Whitehead’s breakthrough film, the documentation of the great Albert Hall Poetry Festival in ’65, which won him acclaim and awards. Shot handheld with only 45 minutes of stock (the finished film is 33 minutes), and presumably closely distilling much of the tension and event-ness of the celebrated ‘happening’. Verse luminaries include a bill-topping Allen Ginsberg (who reclines into his adoring entourage like a decadent monarch), the gruff, pipesmoking compere Alec Trocchi, an incendiary Adrian Mitchell, and most memorably the stoned heckler who disrupts the wired Harry Fainlight to the delight of the massive crowd. Serious verite of the old style, with Whitehead skillfully and spontaneously counterpointing the mixed bag of performers against the audience in the foreground – couples lighting each others fags, or a beautiful girl dancing to the rhythms of Ginsberg’s chant.
Entropy, June 1997
The Albert Hall poetry reading memorialized in Peter WhiteheadIs Wholly Communion – brought the stars of US Beat poetry together with their English peers. As a reading it was chaotic – but as a cultural event it was incomparable. It was the climax of beatnik dreams, and the launch of the hippies. Seven thousand people arrived, a vast “alternative” constituency few could have imagined. The Albert Hall, booked for £450, had never seen anything like it. From it came the confidence to found the first “underground institutions”, The Indica Gallery, The International Times and much more.
Jonathon Green. ‘Days in the Life.’
There was electricity in the air and ecstasy in the hearts of those who had come. The crowd was spirited, noisy, but ultimately respectful. To them, proper conduct seemed a matter of normally sitting and listening in docile silence, but really taking part in what seemed to them a miraculous event. As Allen Ginsberg read, for example, one girl rose to her feet and began moving slowly in a weird twisting dance, a marvellous moment. This vignette and others that characterized the whole, crazy joyous atmosphere that prevailed that night have been caught on film in Peter WhiteheadIs Wholly Communion, a documentary of the reading that in intention and feeling prefigures Monterey Pop and Woodstock.
Robin Cook. ‘The Beat Generation.’
Peter Whitehead’s first independently produced film, won the Gold Medal at the prestigious Mannheim Documentary Film Festival 1966, and was shown at Film Festivals round the world. It was England’s first cinema-verite documentary film – filmed with a silent Eclair camera – ‘one of the audience’ – at the legendary, spontaneous International Poetry Incarnation at the Albert Hall, London, 11th June 1965 – 7000 people unexpectedly filled the hall to listen to Beat poets from America – making the event into the first major “Happening” , putting the underground and counter-culture firmly into the public eye – not letting it blink too often since.
Allen Ginsberg, travelling pal of Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, this time fresh back from Poland where he had been crowned “King of the May”, started the proceedings by singing a Tibetan mantra, accompanying himself with finger cymbals. Lawrence Ferlinghetti launched into a poem – “To Fuck is to Love Again” – and the evening – and England – was never the same again. Alexander Trocchi kept the police at bay and the events rolling. Gregory Corso read his poem “Mutation of the Spirit”. Ernst Jandl read Sound Poems in German.
English poets Michael Horovitz and Christopher Logue read calmly, but Harry Fainlight, reading a poem written on LSD, “The Spider” was interrupted by Dutch poet Simon Vinkenoog, high on mescalin, shouting out “Come man come” and Harry’s attempts to carry on and read more and more poems are some of the highlights of the film. Not so much about poetry – but the awesome experience of poets exposing themselves, reading to a public which can be sometimes hostile.
Adrian Mitchell’s poem “To Whom it May Concern” – a savage diatribe about the Vietnam War – brought the house down. Allen Ginsberg read a poem written by the Russian poet Andrei Vosnesensky – “New York Bird” – he was present but not allowed to read by his Embassy. Allen brought the evening to a close with a reading of two long poems – “The Change” and “Who be Kind To” – in which he wrote “Tonite let’s all make love in London”. While he was reading, a young girl danced – in a haze of pot smoke – oblivious of time and space and people – following the rhythm of the poetry as if it was music.
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