Robert Peter West, film director, editor and producer: born Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh 18 December 1939; married 1969 Joanna Wake (one son, one daughter); died London 3 May 2005.
The first thing that comes to mind about Peter West – documentary director, film editor, producer, teacher, photographer, accomplished classical pianist, enthusiastic jazz trumpeter, cabinetmaker, builder, all-round cricketer, cartographer, bon viveur and loyal friend – is his generosity. The second is his modesty. He sold himself reluctantly; his skills only emerged when required. In an age when the CV is thrust ahead of a handshake, he was maybe a little out of step with his time. However, the range, diversity and quality of his work make him an important figure in British documentary.
Peter West was born in Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh, and went to Portora Royal School, as had Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett. He excelled academically, was an all-round sportsman and practised music to near-professional standard. Maybe his sweetness of temperament explains why his contemporaries forgave him his surfeit of gifts. He read Economics, History and Geography at Trinity College Dublin. His school and university defined him for life. He was an Ulsterman and an Irishman and could align himself proudly with, and rail passionately against, both the Orange and the Green (his favourite poets were the Irishman W.B. Yeats and the Ulsterman Louis MacNeice).
West joined the BBC in the early Sixties as a trainee film editor in Belfast. It was not the BBC we know today. It was a decentralised monolith, both arrogant and benign and, most importantly, confident it had a stake in the future. Directors, producers, cinematographers, designers, editors and sound engineers were trained in large numbers. Some of them would go on to define British television a decade or two later. Peter West was part of that wave.
He moved to BBC London in 1965 and was given the kind of training that only an industrial process can provide. Every category of film, executed at every level, was thrown at the editor. You learnt quickly, or not at all. West learnt very quickly. He found his true métier in the cutting room. Everything else that he did was born out of his understanding of the art and craft of editing.
West’s first full credit as editor was in 1967 on a 40-minute fiction (film), which I directed from a story by Penelope Gilliatt, entitled Living on the Box, about a cold-blooded poet (shades of John Osborne, Gilliatt’s ex-husband). He went on to edit more than 25 major feature-length documentaries, most of them on classical music and musicians, in which his love of music and film came together. However, there were significant exceptions: two documentaries directed by Robert Vas, who escaped from Hungary in 1956, The Issue Should be Avoided (1971), about the massacre by Stalin of Polish officers in the Katyn Forest, and Stalin (1972); and My Ain Folk (1973), the second part of Bill Douglas’s “Childhood Trilogy”.
The Vas films were a challenge. In both, the allegations were repeated, like waves washing over the same stretch of beach, each time revealing new meaning and each time raising new questions. The narrative did not so much move forward as dig deeper. The story became the sum of these layers. West’s editing was simply a tour de force. After that, he must have felt he could take on anything. And soon he did.
At my request, the BBC released West to help edit the British Film Institute’s production of the Bill Douglas film. Douglas’s material was peculiarly volatile and seemed to have a life of its own: a small snip in one place would have major consequences later on. West did not immediately crack it. Lindsay Anderson, Douglas’s mentor, was enlisted to the task force. It was a turning point. Douglas’s minimalist, poetic-realist style was an inspiration; and West quickly became an adherent of Free Cinema, some two decades after Anderson had proclaimed its credo. It is worth repeating. Postmodernism is on its last legs and this may be the looming counter-culture: “no film can be too personal; perfection is not an aim; an attitude means a style; a style means an attitude; implicit . . . [is] the significance of the everyday”. For West it became the way forward.
In 1977 West joined the BBC Music and Arts Department as director. He was hardly in when he was nearly out. With Anderson as consultant, he attacked the National Theatre and Peter Hall’s policies in A Stately Pleasure Dome? The spirited support of Barrie Gavin, then head of Omnibus, saved both the programme and West.
He survived to direct a range of films, including Kelly (1978), a “People’s TV documentary opera” with Alan Price, If the Music Had to Stop (1981) about the threatened withdrawal of music teaching in a Leicester comprehensive, and, at the height of Thatcherism, Lion (1981), about a taxidermist stuffing a lion. My own favourite, In the Making (1980), is a perfect jewel of a film, which features the glass engraver Alison Kinnaird. West’s last film as staff producer was Humphrey Jennings, Film Maker (1981), again in collaboration with Anderson.
Times were changing. The BBC monolith was being broken up and Channel 4 offered the enticing prospect to programme-makers of selling a variety of wares from their stalls. (It was so for a while – then the stalls were replaced with a couple of high-street stores.) In 1981 West and a number of colleagues left the BBC and formed Third Eye.
Under Jeremy Isaacs, it became Channel 4’s Music and Arts department. West turned his attention to the “everyday” that television had mostly ignored: the arts, culture and contribution of the immigrant community. He was well placed. As an Ulsterman he was an insider/outsider, neither too far from nor too close to his subject. He was a profoundly political animal, not so much in the spouting of opinions, but in the doing of the work.
West’s work gave us an open-ended exploration of “community”. It is a rich canvas with artists from Africa, social workers from the edge of the Sahara, forgotten West Indian pilots from the Second World War, second-generation Indian artists at odds with uncomprehending parents, Liverpool entertainers and boxers with African roots, and so on. It is doubtful whether he would have been allowed to do any of that in today’s television. In a culture of ticking boxes, ambiguity does not exist, complexity is denied and enquiry is simplified and coarsened. It is the programme-makers who are first made dumb; the pacification of the audience comes later.
Peter West was never very far from music and continued his work in that area, including three of the seven-part series, Leaving Home, presented by Simon Rattle, which won the Bafta Best Arts Series in 1997. And, earlier, in 1988 and 1989 he and I produced the Movie Masterclass series, in which Lindsay Anderson, Jack Gold, Bill Forsyth, Terry Davies and I analysed scenes, shots and frames from favourite films in conversation with students at the National Film & Television School. It was then a new way of looking at film.
West must have enjoyed the experience, because he turned to teaching, editing and documentary. He was an inspired and generous teacher: generous with his attention, time, spirit and also materially. He used his own money to finance the shooting, editing and selling of films by students and other young film-makers. Latterly, he was particularly supportive of the London Film Academy.
When Channel 4 executives started to second-guess what the audience wants and replaced challenging questions with concrete assertions, Third Eye and companies like it closed down. West stepped sideways and with colleagues started Directors’ Cut, a service company, which forayed into production. He went further afield to raise finance. He was still doing that a few weeks ago.
In 1969 Peter West married the actress Joanna Wake. To survive in two such up-and-down businesses as television and theatre requires stamina and flexibility as much as love and mutual support. And this they had. Their children have followed in two of the family businesses. Emily has become a considerable film editor and Patrick is pursuing a career in music.
Peter West was the most cheerful and optimistic person I ever met. He could get angry, and sometimes would even rage, but in the end there was always laughter.
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