Interview: David Hare

The playwright and film director discusses his classy new spy drama, Page Eight

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David Hare smiles when he talks about his new television drama. Well, you would, wouldn’t you – Page Eight has a phenomenal cast (Bill Nighy, Rachel Weisz, Michael Gambon, Ralph Fiennes), is a gripping tale about secrets and lies (government, MI5, Iraq, the whole caboodle), and most importantly for him, reawakens a dream. Britain’s premier playwright always wanted to be a film director, and yet it’s 20 years since he last made a movie. Film, he says, broke his heart.

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It’s hard to think of a playwright more prolific or influential over the past couple of decades. In the likes of Racing Demon, Murmuring Judges, The Absence of War and Via Dolorosa, he has tackled the church, the judiciary, the Labour Party, the Middle East conflict, you name it. Hare has always liked his big subjects. Page Eight certainly doesn’t shy away from them, but there’s a more romantic element here than in much recent work – not only in the drama itself, but also in his return to the screen.

Hare’s portrait of MI5 is irresistible – sardonic, idealistic and sexy, these are the heroes who tell the government that there is insufficient evidence to go to war against Iraq. Gambon plays the brilliantly dissipated head of the intelligence agency, and Nighy the senior analyst with a lovely, jaded optimism. Page Eight, which Hare has written and directed, really does make you wish you’d taken the secret agent option at GCSE.

I meet him at the National Theatre in London, where he has enjoyed so many of his triumphs. He bounces into the room, tall, lean, tanned, stylish (he is married to the French fashion designer Nicole Farhi, after all). He has a great big brown bob of hair (so luxuriant it’s slightly alarming when you notice the monkish dome in the middle) and it’s hard to believe he’s 64.

No sooner has he sat down than he’s talking about his hunger to work, how quickly time passes, the fear that he won’t write everything that he has to write. That is why, he says, so much of his work in recent years has been more journalistic – there hasn’t been time to dramatise it because the world has been breaking and shaking at such a furious pace.

Page Eight, however, marks a return to fully fledged drama. It also marks another change, he says – a new sense of hope. As Nighy’s brilliantly named character Johnny Worricker asks his painter daughter, “Why do you want to p*** on life before you’ve even lived it?”, and this is very much how Hare feels these days.

Nighy has been in seven Hare productions and is the actor most closely associated with his work. Of their first collaboration, Dreams of Leaving, a BBC Play for Today from 1980, critic Clive James said Nighy “wanders around aimlessly through this film like a better-looking version of the author”, which still makes Hare laugh. “That’s what everybody wants to play them, isn’t it, a better-looking version of themselves?”

What version of Hare is Johnny Worricker? By way of an answer he guides me through a brief history of the postwar thriller genre. “The thing that’s different about this film from spy films of the 1960s is that for John le Carré and Len Deighton, for that generation, the spy novel was about an existentialist thing – the bomb, the cold war, the meaningless of life – and it was used to express angst. It was all about we’re all here, it’s miserable, there’s nothing to fight for any more, our side’s as bad as that side, we’re all in the same meaningless nasty games, and we’re all puppets who get thrown aside by the machine, right? Johnny is not like that. He’d love to go on doing his job, he loves his art collection, he loves his jazz, he loves his women friends, he loves his life. He’d love to go on doing his job if he was allowed to do it.”

Is that something he sees in himself? Absolutely, he says, but it wasn’t always that way. “I know it’s a phase adolescents have to go through, but I should have torn down the black curtains in the bedroom much earlier.”

When did he tear down the curtains? He looks sheepish. How long were the black curtains up for? “Ah, years. Years and years. And it’s such a waste of your life.” What was written on the black curtains? “Oh, you know, it’s all meaningless, why are we here, there’s no point. All the teenage stuff.” Was it just his teenage years? “Oh no, it went well beyond teenage. And the films I made were very, very gloomy.”

Hare’s cinema films enjoyed some success, but not all the critics were enamoured. And nor, ultimately, was Hare himself. “Wetherby’s a gloomy film. Paris by Night is a gloomy film.” Ah, but at least it’s got Charlotte Rampling in it, I say. “Yeah… it’s always romantic gloomy, but it’s gloomy. What I’m pleased with about this is it’s got some pep, some upbeat feeling to it. Johnny doesn’t beat the system, but he isn’t crushed by it. He comes bouncing back up with some wit, and that’s much more the spirit I admire these days.”

Hare adores the movies. Didn’t you once say there is so much more glamour to film than theatre, I ask. “Well there is, isn’t there? There’s just the sheer exhilaration of doing something on the spot that’s going to have to last for ever. Whereas theatre is a handkerchief: you blow your nose, and it’s flown away, it’s gone.”

Perhaps he’s more dismissive of theatre because success came easier in that field? “That’s right, I think I despise my own…” He trails off. “I noticed the other day when I was talking about film that I was boasting. I said ‘Oh, Wetherby, which won the Golden Bear at Berlin…’ And I thought if it was a play I’d rather die than admit it won an award, I’d never mention it, I’d be embarrassed. And it’s a sign of insecurity. But then I began to notice all film-makers do it. Their conversation is littered with references to awards won.

“Because film is such a volatile medium, even the greatest directors make terrible films. There is no such thing as a steady film-maker. Not a good one. They make terrible films, and they make great ones.”

Why did he stop making films? “Because I got worse at it,”he says, bluntly. “I made three films in the 80s, each of which was worse than the last. So Wetherby was great, Paris by Night was less great and Strapless was least great. And I felt I’m only going to become a film-maker if I devote my life to it, and I’ve watched a lot of people try to move between theatre and film unsuccessfully. I thought it’s only if I give my life to this that I’ll be any good at it.”

So what made him return? “Bill Nighy. He won’t be directed by anybody but me!” He grins. “Bill said I had to do it because he likes being directed by me.”

Was he nervous after so long an absence? “No, because I’d been thinking about what a film-maker does. Partly by watching Stephen Daldry and partly by working with Louis Malle [he wrote the script for the latter’s film Damage]. What I’ve learned is that the director’s job is to think. It’s taken me all this time to understand it.

“In the 80s I was always going, where am I going to put the camera? Well, it’s pointless worrying about that because the cameraman’s going to offer you five choices. But you’re the only person who can do the thinking. So this film is better directed than my previous films because I’ve sat back from it rather than try to run it. I used to be like a circus master running round like an idiot.”

Page Eight features a ruthless, cynical prime minister called Alec Beasley, played by Ralph Fiennes. Is he based on Tony Blair? “When Ralph asked who it was supposed to be based on, I said, ‘Well, he’s clever, he’s commanding, he’s unscrupulous, he’s the smartest man in Britain,’ so it’s not based on anybody who’s actually been prime minister. Ralph played him a bit like Putin.”

Would Blair be offended that Hare doesn’t think he’s up to it? “I think even Tony Blair can see that there is a slightly silly, dippy side to Tony Blair; a kind of boyish thing, to put it kindly.”

After Labour Party advisors rounded on Hare for his play The Absence of War, about Labour’s failed 1992 general election campaign, he was knighted by the Labour government. Did he have any doubts about accepting a knighthood? “No. I felt I treated the Labour Party with integrity in The Absence of War, so when I was the subject of an attack operation from Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell, I just thought this is gratuitous. At the Evening Standard Theatre Awards Campbell pushed his way all across the room to say to me, ‘If you think you’re going to be allowed to do to Tony Blair what you did to Neil Kinnock you’re f***ing well mistaken.’ But it was quite clear that somebody in the Labour government wanted to make amends, and it seemed to me a good way of shaking hands.

“I think you could criticise me for it if my work had become less radical since I accepted a knighthood, but frankly, 13 years have gone, and whether the plays are any good or not, they are certainly no less radical. So if the purpose of giving me a knighthood was to silence me, than it’s been a terrible failure, hasn’t it?” Anyway, nobody bothers calling him Sir, he says.

He was recently invited to discuss the arts by David Cameron, but declined. “What is the point? You can see what the Tories are going to do. We’ve seen so many prime ministers come in and say they’re going to do something for the arts and all [culture secretary] Jeremy Hunt has done for the arts is cut them. You know when prime ministers get into office they’re not interested in the arts.”

Any difference he makes, he says, will be in his writing. Occasionally, he misses his early voice and mourns his lost youth (he will never completely tear down those black curtains), when everything was so new and thrilling. But actually, he says, his 60s could not have turned out better – between them, he and Farhi have four grown-up children (three his, one hers), they could not get on better (his son bought him the trousers he’s wearing today), the work continues to flow, and he’s even back making films. In short, he’s never had such a zest for life.

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“I’ve become much more positive and enthusiastic as I’ve got older because you’ve got so little time. You haven’t got time for all that doom and gloom any more – it’s a waste of your life.”