Wednesday 28 December 2022

In memoriam: Ron Peck (Telegraph 23/12/22)

Ron Peck
, who has died aged 74, was a filmmaker who assured his place in British cinema history with his 1978 debut Nighthawks, one of the first homegrown features to directly address the daily realities of gay life. Written by Peck with Paul Hallam, Nighthawks focused on a man living a carefully compartmentalised existence. Inner-city geography teacher by day, clubber by night, Jim (Ken Robertson) is continually obliged to check himself, not least during a climactic classroom confrontation in which he calmly rebuts his pupils’ prejudices (“Do you dress in women’s clothes?”).

The film was a labour of love: after being denied BFI funding, a budget was cobbled together from private donations. Peck advertised in the gay press to recruit extras for the nightclub scenes, though only forty hardy souls showed up; many of those the director asked to appear declined, fearful of being seen on camera at a moment when homosexuality was decriminalised but still considered taboo. Nevertheless, with help from Derek Jarman (who lent Peck his flat for filming, appearing in a walk-on role) and completion funds from German TV, the film finally made it into cinemas.

Reviews were mixed (Time Out’s Geoff Andrew lamented the “sluggish pace and awkward amateur performances”); an X certificate and half-hearted tabloid kerfuffle (“Child Porn Row Looms On Gay Film”) followed. American viewers were more intrigued: while conceding the film was overlong, The New York Times’ Janet Maslin found the film “gentle and believable… so realistic, or at least so intimately close to its main character, that it has the feeling of documentary”. The film endured as a rough-edged landmark, gaining a new audience over the decades as a teachable episode in gay representation. (Ironically, the BFI later issued it on DVD.)

13 years later, Peck completed a follow-up, Strip Jack Naked (1991), which wove outtakes from Nighthawks into an autobiographical account of gay life in the AIDS era. Peck admitted Nighthawks offered a selective glimpse of that life: “Almost any film starts off with the burden of trying to redress an imbalance... We need hundreds of gay films, not half a dozen.” Yet he saw its appeal: “I think that it’s a reminder of a past, because I think young people today have a sense of entitlement which we didn’t have. It all had to be worked for. Today, they’re able to be very open, which my generation generally wasn’t.”

He was born Ronald Lindsay Peck on May 15, 1948 in Merton Park, one of two sons to estate agent Richard Peck and wife Joan (née Lindsay), who’d served in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force during World War II. A keen cinemagoer from an early age – he landed a detention for skipping PE to see Antonioni’s L’Eclisse (1962) at the Tooting Classic – Peck attended Rutlish School before studying English literature at Swansea University and American Studies at Sussex University. After enrolling at the London Film School, he co-founded the Four Corners collective; his graduation short, Its Ugly Head (1976), centred on a closeted husband.

Appropriately, he followed Nighthawks with Edward Hopper (1981), a mid-length Arts Council profile of the American painter. After serving assistant director duties on Merchant-Ivory’s adaptation of The Bostonians (1984) – James Ivory was a Nighthawks fan – Peck fell in with the emergent Channel Four, providing a natural fit with the demands of their Independent Film & Video slot: his frisky short What Can I Do with a Male Nude? (1985) juxtaposed stock pin-up poses with a rumination on desire and censorship.

He ventured into commercial thriller territory with Empire State (1987), a Long Good Friday-ish collision between British and American gangsters around the titular Docklands nightclub. Mixing such established performers as Martin Landau with non-professionals, it drew baffled admiration from reviewers (Time Out dubbed it “a brave but flawed attempt to escape the straitjacket of British realism”) but failed to find much of an audience. Its legacy was Team Pictures, a production company Peck formed with writer Mark Ayres in 1985; it opened a digital production house in 1998.

Empire State introduced Peck to boxer-turned-actor Jimmy Flint, who proved central to Peck’s subsequent Channel Four work: Fighters (1991), a feature-length documentary study of boxers at an East End stable, and Real Money (1996), a largely improvised crime drama, starring several of the Fighters pugilists, which had the misfortune to arrive a year or so before the late Nineties British gangster-movie revival. A third film of this ilk, Gangster, was planned with the same team, only to be abandoned due to financing issues.

Peck persisted with docufiction in Cross-Channel (2011), made with funding from Brittany Ferries, though it failed to land theatrical distribution. He was interviewed for the Derek Jarman tribute The Gospel According to St. Derek (2014) and produced Jarman’s “lost” film Will You Dance with Me? (2014), comprising a single, impressionistic 78-minute take shot inside a London nightclub thirty years before. He was the subject of a retrospective at the Queer Lisboa festival in 2018; his final work was Canning Town Voices (2020), accompanying Jimmy Flint on a tour of childhood haunts.

As Peck explained, many cherished ideas remained unrealised: “Given how many of the projects you develop don’t actually get made, […] the actual projects themselves have to be ambitious, engaging and worthwhile. That way you get something out of it, made or not, and don’t simply waste your life on your knees in front of producers and financiers. I had to see each project as a voyage, a striking out into new territory, an enlargement of my experience. Life after all is short. You want to live what you have of it.”

He is survived by a brother, David Peck.

Ron Peck, born May 15 1948, died November 2 2022.

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