Peter Watkins

For the Australian politician, see Peter Watkins (politician). For the civil servant, see Peter Watkins (civil servant).
Peter Watkins
Born (1935-10-29) 29 October 1935
Norbiton, Surrey, England
Occupation Film director, Documentarian, screenwriter
Years active 1956 – present

Peter Watkins (born 29 October 1935) is an English film and television director. He was born in Norbiton, Surrey, lived in Sweden, Canada and Lithuania for many years, and now lives in France. He is one of the pioneers of docudrama. His films present pacifist and radical ideas in a nontraditional style. He mainly concentrates his works and ideas around the mass media and our relation/participation to a movie or television documentary.

Nearly all of Watkins' films have used a combination of dramatic and documentary elements to dissect historical occurrences or possible near future events. The first of these, Culloden, portrayed the Jacobite uprising of 1745 in a documentary style, as if television reporters were interviewing the participants and accompanying them into battle; a similar device was used in his biographical film Edvard Munch. La Commune reenacts the Paris Commune days using a large cast of French non-actors.

In 2004 he also wrote the book Media Crisis, which also discusses the monoform and the lack of debate around the construction of new forms of audiovisual media.


After doing his National Service with the East Surrey Regiment, followed by studying acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Watkins began his television and film career as an assistant producer of short TV films and commercials; and in the early 1960s was an assistant editor and director of documentaries at the BBC.[1] All of his films have either been documentary or drama presented with documentary techniques, sometimes portraying historical occurrences and sometimes possible near future events as if contemporary reporters and filmmakers were there to interview the participants. Watkins pioneered this technique in his first full-length television film, Culloden, which portrayed the Jacobite uprising of 1746 in a style similar to the Vietnam War reporting of the time. In 1965, he won a Jacob's Award for Culloden at the annual presentation ceremony in Dublin.[2]

The scope and formal innovation of Culloden drew immediate critical acclaim for the previously unknown director, and the BBC commissioned him for another ambitious production, the nuclear-war docudrama The War Game, for The Wednesday Play series.[3] The production was subsequently released to cinemas and won the 1966 Academy Award for Documentary Feature, eventually being screened by the BBC on 31 July 1985 after a 20-year ban.[4]

His reputation as a political provocateur was amplified by Punishment Park, a story of violent political conflict in the United States that coincided with the Kent State Massacre. Opposition to war is a common theme of his work, but the films' political messages are often ambiguous, usually allowing the main characters to present violently opposing viewpoints which in many cases are improvised by the cast: in Punishment Park, the soldiers and dissidents were played by nonprofessional actors whose political opinions matched those of their characters so well that the director said he feared actual violence would break out on set. He took a similar approach in his Paris Commune re-enactment La Commune, using newspaper advertisements to recruit conservative actors who would have a genuine antipathy to the Commune rebels. Watkins is also known for political statements about the film and television media, writing extensively about flaws in television news and the dominance of the Hollywood-derived narrative style that he refers to as "the monoform".

After the banning of The War Game and the poor reception of his first non-television feature, Privilege, Watkins left England and has made all of his subsequent films abroad: The Gladiators in Sweden, Punishment Park in the United States, Edvard Munch in Norway, Resan (a 14-hour film cycle about the threat of nuclear war) in ten different countries, and La Commune in France. Freethinker: The Life and Work of Peter Watkins, is a forthcoming biography by Patrick Murphy, a Senior Lecturer in Film and Television at York St John University and Dr John Cook. It is being compiled with Watkins' active help and participation.


Citing their 1969 Bed-in efforts and Peace Concert, an interviewer asked John Lennon and Yoko Ono, "Is there any one particular incident that got you started in this peace campaign?". John answered, "...the thing that really struck it off was a letter we got from a guy called Peter Watkins who made a film called The War Game. It was a very long letter stating just what's happening – how the media is really controlled, how it's all run, and everything else that people really know deep down. He said 'People in your position have a responsibility to use the media for world peace'. And we sat on the letter for about three weeks thinking 'Well, we're doing our best. All you need is love, man.' That letter just sort of sparked it all off. It was like getting your induction papers for peace!"[5]


by Peter Watkins

about Peter Watkins


  1. Rosenthal, Alan; Corner, John (21 April 2005). New challenges for documentary. Manchester University Press. p. 111. ISBN 978-0-7190-6899-7. Retrieved 14 October 2010.
  2. The Irish Times, "Television awards presented", 9 December 1965
  3. George W. Brandt (9 April 1981). British television drama. CUP Archive. pp. 217–38. ISBN 978-0-521-29384-6. Retrieved 14 October 2010.
  4. Alan Rosenthal (1972). The new documentary in action: a casebook in film making. University of California Press. p. 151. ISBN 978-0-520-02254-6. Retrieved 14 October 2010.
  5. Geoffrey Giuliano, The Beatles – A Celebration, p.144
  6. "10th Moscow International Film Festival (1977)". MIFF. Retrieved 13 January 2013.
  7. Bowie, Geoff. "The Universal Clock – The Resistance of Peter Watkins" (Online film). National Film Board of Canada. Retrieved 22 November 2011.
  8. Begoray, Deborah L. (11 April 2003). "The Universal Clock: The Resistance of Peter Watkins". Canadian Materials. Manitoba Library Association. IX (16). Retrieved 22 November 2011.


Further reading

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