Profile speaks to the acclaimed filmmaker Tony Palmer about his exceptional career and the equally extraordinary individuals he profiled and interacted with, from Lennon to Clapton and from Britten to Shostakovich.
By William Rome
The film Forrest Gump is focussed on a fictional individual recounting his remarkable life playing a role in many of the most famous moments of mid-20th century American history; Gump’s charm comes from his kind-heartedness and his ability as a raconteur. Following an evening chatting with and listening to the stories of Tony Palmer, I was reminded of some of the same qualities. Whilst he is undoubtedly an immensely talented and intelligent man, in contrast to Tom Hanks’s character, this kindly man in his 80s who has profiled some of 20th century music’s greatest names shares the same ability as Gump to captivate an audience with his story-telling.
I spent the best part of six hours with Tony Palmer before, during and after his speech at the Durham Union Society. Throughout the course of our thirty-minute interview in the Marriott, followed by a dinner with a few Union exec members at Hotel Indigo, his talk itself (featuring several extracts from his films) and finally the reception for him at 24s, before finally dropping him back off at the Marriott, Palmer was charming to all he met and regaled us with a selection of extraordinary tales from his life as a documentarian.
Palmer is known as a director of films about musicians, both classical and pop, though he is interested first and foremost in performers: “it’s a misconception that I only make films about musicians. I make films about performers.”
It sounds clichéd, but Palmer really did know them all, from his close friendship with Benjamin Britten to showing John Lennon around Cambridge as a student, and from making a film with famous dancer (and former Durham Chancellor) Margot Fonteyn in her dying years living in penury in Panama to profiling The Beatles in a groundbreaking documentary. The latter introduced television viewers in the 1960s to rock stars in a way that ignored their stage personas, sex lives and other excesses and instead focussed on them as individuals making statements about society through their music.
Palmer is above all else interested in the individual. “What attracted me to all the people that I made films about or with was a single element, which was courage”, manifesting in many different forms. More broadly, “what interests me is people, and making films about people.” Palmer speaks at length about the classical composers about whom he has made films, from Shostakovich to Wagner and many more. These two individuals occupy much of our conversation.
He clearly thinks highly of each composer’s music, but it is their extraordinary lives that captivate him. Wagner, he readily acknowledges, is “a shit, an anti-Semitic appalling man”, but nonetheless remains fascinating. “You can’t ignore” his abhorrent politics, “but in the end when the great theatre in Bayreuth was opened in 1876, you had this tiny little man standing on a hill….and up came the crowned heads of Europe. … Now that’s the only case in all of Western history that an artist is on the top of the hill and the crowned heads of Europe are coming up. That never happened with Shakespeare, never happened with Aeschylus, never happened with Sophocles, but it happened with Richard Wagner.” Palmer states: “what made me want to make a film about him was that single fact: how did it happen?”
Shostakovich is similarly fascinating to him. His famous opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was condemned by Stalin personally on the front page of Pravda, normally a ticket straight to the Gulag or, more likely, a firing squad – and yet Shostakovich outlived Stalin by over two decades. Ultimately, for the Soviet people, through Shostakovich, “they heard someone who was speaking for them”, but because of the operatic medium, it was sufficiently ambiguous that the composer remained safe. Yet, Shostakovich’s demeanour, Palmer argues, was far from the dissenting composer of “angry” music. When meeting Benjamin Britten in Moscow, with no faux modesty, Shostakovich said “you big composer; me little composer”, which Palmer considers “extraordinary.”
Palmer believes that through Shostakovich, we are offered an unparalleled insight into Soviet Russia. “If you want to know what that period of history in Russia was like between 1930 until Stalin died in 1953 [and] you listen to Shostakovich, it tells you everything.” The political context of the music is a continual theme in Palmer’s films: “you couldn’t think about Shostakovich without casing it in the period of Stalin’s terror. The two were absolutely indivisible.” Likewise, though the Vietnam War did not cause the works of Bob Dylan or John Lennon, they undoubtedly reacted to it – “that’s what made that music powerful.”
He is adamant that there is a “total lack of appreciation in how we look at art. We don’t understand that all art is political in one sense or another. You don’t have to be at the barricades but you are making very strong points.” Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, he notes, is fundamentally a work of scepticism about the motivations of the aristocracy, summarised neatly by Palmer as “you’re up to no good, Guv!”
Palmer uses one expression several times in the evening, both in our conversation and in his talk at the Union. These performers were “geniuses”, and “all we could do was run after [them] and hope to emulate [them].” Perhaps Palmer sells himself short. He did not merely observe history from the sidelines, but interacted with it. He made films with Michael Palin and Terry Jones before Monty Python; the Lennon song Working Class Hero was given to Palmer by Lennon for a film Palmer was making. Perhaps most importantly, through his films which have starred A-listers and been made about and with some of the last century’s most extraordinary musicians, he has changed the understanding of the wider public about how we view pop stars. Palmer’s filmmaking career is, he says, “ancient history” – but his ability as a raconteur is unsurprising given his extraordinary ability to push beyond tabloid headlines and bring to life the real icons of music.
Image: Tony Palmer and Durham Union President Theo Osborn; Photo Credits: William Rome