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David Puttnam: ‘I feel no sense of identity for the country I grew up in ’

The British filmmaker and Labour peer is deeply troubled by Brexit

There is usually a sparkle in David Puttnam’s eyes which stays with you long after you spend time in his company – but that sparkle is nowhere to be seen today.

Instead he is weary, hurting, and bothered by the unfolding chaos of Brexit in the country he once called home and its impact on his new haven far from the din of Westminster.

He sighs, he grimaces, he grows irritated. This is not a David Puttnam I have seen before.

Even his tone is uncharacteristically low and lifeless. Brexit, its causes and mutations, has sucked the life from him and that Hollywood smile is replaced by the frown of a man who is afraid of what’s happening in front of his eyes.


Regardless of what happens next Puttnam is consumed by why Brexit happened at all

As a member of the House of Lords he has worked to remind colleagues of the damage this meandering mess could do to Ireland and Anglo-Irish relations. In February he spoke at length about the power of the Irish lobby in America and how Britain's recklessness would not be forgiven, nor forgotten, should they seek a preferential trade agreement with the United States in the future.

Do those in “the other place” listen?

“I have grown increasingly incredulous, not just in terms of what I’m hearing but in terms of what I’m not hearing,” he tells me. “The ignorance towards Ireland and Irish politics and history by British parliamentarians has come as an unbelievable shock to me. I started off being puzzled by it, then concerned and now downright angry.”

It's 30 years since David and his wife Patsy bought this charming home on the road between Skibbereen and Baltimore. It's seen much joy and life over the last few decades but today the mood is dark and reflective.


For David Puttnam – lord, movie-maker, educator, environmentalist, son, husband and father – the political and social strife which has accompanied Brexit has forced him to reconsider what was once a given.

“I feel no sense of identity for the country in which I was born and grew up. It’s a terrible thing to say, but I feel none whatsoever. That’s very sad and I’m struggling with it,” he says.

Indeed, by the time Puttnam, now 78 years old, boards the flight back to Cork after his weekly work in the House of Lords he has a new sense of returning home.

“I think in the last few months that Patsy and I have both found it (the Brexit fall out) incredibly upsetting. That we’ve been very depressed as people and that’s just not us. We’ve no right to be depressed, we’ve too nice a life but this whole thing is so difficult and upsetting. It hurts, it really hurts.”

In Skibbereen locals ask Puttnam about what’s going on and what he thinks will happen.

“All I can do is shake my head and roll my eyes,” he says.

Regardless of what happens next Puttnam is consumed by why Brexit happened at all. Where has all the division, ill will, hate and hurt come from? How did he and others not see it?

“One of the reasons we left our previous home in Wiltshire and came to Ireland was because of these post-colonial attitudes,” he says. “Sometimes the conversations were of another era, totally out of touch. People trying to recapture something which probably never was. And now across the UK these post-imperial attitudes have surfaced. They were ridiculous when they were imperial attitudes and are even more ridiculous now. Its Charge of the Light Brigade stuff – they’ve totally lost sight of the damage they are doing there, here, everywhere.”

He reaches for a piece of paper on which he has scribbled a line. He reads it to me: “It’s become neo-religious. It’s gone far beyond economics now. The Tories are stuck with a total imperial delusion.”


As a Labour peer, he laments the role Jeremy Corbyn has played in the mess.

“People simply don’t trust Jeremy Corbyn to run the economy,” he says. “Within the Labour Party the control components he’s putting in are the opposite to everything he says he is. He’s a serial refusenik who is building a Labour Party which can’t deal with refuseniks.”

Puttnam, who grew up in East London, describes himself as a mongrel. His mother’s parents were Russian and his father’s ancestors French.

“You know what’s tragic? When my mother’s parents came to England around 120 years ago the same stuff was being touted. My dad, who was a photographer, took pictures of the Mosley marches in the Jewish quarter in the East End. People need to wake up to this. This is scary anti-immigrant stuff.”

Puttnam even finds himself shouting for Ireland when the national team face England in the Six Nations

In the days before we meet, Puttnam spoke in the House of Lords. The video record shows a man trying to contain his frustration. He keeps his hands tightly on a sheet of paper. There’s a controlled intensity in his voice. It’s like a scene from one of his films.

"There is one voice I've been waiting to appear during this debate and it hasn't yet and that's the voice of the people in the Republic of Ireland," he told the House. "I would like to get across to your Lordships the incalculable level of anxiety that has been caused to the people of the Republic of Ireland by our apparent indifference to what happens (if this is) a no-deal outcome. Its something I cannot stress enough . . . I would beg them to think of the people I live beside.who are terrified should we, by some ridiculous series of means, crash out of the European Union. "

He is now one of us. He says he even finds himself shouting for Ireland when the national team face England in the Six Nations. In 2007 he gave the oration at the annual Michael Collins commemoration in Béal na mBláth.

British society

For an hour we discuss the roots of Brexit. I ask how, or if, British society can find a way to heal itself.

"It won't happen by osmosis," he says. "No way. Healing can happen through determination but there has to be a clear effort to make this occur. I'm not sure how this can be done now. Also the rebuilding of trust between the UK and Ireland will take, at least, a decade. That trust can't just be rebuilt by commerce. I think the Irish Government are entitled to feel a very great sense of betrayal and the Brits are really going to have to go out of their way to justify and remediate that."

He finds hope in the rising movement to combat climate change and was inspired by the recent demonstrations by young people. “It was wonderful to see. I worked on the production of the environmental drama, Arctic 30, based on Ben Stewart’s book Don’t Trust, Don’t Fear, Don’t Beg, The Extraordinary Story of the Arctic 30 – it recounted the true story of the group of Greenpeace activists, who in September 2013 scaled a Russian oil platform in an attempt to save the Arctic and the consequences of their action.

“I was delighted to work on that and hope that leaders and those in power wake up to the obvious threats of climate change before it’s too late. We need to see more young leaders, joining forces, talking to each other. The likes of Leo and other leaders need to sit up and take notice because these are the voters of tomorrow.”

And locally he’s been involved in an environmental fight of his own.

“You know, after working so hard to successfully brand West Cork as a natural, good food hub they went and granted planning permission to a nurdles factory here. Can you believe that? The mind boggles. The short-sightedness from an environmental and economic point of view is staggering. We’re hoping sense will prevail, it will not go ahead and it should be a serious issue in the local elections in May.”


With the clouds parting to offer some light over Baltimore, Skibbereen, and everywhere in between, we walk from this house to the studio shed. Here Puttnam gives lectures to media students in six universities around the world each week.

“I give two-hour seminars on a Monday and a Friday. Through our work with Atticus we work with universities in Cork, London, Bath, Sunderland, Brisbane, Singapore and Melbourne. I love it and, of late, the lectures have had a strong political slant because of everything that’s happening with Brexit. It allows me to explain to these media students the power they possess. This is real, this is now and by showing video clips of influential propaganda material from war times, and more recently, they can understand the subtle power of film and the media,” he says.

A few steps down is an inner sanctum from where Puttnam speaks to the world via a camera and large screen. The pictures on the wall tell the story of a life in film, education and environmental issues. On a shelf above his desk sits a collection of awards including Baftas.

Talk of film lifts the spirits again.

"The foreign film category at this year's Oscars was as good as I've ever seen it. Films like The Podium, Roma, Cold War, The Salesman are all great," he says with passion. "It's a good time to be in the industry. Lots of money and investment around. I'm convinced that Apple will buy Netflix at some point and you have AT&T buying Warner Brothers and Comcast bought Universal.

“But the threat from other platforms to traditional film is very real. While box-office receipts are still strong they are driven by admission prices rather than volume and the whole thing is hidden by the amazing success of the box office in China.”

As we part ways. I try to reassure him that there is no need to be depressed by Brexit. He smiles kindly and disappears into his office by the water’s edge.