people. dwelling in detail on the destructive power of weaponry. ‘This is grapeshot. and this is what it does.‘ intones the narrator in Cit/laden over documentary-style footage of lines of Highlanders being cut down by cannon tire. The following year he was describing the mega-ton force of nuclear warheads but the message was the same — war is a horrifying business. however it is waged.
Like Ken Loach. whose ground-breaking drama Cat/2y Come Home about homelessness was made for the BBC around the same time. Watkins was interested in telling stories from the point of view of the ordinary person. There are no heroes or central characters in his early films and the narratives unfold using a multiple perspective. For Watkins this is both a distinctive dramatic technique. and a political statement which changes the relationship between subject and viewer. ‘I think working with people in the evocation of history has enormous untapped potential.‘ he says. ‘Television is absolutely scared witless of that process — it‘s scared of the public becoming more deeply integrated in the process of television.‘
Watkins accepts that he worked at the BBC. albeit briefly. during a ‘golden age‘ of television when directors were allowed to take risks and encouraged to pursue their own interests. rather than write for an audience. He now regards television as a debased medium. saying: ‘lt‘s holding a lot of people in front of the screen for mercantile reasons — there’s no other purpose to it now. It is so disgusting to see the medium has slid down to that level.‘ Given this antipathy towards television in general. and the BBC in particular. it is remarkable that he agreed to return to lnverness take part in BBC Scotland‘s lit-S documentary on the making of C‘ul/oden.
(‘ulloden and The War Game are constructed from ‘interviews‘. with the characters talking directly to the camera. In both films he used unknown actors and local people recruited in the places he was filming. creating a rawness which would be hard to capture by using professional actors simply playing a part. Though Watkins had already experimented with this documentary style of shooting drama when he arrived at the BBC. it was fully realised for the first time with ("allude/z.
‘When we did films for the BBC we had little equipment but that didn‘t stop you trying to make it look as professional as possible.‘ remembers (‘u/loden cameraman Dick Bush. ‘Then Peter comes along and says he wants the camera to shake. When 1 first spoke to him and he told me I was severely worried. but within barely an hour of working with him I knew what he wanted — we just threw the tripod away and shook the camera.‘
The resulting film looks. as intended. like a news report from a battle zone and the fact it was being made during the Vietnam war — widely regarded as the first televised war — lent the project extra immediacy. Watkins says he was trying to force the viewer to think in new ways and was particularly influenced by the stark black and white war images from the legendary Magnum photo-journalism agency.
‘The actions taken by the South Vietnamese army against the mountain people for example.‘ says Watkins. ‘and the communist villages in South Vietnam by the American army — there the parallel was very close. In 1964 the war was beginning to escalate and we were seeing it on the nightly news on
Peter Watkins: Betore the acrimonious split over The War Game,
PETER WATKINS FEATURE
he was regarded as one at the BBC’s most talented and orlglnal dlrectors
television. so that was a reason too for trying to have this particular form ~— to relate [Cullodenl to what was seen in Vietnam on the newsreels.‘
(‘u/loden is quite clearly an anti-war film. portraying (‘harles Edward Stuart as a vain. egotistical man who allowed his own myth to
blind him to the overwhelming superiority of
the King‘s army over the .lacobites. Like so many hopelessly inadequate leaders before him. Charlie was convinced (iod was on his side.
Inspired by historian .lohn l’rebble‘s account of
the battle and its tragic aftermath. Watkins used
‘For reasons I can’t really identity, I felt a lot of sympathy for what happened up here and I realised that people didn’t know why the glens are empty. It was very important to say that.’
this sad episode of Scottish history as a way of
expressing his own disgust at man‘sinhumanity to his fellow man during titnes of war. So did he choose (‘ullodcn because he saw it as a universal war story‘.’
‘.\'o. not entirely.‘ Watkins responds. ‘The reasons for making that film were on multiple levels and certainly the question of war was one. but I could have chosen other subjects. so I think for me it was very important to combine that with what happened to the Gaelic l-lighlander.
For reasons I can‘t really identify. I felt a lot of
sympathy for what happened up here and I realised that people didn‘t know why the glens are empty. It was very important to say that and
it‘s a subject which is important on a much more complex political level — the intolerance in the system of minority groupings is a theme which always interested tne very much. A lot of the forces were in me already but Prebble’s book gave me a subject and a framework to express these things.‘
If Vietnam was in Watkins’s mind when he made (‘u/loden. watching the film now it‘s impossible not to see a strong parallel with the ‘ethnic cleansing‘ conducted during the war in Bosnia. The religious divisions between Protestants and the Catholic Jacobites — the age old clan rivalries which put the Campbells and .\lacdonalds on opposing sides. and the destruction of a whole culture that followed in the Highland Clearances — are all similar to forces which catne into play in Yugoslavia 250 years later. ‘I don‘t think our species has ever dealt with why we do this.‘ says Watkins. ‘Why we‘re not only violent to each other. but why we react with jealousy or intolerance towards other people.‘
For a brief moment in the 60s. Peter Watkins
was a television director — then rare. now almost unheard of - whose work actually had the emotional power to change the way we think. The fact that one of his films was suppressed and the man himself made to feel unable to live. let alone work. in the UK represents a shameful episode in British broadcasting history. Peter ll’atkins s C ul/or/en is shown as part of a Jacobite season on Sunday [4 April on BBC2. [iv-S: Making Reel Historjv is on Monday 15 April on BBCI.
The List 5-18 Apr 199617