An Interview with Peter Sykes

By David King

Peter Sykes was born on June 17th, 1939 in Melbourne, Australia. After a brief career as a dancer, he acted with the Melbourne Repertory Theatre, before working as an assistant director on documentaries and children's shows for Australian television. In 1963 Peter went to England, where he joined ATV and soon progressed to director. In the following telephone interview, conducted on July 4 and 7, 1997, but with additional questions answered by mail, I ask him about his involvement in the legendary Pink Floyd-scored film The Committee .

D.K.: Peter, thanks for your time. You've kindly supplied me with a filmography [see the end of this interview], so perhaps a good place to start would be to ask you whether there are any other directors you particularly admire. There was a sympathetic review of The Committee in Films and Filming; the review suggested that Rivette was an influence on the film. Is this the case?
P.S.: I particularly like the work of Resnais, Franju, Vigo, Kurasawa, Ozu, Fellini, Antonioni, S Ray, Hawkes, Ford, etc. Rivette was much admired but I'm not conscious of any specific influence.

D.K.: Why did The Committee never have a very wide release?
P.S.: The possibility of release for a film of this length that was considered too austere for mainstream audiences was very limited, so we relied on art house cinemas in major cities, film clubs, etc. We had a release in London paired with Visconti's The Stranger from the Albert Camus novel. We conducted a survey on the queues outside the Regent Street cinema to find out which film had been the main attraction and discovered that over 50% of the audience had come because of The Committee . The reason we did this was that the distributors were giving us less than 25% of the takings between the two films. We presented our case to the distributors but of course the deal remained unchanged.

D.K.: I seem to remember that at one point in The Committee the protagonist says, "You are the Director. Of The Committee ". Is that a metafictional reference? I was thinking that the film's concern with R.D. Laing ideas might mean that the entire film could be interpreted as an "insane" response to an insane world.
P.S.: Yes, it is a metafictional reference. Both Max [Steuer, producer of The Committee ] and myself were much engaged with his ideas at the time and we had contact with him through friends and patients.

D.K.: When I was discussing The Committee with you some time ago, you mentioned you had a few anecdotes to recount about the film. Could you share them with us?
P.S.: Certainly. The producers of "The Avengers" saw the film and asked to see me. They said they didn't understand the film but thought it looked terrific and that it had lots of atmosphere. Would I come to direct "The Avengers"? That is how I got started in the mainstream industry. Also, when The Committee was first shown at the National Film Theatre the screening had to be stopped when, during the beheading scene, a viewer sitting in the front row had an epileptic fit and had to be attended to. The screening was later resumed.

D.K.: Do you have any anecdotes about Pink Floyd?
P.S.: Any stories about the Pink Floyd...? There's quite a funny one, in fact, that I may have narrated to you: Max was concerned at lunchtime that they hadn't created anything for the studio, which cost him a lot of money. He went round the studio in a terrible state, saying "I think I'll have to cancel; they just haven't created anything." But we said "No, no, they'll come up with something."

D.K.: Do you mean they were going to improvise?
P.S.: They arrived at the studio in London with no idea, that we are aware of, of what they were going to create. They saw the film and inspired by certain scenes in the film they started played around with ideas. In other words they were creating on the spot, and it evolved into the text. They weren't actually improvising when once they started recording. They evolved a text and then played it. They hadn't come up with any sort of creative ideas before, and Max thought this was a trifle strange.

D.K.: What sort of time period was there between the improvisations and the final music?
P.S.: Well, this is it... They'd viewed the film and they waited in the studio. We sat there and they couldn't produce any music; they just played around. But after lunch they came back and it all started happening, and at the end of the day we had all the music for the film.

D.K.: So it was all very quick, then?
P.S.: Yes. No doubt they'd played around with some of the pieces before. I heard familiar themes coming over.

D.K.: Did they all contribute equally to the music?
P.S.: I wouldn't say that. One or two of them, perhaps, but I can't remember. Probably Roger and... Well, they all appeared to contribute.

D.K.: How did you and Max come to meet?
P.S.: I'd made a film about Australian surfing in Cornwall--A Walkabout to Cornwall--and it was screening at the university where Max was. He asked a guy I knew who directed the film. After he was told, I got a phone call, and Max said "I have a story; would you like to make a film?" I read it, and our relationship actually started off with a furious row. He's quite strong-willed, and I had ideas about the film, and we shouted and screamed at each other. That was the beginning of our relationship. But it worked well, and we made the film.

D.K.: I was under the impression that The Committee was your first film.
P.S.: I had made Walkabout to Cornwall, but it was my first commercial feature with actors.

D.K.: What is your opinion of it now?
P.S.: It's a long time since I've seen it. I thought it was pretty much of its era. Fairly pretentious--so art house! (Laughter.) I'm looking forward to seeing it on video. There are some scenes I like very much. The whole scene of Paul Jones and the sewing-on of the head--the whole beginning of the film works very well. I like the scene in the clock tower very much. The Arthur Brown... Yes, there are lots of things I like very much.

D.K.: What became of the actors, incidentally? I had only heard of Paul Jones, through his association with Manfred Mann.
P.S.: Tom Kempinski was a very interesting guy. He was an actor who was in the National Theatre under Olivier--Laurence Olivier--and he acted in a very big production. But then he had a, well, sort of nervous breakdown. He started writing, and became a very famous writer. He won a number of national awards, including Play of the Year. His most famous you've probably heard of is Duet for One. There was an article in the paper about him recently... He married Frances de la Tour...

D.K.: Who was in Dennis Potter's Cold Lazarus?
P.S.: And Rising Damp, yes... Anyway, he was one of the actors. Paul Jones you know of, although he was also in another film called Privilege. It was made by Peter Watkins, who made The War Game. Then the other actors were a mixture of friends and people who were around the place--some of them quite well known.

D.K.: Have you ever used any of the actors in any of your other films?
P.S.: I've worked with Paul Jones again. And I've worked on scripts with Kempinski, but no, I can't think of anyone else.

D.K.: This is a horrible question, but which of your films are you most pleased with?
P.S.: All the films have sections in them that I like...

D.K.: What about The House in Nightmare Park, with Frankie Howerd?
P.S.: Yes, yes... I think Frankie Howerd was absolutely wonderful. The people who wrote the script wrote a thriller with comedy parts...

D.K.: And your latest film? I think you said you're going to Italy on the fourteenth to work on it.
P.S.: Kaosmos? Yes, that's very interesting. . . .

D.K.: You mentioned its Kafka influences.
P.S.: Yes, it's related to Kafka, and of course The Committee is related to Kafka as well.

D.K.: How did Pink Floyd actually get involved in the project?
P.S.: We knew some of the Pink Floyd. Socially. And they were the obvious people to do the music for the film. And in those days Roger Waters was around, and he agreed to do the script. I'll tell you another little thing I just remembered... Arthur Brown--you know, the guy with the flaming headdress--he had clear plastic tubing running in his apartment, and clear plastic tubes running all the way across the ceiling, with captive white mice running everywhere. (Laughter.)

D.K.: What do you think of Pink Floyd's latest music?
P.S.: I like it very much.

D.K.: How much were Pink Floyd actually paid for doing The Committee ?
P.S.: You know, I can only guess there...I can't remember exactly. The complications with Max over lunch time... No, I can't remember. You'll have to ask Max.

D.K.: You told me once before that Max has a musical background--that he plays the bass guitar. I suppose the initial meeting between him and Pink Floyd came about through music?
P.S.: Partially... But I think Pink Floyd early on may have played at the LSE. Certainly a lot of groups played there.

D.K.: Max has spent much of his life at the London School of Economics, then?
P.S.: Well, all his life in England. He's American, and did an MA at Harvard.

D.K.: Peter, thank you very much for your time.
P.S.: My pleasure.

Films Directed by Peter Sykes
For space reasons, the filmography below shows only some of the many films and TV productions Peter has directed; it does, however, illustrate the diversity of his directing. (Fans of Barbet Schroeder's La Vallee should note the appearance, in Magicians of the Future, of Bulle Ogier.)
1968: Walkabout to Cornwall, surfing documentary; festival prizewinner, Sydney.
1968: The Committee , starring Paul Jones and Tom Kempinski.
1969: Two episodes of The Avengers: "Love All" and "Noon Doomsday".
1970: Venom, starring Simon Brent and Sheila Keith.
1971: Demons of the Mind, starring Patrick Magee and Yvonne Mitchell.
1972: The House in Nightmare Park, starring Ray Milland and Frankie Howerd.
1973: Steptoe and Son Ride Again, starring Harry H. Corbett and Wilfred Brambell.
1975: To the Devil a Daughter, starring Richard Wydmark and Christopher Lee.
1976: Magicians of the Future, starring Maurice Ronet and Bulle Ogier.
1978: Jesus, starring Brian Deacon and Rivka Noiman.
1980: Alexander the Great: 4 1-hour television dramas for Time Life/Video Arts.
1981: The Blues Band, starring Paul Jones and William Rushton.
1983: The Irish RM: 3 x 1 hour films, starring Peter Bowles.
1985: The Lost Secret, BBC production starring Miranda Richardson.
1988: MAC Satellite Broadcasting, documentary for the IBA.
1989: The Other Britain, documentary for Longman.
1990: Castle of Holstebro, video from the stage play at Odin Teatre, Denmark.
1995: The Merger, 1 hour drama, Longman UK Ltd.
1996: Kaosmos, drama production based on Odin Teatre play, for the National Film Board, Denmark.

David King is an expert on Floyd films, and a special contributor to Spare Bricks. Portions of this article may be reproduced, provided that David King and Spare Bricks are properly credited.

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