David Puttnam – The Long Way Home review: Heart-warming exploration of an Englishman’s love affair with Ireland

Television: Englishman’s films burn with fierce moral conviction. That same decency has informed Puttnam’s feelings towards Ireland

David Puttnam and his wife Patsy in RTÉ's David Puttnam: The Long Road Home. Photograph: RTÉ/Miki Barlok

When Oscar-winning producer David Puttnam told his wife, Patsy, that he had bought them a holiday home in a country beginning with the letter “i”, her heart leapt with joy. “Oh Italy – you mean Italy,” she recalls early in the heart-warming and illuminating David Puttnam: The Long Way Home (RTÉ One, Thursday, 10.15pm). He did not mean Italy. Instead, Puttnam had secured for the family a house in Skibbereen, west Cork, with epic views over the river Ilen.

This was in the early 1980s, and – the occasional adventure in Tinsel Town notwithstanding – the Puttnams have lived happily in rural Cork ever since. “If Ireland came up against England in the World Cup,” reveals David with a grin, “I would support Ireland”.

Edel O’Mahony’s film is two documentaries in one. The first chronicles Puttnam’s career as a producer, including the Academy Award success of Chariots of Fire in 1981 and his stressful stint running Columbia Pictures from 1986 to 1987 – a move he describes as an “absurd decision” and where his achievements include greenlighting early Spike Lee feature School Daze.

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But the heart of the doc concerns Puttnam’s relationship with Ireland. That it might be good for his soul to escape the bustle of London occurred to him while making Local Hero in Aberdeenshire in 1983. Having scoured both Scotland and Ireland, he found himself in west Cork. “I climbed over a load of brambles,” he said, remembering his first fateful glimpse of the river Ilen. “I saw that [the breathtaking landscape]. That was exactly what I had in my mind’s eye.”


Puttnam’s films burn with fierce moral conviction. The hero in Chariots of Fire achieved gold medal success despite his principled refusal to run on Sundays. In The Killing Fields, Sam Waterston’s journalist protagonist refuses to abandon his friend, photojournalist Dith Pran, when he becomes a victim of the Khmer Rogue in late 1970s Cambodia.

That same decency has informed Puttnam’s feelings towards Ireland and his fascination with the Famine, which he regards, in essence, as Britain’s original sin when it comes to its dynamic with its closest colony.

“Skibbereen is a very resilient town,” he says as he visits a Famine graveyard. “There’s a resilience here. They’ve dealt with s**t and come out the other side.”

Puttnam has mentored a new generation of film-makers through his Puttnam Scholarship Programme. He has also become one of the most outspoken critiques of the folly of Brexit and its corrosive impact on interactions between Britain and Ireland. “I watched my country of birth going into self-destruction,” he sighs.

But for all his pessimism about Britain, The Long Way Home has an upbeat conclusion as we see Puttnam receiving Irish citizenship – thus sealing his journey from cosmopolitan outsider to one of those rare English people who seems to become almost as Irish as the Irish themselves.

“[Coming to Ireland] forced me to reflect on the role of the British in Ireland – [the] fundamental cultural lack of empathy,” he says. “It was pure good fortune that brought me here.”