Theme: Society & Culture | Content Type: Interview

"The Closest You Can Get to the Truth of What Happened is a Multisided Account": Interview with Norma Percy

Anya Pearson


Oxa Roxa

| 16 mins read

Anya Pearson speaks to documentary film-maker and producer Norma Percy, who won the Special Prize for Lifetime Achievement in 2010 for the documentaries she has produced in collaboration with Brian Lapping, which cover many of the political crises of the twentieth century. Percy's latest series, Inside Europe: Ten Years of Turmoil, documents the road to the EU referendum and was screened earlier this year. Her upcoming series on Cuba will be broadcast in November.

Anya Pearson: Hi, Norma. George Orwell writes that "The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another”. In your documentary Inside Europe, the word ‘solidarity’ in times of crisis seemed to mean very different things to different member states. Can you comment on that?

Norma Percy: What I do is try and make viewers feel they're inside the room when important decisions are being made. My team at Brian Lapping look for the turning points when something big is decided and find out who was there. We interview them after the event and ask them what happened. What we are after is evidence. I see myself not as a political scientist or political thinker - only a historian.

In essence, we want to show how decisions are made: in the case of INSIDE EUROPE, why Cameron called the referendum, and how the two big EU issues in the lead-up to the referendum – the Euro crisis and the EU migration crisis – were handled. We leave it to the viewer to pull out any lessons they want to take from these moments. 

Does solidarity mean European solidarity? There are people who put a very high priority on the European project, others who put a high priority on getting what their country needs from Europe, and others who place a high priority on what they themselves need. 

I don't always use this notion of self-interest in a derogatory way. What David Cameron did, obviously, was a disaster. But his motive, i.e. keeping the Tory party together and dealing with the European issue once and for all, is not necessarily ignoble, from many people’s points of view. Maybe that's what Orwell meant in the quotation you referred to. Those words can mean so many things that they don't mean any (one) thing.

AP: In what ways do your contributors drive the narrative of your films, or are they structured from your research first and then they fill in the gaps? 

NP: The answer is both. We read everything we can find. Then we talk to everyone who was at a key meeting. Our contributors drive it, but everyone gets a level playing field.

The classic example is the meeting we reconstruct when David Cameron is deciding whether to hold a referendum. It's George Osborne vs William Hague fighting for the soul of the Prime Minister. They’re both compelling interviewees. Each makes a good case. When you're sitting in front of each of them, you're completely convinced!

No one is truly objective. The closest you can get to the truth of what happened is a multisided account. Someone says: "I opened the meeting and I made a long and eloquent speech and everyone sat there mesmerised into silence". Another witness will say "Oh, that boring man went on and on and we were all bored into stupefaction." So there, the facts! This man made a long speech and everyone sat silent – that’s what was told by all sides. 

AP: You've gained the trust of so many world leaders with your interview technique. Why do you think people trust you to tell their story?

NP: First of all, we have the luxury of time. People think that’s just because we've been doing this for thirty years that so many people agree to talk to us. Hah! Going back to people is a tough task, and experience gives you the tools to know how to do it.

I'm going to say something totally controversial: most politicians are reasonable. What I mean is that they have reasons for describing what they want the people to understand. But first you have to persuade them they will get a fair hearing and a wide audience.

But it’s not always easy. One top politician finally agreed to take to take part in our history of the Iraq War. Then inexplicably he changed his mind.  We had to find someone – whom he trusted who knew our work and trusted us. This guy also got a no – but he could ask: ‘why?’ Well, the week before the big politician had given a camera crew access to spend a week with him, he'd taken them out fishing and he'd landed the biggest fish he'd ever caught. But they didn't use that bit it in the film. Outraged, he’d have nothing to do with television again. Our go-between could say you are crazy – and persuade him to do our interview after all. That's an extreme example, but that's how it works. 

AP: In Inside Europe, we are reminded that Britain’s relationship with Europe has always been fraught. Cameron is seen attempting to use the Eurozone crisis as leverage for unrelated negotiations inside Britain, ultimately giving into internal Conservative party pressures to hold the 2016 referendum. But he himself is notably absent from Inside Europe, refusing to be interviewed due to his exclusive publishing deal. What question would you have loved to ask him?

NP: In the end, we got all the key scenes we wanted with him described by other people who were there. In every series there's one story we are sure now happened, but we just can’t find someone to say 'I was there'. In this case it was a well-accepted rumour that Cameron committed to the 2015 referendum because he didn’t think he’d have to hold it. He expected he'd still be in coalition with the Lib Dems and they wouldn't allow him to. Cameron was as surprised as anybody when he won the 2015 election outright. Boy, did we try to find a Conservative to say that. No good. Finally we met EU Council Donald Tusk! 

AP: It seemed like you had a great connection with Tusk. 

NP: In order to ensure that the interviewee make eye contact only with the person who's doing the questions, we put a sheet between him and the others on the team who are listening. I was listening in on this. After every long answer, Tusk would lift up the sheet and say: 'Was that good enough, Norma?' He just radiates honesty... and he's a naturally good storyteller. 

AP: Another marvellous thing about your team’s documentaries is that you use clips of political satire to portray moments of crisis. I'm thinking of the Saturday Night Live sketch about Obama’s early presidency and the puppets of Sarkozy and Merkel during the Eurozone bailout. What do you think the use of absurdity does for your films?

NP: These documentaries are watched in peoples' living room at nine o'clock at night. They’re not Orwell Prize Lectures. In Granada TV when I first started there, its founder Sidney Bernstein put a photo of PT Barnham in every room to remind everyone that, you have to entertain to keep people from switching over.

AP: Mohammad Zatareih is a migrant from Syria who led thousands of refugees on foot through Hungary to Austria. What made you decide to interview an ‘ordinary’ migrant alongside global leaders?

NP: He wasn’t a politician, but he made a key decision that made something important happen. We don’t interview ordinary people ­– not because we’re against them, but because the decisions that most people make are about their own and their families’ lives. But Zatareih made a decision that changed migration policy. When we are lucky enough to find such stories, it does improve the series.

AP: It's fascinating because his personal story gave a very human face to the migrant crisis. Meanwhile, we learn a lot about Angela Merkel, who grew up in Communist East Germany, who had these very personal motivations for defending freedom of movement across the EU at all costs. She said: "We are not going to build any fences in Germany”. Is it important to you to humanise these types of international political decisions?

NP: In one sense, if you’re interviewing the person, you’re halfway there. There is the human being in front of you. You can see them, judge them and decide whether they are plausible. 

When you build your programmes out of interviews you can’t make your interviewees look like liars  – or the viewer doesn’t know who to believe. So when someone says something thing that is obviously a porky, we don’t use it.

There was one exception. When we finally we got the interview with Slobodan Milošević, we had an hour, and I would say 55 mins of it was lies. We had to use it. He was the central character. Fortunately, we interviewed his deputy too, who was proud of the things they did together. We put what he told us in with the archive footage of the result. The truth was pretty clear.

AP: When you were making Putin, Russia and the West (2012) what was he like? Has your opinion of him changed much since then?

NP: In the first programme, dealing with when he first was President, I think he comes across very well. He had a good relationship with Bush, and particularly his chap, Sergei Ivanov, higher in the KGB than Putin had been, and Condoleeza Rice, the two national security advisors, had a fantastic relationship. Between 2000-2012, Russian-American relations often worked.

Filming The Second Russian Revolution (1989-91) at the time of Gorbachev’s rise was wonderful. In the UK I had used a technique that got UK ministers to tell stories that I tried when I met Vitali Virotnikov, my first top Soviet: 'Tell us what happened in the Politburo, tell the story  like you went home and told your wife that night'. A look of complete horror spread across his face at the very idea of telling such a thing to his wife.  But as Gorbachev’s policy of Glasnost (openness) spread and the Soviet rules came off, there were none of the conventions that governed what UK politicians could or couldn't say. They told us things that we’d never get in the  West. 

Bu soon after the 2012 election it became harder and harder to work as a journalist in Russia. Today, many of the people who had worked with us have left.

AP: Something that won't escape most viewers is that there are comparatively few women are in the interview chair.

NP: I think it's a real pity. More selfishly it gets me into a lot of problems! I have certain rules: we only film people who were inside the room when decisions were made.  In one episode of INSIDE EUROPE the only two women relevant said no. It's not fair to blame me – the problem is the system. More women should be in top jobs.

AP: I didn't think you'd avoided interviewing all the female decision-makers with a twisted anti-feminist motive!

NP: It was easiest in Inside Obama’s Whitehouse. There were black women and Latina women who were in top positions. When Mrs. Thatcher was there you didn’t notice the absence – she dominated. Merkel isn’t great for helping the cause for women on television. She gives good press conferences and she radiates being the most sensible person in politics. But she doesn’t like giving retrospective interviews. 

AP: Does the absence of women pose a serious threat to democracy? Democracy is arguably on the decline; is there a gendered element to that?

NP: I think the best person wins no matter what their gender. I'm never sure what I think about positive discrimination. It would be wonderful if Michele Obama wanted to stand. If more wonderful charismatic women stood forward it would be easier to be a feminist.

AP: Your new documentary about Cuba comes out in November. Would you like to tell us about that?

NP: It’s about Castro’s relations with the outside world. It's unfinished business from the Obama series where we could get no access to the Cuban side and had to drop the story. We thought: how can we crack this? It's just the sort of place where you've got to make it the centre of your focus if you want to get anywhere – like Russia. We found a French production company that had very good access in Cuba, so we did it as a co-production with them.

The first episode shows how Castro made little Cuba a major player in the Cold War – and a thorn in the side of the US giant. The second is about how this all fell apart with the fall of the Soviet Union, and the hardship Cubans suffered with the loss of its Soviet backer. We also show the ingenious method Castro found to rescue Cuba from isolation – now under threat from Trump. We interviewed Bill Clinton and got access to unseen bits of an interview with Fidel. The team have produced some great peaks behind closed doors. Watch out for it.

This interview with Norma Percy is the latest in a series of exclusive interviews with female Orwell Prize winners and shortlisters, from the Political Quarterly and the Orwell Foundation.