- 15 Apr 10
He was one of Britain’s most famous journalists. Then he became a successful thriller writer. Now Robert Harris’s most political novel yet has inspired a film, in which the central protagonist bears an uncanny resemblance to a certain ex-British prime minister with a messianic gleam in his eye.
Robert Harris is gazing at my dictaphone like a physicist might marvel at the Large Hadron Collider. In the current clamour around the 52-year-old, one tends to forget that long before he became a blockbuster novelist and screenwriter, he was a respected journalist and commentator. In his early twenties, he won fans as a staple of such BBC presentations as Panorama and Nationwide; in 1987, he was appointed political editor at The Observer. He can recognise a quality recording device when he sees one, although it must be a while since he’s wielded such a thing in earnest.
“Hmm,” he thinks. “I last did this – where you’re sitting now, I mean – in 2000 and something. It was an interview with Tony Blair for the ill-fated Talk magazine. Anyway I got back home and I couldn’t hear a word. I had to ring the Downing Street press office and they sent me their copy. Then the interview turned out to be controversial and I had the only recording. There was a bit of a fuss, I can tell you.”
For better or worse, it’s impossible to think of Robert Harris without thinking of two particular political bodies: the Nazis and New Labour (insert your own joke here). As a purveyor of fine historical fiction, Mr. Harris has presided over such bestselling titles as Fatherland and Enigma (“I’m spiralling back to World War 2 all the time. Don’t think I haven’t heard all the jokes.”); as a political maven, his relationship with Tony Blair seems neatly emblematic.
Born into a decidedly Old Labour family – Harris Sr. was a self educated Leicestershire printer – Robert Harris was the most convincing voice among the cheerleaders at the New Statesman. Like many of his colleagues at that organ – Martin Amis, Anthony Howard, Julian Barnes, James Fenton and Christopher Hitchens – disillusionment quickly set in. Former friends Harris and Blair would, in particular, fall out over the Iraq war.
“It was all wrong,” says Harris. “The complete capitulation of British interest to America, the scraping before Bush, the implausible case for war, the crusading aspect. The key to Tony Blair is his religious faith. I think he really believes he’s on a mission doing the Lord’s work. He’s an ideologue and conviction politician who divides the world as black hats and white hats. I’m not a believer but I’ve known people who go to church; they’re not necessarily nice people but they maintain a patina of sanctimony. They believe and are sure of their own moral superiority. Add in sucking up to the US and you have a terrible alchemy.”
These concerns found eloquent expression in The Ghost, a paranoid 2007 thriller, now a major motion picture. Inspired by Tony Blair, his wife Cherie, and the former British Prime Minister’s loyal ‘gatekeeper’ Anji Hunter, the new film offers certain deliciously wicked parallels and a plethora of political conspiracies, most notably the suggestion that the CIA are operating out of Downing Street.
“In the end the publishers decided it was so plainly libellous they might as well leave it,” laughs Harris. “I’m pleading artistic licence. I don’t really think Tony Blair is a CIA plant. I’m just taking certain political details and making them into a story.”
Thus the plot sees seasoned British ghostwriter (Ewan McGregor) take on the memoirs of British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) for a project that seems doomed from the outset (not least because the author’s predecessor on the project, Lang’s long-term aide, died in mysterious circumstances.) Our hack hero flies out to an isolated oceanfront American house to chit-chat with his subject, the former first lady (Olivia Williams) and Lang’s personal assistant (Kim Cattrall), just as a former British cabinet minister accuses Lang of involvement in extraordinary rendition and torture. As a media storm erupts, the unnamed protagonist uncovers clues which suggest even darker political entanglements and an office that has become completely divorced from reality.
“What you see today really only came in with Margaret Thatcher,” explains Harris. “Jim Callaghan and Harold Wilson didn’t have massive security or an entourage. Winston Churchill had one guy – Tommy Thompson – who would walk behind him during the biggest war in modern history. So the idea of keeping leaders separate from the public is a new thing and it’s a very bad idea. Whenever I’m going through airport security with my pathetic little bag of toiletries, I’m always aware that somewhere in the airport, Tony Blair or somebody else is being whisked through. That just seems profoundly wrong in a democracy.”
Is that kind of isolation as damaging as the new film suggests?
“Oh yes, I think so,” says Harris. “It has psychological effects which were written all over Tony’s face during the Chilcot enquiry. He no longer looks or acts like an ordinary guy, which was always his great schtick – I’m a pretty regular kind of guy. He couldn’t say that anymore, not with that perma-tan.”
Just to add to the controversy, The Ghost is directed by Roman Polanski; unsurprisingly, the unrivalled Polish filmmaker had to edit the project under house arrest following his arrest by Swiss authorities last September. In the interim, Mr. Harris has found himself taking on a role as the director’s public voice, not an easy task in the well-publicised circumstances.
“The crime he committed is regarded – by a factor of about ten – as more serious than it was then. We assume we’ve grown more liberal but on that particular issue – and rightly so – it’s taken much more seriously than it was back then. I’m not surprised by the hostility. If you say anything about it, ten people pop up to denounce him. It’s best to just keep your mouth shut. I’ve talked about this with my brother-in-law (Nick Hornby) quite a bit. When he was adapting the Lynn Barber memoir it never occurred to him that it would shock people. But when the film (An Education) premiered in America many found it very inappropriate. Of course it premiered just as the Polanski case was making the news again. So that was a good day for the whole family.”
The Ghost is the second collaboration between Harris and Polanski; the pair had worked together on an adaptation of Harris’ Roman sequence Pompeii. An old-school epic with Orlando Bloom and Scarlett Johansson in the leading roles, it would have been the most expensive European film ever made. Sadly, the project was cancelled due to the threat of industrial action.
“Roman wanted to make a thriller after Oliver Twist and The Pianist. He’d liked Fatherland but that didn’t happen. So he worked his way through the list. Enigma had already been turned into a film; Pompeii was still available. It’s basically Chinatown in Ancient Rome so he was immediately taken with it. But it was an impossible undertaking. Roman had $100 million raised and it wasn’t enough. To make something like that is just colossal. And Roman won’t even use a filter let alone cheat with digital effects.”
Undeterred by their misfortune, the duo turned their attentions to The Ghost. It’s hardly an obvious pairing, professionally or otherwise. Superficially, Harris, an all-round decent guy who lives with his wife and four children in a Berkshire vicarage, would seem to have little in common with one of the movieverse’s most maligned talents.
“We do have things in common,” says Harris “I rather shy away from literary novels and he’s the same about arthouse cinema. It goes back to childhood with him. In the cinema he loved noir and thrillers. Outside the cinema he was always on the run from the Nazis. He likes genre. Artsy smartsy is one of his favourite insults. So we have similar attitudes about art. And I’m fascinated by his life; he saw the Nazis, then the Communists, then America, so he’s very interesting and articulate on all these topics. It’s extraordinary when you’re working with a director on a scene and when someone is shot he’s able to tell you, ‘Oh that wouldn’t happen. That’s just a Hollywood convention. When someone is shot they fall this way’. He knows because the Germans used him for target practice.”
I wonder what Polanski is like as a person. Having lived in exile since 1977, has the director not succumbed to the same syndrome we see in the aloof behaviour of Mr. Blair?
“Oddly no,” says Harris. “Roman is a complicated man. Like all of us, he’s multifaceted but once we started to work together, I found him considerate, charming, delightful, always telling jokes. Whenever he would ring up he’d take time out to chat to my wife and kids. Of course, he’s fierce. There’s a big ego there but not so big that he won’t say, ‘If I’m talking crap, please tell me’.”
Predictably, neither Polanski nor Harris should expect a letter of congratulations from Tony Blair any time soon.
“I did hear back that Blair called me a cheeky fuck,” grins Harris. “And when I told Roman he was so delighted he insisted we put it in the movie.”
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