Peter Neal

Peter Neal has written, edited and directed a wealth of films and documentaries for both cinema and television over the past fifty years. As well as making singular contributions to the Starting At Zero book and film he’s the director and/or editor of award-winning documentaries such as A Lion’s Trail, which prompted one reviewer to remark how it “glows with happiness and the beauty of African music.”

Films with heart and that focus on humanitarian issues are a Peter Neal speciality, whether he’s relating a tale of South African copyright theft, Burma’s bid for political freedom (Dying For Democracy) or highlighting the plight of Britain’s mentally disabled. The same principles also apply whenever he turns his cameras in the direction of musical subjects — most notably the Who, Incredible String Band, Yes and Jimi Hendrix, who was the star of Peter’s first-ever film Experience (also known as Hear My Music Talking), as well as his latest.

Watching these films, we get the sense that it’s never enough for him to just document the music and relay straightforward biography. He shows viewers what lies behind the songs and performances, and it’s this inner prompting that makes his vision so compelling, as witnessed in Starting At Zero. Then again Peter is a former musician himself, which means that he’s well qualified for the task of translating their work into film.

He was born in the Welsh town of Hay-on-Wye in 1942. His mother was evacuated there during the war but the family then returned to the London borough of Enfield, where Peter grew up. His first musical loves were trad jazz and the blues. He and his friends had an especial liking for King Oliver and would make regular pilgrimages to record stores in central London, where they’d eagerly search out all the latest imports.

By his late teens he was playing classical and flamenco guitar and had teamed up with a friend who played violin. The duo toured local clubs playing classical sonatas before Peter left to form a band specialising in Appalachian music, fused with a little jazz and blues. Their progressive approach didn’t always go down well with purists but led to some inspired sessions with the likes of Mike Seeger, Doc Watson and the Reverend Gary Davis as London’s burgeoning folk scene got underway.

At the same time as learning the guitar, Peter had become fascinated by film. Since the age of 13 he had been playing with a 8mm camera, exploring various techniques such as stop-motion animation. After joining the National Film Theatre he’d developed a love for Italian and Swedish cinema — a passion that inspired several ambitious and surreal “feature” home movies, the cast enrolled from his long-suffering friends. It was these films, unskilled yet imaginative, that secured him employment at Gateway Films in Palmers Green, where he learnt about editing, lighting, sound recording, scriptwriting and camera work.

Gateway made a lot of educational and industrial type films, as well as documentaries. Peter worked there for three years, between 1963-65, before becoming a film editor on two weekly series for Granada Television — Another World and the hard-hitting documentary programme World In Action. He then joined Derrick Knight & Partners, who were renowned for making films steeped in social relevance, and that promoted left-wing causes.

The twenty-three year old Peter Neal already knew how to make films, only now he would discover what they could do. Derrick Knight made films for the Labour Party and Miners Union, and had even documented the first CND marches. Over the next six years he would encourage Peter to pursue his passion for films that hold a mirror up to society, and point out things that are unjust or unfair knowing that whilst such projects may not change society, they might at least help raise a few questions.

Peter was now playing a more active role in the films he was making, both as scriptwriter and director. A film made for the Spastics Society called A Place Like Home signalled that he’d finally found his feet, and convinced him that this type of documentary could make a difference. “It taught me a lesson, which is that I should make my mind up and discipline myself into achieving real things as opposed to living in my imagination and my dreams,” he says. “But my road to Damascus moment came after I started working on films for the United Nations. Derek Knight & Partners had become the leading independent documentary makers in England by that time, and those films were a crowning achievement for them. The UN had previously given themselves ten years to eliminate poverty and missed their target by a vast amount. They wanted to know why and although they had their own film unit, they chose Derrick Knight to provide an unbiased perspective.”

The World Without took the form of three documentaries about the ethics of aid; all of them filmed on different continents. Peter spent weeks filming in Peru, living side-by-side with villagers as they went about their everyday lives. It was a revelation to him, seeing the problems they faced. “That whole situation shook me. It made me realise what I wanted to do as a filmmaker was to fight injustice. You may be telling a heartbreaking story, but at the same time you have to find hope in it. That’s what I try and bring to films. I try and make them positive. I don’t want to make films that are depressing or simply stating ‘this is a problem.’ It’s got to suggest alternatives or show way of getting out of it.”

Around the same time he travelled to Brazil, where he made two films for Christian Aid called The Migrant Way and Exiles In Their Own Land, which examined the root causes of poverty in South America’s largest country. Making films with a socialist agenda would preoccupy him for much of his career and yet as the counter-culture took hold and the Summer of Love arrived, Peter was still playing with his band. Derrick Knight knew this, which is why he’d sent him to Harlow New Town, to assist on a film (Pied Pipers of Harlow) about the musical activities happening there. His next assignment was of the dream variety, since he was asked to research the explosion of folk clubs in London and interview names such as Peggy Seeger, Bob Davenport (who’d previously appeared in Knight’s film about miners, A Time To Heal) and the Watersons, who’ll become the centrepiece of Travelling For A Living, which Peter edited.

He was still working on that film when Shirley Collins’ husband John Marshall appeared at Derrick Knight’s one day and insisted Peter accompany him to the Royal Albert Hall, where Jimi Hendrix was due to perform that evening. The full story of their adventures with Hendrix can be viewed elsewhere on this website. Suffice to say that Experience was the first-ever documentary on Jimi Hendrix, and the only one he actively participated in. Highlights include Jimi’s performance at the Blackpool Opera House and the sight of him sat on a stool, playing acoustic blues on a 12-string guitar.

Three years later, Peter would direct the promo film accompanying Voodoo Chile Slight Return, which topped the UK charts soon after Jimi’s death in September 1970. Hendrix had proved a difficult act to follow after Peter decided to make a second film. It was the Incredible String Band — an acoustic, psychedelic folk band who’d played at Woodstock and captured the magic of those times like no other — who would be the subject of his next document, Be Glad (For The Song Has No Ending.) Their work incorporated music, fable, myth and theatre — elements that were all present in the film, despite the usual budgetary restrictions. Derrick Knight again proffered free use of his post-production facilities and whilst Peter would soon turn freelance, the two men have remained friends ever since.

In 1971 Peter became co-owner of his own company, A1OK (pronounced A1, Okay.) That summer, he and a colleague headed to Worthy Farm in Somerset for the first official Glastonbury festival — an event he fondly describes as “a gathering of the tribes.” They’d originally planned to film it, but held back when they saw Nicholas Roeg already at work. A year or so later, Sandy Lieberson of Goodtimes Enterprises asked Peter to take a look at Roeg’s footage and make a film from it, which he did. In 1972 Glastonbury Fayre became his first cinema film. It has subsequently been issued on DVD and offers a wonderful snapshot of those heady, innocent times.

His second cinema film earned an X certificate on its release in 1975, despite one reviewer saying how Ain’t Misbehavin’ provided “a fair dose of nostalgia, a few sobering thoughts and a good many laughs.” Compiled from archive footage and intercut with music by the likes of Fats Waller, George Formby and Nat King Cole, it also served as a depiction of how women were represented on film throughout the early 20th Century — a case study leavened by generous helpings of humour and wit.

In late 1975 he directed a concert film for prog-rock band Yes, who were hugely popular at the time. Called Yessongs, it was filmed at London’s Rainbow Theatre during the band’s Close To The Edge tour. It was followed by a documentary about Yes guitarist Steve Howe (Beginnings) that made innovative use of superimposition. Further commissions began to pour in throughout the seventies. Notable examples include The Hare’s Tale (a road-show film made to accompany Jethro Tull’s 1973 album A Passion Play) and promo shorts for the Who, Free, Cat Stevens and Black Sabbath.

As the eighties dawned, he joined Screen Ventures, ran by film producer Chris Mould and based in Goodge Street, London. It was there, sometime in 1983, that John Marshall contacted Peter to say he was going to America and wanted to take the Experience film with him. Peter gave him the last remaining print and later learnt that John had sold it to the Hendrix Estate but then spent all the money! As luck would have it Peter’s wife Benjy was in Los Angeles and spoke to Alan Douglas, who quickly rectified the situation and then commissioned Peter to film a Hendrix convention in Nottingham. Douglas’ company Are You Experienced would make increasing use of Screen Ventures from thereon, which led to Peter working on the exhibition truck and Jimi Hendrix concerts video, in addition to other Hendrix-related assignments.

The most significant of these was Roomful Of Mirrors, which later evolved into Starting At Zero. A fuller account is available elsewhere on this website under the heading Story Of The Film. Work on Roomful Of Mirrors — the book and the film — would continue apace until 1995, when the Hendrix family assumed control of Jimi’s legacy. Both projects were then summarily shelved, until their rebirth as Starting At Zero.

Prior to working on Roomful Of Mirrors Peter made films for the National Trust, RSPB, British Waterways Board, BP, Save The Children (an animated film called When The Penny Drops) and the Post Office but it was Dying For Democracy, telling the story of Burma’s liberation struggle for Channel 4 series Dispatches, that provided most of the trademarks we associate with him.

A series of films based in the Middle East on conservation in the Arabian Gulf (Sir Bani Yas), the Koran (The Book Of Signs) and the Prophet’s Mosque followed. Chris Mould then introduced him to South African filmmaker Francois Verster, who was making a film about the Bergies — remnants of South Africa’s original people who now live on the streets of Cape Town. Peter was invited to edit Pavement Aristocrats, which won the South African equivalent of an Oscar. Peter has worked with Verster on all his projects ever since.

That was in 1999. A year later he directed In The Lap Of The Mods, which centred on reformed Mod group The Action and then embarked on a series of three documentaries called Life And Limb about coping with limb loss for the American Discovery channel. His second collaboration with Verster, A Lion’s Trail, followed in 2002. South African journalist Rian Malan had become enraged at the copyright theft surrounding The Lion Sleeps Tonight, otherwise known as Wimoweh, and written an article in Rolling Stone protesting on behalf of original songwriter Solomon Linda. It was this article that inspired A Lion’s Trail, which became instrumental in forcing a settlement with Walt Disney and other parties, and later won an Emmy award for Outstanding Cultural and Artistic Programming. It remains the most widely distributed South African television documentary in history.

The connection with South Africa would continue to flourish. In 2005 Peter edited The Mother’s House, which was a feature length documentary about growing up on the Cape flats in the post-apartheid era. This film won awards in South Africa, Milan, Zimbabwe, Spain and Tenerife and has since been described as “a brutally honest and sensitive portrait, intimate and thoughtfully edited, which reveals a story that speaks to the erosion of innocence and the complexity of transformation.”

Two years later he’ll edit a film called Pig Business, filmed as part of a campaign against industrialised animal rearing. That was in 2007-9. By then, he’d edited a video diary filmed before and after the war in Iraq called Iraqi Kurdistan, and helped produce the definitive filmed interview with Jimi Hendrix’s former girlfriend Kathy Etchingham. He’d been friends with Kathy since she instigated the Blue Plaque for Jimi at Brook Street in London. He also directed Mojo Working, which traced the birth of modern music from Muddy Waters to Jimi Hendrix and was compiled from a series of twelve films produced by Alan Douglas.

More recently he’s edited documentaries about a South African youth orchestra (Musical Investments, for Al Jazeira), the El Warsha theatre troupe in Cairo (Storyteller For A New Age, for CCTV) and HIV/AIDS in Africa (Protection, screened in 2010).

“I won’t work on a film that isn’t uplifting in some way,” he says with some finality. “We all need to feel hope and to be uplifted so I want to try and use film as a tool to open people’s minds to certain possibilities. Ultimately I want to make films that show how things are, and how we can make them better.”

Biography by John Masouri, September 2013

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