Let’s Do Lunch With Lord Puttnam

Over coffee and cream cakes in Skibbereen, LORD PUTTNAM reveals a SURPRISING NEW PROJECT and waxes emphatic on BREXIT 

David-Puttnam_portrait_151216A celebrated film and documentary producer, David Puttnam was named Ireland’s Digital Champion in 2012. He lives in West Cork with his wife of 56 years, Patsy.

Lord Puttnam’s father, Leonard, has an extraordinary place in the annals. A photojournalist, he covered the hell that was Dunkirk, a bloody defeat and massive evacuation. But Churchill decided differently: he sent Puttnam’s father and another photographer straight back to Dunkirk to change the narrative. Literally. They set up pictures of heroic soldiers and brave little fishing boats. The myth of Dunkirk was born, the spirit of a nation saved and the course of the war changed. This double Dunkirk DNA is clear in his son: the ability to see the bigger picture, to tell story by lens and light, and above all the ability to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

David Puttnam’s insistence on finding the silver lining is striking. Like the way that discovering Cisco technology after a bad car crash in Italy in 2011 got him thinking,“Maybe I can do that [digital] for Ireland.” Or the way his unhappy period as head of Columbia Pictures led to his living in Skibbereen. I am certain its kaffeeklatsch culture, where farmers and film stars gather for coffee and gossip and cakes exploding with cream, was part of the attraction.

It was in Field’s coffee shop on August 28 1997 that the Oscar-winning film producer discovered he had a new title. “A couple of days after Blair’s Mayday victory, education minister David Blunkett rang to ask me to work with him. I was delighted. A little while later, another call came. Would I accept a peerage? I explained there might be a complication [Blunkett]. ‘Leave that to us,’ came the reply. But nothing happened. May, June, July, most of August came. Then I opened my paper. I was Lord Puttnam of Queensgate.”

It may seem paradoxical, the direct line from the House of Lords to a far-flung Irish café. But paradox is just another word for an exciting life. A producer of 27 films – ten Oscar-winning – may dedicate 20 years to public duty; a movie mover and shaker can be happily married to the same woman for over half a century; an Englishman may be an Irish patriot, by becoming Ireland’s Digital Champion, promoting a tech-savvy nation.

We are in Kalbos Café, around the corner from the Ludgate Hub, brave new blueprint for other towns, on the day the Supreme Court in London began to deliberate Brexit. Skibbereen café society is mad for chat with him about Making Ireland Click, his four documentaries, aired recently on RTÉ, and he is happy. But I know he has watched in horror the unfolding of Brexit. I steel myself for the serious stuff which will dominate discourse in 2017. Which just proves how easy it is to forget that David Puttnam doesn’t do predictable. Ever.

Surprise number one: Puttnam is making a movie – his first in nearly 20 years. “It’s the story of the Arctic 30, who were jailed by Putin. The script is three-quarters there and I’m looking for a Jennifer Lawrence or Emma Stone.” Although he downplays it – “I prefer to say I’m causing a movie to be made” – he is clearly excited. This film gets right to his essence. “I believe young people today should be activists.” He describes himself is an “issuist” and agrees many of his films are too.

Surprise number two unfolds in action: he reaches into his pocket and pulls out a card. “This is for you. It might be worth a few bob in Sotheby’s sometime. It’s my last one.” The card proclaims him UK Trade and Culture envoy to Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma and Laos and he is still jetlagged from an intense seven-week trip there. He has resigned. “I spent the last five years arguing for the rule of law, how you build an independent state on an independent judiciary – something which my own government were not prepared to preserve. The thing that did it was the newspaper headline “Traitors” over the High Court judges who ruled that Parliament would decide on Brexit.” The card gesture was dramatic, but when he tells me his father “always slipped a ten-bob note into my pocket – even when I was 30”, I’m touched by tradition.

And the silver lining? “I taught film there.” He reaches for more pocket treasure – pictures which run the gamut of enraptured students in small classes to enormous
floodlit gatherings. His satisfaction is apparent. “You are so lucky,” I remark.

“That’s exactly what Patsy said to me at four o’clock this morning.” Four o’clock in the morning chats after all these years? What is the secret? “I married my best friend from school who I knew since she was 13 and I was 16.” He talks about their family and her sensational cooking but knows the clincher is: “ She’s always been able to make the adjustments.”

And she has had adjustments to make. Perhaps the biggest was the move to Hollywood in 1986, where his efforts to change the system at Columbia made him powerful enemies and caused him to resign after a year. The stress left him with ME, which means bouts of depression. “You’re always afraid the next one will be the big one.” But It was the ME which led them to Skibbereen, which ultimately became home.

He is angry. At Brexit, at Boris Johnson, at the BBC. “Brexit is a denial of everything my generation stood for. The Brexiteers seem to have been lobotomised about history between 1927 and 1937. They used the Goebbels playbook: grab power, own a couple of newspapers, identify the Other [Jews or Immigrants] fan the flames of disquiet.” There are huge problems to be surmounted. Like “the problem of finding good people to take responsibility. What percentage of the 48 per cent who voted to remain in the EU will be called upon to drive Brexit? My fear for society is we have lost the wisdom to anticipate the consequences of our actions.”

Who knows? If anyone can find a way to change the story, he can. 

Anne Harris

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