Alan Parker: Director's cut

Twenty-seven years after he launched his prolific film-making career with the gangster spoof 'Bugsy Malone', director Alan Parker is finally coming of age. First there was the knighthood, then the NFT retrospective, and now he's even called a truce with the critics

By Matthew Sweet
Saturday 01 March 2003 01:00

Alan Parker and I first met in 1981, in a mid-price hotel in Manchester. He was 37, and already a big-shot movie director. I was 11, and keen to secure the role of the young Bob Geldof in Pink Floyd The Wall. Or at least as keen as the several hundred other boys who were hunkering down on the carpet tiles, frowning over the same sheet of dialogue.

Most of the details of the day have stayed in my head. I remember that the script involved the protagonist, Pink, bringing home a sick rat. I remember a boy next to me in the queue who attempted to undermine my confidence by bragging that he'd just shot a commercial for Fine Fare. I remember the audition, that ice-in-the-bowels nervousness, and the flailing feeling that, as I read the words, I wasn't getting them right. Oddly, I don't recall anything about the man himself. But Alan Parker insists he was there. And, as he is a director who controls his films so tightly that he refuses to delegate the designing of the official souvenir baseball caps, I'm inclined to take his word for it.

So, two decades later, I'm ready to hear him explain why he didn't cast me. "Well," he says, fixing me with a hard stare. (This is a notable event: we have been sitting in his office for half an hour, and this is the first time he has looked me in the eye.) "I'm surprised, frankly, because you're an L5. A definite L5." I ask him if this is good or bad, but he just laughs a big tarry-lunged laugh, stubs out his fag, and sits there, enjoying the silence. Were there, I ask, a lot of L5s in the prison scenes in Midnight Express? Those snaggle-toothed, crook-backed, boss-eyed types who shambled around the filth-smeared walls of the psychiatric wing, were they L5s? If I was a man who had a mug like he was swallowing a banana sideways, would I still be an L5? "Yeah, well," he replies. "It means you've got a characterful face."

This month is a significant one for Parker. His latest film, The Life of David Gale, a death row thriller starring Kevin Spacey and Kate Winslet, opens across the UK. (It's his first since he received his knighthood.) And, throughout March, the National Film Theatre will host a comprehensive retrospective of his work. Everything is here: Bugsy Malone (1976), his winningly bizarre musical remake of a brace of Jimmy Cagney movies; Shoot the Moon (1982), a lightly fictionalised account of the collapse of his first marriage, starring Albert Finney and Diane Keaton; A Turnip Head's Guide to the British Cinema (1986), a polemic against film critics, auteur theorists, and the British Film Institute. The Evacuees (1975) is here, a fondly remembered BBC play written by Jack Rosenthal. Even Melody (1971), a schoolyard romance with a Bee Gees soundtrack, and Parker's first feature film script, has been unearthed.

Barry Norman, an old friend and supporter of Parker, has written an introduction to the season. "As he knows quite well," writes Norman, "I regard him as the perfectly balanced man in that he has a chip on each shoulder, both chips clearly labelled 'film critic'. Indeed, his outspoken antipathy towards critics, especially in Britain, has often made him his own worst enemy, and, I suspect, has contributed largely to the occasionally grudging reviews that his films have received here."

This is no exaggeration. Parker's films, on the whole, have been critical failures and commercial successes. Reviewers have dismissed them with pejoratives such as "meretricious" and "manipulative"; audiences have devoured them for the same qualities; admired their director's ability to grab the attention and yield tears or cheers. Pressure groups have often barracked his movies: Midnight Express (1978) was accused of racism against the Turks, and Parker now admits that he wishes he had included a few lines to ameliorate the film's negative portrayal of their culture; Mississippi Burning (1988) was charged with concentrating on the activities of white civil rights activists at the expense of black campaigners; the casting of Madonna in the title role in Evita (1996) brought death threats from Argentineans who objected to the author of a foil-wrapped S&M manual playing the part of the mother of the nation. There's always someone chucking bricks at Alan Parker.

An equal amount of hostility is legible in assessments of his personality. Newspaper profiles of him tend to be littered with words like "bruiser", "barrow boy", "yobbo", "scruff" and "curmudgeon". When Parker was interviewed by Jeremy Isaacs on Face to Face, he found the interviewer expressing surprise that his subject was familiar with the word "genre". Parker played up to this: "Don't be patronising Jeremy," he replied. "I say it often actually; it's about the only French word I do know." And the critical consensus against Parker remains strong; David Gale has drawn some lukewarm reviews in the US, most of which have repeated the customary charges against his work. "Flashy, but rather pointless," grumbled Variety, and added this for spite: "Word of mouth will probably be as lethal as the doses Texas gives condemned murderers." There's little chance that the British press will treat David Gale any more gently. When I asked a critic friend of mine along to an advance screening, he e-mailed me straight back: "You would need to ambush and sedate me in order to get me into an Alan Parker film." And this from someone who can see the good in Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo.

"I haven't said anything about critics for 20 years," Parker protests, when I ask him why he can't resist pitching shots back at his detractors. The National Film Theatre, he once said, is "plain bloody awful"; critics attending the Cannes festival "have nothing to do with the audience and nothing to do with film-making – these are the real parasites of the industry". But there will be no more statements like this, it seems. "When I started," he reflects, "I was very sensitive to people criticising me. Then I realised that everybody gets criticised. Midnight Express was criticised, unfairly I thought, and the headline in Time Out was ..." He feels around for the phrase, though I suspect he remembers it perfectly. " 'Midnight Express: A Real Turkey.' Which is not nice. It's a very, very, significant movie." So what caused him to change his views? "It's to do with growing up, I guess. You blink and you find that you've made not just one or two films, but 14, a body of work, and you think, fuck 'em. Pick the bones out of that lot."

Parker was born in 1944, and grew up in a block of corporation flats in pre-Granita Islington. His mother was a dressmaker, his father worked in the stores and the garage of Kensley Newspapers (then publishers of the Sunday Times) before taking a job painting railings for the London Electricity Board. Once, when in France, he was asked about his father's occupation. "I told them he was a painter," he recounts. "They were very impressed. What sort of painting? Impressionism? Neo-realism? I told them he was way avant-garde; that he only painted in one colour. Grey."

Access unlimited streaming of movies and TV shows with Amazon Prime Video Sign up now for a 30-day free trial

Sign up

I ask if his father takes much interest in his films; whether he attends premieres. "No," Parker replies, rather wistfully. "He just makes sure I give him a video." Some parents, he suggests, feel that they lose their children when the children exceed them in educational or professional achievement. "I feel that about mine. I should have been a foreman in a printing works, and that would have been all right. I would have stayed working-class and living where they live. But if your whole life changes too much, there's sometimes an estrangement because of that. It's not about not loving someone, it's just that you're no longer part of their world." He disappears in search of a fag, and returns to the office, still riding the same train of thought. "My dad said to me a while ago, 'You still working on that film?' And I said, 'Yeah.' 'How long have you been doing it?' 'Two years.' 'Two years? And it ends up as three lines in a newspaper.' "

Parker was a bright child: he passed his 11-plus and gained a place at grammar school. But he let slip the opportunity to go to university to work in the post room at a London advertising agency, Collett Dickinson Pearce. His rise was swift. He befriended members of the copywriting department, and was soon penning lines for poster campaigns. And with one of the account executives, David Puttnam, he discovered the pleasures of movie-making. In the basement, they shot short advertising films, using the staff as actors. The technology was rudimentary and Parker insists that it was only because he knew nothing about microphones and light meters that he was elected to be the one who called action. The ads he went on to make are still imprinted upon the public imagination – Leonard Rossiter slinging a glass of Cinzano over Joan Collins's décolletage; the Wonderloaf footballers who ushered the phrase "Nice One, Cyril" into the language.

Puttnam is one of the most important figures in Parker's life, both professionally and emotionally. The week before I came to interview Parker, I bumped into a friend who has worked with Puttnam for several years. She described how the walls of his office loo are plastered with Parker's cartoons, and said that she was under the impression that they had grown up together in north London. "You imagine that when they have rows," she reflected, "one of them will break off and say, 'And you broke my catapult when I was nine.' " Parker chuckles at the thought, and knows how the rumour got started: Puttnam found an old Picture Post photograph of two boys knocking about together on the street, had it printed up as a postcard and took to telling people that this was an image of their shared childhood.

The relationship hasn't always been easy. During Puttnam's brief tenure as head of Columbia Pictures, Parker told him what he regarded as a few home truths about the way that he was running the company. The pair did not speak for two years.

"There are friends that one has," begins Parker, before policing a poncey construction out of his sentence. "One has! God! Excuse Me. There are friends that you have who will always be your friends. And I probably wouldn't be in the film industry if he hadn't asked me to write a screenplay."

The screenplay that Puttnam cajoled Parker into writing was Bugsy Malone. Jodie Foster. Scott Baio. Unconventional machine guns which turned the Valentine's Day Massacre into a custard bath. "Writing Bugsy Malone was a totally pragmatic exercise, because everything I'd written up to that point seemed too British, and was always coming back with 'too parochial' stamped across it." He is surprisingly dismissive of the film, suggesting that he'd rather it was excluded from his CV. "I did the DVD commentary the other day and I could hardly remember making it. I hadn't seen it for years and all I could do was sit there saying, what a ridiculous idea this is. Who thought of this?" And he talks about some of his other movies in the same way. He now says that he's embarrassed by Pink Floyd The Wall – though that may have as much to do with the breakdown of his relationships with his collaborators, Gerald Scarfe and Roger Waters, as any misgivings about his own contributions to the picture. But why is he so down on Bugsy Malone?

"I shouldn't be, I suppose," he says. "It's given pleasure to a lot of people. It's just that there's less of me in this [he indicates a picture of Jodie Foster absorbing the impact of a high-velocity cream pie ] than there is in this [his hand moves to a still of John Hurt in Midnight Express]." It's interesting that he should attach such importance to this shift from musical to moral melodrama, as it set a pattern for the rest of his career: in the latter sit The Life of David Gale, Angela's Ashes (1999); in the former, Evita (1996), The Commitments (1991), Fame (1981).

I tell him that I watched Fame again recently, and was struck by how bleak a film it was; how undeserving it seemed of its daffy reputation. I tell him that he makes the dilapidated streets of the Bronx look like the ruins of Dresden, and the aspirations of his characters seem miserable and cheap. I've clearly said the right thing. "Fame is an ironic title. These people are desperate for celebrity and success. It's about how you can be damaged by chasing that success." The same is not true of the TV version. The show was a horrible accident: a producer from whom Parker and his collaborator Alan Marshall were trying to disentangle themselves wanted to keep the rights to a small screen spin-off. At the time, M*A*S*H was the only significant example of film-to-TV transfer, and they didn't consider it an important issue. "So," Parker recalls, "Alan said to him, 'Fuck off, and take your TV series with you.' It was the most expensive fuck off of his life." When Parker saw the results, he asked for his name to be sliced from the credits. "But I wouldn't have minded a percentage of the $360m it made. As it is, I didn't make any money and I had to watch my film being denigrated. That bloody song. I can't bear to hear it any more ..."

It will be heard again, however, on London's South Bank, when the Parker retrospective begins. If the director finds it difficult to cope with the way that his work is appropriated by others, how does he feel about being the subject of such a season? He leans forward across the desk, conspiratorially. "It's about time," he says, and looks as if he might be about to launch into one of his broadsides. Despite encouragement he won't expand. His eyes wander down towards the NFT programme. "Do I get top billing?" he asks. He does. "Oh, excellent. Let's have a look." I show him the cover, which bears a still of Mickey Rourke in Angel Heart, and Parker's name, placed above those of George Gershwin and George Clooney. Might this recognition have come sooner, I ask him, if he hadn't spent so long sticking two fingers up at the British Film Institute and the NFT? "As I said," he protests, "I haven't stuck my fingers up at them for 20 years." In a sense, Parker joined the establishment, a former BFI director, he is the founding chairman of the Film Council, the body which supports and funds British film-making. Parker adds, "The BFI is not so po-faced as it once was. The programmer is brilliant. I can only put it [the season] down to his good taste."

On our way out, we take a detour into the office of Lisa Moran, his associate producer, and the second Mrs Parker. "What do you think, Lisa?" he says, taking me by the shoulders and shuffling me forward into her office. "L5?" She ums and ahs. "L4 maybe." He gives another great phlegmy laugh, and I take another good look at him. A stocky figure whose large square head has been colonised by a swish of grey hair, he might be Ozzy Osbourne's more conservative brother, or an Arapaho chief who moved to Soho and swapped his breechcloth for a chunky cardy. But a knight of the realm? A director whose work is nodded over in the NFT? Never. Perhaps, where L5s are concerned, it takes one to know one.

'The Life of David Gale' is released on 14 March. For details of the NFT Alan Parker season, call 020-7928 3232

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments