Director Mike Newell: “I have one more film in me”

Nicola Venning

We interview Mike Newell on his career, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and what the future holds for him 

“We do hark back to strong heroes,” says veteran film and TV director Mike Newell in a chatty and affable interview in London’s Soho Hotel.

Newell is promoting his latest film, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a heart-warming, moving adventure set in post-war Britain, starring Lily James of Downton Abbey and Cinderella fame.

The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society is the latest in a spate of movies such as Dunkirk, Darkest Hour and Their Finest, set during the Second World War. The films are part of a trend which, Newell feels, fulfil a need in anxious times.

“Back there (in the past) where the ground is still solid, we feel fine and safe”, says the 76-year-old. “Out there, (in the future) it’s vertiginous and we don’t know what’s going to happen. We hang on. We’re standing on a cliff edge of our own history”, he says matter-of-factly.

If The Guernsey Literary Society is part of a reaction to contemporary uncertainty, it’s one with both pathos and sunny charm. Gorgeous to look at, the film is the romantic tale of journalist Juliet Ashton (Lily James), who answers a letter from a Guernsey farmer. She believes him to be part of a book group, the Guernsey Literary Society, which was originally set up during the Nazi occupation of the Channel Islands.

In search of a story, she impulsively heads to Guernsey to meet the group. Of course, neither the society nor the farmer (an earthy Gabriel Oak-type of character played by Michiel Huisman), turn out to be as she expected. As she gradually gets to know them, Juliet discovers a secret, which no one wants her to write about.

Unlike many films set in and around the Second World War, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society gives a kitchen-sink and very female experience of a country at war. It’s a point of view Newell was clearly keen to show. “Guess who doesn’t get written about? The women”, says Newell who was born in 1942. “I remember it being dirty and gritty and cold. I remember everything being on the ration. I remember coupons and my mum darning my trousers. Those stories never got told. And those are the stories that you actually lived”, he adds.

With a strong, empowered woman in the lead, the film also feels very topical, and chimes with the female orientated zeitgeist. “It’s a period story with a modern sensibility”, agrees Newell who  feels there will be more movies told from a woman’s point of view. “I think it’s inevitable. It’s already happening”.

As well as a love story, The Guernsey Literary is also about literature, and the humanity and understanding a good book can engender. So what would be Newell’s favourite tome? “It’s impossible to choose. That’s a rotten question,” he laughs. “I would be absolutely torn by Dickens,” he says. In the end his choice is a tie between Dombey and Son and Conrad’s Typhoon “which I read every year.”

A love of books and, particularly drama, had a rather unlikely start in his childhood. The son of a builder, Newell grew up in austere Forties’ and Fifties’ working-class Britain, where a broad education—never mind a career—in film seemed as remote as a well-stocked pantry. However, his parents were “crazed amateur theatricals”, he smiles, and “through that we had plays in the house and lots of books, so I got used to having that around.”

Newell’s father, a self-educated man, was a big influence. Heavy-weight plays such as Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock, and Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, were all performed, recalls the director. When his father took him to see Renoir’s La Grande Illusion when he was 15, it proved to be seminal. “I didn’t know what had hit me. I thought it the most extraordinary experience”, he says. Newell knew then he wanted to work in film. He went on to study English at Cambridge before joining Granada Television as a trainee.

After a thorough grounding in television, a move into film was inevitable. Newell’s break out movie was Dance with a Stranger, starring Miranda Richardson and Rupert Everett in 1984. “After “Dance with a Stranger, all I got was doomed love stories, for years,” says Newell. However, he has cleverly avoided categorisation.

In the course of his long, award-winning career, Newell has made wide-ranging hits such as the BAFTA-winning Four Weddings and a Funeral, the critically acclaimed tragi-comedy Mafia crime story Donnie Brasco, starring Al Pacino and Johnny Depp, as well as the big budget Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, part of the commercial behemoth and film franchise based on J K Rowling’s fantasy series.

It’s an impressive list by anyone’s standard but Newell insists, “I’m not a grand person, I am a perfectly ordinary article,” adding, “Good films come along, if you’re lucky every four or five years. The last great film I saw was (Michael Haneke’s) The White Ribbon (which won the Palme D’Or in 2009).”

“Ordinary” or not, Newell is passionate about movies. So does he have anything else in the pipeline? “I honestly don’t know. Things come bobbing down the stream,” he says. “I have one more film in me. But I’m not going to waste it.”  You suspect there’s no chance of that.

The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society is released on April 20, 2018.