Sir Alan Parker doesn’t like it if you don’t acknowledge the fact that he has been knighted. “I’m not in the Sir Ben Kingsley mode,” he says, referring to the star of Gandhi who allegedly insists on his title being used on set. “But it is my legal name, and it should be acknowledged. I get irritated when I get things addressed to ‘Dear Mr Parker’. I don’t mind being called Alan. That’s the good thing about a knighthood. It’s more familiar because it uses your first name.”
This contradictory stance summarises Sir Alan perfectly. Now 68, the director of a score of films including Bugsy Malone, Evita, Angela’s Ashes, Mississippi Burning and Midnight Express is a complex, somewhat irascible combination of Establishment and informality, whose presence in the film world is still highly idiosyncratic. He certainly divides the critics – from those who suggest he coats the gritty with saccharine, to others who see him as one of the few authentic voices in Hollywood.
He says he is still “having a go” behind the camera and, nine years after his last movie, is working on a new film – a love story that started out as a Japanese novel and was made into a Korean film with a script by a South American playwright. “It’s the first thing I’ve done for ages that I haven’t written, but it’s been so beautifully done, I don’t need to write a word.” The project is currently being considered by Brad Pitt. “But [Pitt] can do anything he wants. So [in a few months’ time] he might have another point of view.”
Parker, who grew up in postwar, bombed-out Islington, is almost a cinematic creation himself; the working-class child who loves the high-showbiz camp of musicals; the clever grammar school boy who seeks emotional narrative above all, and probably the only director to get a half-decent performance out of Madonna.
His films play to the mass market, yet they are distinctive and no two are the same. They haven’t all been hits (Pink Floyd – The Wall and The Life of David Gale spring to mind) but those that work have a resounding connection with how people are feeling and thinking. He has two Best Director Oscar nominations, for Midnight Express and Mississippi Burning. His 1980 film Fame provoked performing arts schools to spring up in Croydon and Liverpool, and Bugsy Malone, his 1976 gangster film starring children, is put on more times in schools than any other play.
Once so embarrassed by Bugsy Malone that he would request it be left out of retrospectives, Parker is now touchingly proud of it. “I think it still holds up, after all these years. That’s a good test of a film. At the time I wrote it, I hadn’t even visited America. But I’d been doing a lot of commercials with kids, and had four children of my own all under nine. There was nothing for kids, so I wrote this pastiche of an American musical and a gangster film. Afterwards, I didn’t think it was really me. So I went and did Midnight Express.”
Why on earth would the director of Bugsy Malone, a children’s film, be given an angst-ridden saga, set in a Turkish prison, of a young man busted for drugs? That’s Parker. He is what people call a “character”, but his is one that defies categorisation.
Reassuringly solid, his craggy boxer’s face now surmounted by a strangely fluffy parakeet’s crest of white hair, Parker is as given to loud hoots of laughter as he is to cries of disgust. There is very little about which he does not have a strong opinion, and his hilarious rudeness is legendary.
He once described film critics as “eunuchs” and called the British Film Institute “28 intellectuals in a library”. Years ago he made a film documentary called A Turnip-Head’s Guide to British Cinema, which showed the then-director of the BFI beneath a caption that read “Furthermore we refute the allegation that we are masturbatory, elitist, pseudo-intellectual, or in any way out of touch with the morons who go to the Odeon.” When I once interviewed him on television in Cannes, he was so outrageous about the late Richard Harris (he said something along the lines of “this film needs cutting and I suggest Richard Harris’s entire performance”) that he had to hide from the veteran actor when he next came across him in London.
I ask him if he worked on the Film Policy Review, published earlier this year and headed by the former culture secretary, Lord Smith. Sadly, he did not. “They don’t want my opinion because I am too connected with the other government.”
He is going to give his opinion, anyway: “It is a terrible mess and it is our film industry.” Parker is wholly dismayed by what he sees as a silo mentality in the business. “The film industry is divided into two camps. Firstly there is a service industry for America, doing things like special effects for Harry Potter. Then there is our indigenous industry dominated by some brilliant filmmakers like Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, in the area you might call gritty and realistic. But the world is not looking at gritty and realistic any more. Because the American studios have decided to zero in on the youngest demographic. Ken and Mike still continue to make their films, but for a tiny audience. And when we do succeed, it’s with films like The King’s Speech. That’s all America is interested in. It is not interested in council flats.”
Council flats are close to Parker’s soul, because he was brought up in one.
“We lived in Canonbury Court, a postwar housing estate off Cross Street in Islington. I went to William Tyndale Primary, and I was the top in my class.” Crucially, Parker passed the 11-plus, which meant he could attend the local grammar school, Dame Alice Owen’s at the Angel (it has since moved to Potters Bar).
Islington was not the chic destination for the chattering classes that it is now. Parker’s playground was a bombsite and his mother had TB, “although she called it pleurisy, out of embarrassment. She was away for a year. I remember her waving from the balcony of Winchmore Hill Hospital. When she came home, she had to use separate cutlery. And she never ever kissed me, ever again. I have to laugh about it. If I don’t, I might cry.” Parker, who was an only child, pauses for comic effect. “She probably never ever kissed my dad again, either. Which was worse for him, ha ha ha.”
So he went to his grammar school interview accompanied by just his father. In 1955, Dame Alice Owen’s was a formal, traditional place; the masters still wore robes and there was a quad.
“I was interviewed by David Haydon Jones, who taught Latin and history,” says Parker. “He asked me, ‘How did you get here today? Car?’
I said, ‘No sir, we came on the trolley bus.’
‘Do you like them?’ he asked.
I said, ‘No sir, I prefer the trams, because they have a big open area at the front where you can mess around.’ And then I thought, I have no chance here.”
Yet he was given the chance; he was top of the class, and revelled in every moment of it. “[Owen’s] offered me the beginning of the rest of my life. I remember going there on my first day,” he says. “I can still smell my satchel. I was 11. It was my first day at grammar school, and I was the only kid from the flats to have got there. Ever. As I turned the corner and waved up to my mum and dad, I saw them all there, all out on the balconies, waving. The whole estate was out there. It was my cinematic moment, and I have put it, at least the sense of it, into many of my films.”
Unsurprisingly, the school has made much of the fact that Parker is an old boy. Next year, for its 400th anniversary celebrations at the Royal Albert Hall, it is staging some scenes from an early Parker film, Melody, which were inspired by his school days.
“I included two scenes from my experiences at Owen’s. The first involved the history teacher, Mr Dare. We called him Dan Dare. So Dan Dare takes the chalk and writes ‘WIC’ on the board. ‘That is Wellington’s Iberian Campaign,’ he says. And I say ‘Sorry, sir, but what was Wellington doing in Spain in the first place?’ And Dan Dare says, ‘Don’t ask stupid questions. You are not meant to understand it. You are meant to pass the exam.’”
He laughs hoarsely. I wonder whether the high-ups at the school are going to enjoy this play.
“We still had corporal punishment,” continues Parker. “If you did something serious, you got the cane. But if you hadn’t done your homework, or if your translation of the Aeneid wasn’t done properly, the Latin master Mr Reeves would say ‘Take Two, Parker’. ‘Two’ meant two hits with his big gym slipper – which he called Julius Caesar – on the bum. And if you complained, or argued, which I often did, being lippy, he’d double it. ‘Take Four, Parker’, he’d say. One day, I was so angry. I thought I had translated pretty good. Not to justify being hit twice, at least. He said, ‘Take Two Parker’, and I said, ‘That is really not right, sir, that is not fair.’ And he said, ‘Take Four, Parker.’ And I said, ‘That is not right, sir.’ And he said, ‘TAKE SIX, PARKER.’ And he hit me six times. It was not like getting the cane, it didn’t hurt like that but it did hurt a bit.” Parker starts laughing again. “[Film producer] David Puttnam showed Melody to the National Union of Students, as an example of how people used to teach.
“I am argumentative,” he allows. “I think that may come from growing up in Islington.” It’s a place he has never really left; even though he has a house in California. “If you stay in LA too long, you don’t come back,” he says. “You go to the Motion Picture Home for elderly people.”
He is very cross that the Film Council, of which he was once chair, was controversially abolished in 2010. “I think everyone realises it was a mistake to ditch the Film Council. Jeremy Hunt [secretary of state for culture] comes in, takes a Biro and just crosses out the Film Council. And all the officials and civil servants say ‘Are you really sure? Have you run it through the official channels about cost?’ And he says, ‘It’s only a Biro! It only costs 40p!’ Ha ha,” Parker laughs drily.
“Lottery money for films still exists, but it has been stuffed into the BFI, which seems a very out- of-date, dysfunctional organisation. I did this joke once,” he continues. “How do you stuff a live eagle into a dead albatross? You kill the eagle. And that is the Film Council.”
Retiring is not an option. “It’s not unusual, in cinema. Billy Wilder was still directing aged 80. You don’t stop. You aren’t supposed to. In normal life you are supposed to stop. But here, in movies, you are supposed to carry on until you drop dead, and fall off the dolly with a heart attack.”
Perhaps he can’t envisage leaving Britain because it is here that his life story has meaning. “There was a guy in my class called Ron. I think he went to Cambridge. He was so clever and he had the most wonderful handwriting. Anyway, I am a big Arsenal fan, go to every game, and one day recently, after the match, I was in this restaurant. And old Ron was there too. He came up to me and he said, ‘Do you remember me? I was at Owen’s’. I said, ‘Do you still have fantastic handwriting?’ He said, ‘It’s all I have.’ He became an accountant.”
Alan Parker is speaking at the Oxford Literary Festival on March 25, www.oxfordliteraryfestival.org.