Francine Stock presents her weekly Radio 4 show with great inscrutability. From the business-like ‘Hello’ to the final credits, her tone of careful precision never wavers from a sharp focus on the matter at hand. So I was unprepared for her readiness to discuss personal history and opinions, when directly asked; things soon became clearer as we discussed the pitfalls of ‘personality-led journalism’ and the complicated subtext underlying any interview.
Before taking up The Film Programme, Stock’s career spanned both television and radio journalism, on shows including Newsnight, The Money Programme and Front Row. It’s safe to say she knows a thing or two about asking questions. She warns ‘there are some people who are more concerned that their questions will be the best part of the interview, and some who just want to hear what the other person’s got to say. Those are generally the better interviewers. You have to make people feel at least a bit relaxed, and like you’re genuinely interested.’
Not all of her interviews are easy. I mention being mildly horrified by Lars von Trier’s provocative challenges about Stock spanking him when questioned regarding Antichrist. ‘I didn’t find that difficult because that’s how he is. You don’t expect him to be anything else. And he’s playful; it’s kind of a joke. People do anything to shock. What he really wants is for everyone to go ‘outrageous!’ but if you think most of the time he’s just doing the naughty boy thing to push your tolerance of what you think is acceptable, then you’re not offended.
‘The other thing is I don’t mind silence on radio. I know it sounds a bit awkward, but I like it because it becomes a battle of wills between you and the interviewee. If you don’t say anything then sooner or later they have to. Or they have to decide that they’ve made a decision not to say anything. It can be quite fun. I remember once interviewing a sculptor and she had the longest pauses, but actually it was rather lovely because she was thinking about what she was going to say. I’d rather have that than somebody who’s trotting out the same over-rehearsed platitudes about ‘oh the script was wonderful, I saw the script blah blah blah’. That’s part of the media training so many celebrities get these days, and you can tell they just go out and come up with the same kind of banalities about why they like stuff. At least with Lars von Trier you’re getting something.’
I suggest Tree of Life’s Jessica Chastain, who delivered a slightly vacuous interview on the programme last year, might fall into the media-trained camp, but Stock is more reluctant to be damning. ‘Well, we shouldn’t always expect that people who are actors should intellectualise about what they do. Sometimes it’s can be a mistake to ask them to do that, or it was four roles ago and they’ve forgotten.’
Film walks a line between business and art, and I wonder what Stock makes of its blend of commercialism and social comment. I report how director Bruce Robinson, during a Q&A at the Union last November, expressed his belief that film was unable to change anything, socially or politically. ‘It’s interesting. Even if you talk to someone like Ken Loach he would be very cautious about making any claims about what film can actually change in terms of legislation, although his film Cathy Come Home is the one everyone would cite for changing the housing laws and helping homeless people. But I think films can contribute to a mood in which political decisions are made, and obviously a well-made film is a powerful tool and it leaves traces. Can it bring about a revolution? No, absolutely not, but we all pick up on things and are influenced in all sorts of ways. And that’s what the book I’ve written [In Glorious Technicolor] is about; film affects the way that we look at things. It affects romance, or it affects political discourse, or it affects the notions of psychiatry and psychoanalysis. Even in terms of memory, like thinking we remember things in flashback. Research doesn’t suggest that we do, but it’s with that filmic device that we think. In that sense, film can play very powerfully into culture.
In Stock’s book, she catalogues a series of powerful images and metaphors through which we comprehend experience: ‘A Face in the Crowd’, ‘Struggling Through’, ‘Emerging from the Dark’. Within each chapter, she examines the influence of two or three films which have established such patterns. When asked to come up with a film, or genre of film, which she considers to have exerted the greatest influence on culture, she turns to the conventions of romantic comedy. ‘A couple meet and there’s a mismatch, perhaps there’s some kind of perceived social discrepancy between the two of them, and then through a process of trials they discover that they could co-exist perfectly happily. There’s one big reveal. I think our notions of what we’re looking for in people are shaped very much by that ‘you’ll know as soon as you meet them’ idea. I did put the theory to Christopher Plummer that Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music was behind all those bulging divorce rates in the 80s and 90s. All those little girls grew up thinking that if they met a taciturn, grumpy man, but were just really nice to him over a long period of time then eventually he would be singing to them in the greenhouse in the garden. There was faith in that feeling that suddenly the scales would fall from his eyes and it would all be alright, so long as you keep cheerful. But it doesn’t really work out like that, does it?’
We move on to other kinds of influences. ‘Somebody who I admired as a child and then later came to work with and to know very well, was a television reporter called Charles Wheeler. He had been a correspondent all over and was in some ways the antithesis of the pleasing, accessible, television male; he wasn’t very avuncular, he was absolutely straight, very rarely smiled, and was just interested in telling the story rather than being a personality. He was actually more impressive for that. I was really privileged to work with him on Newsnight, we ended up in all sorts of places on various stories.
‘That brand of personality-led journalism… I’m not a great fan of that. I don’t like it when the reporter gets in the way of the story. When I was doing television there was always the pressure to pop up to do a piece in front of the camera, which more often than not was just so the audience could see what you looked like. Some reporters loved doing that. People waste an awful lot of time telling people about their own experience rather than listening to someone else’s experience.’ Reflecting on the effect of this on her presentation of The Film Programme, she agrees that she holds back on her personal judgements, but suggests that she gives the odd hint which ‘you can probably pick up sometimes from the questioning’. It appears that her decorously objective style is quite deliberate, and springs from deeply held convictions rather than personal reticence.
When questioned about films to look forward to in 2012 Stock starts skimming through launchingfilms.com on her iphone with a general air of scepticism punctuated by moments of giddy excitement. She concludes early 2012 is looking ‘a bit grim’, but can’t express enough her delight at Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (16th March), and the re-releases of La Grande Illusion (6th April) and The Life and Death of Colonial Blimp (18th May). She’s also full of compliments for Rampart: ‘a great Woody Harrelson performance. James Elroy is so very dark.’ Reflecting on last year, she has similarly mixed feelings. ‘There have been extraordinary things in it, but it’s not been one of those years where everything has changed. The Artist was a really good film but it changes nothing; it’s a one-off, they won’t do The Artist II. I suppose there was a definite move towards films that had a contemplative feel rather than dialogue-driven, like that rather mad Italian film called La Quatre Volte: fantastic, quite engaging intellectually, rather lovely to look at, funny. Drive wasn’t heavy on dialogue. Neither was the opening to Melancholia; in my opinion it becomes somewhat less engaging once everybody starts to talk.
‘I really liked Attenberg, another film not heavy on dialogue. And another film, like so many last year, not heavy on ‘psychology’, instead just allowing you to see and work it out for yourself, which is nice. It’s going back to an early era where we don’t have to have an explanation and we can let people be as contradictory as they are. We’re relying on the power of the image, and that’s fine, that’s good, especially now that technology can deliver it in such amazing quality. Obviously great scripts are wonderful, but an awful lot of scripts aren’t great. How many times do you go to the cinema and get that horrible feeling when someone says a line and you know what the other person’s going to say next?’
Stock has a few things to say on horrible feelings at the cinema; she shares Mark Kermode’s fury at the modern multiplex’s lack of projectionists (‘a real problem now’) and abundance of overpriced food. She briefly meditates on popcorn as a symbol of hollow commercialism: ‘Inflated grains. I know, was there ever a more…? It’s perfect, it’s an idea made real. It’s like nothing, tastes of nothing, and still people buy it. It’s a metaphor for everything that means nothing, and yet continues to grow.’ Nonetheless, she remarks, the multiplex ‘won’t last forever. Nothing lasts, does it?’ She suggests multiplexes might have misinterpreted their demographics. ‘They always assume lots of young people go to the cinema, but now they’re beginning to find in America that the people who like going are the older people who have got kids grown up and like going out. They certainly don’t want the noise and the popcorn, so the cinemas might have to start thinking again.’
Meanwhile, there’s always home cinema to give back the sense of control which the multiplex removes. Stock maintains a household tradition of watching films through a projector ‘because the formality of that means while you’re watching the film you watch the film. Something about the beam of light hitting the screen is lovely, with the little bits of dust and things. I always think it’s good if you see something as big as you can see it. I know some people watch it on their phones and there are certain things for which that probably works. Terry Gilliam, whom I talked to last week, was saying that he’s worked out that if you hold your ipad about 14 inches from your face then you’re getting the same ratio as if you were sitting in a cinema. But you’d probably need a headset for that, wouldn’t you?
‘I don’t like people wandering in and out when I’m watching a film, people coming in and going ‘what’s happening?’ You have to let it take you over. And there are some that aren’t worth being taken over by, but there are some that are, and that’s something I’m really excited by.’ Stock returns to thinking about film in terms of intimate private relationships, and it seems that despite her objectivity when presenting The Film Programme, it is this rich personal experience which is the bedrock of what she does.