Standing in the Shadow: Peter Whitehead, Swinging London's Insider/Outsider

By Chibnall, Steve | Framework, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Standing in the Shadow: Peter Whitehead, Swinging London's Insider/Outsider


Chibnall, Steve, Framework


The fate that awaits the creator, after being ignored, neglected, despised, is, luckily or unluckily according to point of view, to be discovered by the non- creative.

R. D. Laing, Politics of Experience (1967)1

I certainly don't feel easy- going about all the fun everyone is supposed to be having. Is it really happening? Do they stop and screw all the time on the march to Aldermaston?

Peter Whitehead's alter ego Patrick Walker in Tonite (1999)2

The London Eye

The name of Peter Lorrimer Whitehead, the London eye of the mid- 1960s, has been one of the strangest omissions among the chronicles of those "strange days." In spite of his tireless efforts to document and deconstruct his times, he failed to be identifi ed by Jonathan Aitken as one of The Young Meteors, and you will not fi nd him mentioned in key memoirs of London's underground scene, by hipsters such as Richard Neville, Jim Haynes or Jeff Nuttall. 3 He is equally absent from the leading pop u lar histories of sixties culture in Britain: Shawn Levy's mod chronicle Ready, Steady, Go! and Dominic Sandbrook's weighty synthesis of writing on the era White Heat.4 Whitehead does rate an occasional mention in Jonathon Green's painstaking re- creations of the period, Days in the Life and All Dressed Up, but only in connection with his fi lming of the poetry "emanation" at the Albert Hall in 1965.5 True, in those heady days of pot, pranksters, poseurs, and protest, the introverted Whitehead seemed to prefer the company of Egyptian mummies in the British Museum and the daughters of Sweden in bed to the heads at the UFO Club or the fashionistas in boutiqueland, but he was never far from "the scene." His cine- camera alone (a rarity in an age before mass visual recording) should have attracted attention as he moved around the few square miles of London's West End from his Gothic garret in Soho; but in recalling his prominence at that time, he continues to assert that "nobody knew who I was."6 "Have you seen your brother, baby, standing in the shadow," sang Mick Jagger and The Rolling Stones, in Whitehead's notorious cross- dressing fi lm promoting their single Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby (August 1966); and the shadows is where the fi lmmaker stood- at least until the rediscovery of his work in the 1990s. It is also where this skeptical "outsider with insider access" seems to have been most comfortable, protected by the mediation of his camera from the destructive glare of the sixties' white heat: "Because I can fi lm," says his alter ego, Patrick Walker, in Whitehead's novel Tonite Let's All Make Love in London (published in 1999), "I can hold the black mirror up to keep the light from burning out my face."7

When Whitehead eventually began to emerge from the shadows, he was recognized as a documentarist. However, this is not a description with which he is comfortable because it imposes severe limitations on his vision and practice. Moreover, he devoted only four or fi ve years of a long career to shooting actuality footage, and much of this was reworked in imaginative, nonnarrative ways. Whitehead is, and always was, an artist. Infl uenced by the topsy- turvy psychosocial theories of R. D. Laing, he came to reject the notion that the fi lmmaker could rationally record events happening in the real world. The spiraling insanity of that world invited an irrational response. For alter ego Patrick Walker, this was the challenge that confronted his camera:

How to see without reason? Avoid being watched and watching. Seeing for its own sake . . . Avoid being observed. Known. Witnessed. To become the centre of one's own seeing. The camera as the all- seeing eye . . . destroy the limited way of seeing that is reason . . . How to achieve this in a world dominated by materialism, with the ever- more seductive all- pervading technology that does your seeing for you?8

This was certainly not the rhetoric of the documentary movement, and Whitehead's "documentaries" are increasingly more about his own inner journey to discover his relationship to his times than about a depersonalized external world.

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