Yusuf Islam

To call it a split personality would be to overstate the case, but there is a measure of contradiction pulsing through Yusuf Islam’s character. I see it when he arrives for a photographic shoot at Leighton House, near Holland Park in west London.

The gallery has been chosen as a setting because of its Arab hall – an appropriate backdrop for Britain’s best-known Muslim convert.

Although he was born in London 58 years ago – and raised in the city, too – it is Islam’s first visit here and, as he maunders around the hall, examining its Islamic tiles, he looks like an Eastern mystic: serene and greybearded in a kameez shirt, his hands forming a fig leaf behind his back; he is nodding to himself and silently mouthing translations of Arabic phrases he reads on the walls.

But when the shoot begins and he is asked to sit on the mosaic floor, he shakes his head. The temperature changes. He has become the veteran pop star once more, aware of his image, used to getting his own way. He doesn’t want to look ‘hunched up’, he says, holding up his hand to silence any objection.

The song You’re So Vain by his one-time girlfriend Carly Simon was said to have been written about him. Then again, it was said to have been written about a lot of Seventies rock stars. ‘Vanity was one of my problems,’ is all Yusuf Islam will say on the subject now.

He pointedly uses the past tense – was – to refer to the days when, under the name Cat Stevens, he sold more than 60 million albums, experimented with drugs, flew all the way to Washington just to get his teeth capped, and, in the memorable phrase of one of his associates,‘wasn’t exactly celibate’.

The present tense is for what happened after 1977, the year he turned his back on the music industry and the hedonism that came with it, renouncing both as sinful. He auctioned his guitars and gold records for Islamic charities.

He even wrote to his record company and asked it to stop selling his albums (it refused). More significantly, he changed his name and dedicated himself to founding Muslim schools in north London – four of them to date.

‘There is a cultural difference between what I represented as Cat Stevens and what I represent today as Yusuf Islam,’ he says carefully, with a trace of London in his vowels. He says everything with care and films himself saying it.

There is a small microphone strapped to his arm, its neon light glowing, and it is wirelessly linked to a video camera he has placed in the corner of the room. He seems earnest, sincere and defensive.

He has good reason to be. In 1989, he was quoted as saying that, according to a literal interpretation of the Koran, the fatwa on Salman Rushdie was understandable, sort of. A media storm broke and he claimed he was misquoted, or at least his meaning was wilfully misconstrued. He has recorded his every public utterance since.

His manager – with a new album, his first in 28 years, his career needs managing once more – comes in and says that his man doesn’t want to answer questions about Iraq, which might seem a little eccentric, given that Yusuf Islam is a pop star.

But I know what he means. Whether he likes it or not, Islam has been cast in the role of unofficial ambassador for Britain’s two million Muslims, and in recent years that has not been the easiest gig in the world.

On the CD box of his new album,‘An Other Cup’, his former stage name is, perhaps with some weariness, acknowledged on a sticker. He can’t get away from it, it seems.

But even if it wasn’t there, you would know straight away it was Cat Stevens you were listening to: a semitone lower, but the same folksy, fluid, easy-going vocals and acoustic guitar patterns – a patina familiar from songs such as Moonshadow, Father and Son, Peace Train, The First Cut is the Deepest and, that staple of school assemblies, Morning Has Broken.

Cat Stevens has a long and impressive back catalogue, so long and impressive that it has kept him in royalties for life. As with his name, the old songs just won’t go away.

On the morning I meet him he has just been told that Wild World (‘Oh, baby, baby it’s a…’ – that one) has re-entered the Top 40 because teenagers have been downloading it onto their iPods, the song having just featured on a youth television programme.

His Tea for the Tillerman, meanwhile, has re-entered the collective consciousness thanks to Ricky Gervais: he uses it as the theme tune to Extras.

The ‘why now after 28 years?’ question meets with a sweet answer. He and his wife, Fauzia Mubarak Ali, the daughter of a Surbiton accountant, have five children. One of them, his 21-year-old son Muhammad, brought a guitar into the house and started writing songs on it.

Islam had assumed that his religion frowned on music. ‘But my son helped me come to a better understanding of where music sits in Islamic culture and I found myself free to sing again.’

So there was no taboo about it, after all? ‘My son broke the taboo for me, because he had no hesitation in buying a guitar. He is a Muslim, too. It made me realise again that music helps us to share moments.’ He nods thoughtfully.

Islam had planned to make a one-off return to music in 1985: he was lined up to play at Live Aid but – tuh! – Elton John over-ran and he was squeezed out of the schedule. Had he not even been singing to himself in the shower in all that time?

‘No, no, no. I really walked away from the business. It was a statement in a way because I felt a kind of rejection from the media the moment I adopted a new name. They didn’t really want to know me. They wanted me to remain as I was. When I received a cold shoulder at this turning point in my life I felt: well, if you don’t love me then maybe I don’t love you.’

He didn’t love himself much either, presumably, given that he had changed his identity in such a profound way. ‘I got to the point, like many a pop star, when I thought the world rotated around me. Islam put me in a spot where I realised I had to bow to a higher power and simply dedicate myself to living properly. Without guidelines that is difficult to do.’

His conversion occurred after he nearly drowned off the coast of Malibu in 1976.A strong current was pulling him out to sea and, having no strength left, he said, ‘God, if you save me, I’ll work for you.’

At that moment, a wave came and he was saved. When I ask him how he was sure it was Allah who had answered his prayers and not the Christian God of his Catholic upbringing, he smiles and says, ‘There is only one God.’ He had been reading the Koran at the time.

A coach party of 25 people turns up at the gallery so we walk to a nearby café – and, as we do, Islam is recognised by a Muslim man who wants to shake his hand. He gets that a lot, he says. He always feels at home in cafés. His father ran one in Soho.

Born Steven Demetre Georgiou, he was the son of Stavros, a Greek- Cypriot, and Ingrid, a Swedish Baptist. When Steven was about eight years old, his parents separated, but both continued to run the restaurant and live above it.

Islam says he was forever trying, and failing, to reconcile them. His father was known as ‘Belos’ – The Mad One – because he had a short temper.

Was the appeal of Islam for him partly paternalistic? ‘Yeah, but there is a central dimension to Islam which a lot of people don’t see. They see the external, which can look paternalistic, but there is an internal perspective of knowing your Lord. I don’t think any prophet ever came except to connect people to the one Lord. Once you see there is only one Lord then you realise you are not the boss, you have to serve.’

You learn humility? ‘Humility. Exactly. Not often associated with pop stars. That is the character change I had to go through. For that reason, standing on stage in front of 40,000 people did not suit me.’

He didn’t enjoy the applause? ‘Some introverts overcome their problem by exhibiting themselves publicly. I think Jimi Hendrix was the same. He was a very shy person. Mmm. To know him, he was a very gentle speaker but his image required him to be a big personality.’

Cat Stevens toured with Hendrix in the late 1960s. Hendrix, indeed, had helped him overcome his stage fright – he gave him a pint of brandy mixed with port to drink every night before he went on.

Does he ever shake his head at the thought that he hung out with Hendrix and somehow survived? ‘Yes, well, that was one of the strange things. There was a lot of clubbing and drug-taking going on. But it gave me an insight: that whatever happened on the outside of showbusiness, there is an inner journey that you have to take as well.’

Or you end up dead? ‘There was a flurry of rock-star deaths at that time and their names all seemed to start with J: Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin… then I went and chose Joseph as a name! Luckily it is the Arabic pronunciation, Yusuf. There was a time when I did wonder what was going on. I was a victim of it too, in a way, because I ended up in hospital for months with TB, in a convalescent home in the middle of Surrey. I had lost control. I was forced to step back and think.’

Fame and fortune had certainly come to Cat Stevens at a young age. He was only 18 when he had his first hit, Matthew and Son, in 1967. Did he feel like an impostor?

‘Suddenly, I was having to find my own identity while being put on a pedestal; people were forging my identity for me as I went along. I felt lost and unfulfilled. I didn’t know who to listen to. The only role models I had were other pop stars. And chart success is a fleeting delusion.’

All the songs on the new album are written by him, apart from one, a cover of the song made popular by Nina Simone and then The Animals: Don’t Let me be Misunderstood. ‘Yes, I do feel misunderstood and not just in the Muslim phase of life. It was partly my fault because I was looking for my identity. I was afraid of being misunderstood.’

Even before he became a Muslim, though, journalists found him heavy-going intellectually. He complained of being ‘misinterpreted’, but it may have been more a case of interviewers being baffled by his opaque pronouncements about everything from Maoism to UFOs.

He does tend to get a little tangled in his thoughts, and I have untangled him in places here. The biggest misunderstanding was over Salman Rushdie.

‘I was pretty green; I had no idea what kind of traps were being laid for me. Rushdie was never my subject. And people tried to make it my subject and I feel offended, deeply offended because of that… I just wanted to enlighten people as to what I had learnt from the Koran in my research; this as far as I could see was what the Koran had to say on the subject, but then I got tagged with something completely different.’

He was more than just misunderstood in 2000, when he was denied entry into Israel for allegedly making donations to Hamas, something that he strenuously denies and which was never proved. Four years later, he was en route to America when his name came up on a ‘no-fly’ list; the plane was diverted to Maine.

‘Wait a minute!’ he thought, as he sat in front of three FBI agents in the US immigration office. ‘Am I supposed to be the baddie?’ Yes, was the answer as far as the FBI was concerned. The following day, Yusuf Islam was deported back to Britain.

He still hasn’t been told why he was on a no-fly list, but he assumes there was a mix-up of names and identities. It provoked a small international controversy and led the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, to complain personally to the American Secretary of State Colin Powell at the United Nations.

Powell responded by stating that the watch list was under review. Yusuf has since been allowed back into America.

It sounded like he was a victim of religious profiling, but does he blame people for feeling nervous when they see bearded Muslims on planes? ‘Even I get nervous when I see someone with a beard! If I don’t know who that person is. It’s true that some look a bit frightening. Some of these people, I know them, they look ferocious. The beard happens to give a masculine look, a more virile appearance, but what goes on behind it, well, I’m an example, if you listen to my music. Yes I had a beard as Cat Stevens but now I have grown wiser and my beard is longer.’

Is it true that American airport security personnel asked for his autograph? ‘So many people do, even Cherie Blair. I was in Downing Street with a number of Muslim delegates and scholars and she was so excited to meet me because my music had had an impact on her.’

What advice does he give on these occasions? ‘I would say the age of reason hasn’t ended and for every effect there is a cause. I suppose even for the Task Force Group who looked into what might have ignited 7/7, it comes down to a common agreement that foreign policy had an enormous amount to do with it.

‘It has nothing to do with ordinary Londoners in the street, it is to do with governmental attitudes abroad. We all suffer from that. The Government is suffering from that, too, because of a misinformed adventurous approach to security, when in fact security can be solved quite easily with a little more attention to the injustice to Muslims continually perpetrated around the world.’

As well as with the Prime Minister, he has also had meetings with Kofi Annan and Prince Charles. He doesn’t like being seen as a spokesman for British Muslims, but can he see why, given the current religious tensions, people might want to know his views?

‘A person like myself, who has been brought up in the West and lived most of my life aiming for the same goals that we all do in this society, and, having achieved them, discovered they were still not fulfilling and then finding Islam…’ The answer drifts away.

‘Because of the extremes that some people have gone to, on both sides, of wanting to start wars and polarise the world into two camps, and I think the natural instinct of humanity is to come to a balanced position after a while.’

Does he feel he has been a victim of Islamophobia? ‘Yes, exactly. What happened on the plane. Islamophobia affects me directly because Islam is my name, Yusuf Islam. Then came the bad news.’ He refers to 9/11.

‘That took over the headlines and allowed people to define Islam politically. They are using the wrong dictionary, the dictionary for Islam is a spiritual one, and it’s a harmonious one, a universal one.’

I suppose the trouble is that we didn’t really think about Islam much in the West until 9/11, when we were… He finishes my sentence: ‘Forced to think about it.’ Exactly, I say, and one thing we were forced to think about was where the loyalties of British Muslims lay.

‘I think the loyalty question for British Muslims doesn’t matter; being British doesn’t mean you can’t be a believer. I do find it very strange that it tends to be liberals who argue with you that you have no right to believe anything different from them.’

He laughs, a slow bubbling laugh. ‘To me, what I found in Islam was it contained scientific reason, along with spiritual reality. It is only when those things are distorted that people disagree.’

Does he feel his religion has been hijacked by extremists who don’t represent what he thinks? ‘There are extremists on both sides who are determined to create conflict, and so they have missed one of the great messages that Islam contained peace in its own name: salaam. Islam.

‘That is one of the first things I learnt as a Westerner. Oh my god, that’s interesting, didn’t I write a song called Peace Train? A Muslim roughly translated is someone who has made peace with God and who has learnt to live with others.’

The 7/7 suicide bombers described themselves as martyrs in their ‘martyrdom videos’. Does he think they were martyrs? ‘This is not my subject, but the Koran forbids the taking of your own life in clear, categorical terms.’

So they didn’t go to heaven? His tone changes at this question, takes on a harder edge.‘I’m not a judge, and neither are you! That is the wrong kind of question to ask someone who has a record of wanting peace.

I want to communicate that peace. I don’t want to be entangled in the confusion in your mind or other people’s minds about what Islam is. Let me speak clearly from my heart. Let me express myself through my music.’

Fair enough, Yusuf. Fair enough. Is it going to be another 28 years before his next album? A grin. ‘I believe I have a few more good songs in me yet.’


Mike Figgis

A man distracted by his washing machine, that is Mike Figgis when I meet him in his North London flat on an overcast afternoon. He is sitting on a laundry bin in front of the machine, staring gloomily into its port hole, perhaps in the hope that it will feel sorry for him and start working again. Without much conviction he offers me a coffee and says he will be with me in a minute. I look around. There are deckchairs, bookshelves and, on the floor, a pair of knee-length, tan-and-black riding boots, which are what you might expect a Hollywood director from the silent era to wear, but not Mike Figgis.
On the wall hangs an acoustic guitar, which is more in keeping: Figgis is not only an Oscar-nominated director, he is also an accomplished jazz musician who scores his own movies and began his career playing trumpet in a band with Brian Ferry. I gaze out of the window next. There are extravagant views over a canal and, beyond them, can be heard the urban ambience of King’s Cross: sirens, pneumatic drills, Tannoys announcing departures. This is Figgis’ home when he is in his homeland — he was born in Carlisle and raised in Newcastle, with a few years in Africa in between — but he is often in America. Indeed he flew in from New York on the red eye this morning. He was hoping to get his washing done before flying off again to Prague but the soapy water, he explains over his shoulder, won’t drain away.
I don’t know much about washing machines but I do know that when they won’t drain it is probably because the filter is clogged up. I impart this information and his mood lightens. ‘Yes, yes, I remember now, someone did mention that when I bought it. The filter. Thank you. Did I offer you a coffee?’
The air of distraction suits him. He is 6ft tall and scruffy in an overcoat and white trainers, laces untied. At 59, his goatee is silvering. His electric fuzz of dove-grey hair is still distinctive — he doesn’t like it much, though, and would shave it all off, he says, were it not for his having a ‘big and lumpy’ head. We sit across from each other over a breakfast bar. There is a montage of family photographs here, as well as outsize novelty dollar bills and, I notice, some Rizla papers. For rolling joints? Yes, he confirms insouciantly. He likes to smoke with his sons — aged 32 and 26 — when they visit. He seems open and friendly then, though he has a reputation for being, shall we say, uncompromising. He always looses it, he tells me, when people drive badly. ‘I’m a tyrant. If someone is driving the crew and me I say: “Both hands on the wheel, please, and no phone calls.” I won’t tolerate sloppiness. The same with people using hand-held cameras — there is no direct energy, no dynamic. I cut the strap off straight away to force them to hold the camera properly.’
Though he is softly spoken — and well spoken — the lack of compromise can sometimes translate into volume and volatility. His first big success as a director was Internal Affairs in 1990. It not only revived Richard Gere’s career, it provided the actor with the gritty role of a lifetime, that of a corrupt policeman, an Iago to Andy Garcia’s Othello. ‘Richard says he finds it easier playing bad people than good,’ Figgis now says. ‘And certainly he is a perverse enough human being to understand perversity. When we started shooting he trusted me. I found him very easy to work with on that film. I then did another film with him — Mr Jones — and it was a disaster. It was about manic depression.’
Which other Hollywood director would so casually call Richard Gere a pervert? Either Figgis lacks the caution of more conventional Hollywood players, or he simply doesn’t care about making powerful adversaries. ‘I was really stitched up on Mr Jones,’ he continues with a thin, off-centre smile, ‘and unfortunately Richard was one of the producers. There was a certain point where he could have backed me up and trusted me, but he didn’t. He even approved Jon Ameil [the director of Entrapment] to come in and re-shoot, which was to me a terrible idea — because the film is now stupid.’ Figgis runs a hand through his wiry hair and sighs. ‘My version was beaten up, along with me. Despite the sniping of Ray Stark [the late Hollywood mogul] and the studio, Richard had put in a good performance on my version. Two films on, I made Leaving Las Vegas and everything that had been repressed in Mr Jones resurfaced unencumbered by the studio and, ironically, it was the most successful film I made. I would cite that as an example to studios that they should just fuck off and let directors do their thing. But they never learn.’
Oh, the suppressed anger beneath this calm surface. But it is understandable. Figgis was nominated for an Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas, the film that launched Nicholas Cage into the leading man first-division. Cage played a suicidal drunk, a role that won him an Oscar and upped his rate from $2 million to $20 million per film. Following an agreement between the two of them, Figgis wrote the lead role in his next film, One Night Stand, for Cage but the actor turned down the job [it went to Wesley Snipes] and left Figgis feeling disillusioned with Hollywood. ‘I was disappointed that I didn’t hear from Nick for about four years after he won the Oscar. I think he was suddenly getting offered all the parts that never came his way before. He turned my film down because he just wanted to fuck off and make a lot of money.’
There is an entertaining chapter about actors in Digital Film Making, a new book by Mike Figgis, published by Faber and Faber next week. ‘As I warn in the book,’ Figgis says, ‘actors can be temperamental. But who can blame them? They are expected to just turn up and start acting whether they are in the mood or not. The best advice I would give a budding film maker is: try acting yourself before you ask someone else to do it. It’s hard. I know, I tried it. You feel self conscious. Everything can affect your mood, from the time of day to what you had for breakfast. When you don’t have the answer for why something isn’t working, your nervousness increases along with your insecurity. The actors’ nerves increase too — you’ve made them feel inadequate because they can’t seem to give you what you want — but it sometimes takes the form of arrogance because they’re actors and they can impersonate confidence. As the director, you’re the one who ends up looking nervous. I think a lot of directors are frightened by actors, intimidated by them. I was when I first tried direction. It was like having to perform. Actors want to be directed though. They don’t want Hitler exactly, but they do want a firm hand and a clear vision. You do have to judge it. Even Richard Gere wanted to be directed, so as he didn’t look foolish.’
Actors like to test directors, it seems. Give them a trial period. This happened on Canterbury’s Law, the pilot Figgis has just been shooting in New York [starring Julianna Margulies from ER]. On this occasion, honour was served on both sides — but it isn’t always the case. For his last foray into television, Figgis shot an episode of the Sopranos. ‘I came in on season four and I was the only person on the set who wasn’t dug in. A lot of the crew were just phoning it in. Coasting. Being sloppy. I made the mistake half way through that shoot of getting firm with the crew. I made a lot of noise and told everyone to shut the fuck up. That was it. After that, they withdrew humour and good will. There were no big hugs at the end. But so what? As a director there is not point in trying to be everyone’s friend.’
It’s tough talk, but then he has had to deal with James Gandolfini, who plays Tony Soprano. When Figgis suggested he try acting in a certain way he turned on him and, in front of the whole cast, said: ‘Why the fuck would I do that? Tony Soprano wouldn’t do that.’ A silence fell. ‘I don’t think it was planned,’ Figgis says now. ‘It was spontaneous. He was in a grumpy mood. It was scary.’ The director backed down and allowed the actor to try it his way. ‘It didn’t work so then Gandolfini said he had had an idea and would try it another way: the way I had suggested in the first place.’
We talk about how actors manipulate emotions away from the screen — and it brings us to Figgis’s own experiences of dating actresses. ‘It’s every cliché. They are such high maintenance. At the time you don’t mind it but only later do you realise you worked quite hard. The root to being an actor or actress is that you have some kind of identity crisis. They all do. They have to have big egos because they are exposing themselves. They are expansive characters.’
He says ‘all’ but you know he is talking about Saffron Burrows, the actress with whom he had a five year relationship. Gossip blamed their bust up in 2002 on her close friendship with the actress Fiona Shaw — though Figgis himself dismissed this speculation as ‘crude’. At the time he observed: ‘It is painful to lose the everyday presence of someone in your life; but if you really love them, you just love them.’
Is he in a relationship now? ‘I am.’ Another off-centre smile. ‘But filmmaking is not a user-friendly profession in that respect. Too much time on location. Never in the same place.’
One of the more memorable scenes in Leaving Last Vegas is a sex scene. Figgis is known for them – a broad narrative sweep and a core of sexual obsession characterise his best work. In his experimental film Hotel, for example, he used a dizzying montage of erotic glossy, lesbian, sex scenes. I ask if digital filmmaking makes sex scenes easier because it is more low key. ‘Yes, but certain rules still apply. The director’s job is to create the ambience and maintain it. You have to be 100% there for the actors, not be in their eye line, and as soon as you cut a scene get straight in there — huddle with them and say this is great. Keep the energy going. It is seductive management. The crew have to understand they are part of that energy and if they stand there chewing gum in the eye line of the actors, bellies hanging out, it won’t work. I’ve seen people eating sandwiches in the eye line.’
More recently, Figgis directed Kate Moss in her film debut: a four-minute dream sequence for the lingerie brand Agent Provocateur. She stripped down to her knickers for him, take after take. Tough assignment that, one imagines. ‘The trickiest part was the first 10 minutes. It was just us in the room, and pitch black, because I was using night vision. I tried to create a comfort zone by telling her I was nervous, too.’ That film was an homage to a Jean-Luc Goddard, apparently. ‘With digital you don’t  have to give anything to a laboratory,’ Figgis adds. ‘I could just shoot whatever I liked. Whereas when you’re making a traditional celluloid film, you always have to go through the committee stages. If you’re doing something quite edgy or sexual, it can feel like you’re showing your parents.’
Though he finds black stockings, suspenders and high heels erotic, he is keen to point out that there is a burlesque element to lingerie. ‘The sensuality diminishes. Sexiness is really about light or the absence of it. For example, the Agent Provocateur shorts were shot without artificial lights. The implied is ten times stronger than the explicit. Sexuality is an interestingly dark area of our psychology — so that’s how you want to portray it.’
Figgis is a great innovator, and indeed an inventor, having designed the Fig Rig, which artificially makes the camera ‘big’, and impossible to use with one hand, thereby producing better picture quality. But in the film world he is best known as a champion of digital film making. In 2000, with his film Timecode, he pioneered a technique using digital, real-time editing and filming on quadruple-screens — four segments could be watched in any order and still make sense. This has been much imitated, most notably by 24. Figgis believes that the digital revolution is democratising filmmaking, and that everyone with a digital camera and a laptop can and should have a go at making a film. His new book is intended as a steer to those who are planning to do just that, but without any of the conventional film school training. I suggest to him that it is asking for trouble to encourage everyone to think they have a film in them — after all, people often claim they have a good novel in them, when usually they don’t. ‘Yes there is the danger that there will now be ten times as many bad films made, but there will also be more good ones. It doesn’t really matter either way because distribution is still the problem.’
Figgis has had his fair share of failure as well as success in the film world; how has he coped? ‘Well ultimately that is what weeds out everyone who shouldn’t be there. To survive more than a few years and make more than one good film is how you prove yourself. When the struggling comes, some give up, or modify their ambition. The truth is, the last time I made a feature was 2002 for Disney — Cold Creek Manor with Sharon Stone and Dennis Quaid. Huge crew. Horrible responsibility. It didn’t do very well and since that time I have thrown myself into making much smaller digital films, as well as writing, teaching, and photography —  all the things I love — and I have never been happier.’
But happiness is relative; is he happy now? He crunches on an apple. ‘Sooo happy. I’ve had periods of great misery but it has always been happy misery. I’ve never been able to not get out of bed without the feeling that something interesting might happen today.’
Even so, he admits he cries easily. ‘I’m especially susceptible on  transatlantic flights — the corniest film will work on me.’ His father, a journalist and PR consultant, cried easily, too. He was also a worrier. ‘He died quite young, 56, so he had no experience of me making films. The last thing he said to me was: “I hope you get a real job because I’m worried about you.” I wish I could have said to him it worked out OK; I did OK; it was worth it. Initially I was desperate to impress my dad who was obsessed with jazz — he was a frustrated jazz pianist. That was the great bond between us. I wanted to be a jazz trumpet player to impress him. He understood emotional playing.’
For all the affection with which he speaks of his father, his childhood was not happy — it was happy misery at best. He was brought up in colonial Africa until the age of 10 — when his expat parents, faced by ‘debt and disgrace’, decamped to Newcastle. Overweight, with frizzy curls and fine elocution, Figgis was never going to have an easy time with his northern peers. As a schoolboy he found an escape in photography, and he still does as an adult. ‘I don’t even like going  to a party unless I have a camera on me. I get frustrated. It’s not that I’m experiencing life second hand, I think it is more a way of understanding life. You can have a more hedonistic approach and live it or, like me, you can record it. It is a compulsion with me.’
Though Figgis is unassuming and lacking in vanity, you suspect this lack is tinged with a certain self loathing. He doesn’t find himself ‘attractive’, he says. And for all his good manners and mellow voice, he nevertheless seems to misread social signals and unintentionally cause offence, especially on a film set. He is, you suspect, not as in control of his emotions as he likes to think he is. He’s likable, though. And I see none of the prickliness associated with him — and anyway the prickles may be simply a matter of his being exacting and professional.
He seems willing, out of politeness, to continue, but I can see he is tired and so I say goodbye and leave him in his flat overlooking the canal — with his jetlag, with his dirty laundry, with his demonss