Heathcote Williams

Heathcote Williams
Born John Henley Heathcote-Williams
(1941-11-15) 15 November 1941
Helsby, Cheshire, England, UK
Occupation Poet, actor, playwright
Years active 1964–present

Heathcote Williams (born 15 November 1941) is an English anarchist poet, actor, political activist and dramatist. He has written a number of best-selling book-length polemical poems including Autogeddon, Falling for a Dolphin and Whale Nation, which in 1988 became, according to Philip Hoare "the most powerful argument for the newly instigated worldwide ban on whaling.".[1] Williams invented his idiosyncratic 'documentary/investigative poetry' style which he continues to put to good purpose bringing a diverse range of environmental and political matters to public attention. In June 2015, he published a book-length investigative poem about the 'Muslim Gandhi', Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, 'Badshah Khan'[2]

As well as being a prolific playwright and screenwriter, Williams has appeared in a number of well-known Independent and Hollywood films and was among the celebrity guests in the last episode of season 4 of 'Friends', '"The One With Ross's Wedding"'. He played Prospero in Derek Jarman's The Tempest and has appeared in several 'arthouse' films, including Orlando, as well as Hollywood blockbusters such as Basic Instinct 2. Al Pacino played the part of a Williams fan in a spoof arts documentary, Every Time I Cross the Tamar I Get into Trouble.

Williams also writes lyrics, collaborating with Marianne Faithfull among others.

Williams is a keen naturalist and discovered a new species of honey-producing wasp in the Amazon jungle, an event he recorded in a book of poems called 'Forbidden Fruit'[3]

Williams is a member of the Magic Circle and a skilful magician. He wrote a TV play called What the Dickens! about Charles Dickens’s penchant for performing magic shows. Bob Hoskins taught him fire eating. When he went to demonstrate his new found talent to then girlfriend Jean Shrimpton, he accidentally set himself alight on her door step.

Williams was a leading activist in the London squatting scene in the 1970s and ran a squatters 'estate agency' called the 'Rough Tough Cream Puff'. In 1977 he and a couple of hundred fellow squatters established the 'state' of Frestonia in Notting Hill and declared independence from Britain. Then Shadow Chancellor, Geoffrey Howe, wrote to express his support and Williams was appointed UK Ambassador. Frestonia lasted almost a decade and had its own institutions and postage stamps.

Williams spray-painted graffiti on the walls of Buckingham Palace as a protest against the Queen signing Michael X's death warrant while there was no capital punishment in the UK. In the early 1970s, his agitational graffiti were a feature on the walls of the then low-rent end of London's Notting Hill district.[4]

Early life and career

John Henley Heathcote-Williams was born in Helsby, Cheshire. After his schooldays at Eton, he changed his name to Heathcote Williams. His father, also named Heathcote Williams, was a lawyer.[5] From his early twenties, Williams has enjoyed a minor cult following. His first book was The Speakers (1964), an account of life at Speakers' Corner in London's Hyde Park. In 1974, it was adapted for the stage by the Joint Stock Theatre Company.

His first full-length play, AC/DC (1970), first staged at the Royal Court Theatre, is a critique of the burgeoning mental health industry, includes a thinly veiled attack on 1960s alternative society, and the proponent of the anti-psychiatry movement, R. D. Laing. Its production did not, however, appear to impede cordial relations between the two men in later years. AC/DC won the London Evening Standard's Most Promising Play Award. It also received the 1972 John Whiting Award for being "a new and distinctive development in dramatic writing with particular relevance to contemporary society." It was described in the Times Literary Supplement in a front-page review by Charles Marowitz as 'the first play of the 21st century.' AC/DC was produced in New York City in 1971 at the Chelsea Theater Center at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Other plays include the one-act monologue Hancock's Last Half Hour, The Local Stigmatic, The Immortalist and the impossible to categorise Remember The Truth Dentist—an early effort, again at the Royal Court, directed by Ken Campbell.

The inaugural issue of the London Review of Books included an effusive profile by fellow Etonian Francis Wyndham titled The Magic of Heathcote Williams.


Williams has often been reluctant to co-operate in the promotion of his work on a commercial level, refusing, for example, to go to the US to promote AC/DC, to the despair of his publishers. The only book-signing tour he has ever done  "enough," he complained, "to cripple a rock-star"  was merely the result of relentless pressure from Jonathan Cape's PR department.

Cover of Autogeddon's UK edition, 1991

Energetic publicity efforts on Williams' behalf, the responsibility of Cape's Polly Samson, enabled him to reach a wider audience for his trilogy of book-length poems on environmental themes. Each of them was the result of detailed research and featured many photographs. Written some years earlier as visionary propaganda, they had otherwise been gathering dust in a corner of his then agent's office. The North American rights for the poem Whale Nation (1988) were sold at the Frankfurt Book Fair for $100,000. According to another writer on this subject, Philip Hoare in 2008, it is an "epic plea for the future of the whale, a hymn to the beauty, majesty and intelligence of the largest mammals on earth, as well as a prayer for their protection... Whale Nation became the most powerful argument for the newly instigated worldwide ban on whaling, and for a moment, back in 1988, it seemed as if a shameful chapter in human history might finally be drawing to a close.".[1] Williams separated from Samson in 1990.[6]

Whale Nation was followed by Sacred Elephant (1989) and Autogeddon (1991). It characterises the motor car's global death toll as, "A humdrum holocaust, the third world war nobody bothered to declare." Each poem was made into a film by BBC Television, Autogeddon performed by Jeremy Irons. Williams is a consummate reader of his own poems, as well as of the literary classics. His performance of his Buckley-esque[7] His public readings of Whale Nation have been known to reduce some members of the audience to tears.[8] His recordings[9] for Naxos Records, which include readings from the Buddhist scriptures, Dante and the Bible, have won awards.

In 2011, Williams began a new collaboration with Roy Hutchins, who had performed Whale Nation, Autogeddon and Falling for a Dolphin in the 1980s. The result was Zanzibar Cats, a performance of recent short poems. In What's on Stage, the reviewer Michael Coveney wrote, "These wonderful poems seize on political absurdity, planetary destruction and social injustice with relish and delight, as well as great erudition and verbal dexterity."[10]

In December 2011, Huxley Scientific Press published a collection of poems by Williams on science and nature entitled Forbidden Fruit.[11] The title poem is an elegy for mathematician, computer pioneer, and wartime codebreaker Alan Turing, the centenary of whose birth occurred in 2012. The Beat poet Michael McClure called the book "a collection of inspirations … as rich and dark as wasp honey". At the end of 2012, Huxley Scientific Press published Shelley at Oxford: Blasphemy, Book-Burning, and Bedlam,[12] written by Williams during the bicentenary of Shelley's expulsion from Oxford for atheism, aged 19. An inspiring full-length poem about Shelley the rebel, it shows us the intellectual revolutionary who defied and was punished by the Establishment.

Williams regularly publishes new work on the digital, resurrected International Times. Royal Babylon: The Criminal Record of the British Monarchy was made into a video installation by the filmmaker collective Handsome Dog, to coincide with Queen Elizabeth II's diamond jubilee, and his poems Lord of the Drones: The President and the White House Fly, Hollywoodland, and Was Moby Dick Behind 9/11? (2012) are currently being edited into a trilogy—Autopsy: The American Empire Dissected.

In June 2015, a major new work, 'Badshah Khan: Islamic Peace Warrior' will be published by Thin Man Press.[13] Williams's latest 'poetic investigation' reviews the life and legacy of Islam’s great peace warrior, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan (1890–1988). A close friend and companion of Mahatma Gandhi, Khan founded an Islamic Peace Army of 100,000 unarmed 'soldiers' while the sectarian conflict that would pull India apart raged around them. In our times, despite the radical militarism of the 'new Empire' – America – and the proliferation of violent Islamic extremism, Williams asserts that Khan's 'jihad' of peace, kindness and gentleness lives on in the hearts of millions of Muslims.

Williams has had a somewhat turbulent personal life. An affair with the model Jean Shrimpton resulted in the writer setting himself alight on her doorstep. Whether this was intentional or the upshot of a magical stunt gone wrong  Williams at the time was an ardent fire-eater  is unknown. Although at the time, it was assumed Shrimpton had ended the relationship, in her autobiography published in the early 1990s, Shrimpton asserted that it was Williams who walked out on her.

Recently Williams has created a series of love poems (2014/2016) with illustrations by Elena Caldera who is also an editorial staff member of International Times. He has also written poems for the Not in Our Name CD, a pro-peace CD.

Painting and sculpture

Williams's second bout of fame caused him to cease writing in effect, and turn to painting and sculpture full-time. Leading the life of a would-be recluse, he received prolonged tuition from the 'New Ruralist'[14] artist Graham Ovenden, at the latter's home on the edge of Bodmin Moor, Cornwall. The result was an out-pouring of hundreds of canvases, including satirical pastiches of the works of Van Gogh, Claude Monet, Stanley Spencer, Lucian Freud and others. He also produced a number of sculptures of great piles of books, tottering and damp-swollen, elaborately hand-carved in wood.


Williams's occasional but typically anarchistic forays into the realm of lyric-writing include Wrinkly Bonk, yet to be unleashed upon an unsuspecting world, and Why D'Ya Do It?, a sexually explicit exploration of carnal jealousy, for Marianne Faithfull's 1979 classic album Broken English.[15] Williams's words were enough to cause a walk-out by the female workers on EMI's production line.


Williams was for a time associate editor of the literary journal Transatlantic Review, as well as being one of those responsible for the alternative sex paper Suck. He was a frequent contributor to the London underground paper International Times during the 1970s, to the radical vegetarian magazine Seed and to The Fanatic, issues of which would appear sporadically and provocatively in different formats and various countries of Western Europe. In 1974, he launched his own mimeographed underground newspaper, The Sunday Head. It was published from his home in Notting Hill Gate, London at the time when he was also the impresario for Albion Free State's Meat Roxy, a series of music, dance and poetry events held in a squatted, redundant bingo hall near the Portobello market.

An anthology of his tracts and manifestos from this period, Severe Joy, was announced by his then publisher but for some reason never actually appeared. A sampling did appear in a bi-lingual, limited edition titled Manifestoes from the Rotterdam-based Cold Turkey Press as well as in the Manchester literary magazine Wordworks in 1975.


The theme of Williams' early one-act play The Local Stigmatic is fame and its adverse consequences, performed by Al Pacino at an Off-Off-Broadway venue, with financial assistance from Jon Voight.[16] In later years the film version became known as 'Pacino's secret project,' his debut as a director. It was finally released as part of the Pacino: An Actor's Vision box-set in 2007.[17]

Williams' own film performances include Prospero in Derek Jarman's version of The Tempest (1979), Wish You Were Here (1987), Stormy Monday (1988), Sally Potter's Orlando (1992), The Browning Version (1994), The Steal (1995), Blue Juice (1995) with Catherine Zeta Jones, Bring Me the Head of Mavis Davis (1997), The Odyssey (1997), Cousin Bette (1998), The Legend of 1900 (1998) and Alice in Wonderland (1999). Williams also appeared in Hotel (2001) with Salma Hayek, which he also co-wrote, and enjoyed a steady stream of bit-parts in big-budget Hollywood productions, such as the ill-fated Basic Instinct 2 (2006) and City of Ember (2008).


The National Theatre of Frestonia: by day it was the People's Hall, focal point for the independence movement. It staged Williams's one-act play The Immortalist, in which David Rappaport interviewed a 278-year-old man. In a later Institute of Contemporary Arts production the TV personality Joan Bakewell played the incredulous interviewer

His contact with television overlapped with community politics. It came courtesy of a 1970s experiment by the BBC in what became known as "public access television". Williams, in the dubious if green guise of a tree somehow blessed with oratorical powers, regaled the watching millions for a full fifteen minutes on the virtues of life without Westminster. Albion Free State was his name for a utopian vision of an England free from government and bosses.[18] Williams was one of 120 or so squatters who had commandeered a small chunk of West London, just about visible from BBC Television Centre itself. Frestonia, as the extensive squat was known, had declared itself independent of Great Britain. The actor David Rappaport was proclaimed Foreign Minister and Williams served as ambassador to the UK. Postage stamps were issued bearing the face of Guy the Gorilla instead of the Queen; they made no mention of currency, but simply carried the legend, God Will Provide. The whole rebellion, which exasperated the authorities for years, entailed much litigation before the bulldozers were finally able to move in.

Williams later applied his abilities as a conjurer  he has long been a member of the Magic Circle  to come up with a Christmas play based on the little-known fact that Charles Dickens used to revel in performing magic shows for his friends and extended family. What the Dickens! depicted the novelist, with the likes of Thomas Carlyle and Thackeray standing by to assist, as he manipulated "airy nothings" and assorted props to the delighted squeals of foundling children from the Thomas Coram Home. The production featured a young Ben Cross as Dickens, with a supporting cast that included Dinsdale Landen and Kenneth Haigh. It was broadcast by Channel 4 in Christmas 1983, with a repeat screening the following Christmas.

In March 1993, Williams was the not entirely enthusiastic subject of a spoof arts documentary titled Every Time I Cross the Tamar I Get into Trouble. Screened by Channel Four in its Without Walls slot, it implicitly sparred yet again with the recurring theme of the fatality of fame, its hollow allurements and the nature of fandom. In this instance, just for a change, a twinkling Pacino appeared happy to cast himself in the role of fan, implying his own supposed discomfiture with the whole grisly business of showbiz renown. The BFI film database characterises the film thus: "An account of Heathcote William's work, and Al Pacino's obsession with his writing. Includes an interview with Harold Pinter and footage from Pacino's film The Local Stigmatic."[19][20]

The half-hour film was presented by the comedian and musician John Dowie, amply cut out for the part by dint of his own declared anorakish urge to collect all available Williams memorabilia. The fruits of his scouring the auction lists and the second-hand bookshops, he revealed, he kept in a special large wooden box. The element of spoof revolved around the conceit that the film's subject didn't turn up until the very last minute, and then only to decline to take part. In fact, he had appeared earlier, but in a variety of ludicrous disguises. The title alluded to the fact that Williams, living at the time in Cornwall just the other side of the River Tamar, seemed twice over the years  first after AC/DC, and then in the wake of Whale Nation  to have come to grief as a consequence of having succumbed to the temptations arising out of not just one, but from a second 15 minutes of fame. In 1998, he appeared in an episode of the US TV sitcom Friends.

Private life

Williams lives in Oxford with his long-term partner, the historian Diana Senior. They have two adult daughters.[21] Williams also has a son, Charlie, born in 1989, from a previous relationship with novelist and journalist Polly Samson. In 1994 Samson married the Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour, who became Charlie's adoptive father.[22]

Williams and Samson had become involved with each other during the publication of Whale Nation, Samson being responsible for publicising what she succeeded in turning into a best-selling volume despite its refusenik author (see Poetry section above).[23] In 2011 their son Charlie Gilmour was sentenced to 16 months in prison after pleading guilty to violent disorder during 2010 student protests.[24] Gilmour had earlier been photographed swinging from a Union flag on the Whitehall Cenotaph and caught on CCTV kicking in a shop window, and attacking a convoy of cars in which Prince Charles was travelling. In court he admitted to have taken LSD and valium beforehand.[25]

See also


  1. 1 2 Hoare, Philip (20 September 2008). "Troubled waters: Did we really save the whale?". The Independent. London.
  2. http://www.opendemocracy.net/paul-rogers/islam-and-nonviolence-badshah-khan%27s-example. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  3. http://www.huxleyscientific.com/books/forbidden-fruit/. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  4. "PFF 2005". Portobellofilmfestival.com. Retrieved 31 October 2011.
  5. "Heathcote Williams Biography (1941–)". Filmreference.com. 15 November 1941. Retrieved 31 October 2011.
  6. Great journeys (11 June 2000). "Samson's delight – Features, Unsorted". Independent.ie. Retrieved 31 October 2011.
  7. "Lord Buckley's "The Nazz"". YouTube. 21 December 2009. Retrieved 23 March 2013.
  8. http://www.recrea.org/rrf/whale_nation-at_the_hands_of_man.mp3
  9. "Heathcote Williams- Bio, Albums, Pictures – Naxos Classical Music". Naxos.com. 25 June 2011. Retrieved 31 October 2011.
  10. "Zanzibar Cats by Heathcote Williams Reviews at Gilded Balloon Teviot – Edinburgh". Whatsonstage.com. Retrieved 31 October 2011.
  11. "Forbidden Fruit page at Huxley Scientific Press".
  12. "Shelley at Oxford page at Huxley Scientific Press".
  13. http://thinmanpress.com/forthcoming-publications/badshah-khan-islamic-peace-warrior-by-heathcote-williams/
  14. "The Brotherhood of Ruralists Information Website – Homepage". Ruralists.com. 18 September 2011. Archived from the original on 27 September 2011. Retrieved 31 October 2011.
  15. Marianne Faithfull – Why d'ya do it (live) on YouTube
  16. "Pacino on Local Stigmatic and Heathcote Williams". bombsite.com. Fall 1990. Retrieved 23 March 2013.
  17. "Buy Movies at Movies Unlimited – The Movie Collector's Site". Moviesunlimited.com. Retrieved 31 October 2011.
  18. "The A-Z of TV Hell Part 2". YouTube. Retrieved 31 October 2011.
  19. "BFI | Film & TV Database | EVERY TIME I CROSS THE TAMAR I GET INTO TROUBLE (1993)". Ftvdb.bfi.org.uk. 16 April 2009. Retrieved 31 October 2011.
  20. "BFI | Film & TV Database | WITHOUT WALLS". Ftvdb.bfi.org.uk. Retrieved 31 October 2011.
  21. "Charlie Gilmour blames student riot rampage on rejection by his natural father | Mail Online". London: Dailymail.co.uk. 18 July 2011. Retrieved 31 October 2011.
  22. "BBC News – Charlie Gilmour admits student fees protest violence". Bbc.co.uk. 6 May 2011. Retrieved 31 October 2011.
  23. "'Please don't call me Mrs Gilmour'". Guardian.co.uk. 6 May 2011. Retrieved 23 March 2013.
  24. Stephen Bates (15 July 2011). "Charlie Gilmour, son of Pink Floyd guitarist, jailed for protest violence | UK news". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 31 October 2011.
  25. "Charlie Gilmour jailed for student fees demo violence". BBC News. 15 July 2011. Retrieved 31 October 2011.

Further reading


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