Nick Fraser: The Storyteller

December 1, 2007

There are lots of things I don’t understand, but I tend to understand fewer things as I get older. I think shedding certainty is an absolute life obligation; I think that you should grow into skepticism.

I’ve always been able to do two-and-a-half things at once. It’s a gift and a liability. I can only read one book at once and I always finish books unless they’re very boring. I think I was told once when I was 16 that it would be better if I learn to stick at things, but I’ve taken it so literally that I’ve usually stuck with things way after I should have abandoned them. So it is an Attention Surplus Syndrome – an A.S.S. Ass, indeed.

I’m not tiring of the destinations, it’s actually of long-range air travel, which I think is very bad for your health and destroys your respiratory tract and stuff like that. But I haven’t quite gotten to the point where I can’t do it anymore. You have to do it if you take doing ‘Storyville’ seriously. You’ve got to travel to raise cash, but, actually, you’ve got to travel to have ideas; the wonderful film I hope we’re doing about the biggest Chinese restaurant in the world was because I went to a Chinese restaurant that seated 5,000 people.

You feel you’ve known the person most of your life. There’s a film we’ve just finished called The English Surgeon about a guy who spends two months a year doing brain operations, mainly with local anesthetic, in the Ukraine. He’s a London doctor. He is, in the best sense, a real English eccentric. He’s charming and he opens up these heads while telling jokes in a very sort of Monty Python way.

Stories like The English Surgeon; they’re crossover stories from one culture to another and they treat the crossover and collisions of cultures in a spirit of humor and irony. One film we did was about these people called ‘ethical consultants’ employed by Nokia that go into a Chinese factory; that sort of story to me is very intriguing because it has a certain amount of collisions, but they’re usually benign ones. Viewing films with a spirit of irony or uncertainty is a good thing – otherwise you all just get too depressed, really.

Actually, there’s one historian, Norman Stone, who teaches in Turkey now. I went around Eastern Europe with him in around 1983 or ’84, and he taught me about modern history. I didn’t really understand anything about European history until I went with him through places like Poland and Hungry and on his visit to Auschwitz. He was drunk most of the time, and he made this bizarre monologue in the middle of Auschwitz. I just sort of understood at that point.

Eugene [Jarecki]‘s film, Why We Fight, was talked about everywhere. This is a film where you say ‘Have you seen X or Y?’ And I can think of other films like that, for instance this charming Danish film which they called The Monastery, bizarrely, but I think we called it Mr. Vig and the Nun. Now that is a wonderful film in the same way as our film from Why Democracy? – Please Vote for Me – set in the Chinese classroom. Everyone who’s seen the film comes up to me and says ‘That was a wonderful film.’ That, I’d like more of.

A lot of responses are not predictable at all – they’re not even solely about ‘Storyville,’ but often reflect people’s feelings about documentaries or about telling the truth about life. That actually was very reassuring to me. Except, at the same time, I did feel a bit like Jimmy Stewart at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life when he gets to see his life passing before him, and that was actually quite distressing. I thought ‘If this is my obituary, what the hell do I do now?’

We have roundabout – it may rise a bit – but £1.5 million for 25 titles, and we used to have just over £2 million for up to 40 titles. So, in fact, we have slightly more per title. At the moment we’re hoping – it’s got to be okayed – but we think we’ll be guaranteed for the next three years, which actually is just as important. We’ve always worked according to the rule that we have about one third of the films bought ready, one third topping up money, and one third full coproductions. So we reckon we’ll have at least 10 full coproductions per year. We may be able to raise that.

I go swimming every morning at 7 a.m. I try to have these sacrosanct family holidays in this great place we go to in France every year. Plus, with my daughter, who’s 17, we go on these expeditions to Saint Petersburg or Moscow. We do the sights, but we do quite obscure sights – in Saint Petersburg we went to see quite bizarre Lenin shrines. And I like to sit around reading. I discovered the West Wing recently. I thought [at first] it was a sort of apology for George Bush… It is a grand fantasy, but I like that.

No. What shows do I like? I like America’s Next Top Model; I like all the beauty and comedy at the thick of it very much. This is a serious failure of mine: I’m not very ethnic English or ethnic Scottish, indeed, because I can’t be. I mean, my family isn’t like that, and I’m often reproached for having no connection with the British working class, but I can’t do anything about this. Maybe if life had worked out differently I would know more Coronation Street or EastEnders, I just can’t now. But I don’t enjoy their French equivalents either – I think they’re even worse.

I think in the last 10 years being truthful and objective has become more and more valuable as a commodity, and it is the true heritage of the BBC; it’s not the BBC’s current run of programs, it’s not the BBC’s buildings – all these things can come and go – but the real great thing the BBC stands for is the ideas. And since they happen to be my ideas, I belong here doing things for them. Really, it’s been like hammer blows the last months in the BBC. It’s very tough at the moment, but let’s face it – they still have pots of money. And we have to, they have to, spend it the right way and it shouldn’t be impossible.

I think I’d do ‘Storyville’ exactly the same way; I don’t regret anything. But I wish I’d spent a bit more time trying to write at the top of my capabilities. I think what I’ve written is sort of alright, but it’s always been fitted in between other things, and that is the problem that people who like to write have unless they are J.K. Rowling, which I could never be – I have no ability to write those sort of bestsellers. But ‘Storyville,’ though, I think is fine; I’m very happy with the way that’s gone. Happy that it’s going to go on, frankly.

For the unpublished second half of this interview, visit Nick Fraser: The storyteller (PART II)

About The Author
Andrew Jeffrey joined Realscreen in 2021 as its news editor. Here, he helps to oversee assignment, reporting and editing for Realscreen's daily newsletter. Prior to his work covering documentary and non-fiction film and TV, he worked as a reporter and associate producer for CBC Edmonton, and as a reporter for The Star Calgary, where he covered daily news on beats such as local and provincial politics, health care and harm reduction, sports and education. His work has appeared in other Canadian news outlets such as TVO, the Edmonton Journal and Avenue Magazine.