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Last Updated: Friday, 4 July, 2003, 16:16 GMT 17:16 UK
Lord Puttnam: Guardian of the airwaves
Chris Jones
BBC News profiles unit

Lord Puttnam is a champion of British values

The Oscar-winning producer of Chariots of Fire has thrown a spoke in the wheels of those American corporate juggernauts with designs on UK media concerns.

Lord Puttnam's success in persuading the government to introduce a public interest test in its Communications Bill is part of his mission to nurture British skills.

In 1997, when even the worst nightmare would not have foreseen the horrors of 11 September, David Puttnam had a warning about the seemingly inexorable spread of American culture.

"If we think Islam is going to sit back and see its world altered because of the omnivorous nature of Hollywood pressures and values, that's nonsense," he said. "At some point or other they're going to react, perhaps badly."

Speaking within days of the announcement of his peerage by Tony Blair's government, Lord Puttnam was perhaps uniquely qualified to opine about Tinseltown.

Stormy reign

Following up his successes as producer of Midnight Express and Chariots of Fire with The Killing Fields, The Mission, Local Hero and Memphis Belle, in 1986 he became the first European-born boss of a Hollywood studio, Columbia.

The cast of the film Memphis Belle
The crew of Memphis Belle
But his stormy reign ended after less than two years. The experience triggered a severe bout of a viral condition, encephalomyocarditis, which affects the skeletal and nervous systems.

It has recurred regularly since: "It's sort of blighted my life," says Lord Puttnam.

He was unable to reconcile his beliefs with Hollywood's demands. Puttnam disliked the intrusive power of agents, crossed swords with several stars, including Bill Murray and Bill Cosby, and allegedly called Dustin Hoffman "a worrisome American pest".

Film critic David Thomson feels Puttnam should have done things differently.


It was all very well announcing lower budgets, lower salaries, braver pictures and more opportunities for European directors, but, Thomson suggests, he should have applied his ideas slowly, "with cunning duplicity".

Lord Puttnam acknowledges: "The first thing I forgot was that I wasn't American."

But he has always had a combative edge, one that perhaps cost him his ambition of becoming vice-chairman of the BBC.

David is clever and smart, and despite his government jobs, is not an establishment figure. So they get a bit scared of him
Film director and friend Alan Parker
He accused the corporation of sacrificing investment in training and new talent because of its obsession with the digital age.

Instead, he was appointed the first chairman of Nesta - the National Endowment of Science, Technology and the Arts - the government initiative to invest more in these fields.

Having retired from film-making in 1998, Lord Puttnam's considerable energy is now channelled into education.

"If you look at the films I've produced, I would argue that at least three-quarters of them have a strong educational content."

Puttnam's passion for education developed after his days at Minchenden Grammar School in London, which he left with only modest academic qualifications.

Rupert Murdoch
Puttnam is wary of the global ambitions of Rupert Murdoch
Later, he says, he "woke up", realised what he was missing and enrolled at night school.

Then, along with Charles Saatchi and Puttnam's future film collaborator Alan Parker, he worked for an advertising agency before graduating to the cinema.

His involvement in higher education dates back to the 1980s. He was a visiting professor of film and television at Bristol University and a governor of the London School of Economics before he accepted an invitation to become chancellor of Sunderland University.

Teachers' champion

When the Blair government came to power, he became chairman of the Education Standards Task Force and later the General Teaching Council.

An unlikely story for the schoolboy whose careers master suggested the only way he'd be able to buy a car was by becoming a sales rep.

Far from sharing what he sees as an unfair media image of teachers, though, Lord Puttnam is one of their champions.

He once attacked the then Chief Inspector of Schools, Chris Woodhead, for bringing a "regime of intimidation and terror".

David Puttnam holds his Oscar aloft
Oscars for Chariots of Fire
"Teachers are without question the most important people in Britain," he says.

Puttnam is still chairman of the film company, Enigma Productions. Now 62, he attempts to recharge his batteries by spending 18 weekends a year with his wife of 41 years at their Irish home in County Cork, sometimes joined by their children and grandchildren.

But there, as at his Wiltshire home, he is often busy with a spade, planting trees.

"Trees have become an obsession," he confesses. "I love colours and textures."

But as head of the committee scrutinising the government's Communications Bill, Lord Puttnam is intent on providing fertile soil for the growth of British originality and invention.

He is anxious that its roots should not be strangled by Rupert Murdoch and other foreign media moguls.

"I believe that in a global environment, it becomes more important than ever for nations to be able to express their own cultures," he says.

Puttnam leads media bill rebels
26 Mar 03  |  Entertainment
Puttnam's call to 'love' teachers
09 Feb 00  |  Education

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