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Watkins, Peter (1935-)

Director, Producer, Presenter

Main image of Watkins, Peter (1935-)

"I do not believe that the anti-globalisation protest will ever reach its true fruition if we leave the cinema and television and the radio in the present position we're in."

- Peter Watkins

Peter Watkins is something of an enigma in the history of moving image production. He is celebrated as an innovator of the docudrama form, yet the socio-political elements in his work go largely undiscussed. The films he made in the 1960s are rightly lionised in the UK but his later films have, historically, been almost entirely ignored. The quote above has much to do with these omissions, even if indirectly.

Taken from a 30-minute monologue delivered direct to camera in 2001 in a communist theme park in Lithuania (his nation of residence at the time), Watkins' words reflect a media critique developed through the course of his entire filmography and more recently expressed in the lengthy and regularly updated media statement on his website. Troubled by the passive, hierarchical, spectacle-based relationship he feels cinema or television establishes with the viewer, Watkins has, through his own work, sought to deconstruct this dynamic and explore possible alternatives. Inevitably, by engaging with the political structures of media delivery, he has frequently fallen into conflict with the very institutions that once supported him.

Watkins was born in Norbiton, Surrey, in 1935 and was quickly initiated into the cultures of war and conflict though house moves necessitated by World War Two and later national service. After education at Cambridge and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, he settled in Canterbury and joined and later directed the local acting group, Playcraft. The group helped him with his early amateur films and established Watkins' practise of working closely with actors. He liked to use everyday faces to emphasise and bring home the legacies of violent conflict. The Diary of An Unknown Soldier (1959) and The Forgotten Faces (1961) (following the now lost or incomplete films The Web (1956) and Field of Red (1958)) made clear this intention and used handheld cameras and tight framing to generate immediacy. The latter transposed the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 onto the streets of Canterbury and posed the radical question: what would the oppressed do in the shoes of the oppressors? It was recognised as one of the 'Ten Best' non-professional productions of the year by Amateur Cine World and received national distribution. Watkins was then invited, like one-time amateurs Ken Russell and John Schlesinger, to join the BBC.

His time there was short, however, and marred by considerable controversy. His first production, Culloden (tx. 15/12/1964), presented the 1746 Battle of Culloden as a news report, complete with modern camera crew, interviews, narration and dramatic action sequences. The press generally responded well. Recognising its highly innovative deconstruction of television conventions, the Guardian called it "an unforgettable experiment... new and adventurous in technique." However, Watkins was disappointed that its provocations concerning the severity of British violence and the dismantling of the Scottish Clans had not been related to contemporary issues and concerns: namely the Vietnam War which was being reported on television at the time.

The same could not be said of The War Game, intended for broadcast in 1966. Using statistics extrapolated from the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings and quotes from high-ranking officials, the film dared to consider the possible consequences of a nuclear strike on Britain. Again realised in the documentary style, using actors to present faux interviews and actuality, the shocking and politically potent result prompted BBC director general Hugh Carlton Greene to proclaim that "it was too horrific for the medium of broadcast". Concerns over the notion of withheld information and the breakdown of normal behaviour had been particularly singled out in the discussions. It emerged in 1985, however, that Harold Wilson's Labour government had intervened to stop the broadcast. The War Game was released to cinemas in March 1966 and won, with some irony, an Oscar for best documentary feature. Although in many respects it prefigured several of the docudrama techniques famously used in Cathy Come Home (BBC, tx. 16/11/1966), the film's innovative cross-framing of fact and fiction met with resistance in some quarters. In retrospect, this can be seen as an opening skirmish in what would become an increasingly rancorous battle over such hybrid drama/documentary forms during the 1970s.

Although the controversy certainly affected his career in Britain, it also sharpened his developing critique of media practice and led to offers of funding from abroad. Universal Studios produced Privilege (1967) and Stockholm based distributors, Sandrews produced The Gladiators (1969, released under the title The Peace Game in Britain, presumably to capitalise in least in part on the controversy surrounding The War Game). Both films were shot on 35mm (the only occasions Watkins used the format) by Peter Suschitzky and looked at the use of scapegoats - respectively a pop star and an international gladiator competition - to suppress the critical faculties of the populace and channel violent emotions. Privilege broke with Watkins' practice of using amateur actors, but drew power instead from the use of a real pop star; Paul Jones from Manfred Mann.

The Gladiators had been made against the political disquiet of 1968 but Watkins' temporary move to the USA brought him even closer to the increasingly polarised politics of the age. Punishment Park (US, 1971) told of a fictional detention system that challenged potential subversives to either surrender to detention or undergo a physically challenging ordeal in the heat of the American desert. Using a small crew and just one camera, Watkins worked with actors genuinely critical of the system and increased the scope of improvisation. The results brought a startling immediacy to the film and a palpable sense of realism - often people's lines and actions seemed wholly 'real'. The lines of fact and fiction further blurred when one actor was later convicted of a bombing charge and sent to federal prison.

The importance of camera movement and the giving of space to Watkins' collaborators - to both research their roles and improvise - were extended through a series of Scandinavian productions made through the 1970s. The Seventies People (70-Talets Människor, Denmark, 1975) looked at the relationship between modern living and suicide, a significant and current concern for the television production's country of origin, Denmark. Though the story focused on two families it had been developed from newspaper ads that asked for volunteers to step forward and talk about modern stress - again the actors' involvement was crucial. In contrast, The Trap (Fällan, Sweden, 1975) was set in the future and imagined a difficult family reunion in underground living quarters close to a nuclear waste station. Here the freedoms were given to the Swedish television crew who were asked to direct their own cameras rather than follow orders. 1977's Eveningland (Aftenlandet, Denmark, 1977) was another political story placed in the future.

The earlier Edvard Munch (Norway/Sweden, 1974) had also encouraged personal research and improvisation but it incorporated significant and highly sophisticated editing techniques too. This was intended to encourage a more involved response on the part of the audience. Highly personal, this biopic of the Norweigan artist vividly explored the complexity of meaning contained in a work of art via fragmented narrative and impressionistic montage. It suggested, for example, that Munch's visceral etching action was directly linked to his traumatic life and memories, vividly presented here. It implied that Watkins' personal narration (a consistent trope in his work) and mobile camera work belonged to a similar relationship. Like all his films from The Diary of an Unknown Soldier onward, Edvard Munch highlighted the difficulties individuals experience and the pressures they undergo, both personal and political. Perhaps for the first time though, it implicitly implicated the director.

If Edvard Munch was complex, then The Journey (Sweden/Canada, 1983-87) elevated the scope of Watkins' ambitions to a whole new level. An internationally funded 14-hour, 30-minute discursive education package, it simultaneously updated much of the information contained in The War Game about the nuclear threat, critiqued the manipulative and heavily edited mainstream media practice - here after labelled by Watkins the 'Monoform' - and initiated and documented a dialogue between several families separated by ideology and considerable expanses of geography. Like much of his work, particularly his Scandinavian films, The Journey encountered much production and exhibition difficulty. Its lengthy duration effectively ruled out standard presentation, but Watkins encouraged the film to be seen in chapters, dividing it into 45-minute sections to this end. Each concludes with a question mark to prompt discussion - another dialectical technique.

The debates in and reaction to The Journey have remained central to a consideration of Watkins' films. Its complex concerns mirror the quote that opens this text, in that it recognises the international status of political debate but argues that new maps through which to engage in communication need to be constructed. The media statement on his website addresses these issues, as have his last two films, The Free Thinker (1994) and La Commune (2001). The latter uses various Brechtian techniques to explore the story of the Paris Commune, a radical, non-hierarchical collective that formed in Paris in the wake of the Franco-Prussian War. These techniques include the characters' use of a television station to report on clashes with the army and the actors admitting the bias of both their character's actions and their own.

Although plagued with production difficulties - often amounting to outright obstruction - and in many cases very hard to see, the scope, critical weight and level of experimentation in Watkins' films is undeniable. In an age when the media stranglehold on both our lives and the means by which we communicate is ever tightening, his films remain a vital tool for considering new forms of image-making and a vibrant and engaging force in their own right.

Will Fowler

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From the BFI's filmographic database

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Culloden (1964)Culloden (1964)

Pioneering and controversial 'drama-documentary'

Thumbnail image of War Game, The (1966)War Game, The (1966)

A memorably realistic depiction of a nuclear attack on Britain

Related collections

Thumbnail image of Political FilmPolitical Film

Film as an ideological weapon

Thumbnail image of Drama DocumentaryDrama Documentary

Controversial blend of fact and fiction

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