In his new guise as a film producer, former Labour Cabinet Minister (and one time Culture Secretary) James Purnell has revealed that he has several film projects as well as documentaries in development.
Purnell, who left Parliament in June 2010, is now a senior producer at Rare Day, the company founded by Peter Dale in 2008.
“We are developing both documentaries and fact based dramas,” Purnell stated.
Last month, Purnell’s first movie as a producer, feature doc One Mile Away by Penny Woolcock, won the Michael Powell Award at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. Purnell and Woolcock are now in talks to collaborate on further projects.
“I knew Peter (Dale) both because he is an IPPR (Institute for Public Policy Research) Associate Fellow and through BRITDOC,” Purnell explained his decision to join Rare Day in late 2010. “I had been in television before going into politics but on the management/bureaucrat side and I had always wanted to do it (producing) and Peter said why don’t you give it a go.”
Purnell met Woolcock at the lunch queue at BRITDOC’s Good Pitch 2010. She told him about her plans for a documentary exploring the attempts at peace and reconciliation between two rival Birmingham gangs, the Burger Bar Boys and the Johnson Crew.
“I found it a real life-changing experience,” Purnell said of his work on One Mile Away. “You meet a bunch of people who have quite difficult lives and who have been in and out of prison in a number of cases but you also realise the courage which it has taken to change that situation…and the incredible intelligence and talent that exists in that community.”
Through Purnell, the warring gang members were introduced to Jonathan Powell, Chief British negotiator on Northern Ireland from 1997 to 2007. Powell gave them some very practical tips.
“I don’t think we expected it (Powell’s advice) to be as directly relevant as it turned out to be. From very huge conflicts like Israel and Palestine down to something like this, which is very local, there are quite common things like the importance of people on both sides have each other’s mobile phone numbers so they can ring up and defuse situations before they go wrong,” Purnell observed.
Members of the gangs were with Woolcock and Purnell when they took the film to Edinburgh. “They’re a very talented bunch…they put on a gig in the Festival Bar after the first screening of the film. They were really the hit. They really stole the Festival.”
The aim now is to secure theatrical distribution for One Mile Away, which was made with support from BRITDOC and funded by Channel 4 and Creative England. The distribution consultant is Mia Bays.
Asked about the contrast between life as a front-line politician and his new career as a movie producer, Purnell responded: “What is interesting about it (producing) is how different from politics it is but also how film can achieve a lot of things very similar to politics but in a different way.”
Reflecting on the public funding landscape for film, Purnell suggested that “there is now a strongly established consensus across the (political) parties about the importance of the creative industries and of the (film) tax break in particular.”
Producing isn’t Purnell’s full-time job. Among other activities, he is also currently Chair of IPPR Trustees, serves on the Board of the National Theatre and The BFI and is Senior Advisor at The Boston Consulting Group.