Archive for January, 2010

Women, Writers

Ruth Padel on Derek Walcott, ‘dirty tricks’, and the worst mistake of her life

The Times January 30, 2010
– Ginny Dougary

Oxford’s first female Professor of Poetry resigned amid a allegations of academic back-stabbing. So what on earth brought on her ‘moment of lunacy’ ?

How totally unboring it must be to be Ruth Padel, and that’s quite apart from the recent hoo-ha that prompted her resignation, last May, from her short-lived stint — what should have been a five-year triumph reduced to a mere nine days — as Professor of Poetry at Oxford.

Her interests are so varied and extensive — she is as passionate about the natural world, both exotic (alligators, tigers, now cobras) and commonplace (the domestic habits of the urban fox), as she is about filling the “poetry-shaped hole” she believes we all have.

But she also fizzes with enthusiasm about music, singing, art, Charles Darwin (her great-great-grandfather), the “soap-opera” wonderment of DNA and clothes (a guilty secret, she confesses; her sombre pinstriped jacket reveals a startling inner plumage of scarlet and puce) — leaping from subject to subject like a demented grasshopper.

The biography at the front of her new first novel, Where the Serpent Lives — ostensibly what we are here to discuss — is amusingly, if self-consciously, diverse: “she has taught Greek at Oxford, opera in the Modern Greek Department at Princeton, excavated Minoan tombs on Crete … sung in an Istanbul nightclub and the choir of St Eustache, Paris”.

Something about her arresting, feline appearance — slight build, black hair, green fuzzy gaze, heart-shaped face — could be construed as sly. There are some contradictions: she doesn’t appear tough but you know she must be to survive as a poet, wheeler-dealering — a bit of journalism here, a residency or a lecture there — to make a living.

We meet in Somerset House, where last year Padel was writer-in-residence. Despite the breadth of her interests, she has a tendency to revisit certain themes in her work. Three of her collections of poetry explore the complications, highs and lows, of a six-year affair with a man who entered her life with rather too many strings attached elsewhere. She laughs heartily when I say that she’s minxy in her scattering of clues about the identity of her lover in Rembrandt Would Have Loved You, published in 1998, and The Soho Leopard, in 2004.

It is she, not me, who brings up the risqué Bessie Smith–influenced poem — Home Cooking (from Voodoo Shop) — that was publicly linked to the journalist John Walsh, her old friend (and alleged former lover). It was he who wrote the controversial first article about Derek Walcott’s “shadows of sexual harassment allegations”. Walcott had been the clear favourite for the Professor of Poetry post until the piece appeared.

Then, soon after Walsh’s article and just before the election, 200 anonymous letters — detailing accusations of sexual harassment made against the St Lucia-born Nobel Laureate in 1986 and 1992, by former students of his at Harvard and Boston (he had to apologise and was reprimanded; there was also an out-of-court settlement) — were sent to Oxford academics. This dossier also included a photocopied chapter from The Lecherous Professor, a book about sexual harassment on university campuses, including the Walcott cases.

Walcott withdrew from the contest, saying that he did not want to be the target of a “low attempt at character assassination”, leaving Padel as the new front-runner, and the less well-known Indian poet Arvind Mehrotra in the frame. Padel was subsequently awarded the professorship.

“On the Saturday morning, when I was being elected, an anonymous guy rang The Sunday Times and told them about a poem of mine — Home Cooking — a sexy little poem of a kind that male poets write … but it’s a woman looking at a man,” she says.

“Of course the paper jumped on it and it was very, very clever because what it ensured is that when Oxford announces that it has elected its first woman Professor of Poetry in 300 years, the poem that was flashed around the world as representative of her work is this sexy little jeu d’esprit which I had actually put in to lighten the collection, which was about my father’s death.”

Are you ashamed of the poem? (It ends with the line “a f*** the length of our kitchen table”.) “No, I wasn’t ashamed of it, but it was a way of saying, ‘She’s complaining about sex and — guess what? — she does sex, too’.”

The problem is, of course, that Padel had also behaved badly herself. “I admire Walcott and deplore what happened,” she said, before her own part in the debacle emerged, forcing her to resign. “But it does not seem to me to detract from what I can do [as professor].” And “[The appointment] has been poisoned by cowardly acts which I condemn and which I have nothing to do with … I have fought a clean campaign. These acts have done immeasurable damage to people and poetry.”

But it was Padel, it emerged, who had started the dirty campaign against Walcott by alerting two journalists to the harassment allegations in e-mails that came back to bite her. Days before Walsh’s article appeared, Padel had e-mailed two journalists, putting the boot in about her rival’s age — 80 — his ill health and homes in the Caribbean and New York (so “how much energy is he going to expend on Oxford students?”). Then she mentioned the six pages in The Lecherous Professor and couched it most disagreeably: “what he actually does for students can be found in …”— the coup de grâce being, “Obama’s rumoured to have turned him down for his inauguration poem because of the sexual record. But I don’t think that’s fair.”

It’s that last line that is particularly weaselly — if you’re going to besmirch your competitor, don’t try to pretend that it’s nothing to do with you.

Her first statement after the e-mails were made public was also unsatisfactory: “Those e-mails were naive and silly of me. I do not believe it was wrong but it was a bad error of judgment.” (Where she was certainly naive was to proclaim her innocence, thinking that the journalists — who were not personal friends, like Walsh — would not reveal the contents of the e-mails.) I ask her what on earth she was thinking. She wrote the e-mails when she was in New York — she still insists that she had nothing to do with the subsequent anonymous letters — was she drunk or deranged with jet lag?

“I’ll tell you what happened. Right from the moment I announced I was standing those two particular people [journalists] had come forward and said, ‘Tell me everything about it’. One said she was writing a piece about poetry in Oxford and I entered into the dialogue — this was before Walcott came in — because I really wanted to get a public debate going about what poetry could do in a university because I think that’s so interesting.

“And then from the moment Walcott announced that he was standing, people kept coming forward to me saying they were really, really upset — because of the university record. So it wasn’t anything to do with me and I had nothing to do with it, but I was beginning to feel kind of torn. Because on the one hand, I really admire Walcott. I mean I’ve written about Omeros and I took my daughter to see him when she was doing her A levels.”

But … “and I’m not in the business of undermining other writers. On the other hand, I was listening to all these people saying, ‘It’s outrageous — why won’t someone do something?’. Then I brought Darwin [her biography of her ancestor through poetry] to America and when I was interviewed by New York journalists they had quite a different take. They were amazed that the Brits were doing this and one of them said to me, ‘The Brits just don’t know what we know over here’. So it was in that context.”

But you’re the last person who should have sent those e-mails. “I know that. It was a moment of lunacy … but I never dreamt it would be seen as making allegations. The trouble is that it was taken out of context.” That’s what Conservative politicians say! “No, the context was that this is what I can do for students, that was it. It was a sort of balance.” But the way you put it was so unpleasant: the implication being that what Padel can “do” for students is educate them; what Walcott can “do” for students is harass them. What balance is that?

Now, I don’t think sexual harassment is a trivial thing, particularly when the outcome of a student’s grades depends on whether or not she plays along with her professor’s sexual fantasies. And an abuse of power is not diminished just because it took place 20 years ago. The role of Oxford’s Professor of Poetry is second in this country only to that of Poet Laureate, and so it is only right that the person on whom that honour is bestowed should be subject to intense scrutiny. Past poet gods (never godesses) include Matthew Arnold, W. H. Auden and Seamus Heaney. And I agree with Padel that the argument that you wouldn’t have turned down the likes of the priapic Lord Byron won’t wash because, as she says, “Byron hadn’t got a track record in a university”.

But in a perfect world, if Padel so disapproved of Walcott’s track record shouldn’t she have made a public statement about it and even withdrawn from the race? “Oh, I wish you had been advising me, then I would have done that,” she says. (She says that friends did say to her, ‘What on earth were you thinking of?’) But honestly, this won’t do. Can you not see, yourself, that what you did was sneaky and underhand? “Yes, and I can’t say it loud enough. I feel very, very bad about those e-mails and I deeply, deeply regret it and it was wrong of me, and actually it’s not really very representative of how I go about things.” That is the closest the poet has come to an apology.

Her eyes water but this may be a contact lens that is irritating her. When I ask her whether she’s upset, she says, “I don’t think so”. Would you say that you are a robust person? “Yeah, I think so. I mean when it was happening, when suddenly everything went … I felt as though I had walked out the door to buy a pint of milk and found myself on a mountaintop in a blizzard. That’s what it felt like.

“But, you know, because I was reading poems all the way through it — at Hay and the Edinburgh book festival and lots of other things — the audiences really just react to the work and make up their own minds. It was a great thing for a writer to find out, really. That you are judged on your work.”

Oxford has just announced the search for its next professor of poetry. I don’t suppose Padel will be thinking of reapplying? “Oh no, I wouldn’t. No, no, no.” Have you talked to Walcott? “No.” Do you think it would be a good idea if you did? “It would. I think he is coming to Britain this year.” If you admire his work so much, perhaps he would forgive you, do you think? “Yes, I hope so. Hmmm.”

It’s hard to know what to make of Padel. She’s a highly intelligent woman who is sophisticated but also apparently unworldly. This comes to the fore when I ask her whether she had ever been anxious about people trying to guess the identity of her lover. Her work is riddled with concrete details that may help to anchor them as poems but are also highly revealing. “No, I don’t think so,” she says. “Once you’ve made a poem, it’s like having made a chair. You trust the poem and what matters is — ‘Is that adjective too soft?’ or ‘Should I take that adverb out?’”

It’s clear that she was desperate to secure the professorship and, yes, she is ambitious but mainly for the right reasons. When she was at Somerset House, Padel plastered poems — “other people’s, not mine” she stresses — in the loos, the cafés, everywhere, so that passers-by could be “enticed or disturbed, hooked, emotionally drawn in”.

She loves teaching and, since we must assume that male professors don’t have the monopoly on lechery, says: “I have never been in a situation where I have been attracted to a student, so I don’t know what it’s like.”

It is easy to see that she would have made a terrific professor, with her strenuous commitment to prove that all students — not only the English undergraduates but the scientists and the engineers, too — should be exposed to the instructive power of poetry. She must have convinced herself that it was a goal worth fighting for, by whatever means possible. It also seems clear that there is a strong element of self-delusion about the role she played; strange but not unique for the daughter of a psychoanalyst.

What is so sad is that for the first time in 300 years, the three candidates for the Oxford professorship were not the usual suspects but a black man, a woman and an Asian man — and, yet, the contest ended in such disarray. “Yes, it’s bad,” Padel says. “Everybody feels bad about it.”

Meanwhile there is her novel to promote — set in London, Devon and the jungles of India — as well as a book of poetry lectures, and an introduction to the poems of Sir Walter Raleigh. She is also working on an intriguing project, combining music, poetry and science — “Music from the Genome”, comparing the DNA of a choir with that of non-musical people — for which she has written 23 new poems around the idea of cells.

When we were talking about the Walcott issue, I mention a nonfiction book by the Australian novelist Helen Garner, The First Stone, which, like David Mamet’s play Oleanna, looked at a campus sexual harassment case, and examined all the ambiguities that such incidents may involve. I was struck by what Garner said about writing: “It’s my way of making sense of things that I’ve lived and seen other people live, things that I’m afraid of or that I long for.”

Is that how it is for Padel? “Yes, it’s like what the poet Michael Donaghy said, ‘I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror in the morning if writing poems was not a process of discovery for me’.” You write to make sense of the world? “We write while making sense of the world. Every poem is a journey. You don’t know where it is going to go — that is the exciting thing.”

There’s another line that occurs to me when thinking of Padel’s muddled emotions over the Oxford professorship: “How can I tell what I think until I see what I say?” She told me that she hardly ever thinks about that episode (not sure I believe her) but, knowing her taste for the autobiographical, my guess is that one day she will write a poem about it that will reveal as much to her as to the reader.

* * *

Where the Serpent Lives by Ruth Padel is published by Little, Brown on Feb 4 at £12.99. To order it for £11.69 inc p&p, call 0845 2712134, or visit timesonline.co.uk/booksfirst

Travel & Adventure

Naked Greece, 30 years on

The Times January 09, 2010
– Ginny Dougary

My Greek trip brought back memories of naked fun in my youth, but would the country’s history add extra magic on my return?

zsithonia

Skinny tripping: Crab Hole beach can be reached only by boat or on foot

Floating in the cool water, the waves lazily lapping the tiny cove, all I can see are naked brown bodies.

A father attempts to inch up the ledges of one of the sculptural rock formations with his little girls; a drowsing figure with a sun-bleached red cap bobs along on a lilo; clusters of mahogany young women and men hang out, chatting or playing cards.

High above them, not far from a winding track, a more permanent sunbather has set up a small tent and a hammock. Crab Hole Beach, like all good nudist enclaves, can be reached, with some difficulty, only by foot or by boat.

My goal for this holiday is to sleep, rest and eat simply but well, without the pressure of being in a place where you feel guilty if you neglect to visit cultural sites. It doesn’t quite work out like that but the Crab Hole experience certainly goes some way to fulfilling the brief.

Our base is the Danai Beach Resort, a family-run (rather luxurious) hotel on the tip of the bluffs of the Aegean Peninsula, on the middle Macedonian finger of Sithonia in northern Greece. This is my third visit to Greece in 30 years and the only time I have not stripped off in public. The first trip was in the mid-Seventies, to the islands of Naxos and Paros as a student in my late teens.

That was the era of horrible loos, the treat of local honey-drizzled yoghurt (decades before its British supermarket ubiquity) to be eked out over breakfast and lunch (my boyfriend and I were broke), picnic suppers of feta and sun-sweetened tomatoes, and a bottle of retsina on the quay, watching the sun go down and stars come out, before we retired to our tent.

Later, we met up with friends who had secured sole residence of a beach, on a farmer’s property, and spent all summer naked, sleeping communally in a straw hut, buying vegetables from a man on a donkey, treading grapes, gorging on figs from nearby trees. The Greek beau of one of our party thrilled and appalled us by wading into the sea, armed with a spear, and returning with an octopus, all wriggling tentacles, before he bashed it against a rock and barbecued it over a fire.

Several decades on, when my boyfriend had become my husband (now former) and father of our two boys, we returned to Greece, this time to Corfu to stay in a well-appointed villa with my late mother. It was a bit more adventurous than the boys’ poor granny had bargained for.

After a day of heaving ourselves in and out of the sea to get on to our hired boat, followed by a perilous hike down a steep cliffside to a secluded beach, my aged mum cracked a heartfelt joke: “You know, there may be easier ways of bumping me off.” There was great interest in one particular painting the next term at my older son’s primary school parents’ evening: “Granny at the nudist beach.”

A decade later, while my younger, 18-year-old, son grooves it up in Mykonos,my partner and I are being driven past signposts pointing to beaches with the most un-Greek names of Goa, Bahia and Banana, now synonymous with the international rave scene. By the side of the curving road, there are a chilling number of shrines in memory of the kids who partied too hard and plunged to their deaths.

Demetri, our driver — who looks a bit of a raver himself with his shoulder-length hair, leather bracelets and cool-dude-shades, but who devoutly crosses himself every time we pass a church — points to Mount Athos on the other side of the sea.

This third Macedonian peninsula is a World Heritage Site, and self-governed monastic state, with 20 Eastern Orthodox monasteries. It is accessible only by boat, and women are forbidden because we are descendants of Eve and so carry the same sin-laden genes of temptation. “Jackasses,” my American pal mutters after this earnest, slightly Talebanish explanation.

The new tourism market in this area is dominated by Russians, Romanians, Serbs and Bulgarians. Demetri tells us that they “come here and meet the olive and fall in love”, so there is a big olive export trade, especially to the Russians.

The best things about the Danai are the restaurants and bar, which are all close to the beach. These really come into their own at night. You can sit at a long candle-lit marble slab, savouring grilled fish or meat and salad as you hear the soothing whoosh and retreat of the waves.

You can eat more formally with all the frills one level up, or go for gold at the Ferran Adrià and Heston Blumenthal-inspired (and slightly unfortunately named) Squirrel, where an over-pompous waiter will endeavour to perform the same nitrogen fireworks. But this occasional pretentiousness is more than made up for by the staff, who are down to earth and sweetly welcoming to children.

One day we drive past olive groves, orange earth and white houses with terracotta roofs, goats huddled by the roadside, up the mountainous terrain into Parthenonas, a cobblestoned village that dates back to the 10th century.

We stop for a beer and meze at a vine-covered taverna. It’s another family-run concern and, when we visit, is more populated by tourists than locals. But it’s charming, nonetheless.

On to the lovely Porto Koufos, with three or four restaurants at its tip. We are advised to go to the farthest one, where you pick your own fish (delicious dorado, in our case). All around is the chatter of Greek families. Boats clink and there are red geraniums and lavender at our feet. In this instructive lesson of the simple, good life we are attended by the owner, named — what else? — Socrates.

We can do nothing more strenuous than loll around on our sun-loungers, with the odd mini excursion, but once we hear that there is something really worth seeing, not that far away, the descendants of Eve succumb to the temptations of history.

First stop is Olynthus, described as the most important cultural centre in Halkidiki during the Classical era, first inhabited during the late Neolithic period (3000-2500BC). From 432BC, it was the seat of an alliance of 32 cities in Halkidiki, and played a leading role in the political life of the region for a century before being destroyed by Philip II (the father of Alexander the Great) in 348BC.

It is a long slog up the hill but at the top it is incredible to step into the houses of those townsfolk, marked out by some of the original stones mixed with modern additions. You can see how the town functioned, the hierarchy of the wealthy and less wealthy, and how (mistakenly) omniscient, at that great height, the inhabitants must have felt. There are also several stunning mosaic floors.

But the real revelation, for me, is some hours away: the royal tombs at Vergina, the old capital of Macedonia, buried under a huge man-made mound and undiscovered for centuries. After experiencing the destruction wrought by Philip II at Olynthus, here is a salutary reminder of death’s great leveller — although to gaze into his burial chamber you might consider that all of us die but some corpses enjoy a more illustriously appointed resting place.

The tombs, discovered in 1976, were buried so deeply that the treasures are in pristine condition. And what treasures. There are wonderful murals, including the abduction of Persephone by Pluto with his late Rembrandt-like physiognomy; tiny ivory sculptures of Philip and Alexander’s faces, breathtakingly lifelike with all their human facial flaws; and beautiful silver urns, with the most delicate gold leaf filigree wreaths.

Visit these tombs if you can, particularly if you’re lucky enough to get a guide as good as ours (also called Demetri), who made ancient history as throbbingly alive and intriguing as the best pageturning thriller.

The other highlight is a trip on an immaculate boat, built in the style of an old schooner and controlled by Captain Stelios and his first mate, Kyriakos. The idea is to fish and eat the spoils, but we manage to catch only one tiddler between us.

Fortunately, the captain’s wife has taken the precaution of buying another fisherman’s catch of prawns and swordfish, which are fried in olive oil with oregano and lemon. Served on deck with crusty bread and a Greek salad, ripe peaches to follow, this is a feast of the highest kind. But best of all is shrugging off my swimsuit to glide through the shimmering, clear sea. It’s a brief taste of my own ancient freedom — for old times’ sake.

NEED TO KNOW

Getting there

Kuoni (01306 747008, kuoni.co.uk) offers seven nights at the five-star Danai Beach Resort and Villas, Halkidiki, from £1,542pp based on two sharing. The price includes B&B in a junior suite, flights with British Airways, private transfers and an airport lounge pass in the UK.

Film

Rob Marshall on directing Nine

The Times December 19, 2009
– Ginny Dougary

From steel town to golden boy of musical glitz with Nine, Marshall is the director of the moment

It was a bit anxious-making when the director Rob Marshall introduced the London audience to the world premiere of his star-studded musical, Nine. He did look appealing enough, resembling a thicker-set Tom Cruise, and he spoke mellifluously (as befits a former actor). But there was way too much lurve flowing for comfort … from “my beautiful, beautiful dancers” to the absent Sophia Loren, “here in spirit — we love her so much”, and a good deal more in the same vein.

The following day, however, within a very short time of our meeting, I was feeling pretty lovey-dovey myself — almost fantasising about being an A-list actor just so that I could have the soothing pleasure of being directed by Marshall. This is something of a first, since most film directors, certainly in my experience (from Spike Lee to Mike Leigh), are tricky customers, highly resistant to being questioned or directed themselves in any way.

Marshall knows exactly what I’m talking about. “There are directors who like to have friction or angst in the working environment, but I can’t live like that,” he says. The school of Lars von Trier? He laughs but is too circumspect, or perhaps just too straightforwardly nice, to dish the dirt.

“There are a few out there and I appreciate they do beautiful work, so it’s more power to them. But for me, it’s very important to come from a place of joy. To have an atmosphere — maybe it’s from my upbringing — where there is a great deal of positive reinforcement.”

On his way up as an actor, singer, dancer, then choreographer, before his present role (the last film he directed was the nonmusical Memoirs of a Geisha and before that the hugely successful Chicago), “I was lucky enough to observe directors, the prickly ones and also the ones that weren’t. And I just found that the best work came from the directors who were there to serve the actors and not the other way round.

“And this is true especially in something like Nine, which was so difficult because these people are doing something for the first time [singing and dancing for Daniel Day-Lewis] and it’s important to create an atmosphere where you feel protected and not judged, in a place where you can really make big mistakes and make a fool of yourself.”

The film is an adaptation (although it was substantially rewritten by the late Anthony Minghella in his final script) of the 1982 Broadway musical — starring Raúl Julia in the role of Guido Contini, and later Antonio Banderas — which was, itself, a reworking of Federico Fellini’s Oscar-winning 8½.

The central character is suffering from director’s block and has everything in place to make a new film, apart from inspiration. He is derailed by the growing realisation that his own selfish artistic needs are fuelled by feeding off the love of his women — his wife (Marion Cotillard), his mistress (Penélope Cruz), his muse (Nicole Kidman) — who come close to being destroyed in the process. Like the original, the plot moves between reality, surreality and memory — shot in black and white juxtaposed with colour.

Marshall’s version is full of sensational set-pieces, all vim, quim and razzle-dazzle, created around each of the stars — Judi Dench, Guido’s wardrobe mistress, in basque and boa, stretched out on a grand piano, singing about her love of the Folies Bergères (in 1968 Dench was the original Sally Bowles in Cabaret in the West End); Cruz, sexier than she’s been seen before (yes, it is possible), spreading her legs and writhing around on a circular mirror; Fergie, the singer from the Black Eyed Peas, as a prostitute crawling on her hands and knees, cleavage forward, on a beach for the young Guido and his pals; an incredibly affecting song by Cotillard as the trampled wife, in her own voice (as opposed to her lip-synching in Piaf), and so on. In between, Day-Lewis as Guido smokes for Italy, zips around town in his jaunty little sports car or broods in the empty set, “as he tries to figure out what his movie will be”, Marshall says, “which represents the interior of his unfinished mind and the chaos of his life”.

The original choice for Guido was Javier Bardem, but after winning his Oscar (Best Supporting Actor) for No Country for Old Men, Bardem decided to take a year out. It was Day-Lewis who contacted Marshall to express interest after Dench’s agent had passed him the script: “When I got the call that Daniel was interested, well … I had never dared dream of Daniel Day-Lewis in this part because I consider him to be the greatest actor there is.”

Marshall recalls the first time that he heard the actor sing: “When he started it was like dipping a toe in the water. You know, singing quietly, but I could immediately hear that he had a musical sensibility and a lovely voice.”

Despite his initial enthusiasm, it seems that Day-Lewis inhabited his new role rather too well, finding it — like Guido — almost impossible to commit himself to the project. “If I hadn’t pushed him he would still be circling around just thinking about it,” Marshall says. “He said to me, ‘I’ll do this for ever, Rob, you’re going to have to tell me when you need to know’” So you gave him a deadline? “Yes, I called Daniel and said, ‘I need to know because we have to book the stages’, and he said, ‘When do you need to know?’ and I said, ‘Tomorrow morning’.”

It’s a measure of the director’s faith in his lead, as well as Day-Lewis’s pulling power, that the filming — which was originally going to be in Montreal — was moved to Shepperton Studios because the star said that he needed the film to be shot in England so that he could be close to his wife, the writer and director Rebecca Miller, and two young sons who live in Ireland.

Marshall is still pretty knocked out that so many stars wanted to take part: “I couldn’t believe the turnout of women, especially — every actress in Hollywood came. I mean, every single one.” Really? Scarlett Johansson would have made a perfect Anita Ekberg lookalike in that famous Trevi fountain scene (there is an homage to it in Nine) from Fellini’s other great film, La Dolce Vita. But Kidman needed a few more curves to carry it off, I say. “The truth is that was big for her,” Marshall says. “She had just had her child so those were the biggest boobs she’s had in a long time! She was thrilled.”

Why do gay men love musicals so much? “I know, it’s funny. It must have something to do with the expression and the joy of it, I think … It’s a fascinating question. Certainly for me, who loved dance, that was a big part of it.”

Marshall has been with his partner, John DeLuca, the choreographer on Nine, and one of its producers, for 27 years. When I ask the director if he found himself falling for Day-Lewis on set, Marshall says sweetly: “Oh no, there is only one man in my life and that’s John.” The first time the couple worked together was on Chicago: “I told him, ‘I need you on this movie because I’m so nervous’, and to have this wonderful partner right next to me is incredible. He’s got impeccable taste so I always love to hear his side of things. I come from a more narrative background and he is more edgy and helps me to think outside the box.”

The director was brought up in Pittsburgh, once famous for its steel industry but which suffered mass redundancies and closures in the 1970s and 1980s. It would be tempting, then, to see the young Marshall as a Billy Elliot type, battling to become a dancer against fierce opposition from a disappointed and embattled father. But his background couldn’t have been more different.

Marshall’s parents are academics; his father teaches medieval English literature, and his mother is also in education. In the early Seventies the family (Marshall’s younger sister, Kathleen, has won two Tonys directing plays and musicals; Maura, his twin, is a landscape and interior designer) lived for a while in Golders Green, North London. Marshall Sr travelled to the British Museum every day, doing research while on his sabbatical, and the children went to school on Hendon Way.

“They were very, very liberal and my father worked for George McGovern’s campaign when he was running for president [and suffered a landslide defeat to Richard Nixon in 1972]. My first memories were of marching for causes with them and singing ‘We shall overcome some day’,” Marshall recalls. “When Obama got in, I sent them flowers with a message ‘You created the seed for this to happen’, and it makes me so happy that they saw that happen in their lifetime.”

When the Marshall siblings were aged 9 or 10, they would put on shows for their parents at home: “There was always an opening number from Kiss Me Kate, and then we would each have a solo — I think mine was [as if he can’t remember!] All I Need is the Girl from Gypsy, and then we would do a big second-act opener,” he guffaws, “which was usually Hello, Dolly! and we’d end with There’s no Business like Showbusiness.”

Years later, when Marshall began choreographing on Broadway, Kathleen was his assistant: “So it was like an extension of what we had done in our living-room. There we were in a studio, but instead of teaching ourselves we were teaching Chita Rivera in Kiss of the Spider Woman.”

Then in 1998, when Sam Mendes took his Donmar Warehouse production of Cabaret to New York, he asked Marshall to codirect it: “Sam and I made it a darker ending where the MC reveals that [under his suit] he’s actually in a concentration camp uniform with the gold star and the pink star, and it was very, very moving, um . . .” he stops. “It is upsetting to me … but it was a beautiful production and I think it was Cabaret, honestly, that gave both Sam and myself our film careers because it was very cinematic.”

Our time is almost up and I think I have come to see why so many actors want to work with Marshall. Apart from his talent, he has an unusual quality of gentle modesty that must be rare in the ego- driven industry he works in.

This is a guy who devoted two years to developing John Waters’ Hairspray for the stage, making the difficult decision of withdrawing when he was offered the film of Chicago. But when I ask him whether his name is on the credits he says, without a trace of bitterness: “No. It’s fine. I understand.”

We end with the beginning of Nine, when Guido is at a press conference and, after many vexing questions about what the new movie is about, is asked to name his favourite pasta dish. “At last, a serious question!” he says with a grin so attractive that you can see why all the women love him.

On the night of the premiere, after bowing awkwardly to the audience, Day-Lewis left his 40-odd friends and relations, as soon as the lights went down, to escape. “I think it was too much for him to see it with his wife and sister for the first time. So I said, ‘Fine, happy to have dinner with you’,” Marshall recalls. Let me guess, the Ivy or Sheekey’s? “Cipriani, because it had to be an Italian dinner.” So, finally, maestro, what is your favourite pasta? And please don’t tell me you’re wheat intolerant. He’s not, of course. “Linguine vongole.”

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Nine is released nationwide on Boxing Day