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A British lord, the film icon and free thinker David Puttnam stays true to the dreams of his youth
Report Titania Veda
A Lord’s Life, Lived to the Full
ord David Puttnam sits on a wooden bench in Nusa Dua, on Bali Island, his pink socks peeking out from beneath well-pressed trousers. With his full white beard and generous smile, he has the look of a jolly grandfather. “When my dad died, I was clearing up his stuff. Inside his desk there was a quote from a George Bernard Shaw play,” he says. “It said ‘Be true to the dreams of your youth.’ And I am. I know it may be very inconvenient and some people get cross with me. “Some of the stuff that I think and feel, people probably think that by now I should have gotten over, but in fact, I haven’t. I am quite the opposite.” Puttnam, who was in Indonesia as the keynote speaker for an intellectual property rights conference in Bali, made his name producing a string of successful films, including Oscar winners “Chariots of Fire” and “The Killing Fields.” Over the years he has also been chairman of the prestigious National Film Television School and vice president and chair of trustees at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, or Bafta. He currently has a seat on the Labor benches in Britain’s House of Lords. At 68, Puttnam continues to roll with the punches. As president of Unicef UK, a position he has held since 2002, Puttnam is privy to seeing more of the world than the average person. “Because of my job at Unicef, I get to see things that [others] have never seen. And when you see this stuff, when you are confronted with this stuff, there is a part of me that is in a permanent state of outrage. Real outrage,” he says, hands clenched in emotion. “Because I see the narrowness and the complicity and the hypocrisy, the terrible hypocrisy of the West. Where they talk globalization, where they talk humanity — and then on the ground, I don’t see it.” The British have a reputation for conformity. But Puttnam, unlike many of his contemporaries in the film industry and politics, is a free thinker. He attributes his pluck to being born
in London in February 1941, during the bombing raids known as the Blitz. “I am not a courageous person. But I don’t suffer from fear. There is a big difference. “Courageous people are people who understand fear and are brave anyway. I don’t think I have that. There’s like a piece missing from me. I think when you are born when bombs are dropping around you and you are still alive, you have a sense of immunity.” Puttnam lives life in a flurry of contradictions. “There are two ‘me’s. There is the internal — very solid, very comfortable. I am very lucky. I get royalties from my movies, etc,” he says. “And then there’s the external me that is always fighting. I mean, I fight in Parliament. I’ve been chairman of the climate change
committee, so I’m fighting that. I’ve been fighting energy issues. BBC. Privacy, citizen’s rights. So I am in a permanent state of turmoil. My external state is turmoil. My internal life — very calm,” Puttnam says. Puttnam grew up in a loving household, with a father — a renowned Fleet Street photographer — he idolized, and a mother he describes as “brave.” Amid a whirlwind career, Puttnam’s roots are grounded and sincere. He is still with the woman he fell in love with at the age of 20, his wife Patsy. They live on the west coast of Ireland with their three children, one of whom they adopted after rescuing her from a leper colony in her native India. “My external life is confusing in the sense that I have never had a clear set of ambitions,” he says. “But I have always been very determined.
And I have always been a socialist. And it has sort of informed everything.” His nerve and daring have both aided and jeopardized his career. Following the success of his earlier films, Puttnam was elected chief executive of Columbia Pictures in the late 1980s. Executives had pinned their hopes on Puttnam turning around the ailing studio. But instead of conquering the box office, Puttnam concentrated on stiffening the moral fiber of its movies. Clearly he lacked the money-making mind-set Tinseltown demanded. One year, Puttnam donated the studio’s entire Christmas gift allocation to charity. Pursuing reform, not box-office gold, he only lasted two years. “I didn’t really want to be there in the first place. The hubris was taking the job. Not failing at it,” he laughs. “I don’t mind losing. A lot of people won’t battle, won’t fight, because they’re scared to lose.” In 1993, Puttnam established Skillset — a government-funded film-trainee scheme that provides skills and training for the audiovisual industry in Britain.
the teachers’ awards. “It just elevates the whole thing,” he says. Puttnam is also receptive to new ideas. As chairman of the board of trustees and vice president of Bafta he fought for the inclusion of new media. “Most of my colleagues at Bafta said, ‘Well, that’s them — and we are the movies,’ ” Puttnam says. “Bafta is Bafta only because we were able to get them to change from British Film Academy to British Film and Television Academy. When you have been around long enough, you see that these things have to happen.” Even so, it was five years before the Bafta council relented and created a new media award. Puttnam believes that, in a world in flux, people must be willing to let go of old assumptions. “What’s the point of saying what you were saying 15 years ago — and the context is no longer relevant,” he says. “But people are frightened of doing that. Somehow it makes them feel insecure. I don’t have those fears. I think that’s the best thing I’ve got going for me,” he says.
‘I don’t mind losing. A lot of people won’t battle, won’t fight, because they’re scared to lose.’
With British film schools like NFTS focusing on producing, directing and cinematography, Puttnam was concerned there was not enough attention on entry-level industry training. “Because I made movies, I knew that if the focus puller got it wrong, or if the sound recordist got it wrong, we were screwed,” he says. He also observed that teachers were undervalued, and in 1998, he established Britain’s National Teaching Awards. “Not a genius idea,” he says humbly. “On its own it doesn’t change anything but symbolically it allows teachers to feel they are being valued the same way as singers or movie stars are valued.” Using his name and contacts as a draw card, he convinced friends such as Jeremy Irons and Helen Mirren to present Puttnam’s biggest hang-up in life is being too comfortable and “believing [his] own rhetoric” “I question myself constantly, ‘Have I got this right? Is there a better way of doing this? Has the world changed in such a way that it is no longer relevant?’ ” If the decades of doing battle on the intellectual front lines have taken their toll on Puttnam, it does not show. “It’s the being angry that makes you tired, the sense of injustice,” he pauses. “And then things happen, like Barack becoming president. And you think, ‘Hey! I’ve got to start again.’ ” Puttnam balances his unending fight for justice with time at home with family in County Cork, Ireland. “My dad took me for a walk, two or three years before he died. We were in a park walking. I will always remember this. He said to me, ‘You know, if I died tomorrow, I’d have absolutely no regrets. And I wouldn’t want you to be sad because I’ve really had a great, great life.’ ” “And I feel that way.”
Tollgate Primary School with Lord Puttnam in London for the Teaching Awards 2008. Courtesy of www.teachingawards.com
David Puttnam and his wife Patsy with their daughter Rina. EPA Photo/Richard Rayner
JG Photo/Titania Veda
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