Anna Maria O’Flanagan points the lens at Edel O’Mahon’s documentary David Puttnam: The Long Way Home.

“I am and always have been defined by my work. You understand me, look at what I do.”

David Puttnam: The Long Way Home, directed by Edel O’Mahony and produced by Clíona Ní Bhuachalla is a portrait of one man and his life’s work. This is told mostly in his own words, and supplemented by the person who has shared that life for nearly 65 of those years: his wife, Patsy.  

In his home office, the walls are filled with framed photos – snapshots of a career, including an envelope with a red seal and the two words, Best Picture, on top. As one of the UK’s most successful film producers, Puttnam was the face of a changing British filmmaking industry during the 1970s and 80s. In this era, advertising was a spawning pond for a new cohort of talent that drew not from the ranks of Britain’s fee paying public schools or the hallowed grounds of Oxbridge but from the grammar schools and polytechnic colleges the length and breadth of Britain. Puttnam was at the very epicentre of a new wave of filmmakers. It was here that he met working class creative Alan Parker, who he encouraged to make the leap into the world of film and who would become ‘the brother’ he never had. The two collaborated on the film project Melody (1971) and later Midnight Express (1978). This earned an Oscar nomination for Puttnam and Alan Marshall for Best Picture, as well as another nomination for Parker for Best Director.

Less than five years later, Puttnam was making his way to the Academy Awards podium to collect the Best Picture Oscar for Chariots of Fire (1981). The collective sense of pride in the film and in Britain itself was famously summed up in Colin Wellands’s acceptance speech for Best Screenplay, when he announced ‘The British are coming.’ Sitting in his home cinema and now looking back at footage of the ceremony, Puttnam advises that such moments are the cherry on top of the cake. While awards may or may not happen,  the real sustaining joy is from the joint collaboration with others. 

Not one for the trappings of Hollywood glamour and celebrity,  Puttnam viewed the awards as an opportunity. Although he never ventured into directing, his distinctive imprint is on every film he was ever involved in. As a creative producer, he was never just interested in the purely financial side of ensuring bums on seats. He nurtured talent and championed projects that went beyond mere entertainment. They asked pertinent questions about society, history and human relationships. Reflecting on his body of work, he identifies the theme of male friendship that runs throughout his work. This, he credits to his close relationship with his father, a man who always believed in him and remains his hero to this day. 

When Columbia Pictures came calling, inviting him to run the Hollywood studio, Puttnam embarked on a crusade to shake up the system. During this process, he became deeply unpopular amongst the Hollywood elite, stepping on toes and egos until he was quickly and publicly disposed. A complete fall from grace, the news filled the pages of the British and American press and industry trade papers. It was a bruising experience that affected his health.  Now with distance and hindsight, Puttnam stands by his strategy for the studio and reflects that many of his critics have come to acknowledge the merit of his vision

Softly spoken, reflective and articulate, Puttnam is a man who takes a quiet pride in his achievements while remaining modest. Resilience is a word he uses throughout the documentary and it is a word that is very much a part of himself. After his departure from Columbia, he returned to film producing in the UK, until his career changed trajectory altogether. As a beneficiary of Labour’s post war welfare-state of the 1940s and 50s, he was instinctively drawn to Blair’s New Labour with its renewed optimism and pride in a Britain that echoed the swinging London of his youth. Puttnam entered the House of Lords as a Labour peer on the cusp of Cool Britannia. In politics, he employed the same work ethic he brought to the film world, delving into issues of  educational reform, climate change, migration and the future of digital technology.

He acknowledges that his life would have taken a different route were it not for the support of his wife Patsy. As the only other voice in the documentary, she offers her own insights. Drawn to the schoolboy who told her that he lived ‘above a caravan in a balloon’, this became a metaphor for their life together. As a young married man with two small children, he moved his family, almost on a whim, from secure, respectable but bland suburbia to bohemian Pimlico. There, he embraced the cosmopolitan London in the 60s and pursued a career that was fraught with uncertainty and possible financial ruin. Years later, there came another move, this time across the Atlantic to LA . There is a sense that it was Patsy who negotiated the path between living the dream and the grounding force of reality. She adds how they are a couple who will argue the toss on almost everything but on the important things, they always agree. 

When Puttnam came home from location in Scotland after the shoot of the film Local Hero (1982), he told Patsy that they were ‘missing a beat’.  The couple went searching for a rural summer retreat. A year later, while on holiday in Cork, Puttnam drove to a house on the banks of the river Ilen in Skibbereen, climbing over brambles to view it better. Without his wife’s knowledge, he purchased it and waited a few months before telling her. 

What was initially a summer hideaway from his working life became a refuge from the changing political landscape of Britain. Embedded in the community of  West Cork, Puttnam developed strong ties with his neighbours and a love of the surrounding landscape as well as a deep appreciation of its harsh history. As the UK moved towards Brexit and ‘into self-destruct’, his bonds with his adopted home grew stronger. The hurt of subsequent political breakdown, along with the political establishment’s deliberate lack of understanding regarding Ireland’s position, resulted in his decision to retire his life peerage from the House of Lords. 

Many politicians who leave behind their careers, embark on the financially lucrative circuits of lectures to investment bankers and after dinner speeches to global corporations; however Puttnam has instead chosen to give his time to various educational institutions both in Ireland and the UK.  An excellent communicator with in-depth knowledge and experience, he offers insight into fields as diverse as filmmaking, climate action and AI.  This is a new chapter for him, one that he is seizing with his trademark zeal and enthusiasm. In 2022, himself and Patsy officially became Irish citizens and his balloon over the caravan finally settled over his much loved home in Skibbereen. His DNA is that of an English man, but David Puttnam has discovered his soul is Irish. He is a testament to how land of our birth is an accident of birth, but where we call home is where we belong. 

David Puttnam: The Long Way Home is available to watch on the RTÉ Player here

Write A Comment