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Last Updated: Sunday, 19 February 2006, 13:10 GMT
Opening windows
On Sunday 19 February 2006 Huw Edwards interviewed Lord Puttnam

Please note "BBC Sunday AM" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used.

Lord Puttnam
Lord Puttnam

HUW EDWARDS: Now what have all these great names got in common - Charlie Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock, Stephen Spielberg, Sean Connery and Elizabeth Taylor?

Well they've all been awarded one of the most coveted awards in the film world, the Bafta Fellowship.

And tonight another name will be added to the select few.

And the name is that of David Puttnam. His many Oscar-winning films include of course Chariots of Fire.

He also produced The Mission, The Killing Fields (which is my favourite), Local Hero, Midnight Express, Bugsy Malone and Memphis Belle.

He's the only non-American ever to have run a Hollywood studio and since his return to Britain several years ago he's been, as we know, a prominent figure in public life, not least as a Labour peer in the House of Lords.

Lord Puttnam, David, is with me. Welcome to you.


HUW EDWARDS: Thanks for coming in. First of all, every viewer will want to say this, many congratulations on the Fellowship.

DAVID PUTTNAM: Thank you very much.

HUW EDWARDS: What does it mean to you?

DAVID PUTTNAM: A lot, because I left the film industry. In '97 I was asked to go and work for David Blunkett and there was never any closure. I kind of just went and I have never worked in the film industry since. So for me it closes something which was a wonderful 30 years of my life and, yes, a very important evening for me.

HUW EDWARDS: And, if you'd like to peg it to a single project, which I know is a ridiculous and stupid thing for me to suggest for you to do. But if you were to peg it onto one project, one film, what would it be?

DAVID PUTTNAM: Probably The Killing Fields because the ramifications of that movie have kind of stayed with me. First of all it's become the phrase of choice when talking about genocide, quite extraordinary in the way, it's kind of inhabited the language. Secondly, something happened to me, what, a year ago, which was quite amazing. In '85 I was sent off by the government to Kiev, a British week in Kiev, to run The Killing Fields as we'd just won a clutch of Oscars and they felt it was appropriate. I'd been very badly briefed about the Ukraine - I had no understanding at all of the tensions that existed, political, religious and economic.

We ran it in some Saturday morning huge cavern of a cinema. And to a lot of, mostly young people, 2,000 of them. Terrific questions afterwards but no-one mentioned Cambodia. It was all about war and problems, and very interesting questions. OK - a year ago I bumped into the new President, Yushchenko, in Davos(?).

And I was introduced to him, he didn't speak particularly good English and I heard someone say, oh it's the producer of The Killing Fields. At which point he grabbed me and he said, aw, he said, and explained that shortly after that, I guess they pirated it, he didn't say they pirated it, lots and lots of copies of The Killing Fields were shown compulsory in schools all over the Ukraine. Every kid in the Ukraine has seen this film.

He said do you realise that during the orange revolution there was never any discussion, at any point at all, about a civil war. He said because we knew what civil war did. We saw what happened in Cambodia and it was not going to happen in Ukraine. And you suddenly realise the incredible power of cinema. I can't pretend that we knew we were going to have that effect when we were making the movie. But I just wish people would realise what an incredibly powerful and important medium cinema is, can be, and what effect it has on people's lives.

HUW EDWARDS: How does it make you feel when somebody like Yushchenko comes up and reveals to you, and underlines to you, precisely what the power of the medium is?

DAVID PUTTNAM: It's a remarkable thing, Richard Gere was there, it was amazing, because it was a revelation. On the other hand Huw, I know it's true. I go to schools you know, we run a film like Twelve Angry Men and you ask the kids at the end of film, who do you want to be? Oh Henry Fonda. So really, why? I mean he's the guy that kept them in the room all that time, could have gone off to the ball park.

Why? And they explain to you why Henry Fonda was the character they wished to be. And I think congratulations, you are now a citizen. You've understood responsibility. You've understood how difficult life can be. And cinema opens those windows to people you know. And changes them.

HUW EDWARDS: Is it still opening those windows today? What are good examples at the moment of films which are "opening windows"?

DAVID PUTTNAM: You've got five wonderful ones this evening. I mean, one of the best things for me this evening is I'm at the same stage, at the same event as five films which absolutely celebrate the type of cinema I spent my life arguing for.

One which is very important to me is Good Night and Good Luck, about the journalist Ed Murrow. First of all my dad knew Ed Murrow so there's a person connection there. But I cannot imagine any journalist looking at that film, thinking, you know what, this is a noble profession. At times it's also a vital profession. And coming out feeling not just good about themselves, also good about the job they do. That's fantastic, you know. What other medium can do that?

HUW EDWARDS: Why do you think George Clooney went and directed that, what was it about Ed Murrow that inspired him, apart from the fact that his dad was an anchor man?

DAVID PUTTNAM: I'd like to think it probably is that. Because Ed Murrow's story is in a sense all of our stories. Why would you go into journalism without wishing to have Ed Murrow's values, Ed Murrow's morality? And indeed Ed Murrow's effect on the United States, it was a very important part of its history. So I think that Clooney is one of a group of actors who have actually put themselves out, a long way, to try to recreate, I think, a sense of responsibility and so I admire him enormously.

HUW EDWARDS: So, what you're saying is basically that despite the fact that there's a lot of pap around, there are one or two good highlights which we can respect?

DAVID PUTTNAM: And get it better, the last two years, particularly American cinema, the last two years has been very, very fine.

HUW EDWARDS: I read somewhere that you said that three-quarters of your films had an educational instinct or content or impulse, or whatever word you want to use. Is that right?


HUW EDWARDS: Three-quarters of them?

DAVID PUTTNAM: Yes, they certainly, the vast majority of them try to say something within them. They try to have a sense of value. The Mission was interesting you know, I've been all round the world with that movie. And De Nero's reading of the St. Paul letter, which I've seen in loads of countries. Total silence, people rapt up, and suddenly being introduced to, you know, something which may not ever touch their lives at all, and they're sitting there listening to St. Paul's letter.

HUW EDWARDS: Given that strong educational instinct, that drive you have. When you sit in the House of Lords and you contemplate legislation of all kinds, how do you view the general drift of things at the moment? Where are you on this very controversial Education Bill that's going through the parliament at the moment?

DAVID PUTTNAM: Well, it's obviously a subject very close to me for the last eight years I've one way or another worked for the Department of Education. I will always be opposed to selection. Why? Because I was one of those kids who did pass my 11-Plus. I've never understood why it was called the 11-Plus.

We were all 10 when we took it. Both of my best friends at my school failed. And I never, ever saw them again. And the idea that this is a fair form of selection is madness. It's an article of faith for me as a Labour politician. Also I'm concerned that there's not enough appreciation of the fact that there are vexatious parents.

Whilst I think parents must be involved in education, a vexatious parent could cause more chaos in the school than troublesome kids. And I'd like to see far more emphasis laid on the role of governors, chairs of governors, and make absolutely sure that they are given the responsibility to steer schools. Because they do it very, very well indeed. It's the largest, you know it's the largest group of civilian volunteers in Britain, over a million people. And we should acknowledge their role more, and maybe give them the powers that they need to get on and do a good job.

HUW EDWARDS: Do you respect the fact that those who are in favour of the Bill, not least the Prime Minister, tell us frequently that standards in many schools are simply not high enough, and that unless you tackle things in this kind of way, giving more autonomy to schools, they are simply not going to be able to escape from what they see as the kind of, the dead hand of local authorities?

DAVID PUTTNAM: I think the Prime Minister is right in a sense, of wishing to push the agenda along. But I would argue, and you'll talk to John Reid later, and he would have a view on this, I've never met a serious military commander - general - who ever denigrates their troops - ever.

Basically what they say is I've got the finest troops in the world, they do a sensational job and there may be a few bad apples. We've never treated teachers certainly in that way. I've never really sufficiently heard people say we have sensational teachers. Every teacher in Britain is trying as hard as they possibly can.

They are very few lazy, idle, unmotivated teachers. So we've got to develop, the Labour Party in particular, has got to develop a better way of engaging in a conversation with the public, with the public servants, which I think, and my advice would be, replicate, look at the way the military do it. The military are smart. They understand exactly what motivation is. They understand how far they can go and they do it very well. We could do it better.

HUW EDWARDS: And, just finally David, from your vantage point in the House of Lords, do you think that this time next year there'll be a new occupant at No. 10, or what's your reading of it?

DAVID PUTTNAM: I have no idea. I believe in small transitions. For me it should take place at the Labour Party Conference because I think it would give us a chance to celebrate something that's well worth celebrating. Tony Blair's been a remarkable Prime Minister, there's no question about that.

So I'd like to see it take place at the Labour Party Conference. I've always thought that probably the Labour Party Conference 2007 is a very appropriate moment. But it's the Prime Minister's decision and he'll make it, I'm sure, sensibly and wisely.

HUW EDWARDS: Good luck tonight David, and once again many congratulations to you. Thank you very much for coming in.



NB: this transcript was typed from a recording and not copied from an original script.

Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy

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