David Puttnam
David Puttnam ©

John Minihan

Lord Puttnam of Queensgate, Hon. F.R.S.A., Hon. F.R.G.S., Hon. F.R.P.S., MRIA

David Puttnam was born in London in 1941, the son of Captain Leonard Puttnam and Marie Goldman. David worked in advertising from 1958–1968 and then founded Enigma Productions to become an independent film producer.

His films have won ten Oscar's and twenty-five BAFTAs. He is Chair of Atticus Education and delivers interactive online film seminars to universities worldwide from his home studio in Skibbereen, County Cork, Ireland. He has been married to Patsy Jones, Lady Puttnam, since 1961 and they have two children: producer, Deborah Grossman and composer, Sasha Puttnam. 

Extract from David Puttnam in conversation with Shevaun Wilder

Shevaun: When did you begin the journey that led you to this idyllic River House in a small, rural, Irish town in West Cork?

David: Well, I was brought up in North London. I was born smack in the middle of the Blitz in February, 1941. My dad was a war photographer – I didn't meet him until I was five, I adored him. I went to the local primary school and grammar school, where I was a stupendously useless student, except I was saved by a history mistress Miss Kirkpatrick who was fantastic, so naturally I developed a love of history. I left at sixteen with three O-Levels – not exactly a stellar performance – and became a messenger in an advertising agency.

Shevaun: Did you leave with a plan or did you just want to get out?

David: Well, my Dad’s view was that he didn't really mind what I did, as long as I was very, very, good at it. I liked work but I also realised that leaving school was quite a severe thing to have done so I went to night school from the age of 18 to 22. What was brilliant was that I created my own curriculum and discovered I was a natural learner – to my absolute stunned amazement. By age 22, I was working at an extremely good ad agency. I became a group head and had Alan Parker and Charles Saatchi as writers, and Ridley Scott as a director. By the time I was 25, I was a manager.

Shevaun: Great training for producing later on... When exactly did you make the move over to film?

David: It was a wonderful training. In '68, knowing absolutely nothing, I thought, I really like movies, I'll be a filmmaker. I went to see the head of the union who said, 'You need a ticket to work in film.' Because he was a kindly man he also said, 'Producers don't need a ticket because they're employers.' So, I became a film producer because that was the only thing I could do to enter the film industry.

Shevaun: You had a number of notable successes before coming to Ireland to film Bernard MacLaverty's book Cal in 1984 with Helen Mirren, John Lynch and a host of Irish actors. Is there any particular quality about Irish actors that you admire? I notice you worked with Ray McAnally, an incredible Abbey Theatre actor, again on The Mission.

David: That's the answer to your question. On Cal, I used to end up talking to Ray. I found Ray by far the wisest person I've ever spoken to about the process of acting and I became very, very, fond of him. I also worked with Donal McCann on Cal, so I was dealing with a group of extremely serious actors of a different type from movie stars. Then I worked with Liam Neeson on The Mission, Gabriel Byrne on The Defence of the Realm and Liam Cunningham on War of the Buttons. So, I've worked with some really good Irish actors.

Shevaun: And did you feel some kind of affinity with Ireland as well?

David: The trigger to all that was actually when I produced Local Hero on the west coast of Scotland. It was a wonderful experience. It was May/June of 1982, I had an Oscar under my belt, I felt good about life. I associated the experience with the place. Then in 1988, we were on a driving holiday here in Ireland and this very nice guy painting his house said, 'I saw a place the other day, beautiful view, I've been telling this friend of mine, Desmond Morris, he should come and look at it.' So I, very casually, say, 'Oh, really, whereabouts is that?' He says, 'It's an old farm in Skibbereen, owned by the daughter of the owner of the West Cork Hotel.' There was a one-in-a-hundred chance of her being at the hotel but she was. I said, 'I gather you're selling a bit of property, could you show it to me?' She said, 'Yes! Jump in the car, follow me.'

Shevaun: And this is it?

David: This is it! Got here, it was a complete disaster... to say it was run-down is being kind! I walked around the place and saw exactly the view we’re looking at now. It was precisely what I'd had in my mind in Scotland. I had this picture-postcard in my head and now I’m looking at it. So, I phoned her the following Saturday – I didn't tell Patsy – and said, 'I'd like to buy it.' I paid eighty-five thousand punts for fourteen acres of waterside.

Shevaun: Wow!

David: It was all done over the phone, we used the same lawyer here in Skibb. Three months later, I plucked up the courage and said to Patsy, 'Well, I've got a lovely surprise for you. You own a holiday home, in a country beginning with I.' 'Italy?', she said, 'No, Ireland,' I answered. 'Not there!' she said.

Shevaun: (Laughs.) She didn't have the grá for the place that you had already?

David: No. (Laughs.) Anyway, I'd like to think she likes it as much now as I do.

Shevaun: How long before you felt like you weren't a 'blow-in' or an outsider here?

David: The real thing, may sound strange, was Omagh. I absolutely remember that on the day of the Omagh bombings we literally had people coming to the door and saying, 'We're so terribly, terribly, sorry.' It was the children, I think, the death of the children. Then, I had this extraordinary moment in 2007 – I was the first foreigner to be asked to give the address at the annual Michael Collins Béal na mBláth Commemoration. That was a major turning point.

Shevaun: What inspired you to set up your digital broadcasting company, Atticus Education, here?

David: Well, I had a very bad car smash on holiday in Italy in 2010. I completely mullered the whole of my left arm – I had fourteen fractures. And I thought, 'If I can possibly get connectivity here, what I could do is teach from here.' By God's good grace, a friend of mine was the number two, he's now number one, at BT and they were very keen to expand into Ireland. So, we worked on the technology and in June 2012 we cracked it! I've got a huge mast, I’m a licensed broadcaster. I do seminars for a very, very good film school in Brisbane and a school in Singapore and three in the UK and UCC here.

Shevaun: It's quite amazing really, yet another career.

David: Well, it has been and I've really loved it.

Shevaun: I read your book Movies and Money – an absolutely fantastic history of how cinema began and evolved. I imagine it's on all the film courses now?

David: Yes, it is. It was that, in a way, which gave me credibility as a lecturer.

Shevaun: You’ve also helped introduce digital technology locally...

David: The real issue here was that to get on in life young people had to leave and that was heartbreaking. I think that what we've managed to achieve with connectivity is beginning to convince a generation that actually they can have very fulfilling lives down here, they don't have to leave any longer. What we established at Ludgate Hub is fantastic, it’s the first 1,000MB town in Ireland. We have a 50-seat innovation centre and a brand new 1,000 pupil school. I think this combination of connectivity and community are it.

Shevaun: And how would you describe your existence here day to day now?

David: This is home. I spend around 160 to 170 days a year here; Patsy spends rather more than that. I'm still a middle-class Englishman with all the security and insecurities that come with that. That’s what I am. What living here does for me is, it makes me feel absolutely at ease and at one with who I am. I've been treated with an extraordinary level of dignity and kindness, I do everything I can to ensure that it’s reciprocal. I feel I'm a member of the community. I'm lucky because it has allowed me to reach 75, still working really quite hard, but within an environment and with a pace that I'm comfortable with. The only promise I made myself at 65 was that I would carry on working but I would not work with, or for, anyone I didn't like. And that's never been an issue here. I like and respect the community. This is a really, really, lovely place. I mean, this is a blessed plot, it really is.

Shevaun: It must be very beautiful in summer.

David: Oh, it is. May, June, July here takes your breath away!

David Puttnam family
David with his parents and sister in North London ©

Courtesy of David Puttnam

David Puttnam
David & Patsy Puttnam, Ludgate Hub, Skibbereen  ©

Courtesy of David Puttnam

David Putnam Family Home
River House, Skibbereen ©

David Puttnam

Selected films:

War of the Buttons (1994), Memphis Belle (1990), The Mission (1986), The Killing Fields (1985), Cal (1984), Local Hero (1982), Chariots of Fire (1981), Midnight Express (1978), The Duellists (1977), Bugsy Malone (1976), Mahler (1974), That'll Be the Day (1973), Melody (1971)

Full filmography: http://www.davidputtnam.com/filmography


Created: Baron Puttnam of Queensgate, Life Peer, 1997, Knight Bachelor, 1995 and CBE, 1982 Commander de l'Orde des Arts et des Lettres, France, 2006, Officier, 1992 and Chevalier, 1985 Elected Member of The Royal Irish Academy (RIA), Ireland’s highest academic honour, 2015

Amongst his many appointments:

  • Digital Champion, Republic of Ireland, 2012–2017
  • Chair, Joint Parliamentary Committee on Draft Climate Change Bill, 2007 and Draft Communications Bill, 2002 
  • Vice-President and Chair of Trustees, British Academy of Film & Television Arts (BAFTA), 1994–2004, awarded BAFTA Fellowship, 2006 
  • Trustee, National Film & Television School (NFTS), 1996–2003, Chair, NFTS, 1987–1996, Governor, NFTS, 1974–1987
  • Chair, Arts Advisory Committee, British Council, 2001–2003; Film & TV Advisory Board, British Council, 1998–2001; and Film & TV & Video Advisory Committee, British Council, 1992–2001
  • Chancellor, Open University, 2006–2014 and Chancellor, University of Sunderland, 1998–2007