Ed Cripps: ‘The South Bank Show: Paul Greengrass and Melvyn Bragg’
A piece by 2015 Observer / Anthony Burgess Prize for Arts Journalism runner-up, Ed Cripps.
The South Bank Show’s episode on Paul Greengrass was the best kind of arts journalism, an accidental celebration of two aesthetic statesmen dense with respect and common ground. Melvyn Bragg and his subject are sophisticatedly mainstream, lustrously haired documentarians with inverse social trajectories, Bragg the Wigton-born baron of the arts, Greengrass the public school anti-establishment renegade, a peer and a parablist. If Bragg has become our post-Parkinson interviewer-laureate, Greengrass is (along with Shane Meadows) a sort of director-laureate, north-south magnets of tough, humane Englishness.
Goya, according to Seamus Heaney, painted “with his fists and elbows” and there’s the same punch-upwards virility to Greengrass’s (pretty blemishless) canon. Even his surname captures his protagonists’ disenchantment with societal smothering and the yearn for the other side of the fence. Born in Surrey and a rebel at Kent public school Sevenoaks, Greengrass was inspirited by a trip to David Lean’s Dr Zhivago (with whose rollicking, politically unsentimental portrait of Russian history his own work rhymes, especially the Cossacks’ attack on a peace demonstration). He started as a researcher on ITV’s investigative current affairs programme World In Action, which (like The South Bank Show) made films about “anything and everything”, from tax avoidance to Miss World. One film about the IRA gained unique access to the Maze Prison and the dirty protests within it, thanks to Greengrass’s cigarette-paper correspondence with hunger striker Raymond McCartney.
With a spontaneous visual style where the camera deliberately doesn’t anticipate the action, Greengrass gravitated towards recent-past political thunderheads like the Troubles, the Falklands War and the murder of Stephen Lawrence. Morality is consciously clouded, though if there is a villain it tends to be the British establishment. Bloody Sunday is a particularly potent mix of anarchy and control: the opening sequence of two intercut press conferences – James Nesbitt as Derry activist Ivan Cooper, Tim Pigott-Smith a model of patrician charm-bastardry as Major General Robert Ford – epitomises the bilateral balance Greengrass would develop in United 93 and Captain Phillips. Those shooting scenes chill, exhilarate and scream like torn tin, a clogged catharsis, and the casting of genuine British soldiers (including a “yobbo”-obsessed Simon Mann) adds a The Act Of Killing frisson of mimetic horror.
After Bloody Sunday won the Audience Award at Sundance and the Golden Bear at Berlin, Greengrass responded to the Hollywood siren-call by reinvigorating mainstream action with the Bourne franchise, a rare work of his not based on a true story. The ambition of its set pieces (like the Paddy Considine chase at Waterloo Station, which Greengrass re-enacts), jittery kineticism and moral shades of grey enlarged the circumference of the action imagination and have been plundered ever since (compare, for instance, the Bond films pre- and post-Bourne).
United 93 was, even by Greengrass’s standards, a risky project, but he only wanted to make it with the permission from the families of those who died in the hijacked plane. It is a deft, noble film, a claustrophobic high-tragedy that again cast non-actors (like the FAA’s Ben Sliney, who made the decision on 9/11 to shut down all air traffic operations). The praise of the families speaks for itself.
For Captain Phillips, Greengrass (son of a merchant seaman) kept the Somali actors apart from Tom Hanks until the moment the pirates boarded the ship, described by Hanks as “the most vibrant day’s shooting I’ve ever been a part of”. The decision by Greengrass’s cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, a regular Ken Loach collaborator, to film the raid from the perspective of the Somali skiff smuggles in a non-Western empathy that shames the jingoism of, say, American Sniper. The final scene of the film, where the nurse performs a check-up on the shocked captain, might just be Tom Hanks’s finest hour.
This retrospective is cajoled and filleted by Melvyn Bragg, an inquisitor-in-chief as august and democratic as the National Theatre. Sky, as they did with Alan Partridge, have not only rescued but expanded The South Bank Show. These are more than dusty stabs in the late sun: Bragg’s interview with Benedict Cumberbatch, for example, presents an articulation of Hamlet’s character as lucid and unpretentious as the actor’s Barbican performances. Bragg’s approach flickers between university tutorial, therapy, dance and seduction, occasionally catching himself in the mirror. Here, there’s a fascinating discussion of interview technique where Greengrass reveals that he was only allowed to ask IRA prisoner Raymond McCartney one question. After months of preparation, what question would bear the most fruit? What would Melvyn have asked?
To many of Greengrass’s answers, Bragg’s face is hypnotised, almost childlike, the voracious polymath as pupil. The show’s access to heavyweight contributors is undimmed (first-hand testimonies from Tom Hanks and Matt Damon are a blithe garnish to the main subject) and Bragg’s gravitas only deepens with the acoustic of experience. Another Sky windfall is the availability of the show’s back catalogue. Francis Bacon and Dennis Potter are renowned masterpieces, rightly, but a lesser-known delight is the Harold Pinter interview from 1978, the year of the show’s inception. If the Francis Bacon interview has the voluptuous chaos of a Bacon painting, the dramatist’s has the ambiguity and dark mischief of a Pinter two-hander. Pinter flirts, eludes, obfuscates, smiles and smokes: Bragg, like Michael Caine’s character in Sleuth, doesn’t know whether to play along or if the joke’s on him. Pinter’s answer to the final question – “Why don’t you find out for yourself?” (by chance the title of a Morrissey song about parasitic journalism) – is just exquisite.
Bragg is on surer footing with the candid, shaggily avuncular Greengrass, and before we get too cosy let’s draw breath with a few critiques. Of all the contemporary artworks to explore, why extol an interview between two well established white Englishmen? The Theory Of Flight excepted, Greengrass’s films could be seen as excessively male (his next film is a post-Snowden adaptation of 1984, a natural fit for him, but a female Winston would tantalise even more). Some sniff that Bragg doesn’t conduct all the interviews himself, such as George RR Martin’s. On Radio 4’s In Our Time, he can be too quick to impose his theories and often hurries the less initiated academics into flustered answers. But the tempo is more liberal on The South Bank Show, which has the advantage of the edit and interstitial montages. Also, for Bragg’s occasional academic pomposity, this year’s BBC Two Wigton to Westminster documentary revealed that, despite the baronial ermine, he has the same Cumbrian best friends as he grew up with in his teens.
Different mediums, of course, suit different subjects. Radio has a chamber elegance television can’t match (as with David Schneider’s One To One with Jenny Diski, or Peston & Mair’s discussion of grief with Julian Barnes), and in a world where face-to-face conversation competes with technological alternatives and “phubbing” (phone snubbing) is a thing, the traditional, intellectually rigorous chatshow can seem a bit niche on TV. Mark Lawson’s BBC Four interviews with artistic luminaries are well researched, if visually austere. Graham Norton, who’s evolved from Channel 4 radical to BBC stalwart trusted with the keys to Eurovision, is our premier practitioner of the genuinely popular chatshow: he is excellent at what he does and looks for overlaps between disparate guests, but caters to shorter attention spans with viral-friendly nuggets to rival his American counterparts. Desert Island Discs is an eminent mainstay, but even that can feel a little stiff (compare the Mark Rylance Kirsty Young teases out to the more humorous eccentric who sits Buddha-like on his haunches on The South Bank Show). Feature-length arts documentaries are increasingly stylised with the sensibility of their subjects: BBC Two’s wonderful Sean Bean-narrated Ted Hughes documentary Stronger Than Death is a fascinating companion piece to Asif Kapadia’s Amy, while Nick Cave’s 20,000 Days on Earth orchestrates a collage of screen memories. BBC’s Artsnight can’t compete with them, though it has made recent thoughtful pieces on fame, heroes and the British Empire.
But The South Bank Show is the king of the arts interview, still. People lament the death of chat TV in the same way they lament the osmosis of cinematic intelligence to long-form television, but the Greengrass interview ripostes both. The programme might not be that fashionable any more and it can’t get as many viewers as it did on ITV, but all the more reason to trumpet it. This particular episode (episode two of series 41 – 41!) adopts the qualities of Paul Greengrass: persuasive, inquisitive, gripping, simultaneously humble and celebratory of humility. By the same token Paul Greengrass’s films have the impartiality of a Bragg documentary, fragments of dialectic and opinion shored with artistry. You imagine both would dismiss the term national treasure, but Melvyn Bragg and Paul Greengrass represent a deceptively modern, post-imperial British kind of inventiveness: accessibly clever, classic and engaged with the times, disciplined and good-humoured, lyrical and concise. The smile between the two at the end has none of Pinter’s mystique: it is a fraternal, deep, sun-warmed, water-honeyed reflection of a reflection.