THE TELEGRAPH
15 DECEMBER 2001

RICHARD EYRE - NATIONAL TREASURE

For all his considerable success running the Royal National Theatre, Richard Eyre's latest achievement is perhaps the most remarkable. By Christa D'Souza

UNLIKE most theatre folk in their late 50s, Sir Richard Eyre does not look it. No purple veins round the nose, no nicotine-stained forelock and, perhaps most impressive of all, not even a smidgen of a paunch. This may have something to do with genes; it may also have something to do with the fact that his west London townhouse has five storeys and the room where he works is on the top floor. Then again, it may just be good karma. For as anyone in the world of theatre will be quick to tell you, Eyre, 58, is by far the nicest man in the business.

 

Arrestingly attractive with a mane of grey hair and beetle-ish black eyebrows, Eyre pokes his head over the banisters, apologising for the hike, and then leads the way into his office. It's a large yet cosy space flooded with light and filled with books, magazines and photos of his 28-year-old daughter, Lucy, whose bedroom this used to be. Save for the constantly ringing telephone - which he tries in vain to switch to mute - it is blissfully peaceful and self-contained. Why, there's even a kettle and a little fridge behind a cupboard so he doesn't have to go all the way downstairs to the kitchen if he wants a cup of tea.

 

As it happens, Eyre and I have met once before: on the set of Iris, his eagerly awaited film about the relationship between the late novelist Iris Murdoch and her husband, the literary critic John Bayley. But that was on the very last day of shooting and only very fleetingly - at the point when we were introduced he was in the middle of directing quite a tricky 'fall' Kate Winslet had to make down a flight of stairs with the aid of a skateboard hidden under her bottom - so I don't hold out much hope that he will remember me.

 

But, bless, he behaves as if we have met on several occasions, asking me how I am, complimenting me on my (non-existent) tan and so forth - a function, I later realise, not so much of his appreciation of the opposite sex as of his being one of those people you come across rarely nowadays who was born with manners.

 

Propped up against a desk is the poster for Iris, a tasteful sepia-toned photograph of the film's stars, Kate Winslet and Judi Dench. Winslet plays Murdoch as a young Oxford graduate; Dench plays her much later, from the beginning of her horrifying descent into Alzheimer's disease to her death. Eyre, who received the poster only this morning, unrolls it proudly and stands back in order to get a proper look. Cocking his head and stroking his chin, he nods approvingly. There's only one thing he's not sure of, and that is the sentence the honchos at Miramax, the American distributors of the film, have elected to put at the top. ' "Her greatest talent was for life",' he murmurs amusedly. 'Now what do you think that means, exactly?' and then disappears into the kettle cupboard.

 

It is almost four years since Eyre stepped down as artistic director of the Royal National Theatre and became, as it were, freelance. At first he had no idea what to do with himself, continually missing lunches because he didn't have a secretary to make a note of them for him, and worrying that no one would ever dare hire him again after such a very grand job. He was, as his Cambridge friend and collaborator, playwright David Hare, archly put it, 'like a minor royal exile living out of a bedsit in Paddington'. But not for long.

 

A self-confessed workaholic and one, apparently, who finds it almost impossible to say no to anyone if they ask nicely, Eyre threw himself into everything that came his way when his victorious reign at the National ended. He kicked off by chairing an inquiry for the Labour Government into the muddled state of the opera and the ballet in London. He then wrote, produced and presented Changing Stages, a weighty television series on the history of 20th-century British theatre. While toying with the idea of writing a novel, he carried on his work as a governor of the BBC, and started penning his National Theatre diaries (unlike his confrontational predecessor, Sir Peter Hall, he does not want them published? yet). Oh, and then there was the TV film of King Lear with Ian Holm, and the stage production of The Judas Kiss with Liam Neeson, which he then took to Broadway. Later he directed his second opera, The Marriage of Figaro, in Aix-en-Provence. It was, he says, 'a fantastic, fantastic experience', not so much because everybody came but because 'it didn't feel marginal, the whole village saw it as part of a cultural activity' - which all fits into Eyre's passionate, almost evangelical belief that art should be available to all, not just the upper-middle classes. The one thing, though, that he really wanted to do - buoyed, perhaps, by Stephen Daldry's success with Billy Elliot and Sam Mendes's with American Beauty - was to make a feature film.

 

The seeds of Iris were first sown three years ago, when Eyre was in New York directing Judi Dench in a production of Amy's View, one of the dazzlingly successful plays on which he and Hare collaborated while at the National. When Dench told Eyre that she had been asked to appear in a film about Iris Murdoch's life, based on two books by John Bayley, he was immediately struck by the project: 'I just thought, oh, what a smart idea of somebody's to get Judi.'

 

The concept of enduring love - which Bayley's books address in great detail - was something that had always fascinated Eyre, a happy reflection, perhaps, on his own 30-year marriage to the TV producer Sue Birtwistle, whom he met while employed at the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh. But there was another, more important incentive for making the film.

 

Eyre had already met Bayley and then met Murdoch for the first time at a dinner at St Catherine's, Oxford, where he had been appointed a visiting professor. The disease, he remembers, had already taken its grip. 'She was in that phase of asking, "Oh, what do you do?" ' recalls Eyre, 'and so you'd tell her and then she'd go, "Oh, and what do you do?" ' He recognised the symptoms all too well; his own beloved mother, Minna, had suffered from the disease, which transformed her inexorably from one who started buying Christmas presents in June and making 'the perfect meringue' to one who was confined to a home, lying for hours in a foetal position on a beanbag.

 

When it transpired that the man putting the film project together was an acquaintance, John Calley, Eyre immediately wrote him a letter offering him his services as director. Mike Nichols (The Graduate, Postcards from the Edge) had already been asked but Nichols, who knew Eyre and, more importantly, of his experience with Alzheimer's, decided to pull out of the project and nominate his friend to replace him.

 

At first it was all a bit of a disaster. As Eyre recalls, when Calley pitched the script that he and Charles Wood (who wrote the screenplay for Tumbledown, Eyre's award-winning TV drama about the British invasion of the Falklands) had painstakingly hammered out, the Sony executives looked at him as if he were crazy - 'an English novelist dying of Alzheimer's; I mean, do you blame them?' - and immediately pulled out.

 

Desperately disappointed, Eyre contacted his friend, the theatrical impresario Robert Fox (who had produced The Judas Kiss) and the Hollywood producer Scott Rudin, who put up the quarter of a million pounds it cost to buy the rights. Alan Yentob from the BBC and Intermediary - the production company started up by Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack - then came on board, and together put into the pot the £3.7 million needed to go ahead and make the film. By Hollywood's standard this was a laughably small amount (Sony's original budget for the project had been somewhere around £20 million), but part of the reason why costs were kept so low was that every single one of the actors readily agreed to work for minimum wage. The project, as Fox put it, was 'a complete labour of love'.

 

Eyre could not have envisaged his film without Dench playing the part of Iris the elder, but Winslet, who was Eyre's first and only choice for Iris the younger, was just as crucial an element. 'I had met her only very briefly, but had always found her fascinating,' he explains. 'She's very open with her feelings and she has this great soul; she also has this amazing capacity to transform herself.'

 

Iris is an extraordinarily affecting film, whether you are a reader of Murdoch's novels or not. There is nothing remotely mainstream about it and one cannot help thinking that American audiences may be wrong-footed by certain scenes - Bayley and Murdoch having a conversation about philosophy in the aisles of a supermarket, for example. But the grimness of it, the very idea of this literary giant to whom language was so important being reduced to watching Teletubbies, would surely make anyone wince with empathy. Eyre has always said that the film is not primarily about the disease, insisting 'it's about love and age', but the fact that he has not spared us any of the unpleasant details - at one point Murdoch forgets to go to the lavatory and urinates noisily on to a newspaper - makes some of it frankly painful to watch. As Martin Amis (whose father, Kingsley, taught Eyre English at Cambridge) wrote in Talk magazine, 'For all its subtlety and tenderness [it is] excruciatingly raw. As you collect yourself while the credits roll, you find you have developed a lively admiration for cancer.'

 

Miramax head Harvey Weinstein - who was introduced to the project by Scott Rudin only much later on - is probably the film's most bullish supporter and is convinced that this is exactly the sort of movie the American public want to see in the wake of what happened on September 11. Apparently he is not alone in his enthusiasm. Hollywood pundits have already started making noises about Oscars (both for Dench, who is brilliant as the shuffling pathetic figure of Murdoch in the last stages, and for Eyre himself). Typically, the subject of how he'd feel about the prospect of bringing home an Academy Award makes Eyre squirm a bit.

 

'Oh, I mean, you know, I'd be absolutely thrilled. [An Oscar] is the commercial Holy Grail and one cannot be cynical about it, but if you say, "Does it feel like the ultimate accolade?" I would say the truth is that the ultimate accolade is when your friends and family give you their approval. Because they are the toughest critics.'

 

He notes with satisfaction that his daughter Lucy, an economics analyst at LSE and probably his toughest critic, was highly approving. 'The first time she saw it she came out and she said, "Dad, I saw this really strange thing in the ladies' loo. There was this line of women with their faces over the basins all drying their eyes!" '

 

Richard Eyre was born in Barnstaple, Devon, in March 1943, the son of a Naval officer turned gentleman farmer and his beautiful wife, Minna, whose uncle was a member of Scott's expedition to the Antarctic. As Eyre wrote in his eloquent 1993 memoirs, Utopia and Other Places, it was not a particularly happy or fulfilling childhood. His father, he says, was a profound philistine, rarely picking up a book unless it was about military history or by PG Wodehouse, and rarely straying from his three main pursuits: riding, drinking and having sex - either with other people's wives, or on one occasion with a girlfriend of Richard's.

 

'Yeah, my father would make a play for my girlfriends, and my mother would make a play for my sister's boyfriends,' says Eyre. 'They were both sort of competitive in that way. Was it damaging? I don't know. Certainly it wasn't very helpful.' Eyre's grandfather, with whom the family lived, was even more eccentric: a 'sociopath, if not psychopath' who shaved his head and while out riding would assault motorists who got in his way with his horsewhip.

 

Understandably, Eyre had no rapport whatsoever with his father, who despised his golden-haired son for being such a 'mummy's boy'; for being so desperately homesick at boarding school (where he was sent when he was seven); and, perhaps most importantly, for being afraid of riding. Indeed, so alienated did Eyre feel from his biological background, he often fantasised about how he and his elder sister, Georgina (now a landscape architect), might be changelings.

 

Eyre's coup de foudre so far as the theatre was concerned did not happen until he was 16, by which time he was an obstreperous pupil at Sherborne who idolised Marlon Brando and James Dean and read Boy's Own while everyone else at school was reading Pope.

 

 

'Peter O'Toole was playing Hamlet at the Bristol Old Vic,' Eyre recalls. 'Of course, this was before he had blond hair and had his nose done. And he was fantastic. I'd never read the play, but here I was in this 18th-century theatre watching this phenomenal actor doing this phenomenal play and it really hit me like the word of God.'

 

Eyre's nine-year stint at the National - a fitting appointment after years of working his magic on regional theatre and, later on, producing for the BBC's Play for Today series - was universally acknowledged as one of the golden eras in British theatre. Bringing on board a heady mixture of new and well-established talent, and showcasing both classical and modern work, Eyre was responsible for hit after hit, from Guys and Dolls (which he directed) to Alan Bennett's The Madness of George III to Tom Stoppard's The Invention of Love. And then, of course, there were all the collaborations Eyre undertook with David Hare, the most notable monument being their trilogy Murmuring Judges, Racing Demon and The Absence of War. 'They marked a moment,' says Genista Mackintosh, the NT's executive director. 'They in some way touched the nerve of public debate at the time and that's why audiences were so engaged. There really wasn't a better justification than those plays for a publicly funded national theatre.'

 

Eyre admits to loathing the prestigious post at first, felled by all the paper pushing and almost broken by his profound sense of duty and obligation to get it right - he once joked that his memoirs should have been entitled 'Crying on the Way to Work'. But there was no denying that he was perfect for the job. 'He's just one of those people who does what he does maddeningly well,' says Mackintosh. 'It's rather galling actually.'

 

'When he was a producer at the NT he was somebody who all living writers wanted to give their plays to,' says Hare. 'He had this respect for writers and this lack of ego about putting himself in the way. He was also very aware of how the world of arts looks to the outside world - any script you delivered he tended to ask, yes, but is this true? In other words, he was a wonderful reality check.'

 

Hare was not at all surprised, however, when his colleague handed in his resignation. 'Boards loved him, governments loved him; there wasn't a managerial job in the arts he didn't - and doesn't still - get offered, but when he was running the NT the attitude to his own artistic work was rather grudging. I think there has always been a part of him that is trying to scream, "I'm an artist!" '

 

Underneath that nice, gentle exterior, Hare adds, lurks a distinctly angry streak. 'Oh, it's all perfectly concealed because of his class background - he's like any upper-middle-class English gent who doesn't wear his feelings on his sleeve. But underneath he's very angry.'

 

Eyre readily agrees that he is not one of life's more happy-go-lucky people. He admits to being a 'mild manic depressive' and believing very strongly that 'pleasure is something you pay for. If things go really well, I always think, oh, Christ, what's going to happen now?' And although he says that the older he gets, the more philosophical he gets about 'things which I have no control over', he still has his bugaboos. He cannot bear the trend for journalists writing about how much they dislike theatre, for example; he cannot bear the way everyone bandies around the word 'stress' ('there should be a moratorium on that word,' he says, stretching his arms behind his head); and he absolutely despises the way one cannot buy stamps at the post office with a cheque, a sign that he still, to a certain extent, misses having a secretary and an office to go to. The refusal of the Labour Government to put more money into the arts after so many empty promises also eats at him. He wishes that instead of 'sucking up to the Spice Girls', Tony Blair (whom he first met six years ago at Glenys Kinnock's birthday party and thought was 'some sort of young university lecturer') would address what Eyre considers a very serious problem. 'Without any visual stimulation, if you don't let the imagination breathe,' he shrugs simply, 'then you die.'

 

As for what he will do next, Eyre is undecided. At some point in the not too distant future he would like to run another theatre (he won't say which one he has his eye on) and perhaps take the novel off the back burner. In the interim he will be directing a production of The Crucible in New York with Liam Neeson, and mulling over the mountains of scripts which have been plopping through his letterbox ever since the buzz about Iris began. There are a couple he is interested in, but one gets the impression that he is in no desperate hurry to follow in the starry, self-assured steps of Mendes or Daldry, that he finds the whole 'snakes and ladders' element of movie-making too brutal, and that he is rather baffled by the huge Hollywood hype which has greeted his film. 'I'm not sure I'm a terribly good director for hire,' as he tentatively puts it. 'The things that I do well tend to be things that I feel I can identify closely with.'

 

Certainly he is not in it for the money. He was, he says, 'offered tons' to do a musical and turned it down because he didn't like the music. When the clothing chain Gap called up and asked if he would like to be photographed by Annie Leibowitz for one of its poster campaigns, he turned that down too. Although he is by no means frugal (Hare, for example, describes him as one who 'always reaches for the bill first') and although he would love to trade in his 10-year-old Saab for a newer model, one gets the feeling that making millions does not really appeal. He is clearly quite settled here in this perfectly comfortable Victorian house in Hammersmith, occasionally sharing a secretary with Sue, who works in an office downstairs, and enjoying the garden in the idyllic blond-stoned house he owns in Gloucestershire.

 

A couple of days after our interview he gives a lunchtime lecture at the National Geographical Society entitled 'Why Do We Need Art?' The auditorium is packed, and when Eyre walks on to the podium the applause is tumultuous. In the questions that follow, one woman wants to know if the events of September 11 could be perceived as a work of art. A ripple of horror circulates the auditorium, and even Eyre seems slightly taken aback by the question. His response, however, is deft and appropriate: there is, he says, no experience that cannot be turned into art, all you need is the transforming genius - but it's not something he could do. Such tact is pure Eyre.

© Christa D'Souza 1989-2020