UK writer/director Hannah Rothschild talks about her documentary Mandelson: The Real PM, which is world premiering at the LFF on Oct 24.
London-based writer and director Hannah Rothschild’s documentary is an access all areas portrait of Labour politician Peter Mandelson, one of the most divisive figures in recent British political history, filmed during the run-up to the May 2010 British General Election. Backing came through BBC Storyville. Rothschild’s hope is that on the back of its London premiere, it may also receive a theatrical release.
Rothschild’s earlier documentaries The Jazz Baroness and Hi Society, The Wonderful World Of Nicky Haslam, were both shown on the BBC.
Why were you keen for the film to be at the LFF?
Obviously, this is a very British story. It reflects 30 years of British history and (follows) five crucial months in the run-up to the Election, most of which happened in London. Peter Mandelson hasn’t seen it yet but he will certainly be asked (to the London premiere).
Is this a sympathetic portrayal of Mandelson?
I hope it’s an honest portrayal. Once he said, yes, you can do it, he was remarkably blunt and forthright about what I was allowed to film. I don’t think he was thinking particularly hard about presenting a very glossy portrait of himself. I was there through a lot of very difficult moments, it’s a pretty stark portrait of politics.
What parameters did he set you?
There weren’t any, actually. Once he had said yes, that was it. But there were very strict limits about filming inside No 10 (Downing Street). If we were out and about, I was able to film (then Prime Minister) Gordon (Brown). No 10 were reticent and cagey but Peter was very open to us, surprisingly so.
Is Mandelson someone you’ve known for a very long time?
I knew him slightly through my brother (Nat) of whom he is a great friend. And he is quite a good friend of my father’s. I knew him to say hello to. It (the documentary) came about rather bizarrely. I had been watching the Labour Party Conference. I was trying to find a film to make about politics and his performance was so extraordinary, saying ‘I’m a fighter not a quitter’ and ‘no-one is more surprised than me to be back.’ I thought this was the most astonishing character and how wonderful it would be to tell the story of the election through this man. It never occurred to me that he would agree to do it. I wrote to him. It wasn’t as if I could put any emotional pressure on him to say yes. I was very surprised when he did.
Was it an alarming prospect?
Yes, terrifying. Fools rush in where angels fear to tread! It’s a very big story, obviously, and I am not a political anorak and there were lots of things I didn’t particularly understand, for example how Ministries work, relationships with special advisors and all sorts of subtle nuances that took me some time to pick up. Technically, it was extremely difficult (to film). The sound levels have got to work.
You’ve got to stay in focus. The camera is very heavy and you’re running in and out of meetings, cars, trains, all the time. I know it sounds ridiculous but you can only carry so much. By the time you’ve got your spare batteries, you can’t carry a coat or a handbag. You’d leave home at seven o’clock in in the morning and you wouldn’t get home till late at night. What I think the film will show, which I think is a revelation, is how hard these people work. He (Mandelson) starts at 6am and he very often would then work till after midnight. There was no lunch or tea, no breaks. He’d go from meeting to meeting to meeting, from conference to speech. It was absolutely incredible. I didn’t know how he did it.
The election provided the through line?
Yes, I actually started filming in October but the film starts in January and goes till May. Basically, it’s about the countdown (to the election.)
Did Mandelson have any veto over the film?
He had no veto. The BBC would never have allowed that. He said at the outset that he would like people to see what it’s really like. To his great credit, he was brave enough to go with that.
Will people view Mandelson in a different light after seeing the film?
That’s a complicated question. More than anybody else in politics and public life, people seem to have made their minds up about Peter Mandelson. I never tell anyone what I am doing any more because people come at you with 10,000 opinions. I hope that people will see another side to politics and to Peter. I am not trying to change anyone’s minds. This is an observational film.
Was Mandelson open to you because you were a Rothschild in a way that he wouldn’t have been with a filmmaker he didn’t know and whose family didn’t know?
I really don’t know. What I can tell you is that he was absolutely professional. I was treated no differently than anyone else around him. I certainly got no favours in how I was treated. As a filmmaker, you are concentrating on what you’re doing in front of you. I suspect he rather forgot about connections we might have had. He is a man who can put his past with Gordon Brown behind him and work with him. He can put his past with Charlie Whelan behind him and go into a room with him. He is interesting in that he does seem able to divorce personal from professional and history from the present day - I think what Mandelson did in allowing the camera to follow him without caveats was an extraordinary thing to do.