THE TIMES MAGAZINE – January 28 2002
Ginny Dougary

Richard Eyre found the making of his first big film about Iris Murdoch a form of therapy, a way of coming to terms with his own parents life and death There is little in Sir Richard Eyre’s person or habitat to suggest a troubled soul beset by fundamental uncertainties. Indeed, if he hadn’t chosen to expose his inner conflict in a memoir which has been described as a minor classic — Utopia and Other Places — it is doubtful whether anyone would still be asking him the questions he attempted to answer for himself so eloquently nine years ago.

As he wrote then, “our parents cast long shadows over our lives”, and he has clearly yet to emerge from their depths.

Time and again in our interview he returns to the vivid spectre of his father on subjects as seemingly unrelated as his knighthood in 1997 and his celebrated production of King Lear at the Cottesloe, featuring a naked Ian Holm, which prompted Eyre’s sister to ask him: “Why have you put Dad on stage?” We had spoken on several occasions during his ten-year tenure as artistic director of the National Theatre, when I had sought his opinion on theatrical notables other than himself. Despite the pressures of the job, he had always made himself available and was unstintingly courteous and generous in his response.

These qualities are immediately in evidence when we meet at the West London home that Eyre shares with his wife of 28 years, Sue Birtwistle, a television producer of such successful adaptations as Pride and Prejudice and Wives and Daughters. Their own grown-up daughter, Lucy, was educated at St Paul’s Girls’ School round the corner.

He is one of those older people, now at the fag end of his fifties, who still manages to look cool in the blue jeans he first wore as a minor form of rebellion against his father when the teenaged Eyre was in love with all things American. “Oh, I see, they’re so the girls can tell what you’re thinking,” was his father’s decisively louche put-down; a memory which still makes his son wince.

“Of course, I was embarrassed — I felt ‘Kevin-ed’,” Eyre says, referring to Harry Enfield’s archetypal awkward male teenager.

Before we start talking about Iris, Eyre’s first big film, based on John Bayley’s two books about his late wife, the writer Iris Murdoch, we descend to the kitchen where the director organises coffee. He tells me that the electric blue sweep of colour against a bank of bright yellow cupboards was his sort of nod to Matisse.

In the past couple of years he has discovered the quiet pleasure of painting. “I am used to looking at people in a critical way, critical in the sense of examining or observing, but not landscape and objects and trees. And I find it serene and wonderful just to look at the world,” he says.

There are lovely little paintings all over the house, mostly by friends of the couple; studies or portraits in muted colours. In the upstairs corridor there is a tremendous black and white photograph of his maternal grandfather, a tiny matchstick figure at the base of an enormous iceberg. Charles Royds was a Polar explorer who went on Scott’s first expedition to Antarctica. His grandson and great granddaughter are planning their own 21st-century trip to the South Pole — which they will record not in a hardy leather-bound journal but as a video diary.

When I ask him whether there were many family photographs from his childhood (he says not, in stark contrast to the hundreds of snaps that he has accumulated as a parent), he takes me over to look at a painting of his mother, Minna, as a young woman. It is a period piece of a very English beauty: a ball dress with a fine line of ermine around the cleavage, a crimson velvet wrap, a bob of shining hair and such an open, untroubled gaze. There is something about the innocent hopefulness of her face that produces the same emotional contraction as seeing the young Iris Murdoch, played by Kate Winslet, careering downhill on a bicycle, dancing and delighting everyone around her with the supple swiftness of her mind, when one is so mindful of all the loss that lies ahead.

Eyre’s mother sailed into darkness, Murdoch’s haunting evocation of her own descent into Alzheimer’s, when she was the age that her son is now — and struggled on in an increasingly vegetative state for another 20 years. One of the most moving scenes in the film comes at the end when Bayley (Jim Broadbent), finally admitting defeat, takes his wife to the nursing home where she will die. Their calloused hands, nails bitten down to the quick, are intertwined, and Judi Dench as the old Iris looks at the camera with eyes so blank that you feel her soul has already departed.

Eyre says that he was unable to detect the shifting moods of a sensate human being in his mother. His monthly visits to Dorset were too infrequent to detect any changes in her, but the nurses who looked after her every day saw someone different.

“One of the characteristics of Alzheimer’s, which is a consolation for people who are long-time carers, is that the soul does remain,” he says. “There is something there that is the human spirit which goes on until their death.”

Perhaps in some way the making of this film helped to provide the consolation that Eyre was unable to find during his mother’s life. It may be a source of regret that he managed to come to terms with both his parents only after they had died, but a posthumous accommodation is surely better than none at all. As the screenwriter of Iris, he has appropriated scenes from his own mother’s diminishing ability to make sense of the most commonplace activity. There is a moment, for instance, when Murdoch (Dench) confronts an open door and is unable to understand how she should negotiate her way to the other side. “Which way do I go?” she asks her husband, as Eyre’s mother once asked his father. “In the early stages my mother used to pick up a knife and fork and just gaze at them, absolutely bewildered by their function,” he recalls.

What makes Iris such an extraordinary film is that it is uplifting and beautiful, despite the painful subject, because it is essentially about what it means to love someone enduringly, come what may. Since so many of the key people involved in the production must have been forcibly reacquainted with their own loss, one wonders what the mood must have been like on set.

Judi Dench’s husband, Michael Williams, had died only six weeks before the shoot. “She is a very, very old friend. And Michael was a friend. And so I was working with someone I felt very protective of. Because it is very, very painful to see somebody you love . . . suffering,” he says. “So I wanted, you know, to make her feel better.

“And although she was frightened that somehow every scene would be weighed down and filtered through her thoughts of Michael, she actually found it was quite the opposite — that the act of concentration, of having to commit your mind to inventing another person, took her out of herself completely. At the end, she said to me that those five weeks were her saving grace.”

The making of the film was an exhilarating process, but when it came to the cutting room both Eyre and the editor kept breaking down: “Yeah, sometimes it was so overwhelming that we would both sit and blub,” he says, slightly sheepishly. “And, of course, that sort of emotion is a professional hindrance.”

There was one scene that he was guarding himself against particularly, when Bayley rounds on his sick wife in bed and tells her that he hates her. Her childlike response, which is almost unbearably touching, is to stroke him and murmur “Ouch”.

“When the emotional temperature of a scene is near boiling,” Eyre says, “you have to keep a cold eye and a still heart, otherwise everything gets clouded and distorted.”

As the director points out, he is by no means the only practitioner of the arts who has had to struggle to master his feelings. When Sir George Solti was conducting Eyre’s La traviata at the Royal Opera House in the mid-Nineties, Solti was so overcome in rehearsal by Violetta’s death that he started to sob uncontrollably. “It came to the end, there was silence and he was pouring tears and said, ‘I simply don’t know how I’m going to be able to conduct this’,” Eyre recalls. “But that was the last time that he was violently moved by it because he was a professional and all that emotion was simply channelled through his expertise.”

For Eyre, writing, he says, is definitely a form of therapy. Of course, one person’s reconciliation with his past, when it is published for public consumption, can lay bare and rob another person’s life. “We are what we remember,” Eyre wrote in his memoir, but there is no copyright on the ownership of memories. It is a conundrum that provokes Eyre to sigh:

“Oh Christ, who was it who said, ‘if you want to become a writer, be prepared to lose a family’?” When his friend Liz Calder asked him to write a book about the theatre for Bloomsbury, he couldn’t bear the idea of the sort of memoir which starts: “As the curtain rose . . .” “But my parents both having died, I was obsessed by coming to terms with my relationship with them. For me, there was a huge amount of unfinished business.” Achieving closure, as the therapists say, may have been a cathartic process for the writer, but for his sister, Georgina Livingstone, it was clearly a rather less beneficial exercise.

In the first half of the book we learn about the violent rows between Richard’s parents, their brazenly adulterous relationships, the casual cruelty of a boorish father who thought that Shakespeare was “balls” and who set out to seduce his son’s girlfriends, actually succeeding in one case.

But, of course, they were Georgina’s parents too. “I feel great sorrow that I upset my sister to the degree that I did because I am very, very fond of her and close to her,” he says. “And I felt very bad.”

Were you prepared to change anything or dilute certain passages? “I thought very hard about whether what I had written was truthful, and truthful from my point of view, and I thought ‘Yes, it is’. . . so my conscience was clear on that count. We have recovered now, but for her the upsetting thing will always be that that book is the public record of her life. She lived through it as much as I did and in some respects had a much more difficult time. So it’s unfair that I have the opportunity to broadcast my account.”

When we have our own mini-therapy session, Eyre tells me that he looks back on himself as a small boy and thinks “Oh, there’s a lonely, slightly reserved child who had an active secret world, reading all the time, and with a secret friend or secret alter ego who was very extrovert and positive”.

How your father would have liked you to have been? “I guess so.” Did he think you were a bit of a pansy? “Yes, he did.”

Eyre realised that his father had given up on him when, as a boy, he confessed that he didn’t much care for riding — sacrilege in his equestrian family — and was met with the rebuke: “That’s because you’re no bloody good at it.”

The truth was that Eyre was frightened of riding, something he overcame in his thirties when his father was in his sixties, and which he now loves. So what was your father’s reaction when you came into the fold? “I don’t think I told him, actually.”

Really? “I suppose I knew that he wouldn’t say, ‘Oh, why don’t you ride my horse?’ or ‘Come riding with me’. I knew he wouldn’t, so I just did my own thing.”

He almost dismisses his father’s seduction of his son’s 20-year-old girlfriend, saying: “I mustn’t exaggerate this. I was very upset, but it wasn’t an absolutely life-defining ‘Rosebud’ moment . . . although it was, you know, a bit depressing. What I think now is that I should have been stronger but also more communicative; more prepared to accept him on his own terms. And at a greater distance, it is possible for me to see his virtues as clearly as his vices.”

I wonder what effect his father’s attitude towards women had on Eyre. He says that for some time he measured himself against the only male role model he knew. In his book he refers to “a sort of competitive promiscuity”. But his long marriage, in an age when divorce is so commonplace, suggests that he was able to break free from the mould.

“You surely do try to learn from other people’s mistakes, however difficult it is,” he says. “Knowing yourself, even if you are not entirely able to act on the conclusions of your knowledge — that is the process of life.”

I ask him whether he ever tried to intervene in his parents’ violent rows — his father once told him, as they were visiting Eyre’s mother in the nursing home, that their marriage had been in trouble, “oh, for the past 30 years” — and Eyre says: “No, I didn’t, but then . . . and again, this is rather sad, I grew up in Dorset, in just about the most beautiful part of England, and of course I was desperate to get out from the age of 18, and when I went to university, I went back as rarely as I could.”

Because your home was so associated with unhappiness? “I didn’t want to have to deal with it, and it certainly spoilt that part of England for me.” For a whole landscape to be tainted by the misery of your upbringing seems to be a pretty devastating admission of family failure, but when I later make a reference to Eyre’s appalling home environment, he recoils as though stung. “I think it is wrong to say appalling. I really do. I mean, that may be your judgment but I would not say it was an appalling childhood.” When I read back the things he has written and said about it, he counters: “Well, that may be but that’s your judgment . . . I mean, everybody goes back to their childhood and . . .” Not necessarily. “Don’t they?” He laughs slightly awkwardly.

I say it is interesting that when I spell out what he is surely saying himself, he reacts so strongly against it. “I know, I know, I can see . . . I do feel protective. You know how you want to be the only person who can say that your parents are terrible. We all do that at certain times and in the end it’s upsetting for me . . .”

To hear someone else say what you are saying? “It is. It is. And it immediately inspires in me the desire to defend them.”

And your sister had the same reaction to you that you are having to me when she read the manuscript of your book? “She did. Yes, she did.”

We were both slightly surprised, I think, by the temperature of this exchange. Eyre has a reputation for being mild-mannered, and he says himself that he is hopeless at being angry.

He feels he is a warm person, but that some people might say he is detached. People close to you? “Yes, but not consistently. And I would say that was my defence. You devise a carapace and think, ‘I’m not going to be hurt’.”

Do you believe in the sins of the father being revisited on the son? “Yes, there is no question that I do.”

So, given that cycle — “Was I as bad a father to you as my father was to me?” Eyre’s father asked his son as he lay dying — do you think that it would have caused complications for you if your wife had given birth to a boy? “I think that subconsciously I would have tried very hard, probably excessively, to subvert the line of descent,” he says.

As it was, Eyre’s wife had a daughter who clearly gives him abundant joy. “Lucy has the happiness gene and, as I said to my father, ‘it is a gift, like dancing’. She is happy, I think, and I find it inexpressibly moving that she is. My condition tends to be — ughhh — faintly Eeyore-ish,” Eyre says. “But actually I have a pretty good life and I have a lot of fun, and I love being with a group of people. And if I have a gift, it is that I can be with a group of people and act as a sort of catalyst for fun.”

He also spends a lot of time alone in his study, those long shadows circling around him, brooding on existential questions. Sometimes he imagines his neighbour being dragged away by the police. What would he do? Would he intervene? Would he be brave?

He often wonders how he would have behaved in Hitler’s Germany, since the war cast its own sombre shadows over the lives of his parents: “Their emotional clock was set by the war,” Eyre says. “It was endlessly being invoked in my childhood, particularly because my father was in the Navy.”

He says that he is obsessed, as a consequence, by the notion of the test of one’s moral character. He fears that his first response would be caution, and then he would force himself to act “because of the fear of being branded a coward, and I would do anything to avoid that”.

I had thought that Eyre was the sort of socialist who would turn down a knighthood — and so, it turns out, did his wife. But she must have had her doubts since, as he says: “Sue had always said she would leave me if I ever took a knighthood, but then it came along and I did, and she didn’t.”

So what made you accept it? “Vanity,” he admits, rather winningly.

At least the actor Sir Ian Mc Kellen’s defence was that it was important for gays to get that kind of recognition. “Yes, but he would also say that he had always felt that he was in some sort of race to make his mark, and now he could relax and just get on with his life.”

Did you feel that, too? “Yes, and I think that if you say, ‘Did my father think I was a . . .’” Although I had not introduced the subject of his father. “Well, ‘did he think that my work didn’t amount to much?’ . . . I mean, he never came to see any of my shows . . . ” (Later Eyre calls me to say that, in fact, his father did see two of the 120-odd plays his son had directed — High Society and The Taming of the Shrew.) “Anyway, I could see that taking a knighthood was partly a case of, ‘Oh, I’m a proper person now’. Of course, it’s an awful paradox, thinking what I think about class and about the way in which the honours system perpetuates it, but there it is.”

King Lear came up in the last moments of our interview. At first, he says, he was astonished by his sister’s comment about their father: “ ‘Ian (Holm) has never met him,’ I said. ‘And I have never mentioned him.’ And she said, ‘Well, he is playing it very like Dad’.

“And, you know, she was right . . . the irascibility, the extremes, the sense in which our father would test the love of his children in that way, that refusal to concede. One of the reasons I was fascinated by the play is that it takes the family as a microcosm of the state, and of course all parents have the potential for tyranny.”

Recalling Eyre’s sense of wonderment that his happy daughter actively seeks out the company of her parents, and how much she seems to enjoy being around them, I thought: Your Mum and Dad? Well, you know, they don’t always f you up.