royal Charter runs out.

He is certain that the corporation has little chance of winning the licence fee settlement that it is seeking - the rate of inflation plus 2.3 per cent. "A penny to a pound they will get 1.75 per cent (above inflation) and that will be a bloody good settlement."

Lord Puttnam, who struggled mightily to improve the Communications Bill in the House of Lords and protect public service broadcasting, will oppose any Treasury plans to charge the BBC and Channel 4 a spectrum tax for their use of the airwaves.

His advice will be clear. "The public is not stupid. This is the ultimate double dipping and if you think they are not going to notice you are mad."

As deputy chairman of Channel 4, Lord Puttnam is expected to support the Ofcom idea that a public service publisher should eventually be set up to provide funds for public service broadcasting outside the BBC. And he knows how it could be done.

The BBC will get extra funds to make the UK completely digital by 2012. By then the BBC will have fulfilled its obligations but the money will still be flowing for another four years of the new Royal Charter.

That extra cash, Puttnam believes, could be ring-fenced to fund public service programmes made by broadcasters other than the BBC without the corporation being damaged.

The former film producer believes that the British film industry is gradually going in the right direction through organisations such as the Film Council investing in young film-makers and training. "What you have got at last is a sane and relatively organised and coherent programme for developing an industry. It still needs five years. It's a pity it isn't more mature but it isn't."

There is, he believes, a volume of people receiving the right training in the UK. But so far the scale isn't there, the confidence isn't there and the entrepreneurial instinct isn't there.

Puttnam himself is planning to make an unexpected return to the film business seven years after he decided to walk away from the movies and concentrate on politics, education and charitable causes.

His last film, My Life So Far, in 1999 was intended to be his last. After a film-making career that began in 1971 he didn't want to outstay his welcome and was convinced it was time to move on and do other things.

Now at the age of 65 Puttnam is thinking about a film-making reincarnation - but it will not happen immediately, and he is interested only in one very particular film genre.

He will not contemplate a return to film-making for another two years until he completes his current term as UK president of Unicef, the international children's organisation - his most important role at the moment.

And he is not interested in getting involved ever again in the wares of Hollywood, or even fiction in any form. "The thing I would most like to do - there is a type of documentary film-making that I really like which is long form."

Puttnam is very serious about his admiration for the documentary film-maker Ken Burns whose films have included a history of the American Civil War using still photographs and histories of both baseball and jazz.

They are the sort of large, historical projects that Puttnam the born-again film maker would like to get involved with if he gets the chance.

"If I got the right offer I would definitely do a documentary series. I haven't put my toe in the water and I don't know how hot the water is and I don't want my toe to shrivel at my time of life."

It would be very surprising if he didn't get "the right offer" when he becomes available in two years' time. If he does it will be a return to where he began.

"Documentaries is where I started before I made my first feature film almost my accident," he says.

Puttnam the documentary maker made feature documentaries which were shown in the cinema - such as Double-Headed Eagle and Swastika about Germany after the two world wars. Then there was the Kenneth Clark series on romantic versus classical art.

Puttnam's timing could be good. After many years the fashion cycle has swung again and the documentary is currently making a comeback.

"The great thing is that the financing structure of these (documentaries) work with someone who is semi-retired. It's all of a piece - as long as you are getting your time covered and you have a cutting room that stays open and you haven't got people panicking for a delivery date."

But most of all Puttnam is interested in talking about Unicef and the organisation's five-year campaign to raise $1bn to try to prevent the next generation of children getting HIV/Aids. The target for the UK is to raise £15m towards the global total and Puttnam believes it can be done.

The latest effort in the campaign is a special film season, The Big Picture, on the TCM (Turner Classic Movies) channel which launches tomorrow.

There has always been a strong connection between the film business and Unicef, back to the days when the organisation was in embryonic form after the Second World War to do something for displaced and orphaned children.

Looking back, there are a few elements and coincidences in Puttnam's life and career that seemed to lead to an involvement with Unicef.

When he was about 12 he saw the Montgomery Clift-Aline MacMahon movie The Search. The 1948 film tells the story of a young Auschwitz survivor and his mother searching for each other across post-war Europe.

"It absolutely wiped me out. I was crying my eyes out at the end," he says. "It was Fred Zinnemann's first film and the other thing that was extraordinary was that it was a joint venture between MGM and Unicef - the only one there ever was so it was partly about trying to establish Unicef's credentials."

Years later, newly married to his wife Patsy, he remembers them discussing what life might hold in future, what they might like to do.

"The big thing for Patsy and me was that one day we might work for Unicef. I have no idea where that came from or what it related to. The answer is nothing. We were living in north London trying to scratch a living. Maybe my dad mentioned it," Puttnam suggests.

Then four years ago the former trade union leader Baroness Dean called to ask Puttnam whether he would be interested in becoming the UK president of Unicef.

"I said Yes. Done. It was perfect," says Puttnam.

He had been in the process of deciding, without much enthusiasm, whether or not to do a third year as chairman of the General Teaching Council. He was rather glad to have a perfectly respectable reason for declining.

Since turning his back on the camera, Puttnam has been proudest of three things - creating the National Teaching Awards, chairing Nesta (the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts) for its first six years and being UK president of Unicef.

"Those are the three stellar stand-outs. It makes it easier for me to explain to myself why I wasn't able to continue making films when you look at the range of things. If I'd tried to keep one half foot in the film industry I'd have done it badly," he admits.

Apart from helping to restructure Unicef's British operations and travelling and speaking, the Labour peer handles relations with the Government, which helps to fund the organisation. He also keeps close contact with the large business corporations which back Unicef such as BA through the envelopes the airline distributes to passengers to collect change, and Marriott hotels which encourage guests to pay a small surcharge on bills on behalf of Unicef.

Lord Puttnam is also in a perfect position to sweet-talk the wealthy individuals who can write large cheques, although he can offer nothing in return, other than a very uncomfortable trip to remote areas of the world should they want to see Unicef work in action.

In contrast to Unicef he is more than a little angry at the moment at what is going on in another important part of his life - the Labour Party - and the row over the alleged "sale" of honours in return for large donations or loans. "The parliamentary Labour Party in the Lords is massively affected by this. Every single one of us, at least in theory is a villain."

He is particularly irritated by the fact that The Sunday Times has noted that in 1997 he gave £5,000 to the Labour Party and then got a peerage, as if the two things were linked. "It really sounds like a very good deal," says Puttnam with a sardonic laugh. He is not convinced by arguments that no law has been broken over the loans to the Labour Party. "I have two granddaughters and I want to be able to explain to them that I work for a party, and am a member of a party, that I am genuinely proud of in every single sense." There are clearly no such reservations about his work at Unicef.

Another of his tasks there is to keep an eye on the organisation's ambassadors, famous names from the world of entertainment and sport who give their time to spread the word.

Modern-day ambassadors such as David Beckham and Robbie Williams are following in the footsteps of Danny Kaye and Audrey Hepburn.

Puttnam is proud of an old clip he has got showing Kaye returning from Unicef work during the Korean War and being interviewed by Ed Murrow.

In the footage Kaye is asked what the most famous entertainer of the day is doing in Korea with this Unicef organisation. After an unnaturally long pause Kaye replies: "This may sound weird but it's the best thing I ever did in my life."

Puttnam says he is lucky with one generation of ambassadors - such as the Attenboroughs and Sir Roger Moore. With his colleagues he now has to bring on a new generation, using celebrity to enhance and support the brand without tarnishing or diminishing it.

"Jemima Khan is fantastic because she is an extremely acceptable figure to the Islamic population and she handles herself brilliantly for us," says Puttnam. Claudia Schiffer is also very good when she is available. The prospect of Robbie Williams was very worrying but he has been "phenomenal" and Beckham has, as Puttnam says, got his head down.

"They are absolutely essential to us to cut through the clutter, the cacophony," says Puttnam.

The £500m, he explains, is needed urgently to save a generation of children from Aids. Five years ago it was thought inevitable that most of the children of mothers with HIV/Aids would also contract the disease. Now it is understood that the children are safe in the womb and it is only during birth that they become at risk.

Get the right drugs to the mother and child at the right time and transmission of the infection of the disease to another generation is blocked.

It is, Puttnam suggests, the human equivalent of replanting a devastated forest.

"Africa needn't be wiped out. It can grow again. We know how to do it," says the UK president of Unicef optimistically.

The TCM film season every Tuesday afternoon and evening this month will include introductions by Lord Puttnam, interviews with stars and funding raising appeals for Unicef.

The films include Audrey Hepburn in The Nun's Story, Goodbye, Mr Chips, West Side Story, David Copperfield, and John Boorman's Hope and Glory before ending with Richard Attenborough's Cry Freedom.

Once his feet are more firmly under the table at Channel 4, Puttnam may try to seed the idea that FilmFour could also easily mount a special film season linked to the Unicef Aids campaign.

The 65-year-old Lord Puttnam hops off his impromptu platform on the stage of Bafta, late for yet another meeting. But as he poses patiently for pictures his eyes light up as he notices a poster for This Happy Breed, the most successful film of 1944. Based on a Noël Coward play it was David Lean's first directorship and celebrates the stoicism, humour and resilience of ordinary British people during the Second World War.

"I was born into the world this film depicts and it probably sums me up too," says the completely uncynical Lord Puttnam of Queensgate.