Wagner doco fronted by Stephen Fry opened doors for its director.
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2 Mar 2011 - 3:58 PM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:09 PM

Imagine you're directing your first feature-length documentary and the star/presenter is Stephen Fry: How do you direct an actor/writer/comedian who has amassed more than 150 credits in a 30-year career?

That was the challenge facing Patrick McGrady when he made Wagner & Me, which follows Fry as he tries to reconcile his passion for Wagner's music with the German composer's avowed anti-Semitism and his veneration by Hitler – an affront to Fry's Jewish faith.

“It was a bit scary because he's done so much and he's such a well-respected figure,” McGrady told SBS Film. “But Stephen makes it quite easy because he brings such a huge amount of knowledge and enthusiasm.”

It helped that McGrady, the chief executive of Norwich-based Wavelength Films, had worked with his star in the 2008 BBC doco Stephen Fry and the Gutenberg Press, which told how medieval media entrepreneur Johann Gutenberg invented the printing press.

Travelling along the banks of the Rhine in Germany on that project, Fry suddenly burst into song while playing Wagner's opera Rhinegold on his iPod. Thus began a conversation with McGrady which led to Wagner & Me.

It proved to be a successful collaboration as the doco has been invited to five film festivals in the US, Canada, Germany and the UK and was released in cinemas in the UK and New Zealand, and now Australia; also, a one-hour version screened on BBC4.

“We always felt we had a big canvas and that the scale of the story, with the dramatic elements and music, was suited to a feature-length film,” he said.

Their journey entailed flitting around Europe to locations such as annual Bayreuth Festival in southern Germany, which celebrates Wagner's works; Switzerland, where he conceived the idea of his most enduring masterpiece, The Ring Cycle; St Petersburg in Russia; and Nuremberg in Germany, where Hitler played Wagner's opera Die Meistersinger in the city's opera house before his infamous rallies.

Fry's extensive pieces-to-camera weren't scripted – they prepared by discussing the ground he would cover – and the director marvelled at how the presenter delivered his longest piece in Switzerland in one take.

Fry had the chance to interview the composer's great grand-daughter, Eva Wagner-Pasquier, who is co-director of the Bayreuth Festival, but failed to ask her about Wagner's anti-Jewish writings or his relatives' support of Hitler. “He didn't get the chance,” McGrady explains. “Eva didn't want to say anything on camera and we finally got only snatches of an interview late in the filming schedule. I regret that we could not talk to her to get her side of the story.”

As for Fry's own views of Wagner's anti-Semitism, he told The Guardian, “You can't allow the perverted views of pseudo-intellectual Nazis to define how the world should look at Wagner. He's bigger than that, and we're not going to give them the credit, the joy of stealing him from us.”

“The older you get, the more you realise that the complexities and ambiguities of art will always allow one person to run a magnet over its iron filings and make them all point one way. But that's doing a disservice to art. Art isn't like that. Art is ornery and shaped by the sense of people and events, not by an overarching ideology.”

In London he called on Holocaust survivor Anita Lasker-Wallfisch who was an inmate in Auschwitz, the camp in which members of Fry's family died. She survived because she played the cello for the prison's Women's Orchestra. Mrs Lasker-Wallfisch assured Fry that contrary to what he had heard, Wagner's music was not used as a psychological weapon against the inmates at Auschwitz. “It was a feisty interview with a unique woman,” McGrady observes. “She challenged some of Stephen's views about Wagner, forcing him to ask himself, 'How do I really see him? Have I got that right?'”

When McGrady studied English at Oxford University, he admits he had no “well formed ideas” on his future career or aspirations to become a filmmaker. But after he graduated he trained as a producer and director with the BBC, where he made short films for BBC2's arts strand The Late Show and worked as a drama script editor.

After launching Wavelength Films with Lucy Ward, he produced two series of Disappearing London detailing the capital's vanishing history for ITV/Sky; two travel series featuring Madness front-man Suggs for ITV and Sky Arts HD; and a short film, Blood on his Hands, the saga of a man forced to choose whether his brother's murderer is sentenced to death or spend the rest of his life in prison, from writer-director Justin Coleman.

McGrady next plans to make two presenter-led features, one examining Russian composter Shostakovich and his complex relationship with the Stalinist government, the other on Shakespeare. What's new to say about the Bard? He says he'll explore how Shakespeare's plays have been staged in India and their impact on Indian culture.