It has been just over a year since I first started to compile the interviews that make up this blog. As of last Friday, the book is available on Amazon (UK, Europe and US) as a 178 page print edition. The Kindle version will be available shortly.
I am enormously grateful to all the contributors and their staff for putting helping me put together this work.
40-70% of the royalties will go to The Prince’s Trust, a charity that works with disadvantaged young people in the UK, I will not personally profit from the book’s publication.
When Julian Fellowes started work on Gosford Park he had hardly expected it to be made into a film, let alone win the Best Original Screenplay category at the 2002 Oscars. On the face of it, that was an extremely improbable outcome, Gosford was Julian’s first screenplay that had been made into a film and it was competing against both Amélie and Memento. As he said in his acceptance speech: “I feel as if I am in A Star is Born and any moment now Norman Maine is going to come out and whack me in the mouth.”
The Oscar win was the reward for a lifetime of hard work and the pursuit of success in the entertainment industry that had started when Julian was a student. The theatre scene at Cambridge allowed him to explore both his interest in acting and his interest in the British class system. Away from the idyllic life he had enjoyed as a child, university introduced Julian to the full spectrum of human society, stimulating a fascination with class that has inspired many of his scripts.
Alan Johnson held some of the most senior roles in the governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Having been elected to Parliament in 1997, he went on to become the Secretary of State for Work & Pensions, Trade & Industry, Education, Health, and finally Home Secretary. Alan began his life in absolute poverty, growing up in one of the most deprived parts of London. The Johnson family had no central heating, no indoor toilet and his mother, Lily, was a victim of domestic abuse. She died when Alan was just 12 years old, making him and his sister orphans. He left school at 15 before taking up a job stacking shelves in Tesco and becoming a postman aged 18.
In February 1971, Iceland became Malcolm’s full-time occupation after his employer, Woolworths, discovered he and his business partner were operating a frozen food business “on the side”. Malcolm and another trainee from Woolworths had started a small business of their own in the previous year. In January 2009, Woolworths Group went into liquidation and two months later Malcolm’s frozen foods venture reported record sales of just over £2 billion. It’s an extraordinary journey for the former Woolies employee who started out sweeping the floor and weighing potatoes in the stock room. Today he is thought to be worth in the region of £215 million.
Today Nick’s feature films have multi-million pound budgets backed by some of the biggest names in Hollywood but his first characters were made of a product called Fuzzy Felt and inhabited a world based in his parents’ backgarden. He began making films aged 13, mostly short sketches involving comedy duos such as Walter the Rat and a friendly worm, or Murphy and Bongo, a caveman and a dinosaur. Many filmmakers have had their first experiments in film at a young age but with Nick’s work there is a noticeable continuity between some of the thinking behind the films he made in his teens and what became Wallace & Gromit. His father was the first to note the trademark humour in his short films and encouraged him to go to film school. A real lightbulb moment happened at a film festival where Nick had the idea of combining the kind of humour found in Looney Tunes, Tom & Jerry and Disney cartoons with plasticine animation.
On the night of 18th June 1970, when most eight-year-olds were fast asleep, the young Gerard Baker was wide awake watching the live results of that year’s general election in the UK. He was, in his own words, “a bit of an odd creature in that respect”, with an advanced interest in and understanding of history, politics and current affairs. Born and raised in Britain, a combination of intellectual curiosity and a drive to be the best at school meant that Gerry secured a position to study Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Oxford, where he developed his fascination with markets and finance. Thinking the best outlet for his interests would be banking, his first jobs after university were working as an economic analyst at the Bank of England and Lloyds.
It is hard to believe now but finding out what was going on in the nation’s capital was a difficult business in 1968. There were no dedicated listings magazines and getting to grips with the cultural scene in the city meant going through what was then called the “underground press” with such titles as International Times, Oz and Gandalf’s Garden. At this time, Tony Elliott was about to go into his final year at Keele University. Seeing a gap in the market, he decided to use a £75 birthday gift from his aunt to start his own listings magazine.
“If people have got a strong idea that is well executed, and clearly it has to be something that fulfills some kind of a need, the last thing the world needs is 150 new music magazines for example, so you’ve got to pick your spot, really work hard and execute it as well as possible. I think people often think they can’t start small, you have to be of some size. I’ve always advised people to aim for a niche and establish yourself in that niche and then build from there. I think the era is over really where people have an idea that goes national and becomes enormous. It’s more a question of small and good.”
How Did They Do It? is now 60,000 words in and 2/3s of the way towards completion. A total of 35 interviewees have agreed to take part and 25 interviews have been completed. There are only 14 interviews online at the moment but I hope to rectify this over the next month or so.
Last week, I met Alan Johnson MP at his office in Parliament Square where he discussed his surprisingly destitute childhood as well as his time in office. Alan is an incredible addition to this series. He grew up in one of the poorest parts of London in the 1950s and was orphaned aged 12. After leaving school aged 15 he worked for a time in Tesco before joining the Post Office. Yet he rose to the very top of British politics, becoming Education Secretary, Health Secretary and Home Secretary. How did he do it? You’ll have to buy the book.
Other recent interviewees include Arlene Phillips CBE and Martha Lane Fox CBE, or Baroness Lane-Fox of Soho as of March this year. Martha co-founded Lastminute.com, the hugely successful online travel and leisure retailer. There are now 6 interviewees in this series that have been awarded CBEs and 6 members of the House of Lords. Lastminute.com was established back in 1998 when only 8% of the country had access to a modem. Today she works on major public and charitable projects, including a Gov.uk scheme to get more people in the UK using the internet.
When Amanda took up the Chief Executive role at BAFTA in 2000, the Academy was suffering from lack of interest and lack of funds. Although it was still hosting the annual awards ceremonies that it is best known for, the organisation had gradually lost touch with both the public and much of its own membership. Amanda is widely recognised as having turned BAFTA around. Since the start of her tenure, the prospects for the Academy have increased dramatically. Moving the Film Awards ceremony from March to before the Oscars required a huge amount of work but it now means that the awards are seen as part of the New Year awards season. The charitable functions of the organisation have also increased, going from around four events a month excluding the awards ceremonies to around 250 events a year, most of which are accessible to the public.
Margaret Thatcher’s longest serving cabinet minister is well-known for the resignation speech many cite as having prompted her downfall but the majority of his ministerial career bears the hallmarks of a constructive working relationship that Howe characterises as having been “like a marriage”. He first worked with Thatcher while she was Secretary of State for Education under Ted Heath and attributes the longevity of their careers to shared ideals and a mutual appreciation of the other’s abilities. Howe became Chancellor of Exchequer during a time of extreme economic uncertainty in Britain, overseeing the radical 1981 Budget that some credit with having brought Britain out of the gloom of the 1970s and cementing the monetarist policies that remained central to successive Budgets thereafter.