“What is the Female Eunuch about?” I asked. “I’m not answering that question. Read the f*****g book!” said Germaine. Great start, I thought! Actually it was a great start: possibly the opening of the film.
“I just want to know what it’s like being Germaine Greer,” my BBC commissioner had cheerily instructed. The Greer documentary was to be part of a season on Women and Feminism. And Germaine, let’s face it, is as iconic as you can get.
So I‘d spent three weeks swotting up on The Life and Works of ‘The High Priestess of Feminism’ and decided to focus almost entirely on The Female Eunuch - the book everyone had heard of (including me). The book that made Greer an icon, The Female Eunuch was a rallying cry for women to have sex freely and rid themselves of the shackles of male approval, urging the fairer sex to ‘do what you want and want what you do.’
I prepared my first meeting with Germaine armed with at least three clever insights about The Female Eunuch and a vision for the film: she would be its enthralling subject. It would be all about her now, intercut with her in the Seventies. Together, we would make a fascinating, genre-busting epic.
Rule one of documentary film-making: don’t meet your icons and don’t try to impress.
When I arrived at her large (Georgian, I think) house in rural Essex with its stunning gardens and wild woods, Germaine was in her office, a barn next to the house. She was correcting the American proofs of the revised edition of The Change – her book on the Menopause.
My immediate thought on saying hello was how good looking she was. She’s 79, but still with that majestic profile and striking blue eyes. She greeted me mid-sentence: “F******g Americans, they won’t have semi-colons so now I have to delete all of them by hand.” I handed her a red biro. “Blue for editing,” she said officiously.
Over a pub lunch, I launched into my big idea. “I’m not interested in the Female Bloody Eunuch. And I don’t like this cult of the personality.” It got worse. “And I f*****g hate biography; the lesser feeding off the greater. If you want to know about Dickens, read his f*****g books”. The rest of lunch was spent talking about property prices in Saffron Walden. I drove home, relieved that I didn’t have to make a film about Germaine Greer.
God knows how my exec producer talked me into giving it another go, or why Germaine agreed.
I came up with Plan B: a high concept film about the very nature of biography, with Germaine as the unreliable narrator. I even had a title, ‘Germaine Greer: My So Called Life’. “I’m not narrating a f*****g film about me. Make it yourself. I don’t care!”
So that is what I did. I began with the fun bits: putting together the soundtrack from the Singing Nun to the Seekers, and we found some amazing archive tapes of the sexy, young Germaine, including some grainy footage of her acting in an experimental film in 1962.
At that time she was part of an anarchist group - no wonder, then, that she so readily embraced the counterculture in the late Sixties, spending her days as a rock groupie, hanging out with bands like Led Zeppelin, after arriving in Britain from Australia in 1964 on a scholarship to Cambridge.
An insanely clever over-achiever, she went on to Warwick University, teaching Shakespeare by day and writing for Oz Magazine by night; her strap line was ‘Dr G, the only groupie in captivity with a PhD’. She then co-founded an obscene magazine called Suck, an alternative to capitalist porn, which included a picture of her naked and bent over. ‘It was supposed to be a subversive gesture,’ she said.
I needed more detail on the early Germaine, so decided to interview those who could put both she and her seminal tome in context. “The Female Eunuch was a brilliant, aggressive new voice,” Camille Paglia told me. “Germaine was everywhere,” said Rosie Boycott, a fellow 60s underground presser. “She sprang almost fully formed, this Amazonian figure, almost 6 feet tall with this mane of hair. We were in awe of her.”
But, says journalist Bea Campbell, “the weird thing about The Female Eunuch was that it was the iconic book of the Women’s Liberation Movement, of which it was not a part”.
“I don’t think Germaine and sisterhood go hand in hand,” confirmed Rosie. “Germaine came out as the individualist and I think that’s why people felt uneasy with her.” Her roots, I would soon realise, were not really in feminism; they were in the Counter Culture. Maybe that explains why she’s still so controversial.
Provocation comes naturally to her, as we were reminded last week following her comments about rape, which she said should in some cases be considered as “non-consensual...bad sex”, and not a “violent crime”. It is assessments like this, alongside opining that ‘female victimisation sells. What should disturb us is that it sells to women,’ as she wrote of violence on television last month, that has led many to rebrand her as a ‘professional troll’.
Rule Two of documentary film-making: Try not to make things up.
Observational documentaries are not dramas – you’re supposed to film what’s actually there. Still, I needed some ’sequences’ to flesh things out.
“How about a bonfire at twilight?,” I asked Germaine. “We don’t do bonfires, it’s not environmental.”
How about we film you with your geese? “They won’t have cameras near them. They won’t do what you want them to do”. At this point, I realised the geese were an apt metaphor for Germaine.
With my every idea quashed, I told the cameraman to just keep rolling, while I just threw in the odd question. In the barn, Germaine was still working on the rewrite of her menopause book.
“I presume you didn’t do HRT” I yelled (no time to mic me up).
“I did, but I did it my way and I wouldn’t want to tell anyone’ (Camera crash zooms onto GG.) “I would not advise it,” she went on. “Unexpectedly, at age 60 I got involved in a relationship.”
“Why would HRT help,” I asked?
“Because the vagina atrophies, it stops secreting. HRT doesn’t necessarily help but it can make you more penetrable”.
A sequence in the can! Here we were, showing Germaine being Germaine Greer.
Which brings me to Rule Three: sacrifice your self-worth for the greater good of the film, however stupid you sound.
By the end of the interview, Germaine wanted to kill me. “Right I’ve got to put the geese to bed,” she announced, walking off, her mic trailing behind her. The next day we were filming ‘cutaways’ of Germaine in her office. It was February and the weather was horrible. Suddenly the sun came out. “The sun’s out,” said Germaine, “you should film outside while there’s light”.
So we filmed Germaine walking around in her wood. She talked expertly about lilacs and rabbits. It felt like an episode of Springwatch. In the end, the ‘woods sequence’ became the heart of the film. Germaine was on a roll – “we need our insects much more than the Snow Leopard,” she declared. I wondered if Germaine loved worms more than people.
After three days of filming, I knew Germaine was sick of us, not least because we were taking up precious afternoons she would usually spend watching Countdown or Posh Pawn. Still, I wanted her to know that privately, I wasn’t as moronic as I was coming across. Finally, I got my opportunity. After we ‘wrapped’, Germaine emerged from the kitchen with a tray of whiskies.
We sat round the dining room table for ages talking about all sorts of weird subjects including, of all things, the unpopularity of the name Barbara. “Actually Barbara is a very old name’, I said. ‘Barbara Allen’ is one of the oldest English ballads.” For a nano-second Germaine held my gaze, then we both burst into The Ballard of Cru-el Barbara Allen. This is it! I’ve cracked her! She looked at me for a moment. “It’s not ‘Barbara”, she said “it’s Barbrea”.
Rule four: You’ll never impress Germaine Greer.
Germaine Bloody Greer is on Saturday 9th June at 9pm on BBC Two