Obituary: Peter Newington

Michael Gill
Monday 21 March 1994 00:02 GMT

Peter Derrick Newington, film-maker: born 2 June 1922; married first Daphne Goodman (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved), secondly Jean McDonald (one son); died London 17 March 1994.

PETER NEWINGTON was one of the most original of that small band of television producers who gave the BBC its uniquely commanding position in the two decades after the Second World War.

It was not until February 1958 that the BBC established a regular fortnightly magazine on the arts, Monitor. It ran for seven years and introduced many creative talents to the screen. It is probably best remembered for the dominant presence of its presenter and overall editor, Huw Wheldon. Yet Peter Newington, the producer in the early years, was equally decisive in setting standards of film-making, and innovating many of the techniques that films on the arts have drawn on ever since. Both Wheldon and Newington led from the front: Wheldon with his commentaries that were deliberately free of the jargon of the art world, Newington with arresting film studies of such complex figures as Ezra Pound, Sidney Nolan, Robert Graves and Elisabeth Frink.

The two were complementary. Wheldon had an innate sympathy for music but was no expert on the fine arts. Newington on the other hand had mastered many of the arts that Monitor was expected to celebrate. The son of a Kent solicitor, he had gone to Tunbridge Wells Arts School and practised engraving for three years at the end of the Thirties. Six years of war service in the RAF was followed by an exhibition to the Royal College of Art, combining both painting and theatre design. He took a further step into drama when he went to the Old Vic School, working with Tyrone Guthrie and Michel St Denis. His farewell production of that monstrously difficult play Peer Gynt was described as memorable. By now he had married a fellow student at the Royal College, Daphne Goodman. Together they worked with Bernard Miles in the workshop of the early Mermaid in St John's Wood. Peter also did a certain amount of acting. His dark bony features suggested Captain Hook or the Demon King, and in an interview much later he said he seemed to have specialised in madmen.

Like Ken Tynan and other notable outsiders Newington went on the BBC Producers Course in 1955. His first production, for children's television, was Alice in Wonderland, a hard subject to bring off in those days of live broadcasts when there was no intermission to allow for the necessary magical scene changes. It was well liked and so was Children's Caravan, a series of live outside broadcasts centred in a different location each week. The iron nerves required for drawing together at short notice such varied local elements probably established his propensity throughout his career for leaving all vital decisions to the last possible moment. It could be valuable on a programme such as Monitor which consisted of two or three pre-edited film stories and often a studio interview with a celebrity.

Newington mixed infinite care over detail with allowing for chance up to the last moment, which called on reserves of tolerance and effort from his fellow workers which he almost invariably got. He had no side. In an era when many BBC producers were still from Oxford or Cambridge, he was curiously classless. He was also vulnerable, witty, charming and lovable.

Nothing could be more different from his quiet, ironic humour than Wheldon's booming laugh and commanding presence. Wheldon was a natural leader of men, while Newington was a loner. He once told me that he was born and brought up in a wood, and he had the ability to get lost from sight among the trees. Yet Wheldon came to depend on Newington's creative judgement, and also went to him for reassurance when he was attacked by periodic spasms of self-doubt.

In the end this was too much for Newington's independence. Years later he told me he had had to leave before Wheldon swamped him. He went freelance, to Wheldon's great distress. His departure allowed him to make some memorable films for Tempo, the ITV arts programme including a sympathetic portrait of Graham Sutherland. For the cinema he directed a powerful study of the people of Pitcairn, a place far enough away to entrance him. Back for the BBC, he made The Picardy Affair, a remarkable account of the Battle of Agincourt with only two actors, Esmond Knight and Robert Hardy (whose idea I believe it was).

This was followed by a spell as the first Professor of Film at the Royal College of Art, several years running an advertising company with his second wife, Jean McDonald, and a return to the BBC as documentary producer in the North of England. It was not a conventional career, but he was not a conventional man. A change of tack was what he was after. He was fortunate in his domestic scene. His two families often met and shared the pleasure of his gentle yet fantastical wit. In return his three children, Kate, Giles and Guy, gave him the greatest pleasure. His capacity for savouring life seemed to defeat age until the very end.

Together we made a number of films in the late Seventies and Eighties: one on Surrealism in Cleveland, Ohio; another on Christmas among the Navajo in Arizona; three with the dukes and ladies of English country houses. Most recently he directed two of my series with the Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes, The Buried Mirror. At the time of Peter's death funding had just come through for us to work again in Spain - a country he knew and loved well. In the course of travelling over it for The Buried Mirror - a journey many half his age might have found arduous - he was in a production car that broke down on the outskirts of Segovia. He beguiled the hours with a non- stop Cockney music-hall routine, ending with dancing with the American professor of history who was the originator of the series a passionate fandango on the side of the road. They were both in their late sixties. The time passed like a flash, she said. So it does when you are out to enjoy it.

(Photograph omitted)

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