Jeremy Irons is leaning back in a chair in a Soho hotel in central London, looking healthy, tanned and brilliantly turned out. His tweed jacket and trousers are just so, and he’s wearing the most wonderful statement red leather ankle boots.
He uses his gravitas and swagger to unlikely effect in his latest role, starring as former prime minister Neville Chamberlain in new film Munich: The Edge of War – and both the actor and novelist Robert Harris, who wrote the original novel, agree the film should play a part in resurrecting the former PM’s reputation.
“We are with a revolutionary here!” grins Irons, gesturing at Harris.
“I love Robert’s work. Because I love reassessing, seeing clearly from a different point of view, a historical character and a historical situation. I didn’t know a lot about the Munich Agreement – I just knew about the ‘piece of paper’ and I knew about the denigration of Chamberlain over the years.
“So I was delighted to get inside this historical character, and to be part of that reappraisal. The mythology of the Second World War lived through my youth. So seeing something well researched and accurately written, like Munich, which offers another angle to the mythology I’ve been brought up with about the heroicness of the whole situation is important.”
For Harris, this reappraisal has been a long time in the works. His research started in earnest when he made a documentary, God Bless You, Mr Chamberlain for the BBC in 1988.
“My feeling is that Chamberlain has been badly treated,” says the writer and former political editor of The Observer.
“The more I read, the more I saw that there was a completely different interpretation to this, which had a lot of historical validity.
“I wanted to say that Chamberlain was a different person to who you think, and the Munich Agreement was different to what you think. Hitler hated it. He didn’t regard it as a triumph, he regarded it as a disaster. And I wanted to find a frame to tell a lot of people through the medium of a novel and now through the medium of film, which is even bigger, to get it to a mass audience.
“And the fact that he has been badly treated is still quite a live issue. Because if we start rehabilitating Chamberlain, it would change our view of ourselves as a country rather.”
And why is this damaging? Because by mythologising strength as being a willingness to go to war rather than a willingness to fight to avoid war, it has distorted the conversation in this country.
“For instance, the Bush/Blair attack on Iraq – anyone who said, you know, ‘Hold on a second here’ was accused of being like Chamberlain. Well, you know, it would have been better if we had actually taken the time to discover there weren’t any weapons of mass destruction,” says Harris.
“Or the Suez disaster, which of course, was with Nasser presented as Hitler. And this has gone on, this is a thread in our history, and not just ours, but around the world. On the whole, I’m always in favour trying to go as far as possible for peace.”
“I would agree,” Irons says. “I think the right-wing Tory Brexit movement is the same spirit. It’s about ‘we are strong, we will conquer everything’ – instead of saying, wait a minute, let’s negotiate, let’s keep friends with everybody. I think that is strength.”
Isn’t it rather an odd lesson to learn from the Second World War – to want to go it alone, rather than maintain a large, powerful pack of allies?
“Of course,” Harris answers, “We only won because we had allies, because we had the Empire, then we had the Russians and then we had the Americans. So yes, it’s the opposite of what people think.”
Now more than ever we live in an age when so-called ‘strongman leaders’ are on the rise. This new film questions the apparent need for leaders to offer machismo as part of the foreign policy package – with the question routinely asked of potential prime ministers at election time: would you push the nuclear button?
“Saying no is seen as weak – that’s the crazy position we’ve reached,” says Harris. “You can’t imagine Chamberlain saying he would willingly incinerate millions of men, women and children.”
Irons holds no truck with ideas that Chamberlain might be weak.
“He was an Edwardian gentleman, he was slightly out of his time. But weak? No. You only have to look at what he did in Birmingham [where his constituency was] and what he did in the House to see he wasn’t weak. He may have had a feminine side and a sort of a delicacy of persona.
“But he was a man of, I think, immense strength and ideals.”
Harris continues. “He was a shy man and quite quiet. But he was one of those people whose very stillness and quietness makes them dominant.
“And he was messianic – he was as messianic, oddly enough, as Hitler but in a completely different way. He was messianic for peace. He was willing to throw himself into danger and risk utter ridicule and contempt for the price of peace. And he was going to do everything to try and maintain it.
“I find something noble in that. For me, he is a tragic hero. If he hadn’t done it, we might have lost the war. The year was vital – not just for the hardware, the Spitfires and the radar we were able to amass but for the for the moral weight behind the war effort. So you could face the loss – as it looked like the British army was lost in France – and still decide to fight on. Chamberlain demonstrated that no peace offer Hitler made would ever be worth it, so the country fought on. I think that was his great bequest.”
I’ve been saying for 20 years that the logical conclusion of the direction we are travelling in is totalitarianism
So how did Irons find his way into the character?
“One of the key things was the distance of the time of the story from that mass horror of the First World War, and how life must look to people who are carrying that horror with them,” he says.
“I remember what I did when I was 50 and it feels like a couple of years ago. So that’s how the First World War must have felt to Chamberlain in 1937.
“Then you look at how he was, you read speeches, you listen to him. Is symbiotic the right word?” A glance at Harris, who nods.
“You try to get into how it must feel to be him. It’s a leap, but you knit it all together so that when you are in front of the camera, you feel you are him.”
“The similarity between being a novelist and being an actor is this empathy,” chips in Harris. “Empathy is going out and trying to imagine what it is to be like in someone else’s head.”
“Which is fascinating,” agrees Irons. “I was doing it on the way here in the taxi this morning. I was looking at people on the pavement and thinking: ‘What does it feel like to be that person? It’s one of my great joys’.”
Democracy here and in the United States is under attack, dictators are on the rise again
Were they able to draw any parallels with current politicians and the state of the world now? You bet.
“It sits there, doesn’t it?” Irons begins. “It sits there – the comparison about where the hearts of our leaders are. We hear all the jargon about levelling up and how the country will get through on its own now, and you think, this doesn’t tie up with reality at all. But I’m pretty sour about politics at the moment. I think that’s why I look at Chamberlain with great admiration and think, there is a man doing his utmost. We have people in power, people in parliament anyway, who are similar. But the thrust of our politics at the moment doesn’t seem to be bearing fruit where it should.”
Irons leans forward, eyes ablaze. “I have believed for many years – and push seems to be coming to shove – that capitalism is running us now. Global capitalism. I’ve been saying for 20 years, that the logical conclusion to the direction in which we’re moving is totalitarianism, which I really don’t want. But if the only thing we care about is keeping the economy strong, then we’re all going to have to make sacrifices – in our freedoms, in our behaviour.
“That is why these right-wing dictators are emerging throughout the world, because the economy is not fair, it is not creating a fair society, and people put their dreams in strong men.”
Last word to the historian and novelist. And it is a chilling one. “I am worried that we’re turning into a corrupt country,” says Harris.
“Into a kind of South American Big Boss country. Things are on the slide, as to standards in public life.
“And that worries me, and extrapolating from that, one of the reasons Munich is timely is that you don’t feel this is a good time for democracy. Democracy here and in the United States is under attack, dictators are on the rise again. I don’t feel the world is as safe as it was even 10 years ago.”
Munich: The Edge of War is in cinemas now and on Netflix from January 21.