Pink Floyd connection
Peter Whitehead first encountered Pink Floyd when they were his neighbours in Cambridge. He could hear them rehearsing outside his door, much to his irritation, and tried to drown out the experimental sounds with classical music. He wasn’t a fan of pop, although he did share an interest with Syd Barrett in painting. A mutual friend, Jenny Spires, took Peter to see Pink Floyd at the UFO club in London and he decided the “dislocated consciousness” evoked by their music would make the ideal soundtrack for a film he was making.
He paid for the band to record two tracks at Sound Techniques studio in Chelsea, Interstellar Overdrive and an improvisation they called Nick’s Boogie.
Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London
The title of the film Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London comes from a poem read at the Royal Albert Hall in 1965 by Allen Ginsberg. Unlike most documentaries at the time, it had no narrator. Instead it was divided into chapter headings or movements – Pop, Protest, Painting, Dolly Girls and Movie Stars. Ginsberg’s line “A new kind of man has come to his bliss” is thought to refer to Syd Barrett.
Peter Whitehead’s first professional film was a scientific documentary called The Perception of Life. The half-hour piece for the Nuffield Foundation was shot through a microscope.
Such projects enabled him to explore his personal interests and, in June 1965, he came to the Royal Albert Hall to film the International Poetry Incarnation. The 33-minute documentary Wholly Communion brought the beat poets and their followers to the attention of a wider audience and in turn it got Peter Whitehead noticed.
The Rolling Stones + The Dubliners
The Rolling Stones manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, contacted him after seeing Wholly Communion and invited him to make a documentary on ‘England’s newest hitmakers’. Charlie Is My Darling was shot in September 1965 and captures the band on the brink of rock stardom, but because of legal wrangles it remained unreleased until 2012.
Another success came in 1967 when the BBC commissioned Peter to make a promo film of The Dubliners for Top of the Pops. Seven Drunken Nights won the approval of TV critic Dennis Potter, who praised it as a “brilliant piece of footage”.
Not so popular with the BBC was Peter Whitehead’s 1967 promo for the Rolling Stones single We Love You. Filmed the day before Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were due to appear in court on drugs charges, it was inspired by the trial of Oscar Wilde.
Keith Richards, the judge, wore a wig made from rolled up newspapers (the group had been ‘stung’ by the News of the World) and Marianne Faithfull holds a fur rug as evidence, in reference to reports that she was found wearing just that when the police raided Keith Richards’ house. The producer of Top of the Pops refused to show the film, deeming it “unsuitable” for the programme’s audience.
Peter Whitehead’s connection with the Stones went even further than the films he made with them as he also went out with Bianca Jagger. Among his many colourful connections was ‘Mr Nice’ Howard Marks, who was best man at his wedding.
He left film-making in the mid-1970s and turned to breeding rare falcons in Saudi Arabia. In 1996 he was the subject of a Channel 4 film, The Falconer, co-written and directed by Iain Sinclair.
Peter Whitehead’s work will be celebrated over several special screenings in the Hall’s Elgar Room as part of the venue’s Summer of Love: Revisited series from May – July 2017.
Claudia Elliott is a music journalist and historian who writes about the 1960s.