Saturday, 2 November 2019

Britain, was once a country for, but now fails to say "Farewell" to an old documentary Film Director and 'Prince of the European Artistic Community', Peter Adam


Why has Peter's death at the age of 90 in Sèvres, France, passed unregarded in the British press and certainly without an obituary marking the 31 years he spent contributing to the cultural life in Britain would warrant. In the 1970s and 80s, along with the reporters James Mossman and Olivier Todd, his was a recognisable face and voice in BBC television documentaries yet, apart from half a dozen French tweets, only Le Monde marked his passing with : 'Born in Germany, he had chosen British nationality and the English language to work as a documentary film maker for the BBC. His insatiable curiosity and immense culture predestined him to be a remarkable witness to his time.' 

When he retired from the BBC in 1989, having worked for the Corporation for 21 years, it had been a different story. David Attenborough who had worked as Controller of BBC2 from 1965–1969, paid tribute to him in saying : 'With gratitude to you for having done so much to help top establish the character and distinction of BBC 2.' 

Joan Bakewell, journalist and tv presenter said : 'Your contribution to the art of the television and through that, to rest of the civilised world, is outstanding. For your judgement sympathy and exquisite taste, my thanks.' The theatre director David Jones lamented : 'Here goes the prince of European artistic community and bright light to the benighted barbarians of Britain' and Melvyn Bragg, the then Head of Arts at London Weekend Television, said : 'France's gain, England's loss.'

Peter himself wrote : 'My life at the BBC was filled with affection for my work and my colleagues. Maybe the things I had been trying to do all those years with such stubborn tenacity were not totally in vain and the multi-faceted, middle-European egghead, with old fashioned respect for culture, was appreciated. I, the foreigner had been for a brief moment allowed to be part of television which was such a glory of British life. I finally belonged.'

Having arrived in Britain, Peter was fortunate in knowing Dr Patrick Woodcock who was 'everybody's doctor.' He recalled : 'For Patrick, art always rivalled medicine and his surgery was really the antechamber to his living room.' Taken under Patrick's wing he would be introduced to guests like Joyce Carey, Alan Bates and Sheila Hancock. In addition, 'Patrick also decided to get rid of my dreadful American accent.'  He also met the historical biographer Hester Chapman and actors Peggy Ashcroft and John Gielgud and 'thought that he was the greatest actor and wisest man I ever met.' 

He recalled : 'For me it was a formidable introduction to London theatre and literary life. Playing the role of the scoundrel and charmer I had quickly learned to participate in conversation and not be impressed.' He met Franco Zeffirelli who was in London directing Judy Dench and John Stride in Romeo and Juliet and recorded that 'we became instant friends' and his friendship with painter Keith Vaughan led him to meet the young David Hockney.

It was in 1961 that at the age of 32 that he made his debut as a film director working for a small film company called 'Television Advertising.' He confessed his advert for Spanish margarine wasn't that good, but his cigarette commercial with actress, Fenella Fielding, won a prize in New York.

More important : he was able to watch and learn from John Schlesinger and Dick Lester when they directed, persuaded the cutting editor to teach him his trade and Tony Shaffer, whose brother and identical twin was Peter and who a few years later wrote 'Sleuth,' instructed him in writing.

In 1964 when the TV Commercial company went bust he was taken on by A.B.Pathé to look after their German commercial side and directed over a hundred commercials. Between 1964-65 he was out of work, then in 1967 he dined at Peter Shaffer's and : 'At the table sat a man who would change the course of my life, the journalist James Mossman. Two weeks later I was employed by the BBC.'

James became his mentor and was, according to Peter, 'one of a breed of reporters of passionate integrity and journalistic brilliance' and in 1968 Peter was employed as a researcher for 3 programmes James was working on for 'Panorama' entitled 'Democracy on Trial.' He arranged an interview with student leader Rudi Dutshke and the Observer called the resulting programme 'The Best tv Documentary of the Year.'

He now moved to the magazine '24 Hours' as a producer and made a film about Czech refugees who had fled to Vienna after the Russian suppression of the 'Prague Spring' and another on the Farnborough Air Show, which was shot with no commentary, but with a pop song in its place. Then came his 'Old People' about the plight of the poor in 1960s London. Fyfe Robertson, who supplied the commentary told him : "You're different lad. Make sure the institution serves you and not the other way round."

He now found himself summoned to the Controller of BBC 1, Paul Fox, who asked : "You still have a German passport Peter ? The BBC has to send someone to Biafra and that someone can't be British This is a dangerous job and a big one."
He was given the French reporter Olivier Todd and a French film crew and the resulting programme was watched by an audience of 7 million viewers and was considered by Peter to be one of the best programmes he ever made. Paul Fox told him that it was a great piece of work, but his own judgement was that 'each frame told such a powerful story , it would have been difficult to fail.' It gave him a big boost to his career : 'In Lime Grove I had suddenly moved to the forefront. Jim was very proud. I now sat at the table of the top journalists.'

Peter now became a British subject and recalled : 'In order to work permanently at the BBC I had to become a British subject.' He made 'Cuba after 11 Years' for '24 Hours' before moving to the arts magazine 'Review' to work as one of its 4 producers and made programmes about André Malraux, Nureyev. the Netherlands Ballet and another film about Cuba, 'Art and the Revolution.'

In 1970 when Visconti was filming 'Death in Venice' with Dirk Bogart, he flew to Venice to interview the director on location before making 'Visconti at Work.' In his autobiography, published in 1995, he said that 'Review was am honourable effort to deal with the arts on television and by today's standards positively highbrow.' 

For another programme he filmed a whole sequence on Andy Warhol with coca cola bottles on a shelf and brillo pads in a supermarket and was instrumental in introducing Warhol to David Hockney. It was about this time that the comedy actor Kenneth Williams introduced him to Joe Orton.

Most of the interviews with the likes of Kurt Vonnegut, Graham Greene, John Updike and a 'bird-like' Murial Spark' were done in the studio, but those filmed in Peter's flat in Earl's Terrace featured Edward Albee, Peter Shaffer, John Gielgud, Doris Lessing and Mick Jagger. The latter was in a 'tweed suit and gave the impression of being frightfully respectable, although he complained about the tea which was poured out of grandmother Adam's silver tea service.'

After the suicide of James Mossman he made his documentary dedication in the shape of his film 'To Be a Witness,' and asked Peter Shaffer to write the script in which he said of James : 'A man who left behind in the guts of many us the feeling of a presence so authentic, so dazzling, so warm and so original that we know we will never encounter its like again.'

In 1972, at the age of 43, with his time with 'Review' coming to an end, he reflected that he had made 32 programmes in two and half years, with his film about 'Man Ray' giving him the greatest pleasure and ended with 'Royal Dreams : Visconti and Ludwig of Bavaria.'

His next venture was all his own. Entitled 'Them and Us' he recalled : 'For my first work I proposed to make a series of programmes about the culture in the European Community, which we were finally about to join 'The 'series broke new ground for the BBC. Each part was ninety minutes long, made by a very small team and used foreign crews.'

He knew it wouldn't be easy : 'I was not a writer and I had an accent, which was a serious handicap. I was a good battler, a sly diplomat and a puller of strings.' In the event he presented 'Them and Us : Germany' the first programme in the series which covered other European states and which would occupy him for the next two years and bring him : 'much joy, many good and some bad reviews and even some fame.'

In 1976 he made 'Spirit of Place : Lawrence Durrell's Greece' which featured the author Lawrence Durrell and in which he interspered with his questions and considered it to be 'a turning point in my career, even in my life. It made me discover the pleasure of writing.' His programme was nominated for a British Academy Award for 'Outstanding Service to Television.' https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EIOjaroRfEI&t=2m45s

In the same year he started work as the Editor of 'Arena' and said : 'I wanted Arena to be a programme about the nature of the theatre and of writing, not one which passed judgement' and in his first programme, Kenneth Tynan discussed with him and Claire Bloom the notion of great acting which he recorded as a 'disaster' and concluded that : 'I realised that to make a weekly programme with big names on a shoe-string budget would not be easy.' 

Interviews followed with Jeanne Moreau and Simone Signoret, but his tenure with 'Arena' was short lived and he left and joined 'Omnibus' which the BBC saw as a 'prestigious arts programme' for which he made 'Signs of a Vigorous Life' about the German cinema and 'Festa in Montepulciano' in Tuscany.

Then, between 1978 and 1981, a tumble of work followed which included 'Alexandria Revisited,' the interviews with Lotte Lenya and Lillian Helmann. He wrote and presented, his 'Homage to Kurt Weille and Burthold Brecht,' which was chosen for the Prix Italia. In addition, Lotte Lenya told him she liked his stage productions of 'Happy End' and Little Mahogany.'

1980 brought 'Artist at Work' which featured Edward Albee and David Hockney and the following year he directed 'The Soldiers' Tale' at the Festival Hall, which gave him the greatest satisfaction of his career and which received a review in the Guardian saying : 'It was just not of this world.' The following year he reprised it on the BBC with Ben Kingsley as the narrator.

By the time he started on his next series for the BBC he felt : 'my love affair with England began to wilt. Nostalgia and obsession with class was still he official ideology. In addition he felt that the decline of the BBC as the official safeguard of culture continued and he found that 'things became intolerably black annihilating all aspiration.'


In 1983 the BBC aired his series of six 'Master Photographers' in which he produced and conducted the interviews of some of the biggest names in European photography at the time, including : Jacques Henri Lartigue and Alfred EisenstaedtAndreas FeiningerBill BrandtAnsel Adams and Andre Kertesz.

In 1986 he wrote and produced his 8 part series : 'Architecture at the Crossroads' which examined the triumphs and failures of post-war architecture and included 'Doubt and Reassessment' , 'Stop the bulldozer' and 'Houses fit for People'.

In his last years in Britain he made 'Richard Strausss Remembered' :  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O0ImK5CpSmo which won a GoldenStar for the 'Best Full Length Documentary' at the Houston Film Festival was narrated by John Gielgud.

He wrote and presented 'Architecture and Televison' and in 1987 came 'George Gershwin Remembered' :
https://archive.org/details/tntvillage_613700

His last work in Britain was 'Art of the Third Reich', which was nominated for a British Academy Award for 'Best Documentary of the Year.'  He was interviewed about his book of the same name by American  television journalist, Charlie Rose :  https://charlierose.com/videos/15579

Two years later, after 31 years in residence, he left Britain to follow his Argentinian lover Facundo Bo to France. At the time he asked himself : 'Was it not madness at sixty to give up work, friends, house, the country I felt totally at home in, even the language which had become my own ? It was a big step and all at once. And yet when I was asked qt a dinner party by a lady who did not know me : ' Mr Adam, why are you leaving ? I simply said : 'For love, and in this word lay the whole truth.'

Where did Peter come from ?

His cultural roots were in the Germany of the 1930s. Born Klaus-Peter in Berlin in 1929 along with his twin sister, Renate, the son of a Protestant mother, Luise and German father, Walter, who was a State Councillor and legal advisor to German Chancellior  Brüning and worked at Ministry of Finance. Peter himself said : 'We were an affluent, respectable family and lived in a style which was certainly beyond the salary of a senior councillor, for my father came from a wealthy Jewish family.' 

The family lived in spacious accommodation along with their nanny, Dada and Peter had access to his father's library which included all of Walter Scott's novels and at night their parents enjoyed a social life which encompassed both Berlin theatre and opera house. However, the increasingly hostile attitude to Jewish people after the Nazi success in the 1933 Reichstag elections, forced them to move to Cologne, where Walter got job as legal advisor to the big department store, Schloss und Levi. Then, with his father's death from ling cancer in 1935, Luise took Peter and Renate back to Berlin.

He wanted to join the junior division of the Hitler Youth, but had been barred from admission because of his Jewish blood. With the coming of the Second World War his school, a French lycée, was evacuated to a mountain resort in Silesia where he now 'slept in a large dormitory with a bunch of rowdy boys, telling dirty jokes and discussing the world all night long. In winter, having won a skiing competition, he was barred from accepting his award when a Hitler Youth stepped in and said : "This prize isn't for Judenjunge." He was 11 years old and recalled : 'When I returned to Berlin, I was a changed person.'

Back in Berlin, given the run of his father's library he was 'quite intoxicated by the French Romantics, Lamartine, Musset, poems and novels in which the heroes always died and the heroines of consumption.' This must have been an antidote to the death and destruction around him and the British and American saturation bombing on Berlin when he was 14 in 1943. Years later he wrote : 'I remember those hopeless mornings, the sky still black with smoke. People in torn or burnt clothes, carrying a few bundles, searched for survivors, walking aimlessly among the ruins covered in dust and plaster, unable to grasp what had happened.'

After school, in the afternoons he was assigned to a local hospital where he pushed recovering soldiers in their wheelchairs in the local park and read them Rilke's 'Cornet' : 'Riding, riding riding. And courage has grown so tired and longing so great.' He recalled the he : 'looked down the long room of beds. In each of them  lay a shattered existence, a broken body, betrayed and sacrificed. These were my enemies : they had fought Hitler's war, not mine. What sense did all this make ?  I often cried at night, lost and confused, not unlike those soldiers.'

In 1944 the family were moved to  the village of Tressdorf in Austria, where Peter, barred from attending school, was taught Latin by the local priest and English and French by his brother, who worked as a waiter. It was here that, at the age 16 he had his first experience of gay sex with a young officer who was a war journalist. Then, with the War over, back in Berlin he recalled : 'Thank God for Zeni. She was much older than me, that is three years older. She had done a stint as a chambermaid in Innsbruck and was versed in the art of lovemaking.'


Times were tough for the family in Post-War Berlin and in 1946 he experienced what many Germans had experienced before : cold and hunger, but he was now back at school - a mixed comprehensive and experienced the previously banned works of Brecht, Kafka and Thomas Mann.and took advantage of the small libraries oped up by the Americans in their sector of occupied Berlin with their American magazines and books like Steinbeck's 'East of Eden.' He recalled that he 'became Americanised almost overnight.'

It was at this time, he recalled : 'I came out of the closet before ever going in. Luise was a great help of course. She had many homosexual friends and once made the classical remark to some of my gay friends staying in our house  :"I don't mind your friends trying on my dresses, but I like them to put them back on the hanger."'

In 1949 he enrolled at the Free University of Berlin to study German, French Literature and the History of Art and two years later moved to Paris and enrolled at the Sorbonne to study a Cours de la Civilisation Française tailored for foreign students. It at this time he first met Cocteau who introduced him to Colette and he took to travel. On his 24th birthday on the Italian island of Ischia he met W.H.Auden in a hot spa and in conversation : 'I realised how little I knew about English Literature. It was from Auden that I heard from the first time the names Isherwood, Spender and E.M.Forster.'

He returned to Berlin in 1953 and earned money modelling sweater, suits and raincoats to sustain himself while he studied for his doctorate at the University and earned the prestigious title of 'Herr Doctor'. On a visit to St. Tropez he met the young Françoise Sagan and recalled : 'We used to drive in her convertible S Jaguar to Restuarant Palmyre to the sound of a barrel organ.'

He now worked as a small time diplomat for the Europa Union in Bonn, preparing the German population for joining the Common Market. He recalled that he was in his element : 'It was a job that brought me together with different nationalities and had a certain glamour attached to it. We were received by the Mayor of Paris in Berlin. Once I danced with the Queen of the Netherlands, another time I shook hands with the Italian President.'

In 1956 he travelled to the United Stated and got a job at $100 a week working for an advertising agency in Madison Avenue, New York. He found that : 'With my usual gregariousness, I soon encountered new friends. John Emery, actor and ex-husband of Tallulah Bankhead' and 'at Tamara's I also met Richard Barr, a prominent theatre producer, and a young playwright, Edward Albee.' 

He stayed in the States for two years and, at the age of 29, sailed for Britain.


Another forgotten talent :

Sunday, 11 October 2015


Britain is no longer a country for and omits to say "Goodbye" to an old and once revered TV presenter called Michael Dean

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