Donald Cammell: Obituary

The first film Donald Cammell co-directed was the remarkable Performance (1970), a violent, sexually ambiguous story of East End gangsters and a reclusive rock star which brutally stubbed out the fag end of the Swinging Sixties. It was an exploration of the individual's role in society, and the establishment greatly disliked the fact. Reviews at the time were varied, but most memorable perhaps was John Simon of New York magazine, who said it was "the most vile film ever made".

Performance was not only radical, it was an exciting work of art - breaking barriers for the first time. It quickly became a milestone of the day, and many of its techniques - cross-cutting, sound which didn't relate to the image, its clever editing and general disjointedness - had an incredible influence on other directors' work. It became and still is a cult movie. The house in Lowndes Square used in the film, belonging to Captain Leonard Plugge MP, became the butt of popular investigative journalism - questions were asked as to what was going on in this respectable Belgravia community and whether real drugs were being used in the film. James Fox, its star, found the experience of making Performance - and its subject matter - so disturbing that he retired from acting for 15 years.

Donald Seton Cammell was named Seton after his godfather, the much respected Scottish naturalist Seton Gordon. He was born in Edinburgh in the Outlook Tower by the castle; his father Charles was a writer, poet and keen Scottish Nationalist and his mother Iona was a MacDonald. Both parents thought Donald had been born with a particularly artistic and imaginative star to guide and protect him.

He was educated at Westminster, but left early to concentrate on art. After studying drawing and painting at the Byam Shaw School of Art, he won a scholarship to the Royal Academy Schools and then moved to Florence to study with Pietro Annigoni. Back in London, he became a fashionable portrait painter. His subjects included the society photographer Claude Virgin III Jnr and his birdcage, and the young Marquess of Dufferin and Ava dressed as a page at the Queen's coronation.

In the mid-Fifties, Chelsea and the King's Road beckoned. Cammell moved into a studio in Flood Street which, thanks to his talent and charm, became a mecca for a remarkable number of beautiful women and a meeting-place for the "in" crowd, including Antony Armstrong-Jones. One of the women was Maria Andipa, a Greek actress (who later featured in the films A High Wind in Jamaica, 1965, and From Russia With Love, 1963), whom he married when he was 20, and by whom he had a son.

By the mid-1960s, Cammell had become uneasy with London. He wanted to live a "modern" life and found portrait-painting restrictive, but abstract art was alien to him. Hoping to encounter a different outlook, he moved first to Paris, and then to Los Angeles.

The first film he scripted was Duffy in 1967, starring James Coburn and James Fox, but he was unhappy with the end result. He clearly thought that writing and directing together was his destiny - that way he would have control of his material. Shortly afterwards he wrote Performance and, helped by his friendship with Mick Jagger, persuaded Warner Bros to give him his chance to make it himself. A team was formed with Sanford Lieberson as producer, the lighting cameraman Nicholas Roeg as joint director, and Cammell's younger brother David as associate producer.

Shot in 1969, the first cut revealed one of the first really adult movies. Warner Bros were horrified and wanted to bury it. However, despite divided opinion, the film was finally released over two years later in 1972.

Certainly Performance startled and provoked, and should have provided a gateway to Donald Cammell's subsequent career. Sadly, Hollywood thought differently. Instead Cammell survived by developing and scripting countless screenplays including White of the Eye (1987) and Demon Seed (1977), in which Julie Christie gave one of her greatest performances.

The Wild Side, starring Christopher Walken and Joan Chen, was shot last year, but Cammell was unhappy with the cut made by New Image, the production company, and he removed his name from the credits. Other scripts involving Marlon Brando, "Jericho" and "Fantan", have yet to come to fruition.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: HR and Payroll Manager

£35000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This dynamic outsourced contact...

Recruitment Genius: Production & Quality Control Assistant

£19000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An excellent opportunity for a ...

Ashdown Group: Group HR Advisor - Kettering - £32,000

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group HR Advisor with an established...

Guru Careers: HR Manager / HR Generalist

£40 - 50k (DOE) + Bonus: Guru Careers: We are seeking a HR Manager / HR Genera...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor