Better to be a craftsman than an artist

  • Guest of honour: acclaimed British film director Mike Newell (File photograph)
  • Walker Zupp

I’m standing with my Nokia mobile phone and a voice recorder. The curtains are open. I look increasingly peculiar to the Cornish couple standing outside, smoking. Mike Newell calls me at noon. “How long do you have?” I ask. “Let’s begin,” he replies, “and I’ll tell you when I’ve had enough.”

A prolific contributor to British television — eg, Coronation Street — I ask if his qualities as a fighter helped him to transition from television to film. “It was certainly ambition,” he replies.

Given that there were no film schools, many of Newell’s documentary-making peers turned to the Vietnam War — not Mike, though. Specifically, they used the Éclair NPR 16mm Cine Camera to capture their stories. After their return to Britain, the general feeling was that if it worked in the jungles of Vietnam, then it could work on the streets in Manchester.

After several years of making hourlong programmes on 16mm film, Newell and his peers turned to making features such as The Ploughman’s Lunch (Eyre, 1983), My Beautiful Launderette (Frears, 1985) and Newell’s own Ready When You Are Mr McGill (Newell, 1976).

Ambitions led to struggles. His film Soursweet (1988), adapted by Ian McEwan from a Timothy Mo novel, proved unruly with its international cast, some of whom were from mainland China. Produced 12 years after the Cultural Revolution had officially ended, the communist criminalisation of English still ran deep. One Chinese actor, in particular, learnt his English lines. But when it came to reciting them, he couldn’t do it. “I’m quite certain,” Newell believes, “that that was a psychological mechanism that materialised from having a tremendously hard time, like, five or seven years in real tough jail.”

While similar problems were had on the set of Love in the Time of Cholera (2007), Newell is ultimately pleased with his more troubled films. Then came his experience with Netflix, albeit in the form of distribution: “I remember being immensely impressed by Netflix at the beginning,” examining how Netflix helped to distribute The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (2018), “and then, little by little, I sort of began to wonder […] there was, with us, a very slight divergence of definition of what the movie was [between Newell and Netflix]. I don’t necessarily regret it, but I can see that there would be circumstances that might have hurt a film. I think one has to be very careful of those predictive things,” referring here to Netflix’s recommendation algorithm, which forces viewers to uncover shows they, hitherto using Netflix, would not have watched.

Mike is 76. He shows no sign of retiring. But Quentin Tarantino, who is 21 years younger, continually announces his retirement. On the note of film-makers having run their careers dry — apparently — by middle age: “Well,” Mike is slightly baffled by this stuff, “I don’t believe it. [Steven] Soderbergh said that he was not going to make films any more because he no longer received sustenance from storytelling.”

“He wanted to do theatre,” I add, “I remember that’s what he said in the beginning.”

“Uh huh,” unconvinced by Soderbergh’s vocational promise, “so storytelling on film wasn’t for him any longer. Well, he discovered that he couldn’t be without it. And there he is, back again. And I think, as you say, we’re artists? Very, very, very few of us are artists. It’s possible that Pawel Pawlikowski,” the director of Cold War (2018), “is an artist. It’s possible that Alfonso Cuarón,” the director of Roma (2018), another Netflix film, “is an artist. If there’s one in a generation that’s batting pretty high.”

He tells me a story: there was a meeting of the Screen Directors Guild on October 22, 1950. After hearing an anti-Semitic monologue from Cecil B. DeMille, John Ford stood up and said: “My name’s John Ford. I make westerns. You’re great man, C.B., but I don’t like you.”

“That business of saying exactly what you do,” Mike suggests, “and how you do it, it’s much better to be a craftsman than to think of yourself as an artist. You don’t have the right to think of yourself as an artist. The world makes you an artist.”

“What do you make?” I reply. Silence. Then, he says: “I think I make humane dramas.” I thank him, wish him the best in Bermuda, and we hang up.

Walker Zupp, a St Georgian, studied English language and creative writing at Lancaster University, where he remained for the Creative Writing Independent Study MA. He is about to start his PhD in Creative Writing at Exeter University