Whitehead has just sold the film rights of his mystical novel The Risen - inspired by Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd - to Gabriel Byrne. Jenny Fabian profiles the counter-culture's greatest chronicler.
When I first visited Peter Whitehead's Soho flat in the early Seventies, the falcons looked down on us from their perches in the ceiling. Famous in those days for his alternative documentaries, Peter looked like a Nordic god, with wild blond hair, and an intense charm. Penny Slinger, who introduced us, was an attractive young sculptor hot on the nouveau art scene, but Peter's tangled love life seemed to involve several women at once - among them Nathalie Delon, and Nico of the Velvet Underground.
His affair with Nathalie began and ended with connotations of death. At the start of it, he was with her in a London hotel when she heard that her ex-lover had just been murdered; the body was not found until two days later, on a rubbish dump. At the end, he turned down an invitation to fly with her and Sharon Tate to Hollywood. Sharon flew alone, and within seven days she was dead, murdered by Charles Manson.
The first film that got Peter Whitehead's name on our lips was Wholly Communion, the historic poetry reading in 1965 at the Albert Hall. With Allen Ginsberg et al, it was like a landmark in stoned gatherings; nobody realised just how much of a counter-culture was gathering momentum. Wholly Communion won the Mannheim Film Festival Gold Medal, and soon Peter was approached by Andrew Loog Oldham to make a film of the Rolling Stones, cinema-verité style. Charlie Is My Darling was filmed over two days in Ireland, following the Stones around with a handheld camera.
But it is to another rock star, Syd Barrett, the doomed genius of Pink Floyd, that Whitehead owes much of his inspiration for The Risen, a strange three-dimensional novel about the psysicist's search for another man's identity through a labyrinth of time. The two first met in Cambridge at the beginning of the Sixties, when Peter - a brilliant young man who escaped his working-class background through a series of scholarships - was taking a year off between university and the Slade school of art; Barrett was also painting, and just starting to give birth to psychedelic music. They met again through a mutual girlfriend, who took Peter along to the club UFO (Unlimited Freak Out) to see Pink Floyd play to a stoned-out audience of newly born flower children. Peter raised money from the National Film Finance Corporation to make Tonite Let's All Make Love In London, and during the filming hired a studio for the Floyd to make the first recording of 'Interstellar Overdrive', their UFO anthem, and the theme music for Tonite.
'The Risen,' says Whitehead, 'is totally dedicated to Syd. John in the book is like him - he takes a drug and disappears. Syd was the most important icon of the Sixties, because he was destroyed in the way that we all assumed we might be destroyed: he was the young god that was sacrificed for all of us.' The book, which takes its title from a poem by Ted Hughes about the birth of a ghostly falcon, is full of sex - physical and metaphysical, sublime and profane. No publisher in this country was brave enough to offer a deal to this occult romp, and in the end Peter issued it through his own company, Hathor Publishing. Now he has not only sold the film rights to Gabriel Byrne and the production company Mirabilis, but has also put together an interactive CD of it with Michelle Em.
At the time I knew him, he was in a transitional period. After the completion of Daddy, and Fire in the Water (with Nathalie Delon), his growing obsession with falcons was to take him away from films to north Africa, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Alaska: ten years of living in a car, trapping and breeding the birds. His interest in them began during his last year at Cambridge, when on a visit to the Louvre he came face-to-face with a bronze sculpture, almost life-size, of a falcon-headed man. The moment is still vivid in his mind: 'The jewels that were his eyes had been stolen - all that remained were these big, black sockets. It was the falcon that represented light and sight and rationality, and yet had been blinded: it was me.' The ancient Egyptian myth of the mummified falcon and the birth of the falcon's egg is, he says, the key to The Risen and to his life.
Whitehead became well-known for his reckless mountain escapades, and his skill as a falconer, and in 1982 his advice was sought by Prince Khalid Al-Faisal, son of the late King Faisal. Prince Khalid was concerned with the decline in numbers of hunting falcons in the Middle East because of chemical pesticides, and he invited Peter to create and build the Al-Faisal falcon centre. Perched in the clouds at the top of Jebel Al Soodah, the highest mountain in Saudi Arabia, this was to become the largest falcon-breeding centre in the world. The Prince of Wales visited once, and Peter showed him how the falcons were bred by artificial insemination. ('I built a special hat with a rim, and the falcon would land on my head with its tail spread, and ejaculate into the hat,')
Whitehead has always courted danger. He made what he considers to be his best film, The Fall, as an occupying student revolutionary inside Columbia University in New York. (Having recorded the police smashing their way in and beating up the students, he ran upstairs and dropped his film out into some bushes, returning to pick it up later.) As a falconer, he once found himself trapped on a cliff-face in Morocco, with no choice but to cut one of the ropes that were holding him: he scorched down the other rope, bouncing twice before it released him into the sea 45 feet below. He still bears the scars.
On another falcon-hunting expedition, he found himself struck down with black cholera in Baluchistan, 50 miles from the nearest road. 'I was saved by a witchdoctor: they tied me up with ropes to stop the blood flowing into my arms and legs, and then they stood on me and paralysed me, so that finally the stomach was unable to vomit. They broke two of my ribs, but saved my life.'
Shamanism is an important part of Whitehead's history. 'Shamanism,' he explains, 'is the Eastern tradition of religion - which includes magic - as opposed to the Western one, which is monotheism and extremely boring. Birds are part of it: the shaman dances, and plays his drums, and symbolically ascends the tree, and at the top is released from his body and flies into the spirit world as a bird. It's a ritual; it's transcendence. And if you meet someone who can do this, who can tell you what you did on 18 January 1941, or 4,000 years ago, and how much you paid for your flat, when he can't even speak English, you realise it's real. And if you don't meet someone like this, a shaman to put you in touch with your spirits, you're unlucky: you've just been killed and murdered by rationality and the Western tradition.' The Risen includes several heavily symbolic dreams, and could not, he says, have been written without his Pakistani shaman.
One day, the shaman told a mutual acquaintance that Peter had now met the person that he had been waiting for all these years - someone to whom he was married in a former life - and that they had recognised each other. The woman, whom Peter had not yet mentioned to the shaman, was Dido Goldsmith.
When they met, Peter was having a passionate affair with Bianca Jagger. Bianca kept saying he must meet her friend Dido, but they kept missing her by second. Then, one night in December 1979, Peter was sitting in Regine's with some of his royal Arab friends, when four girls got up and started to dance. Peter startled the princes by announcing 'That's the one!' and making his way on to the floor towards the girl in a purpley-blue dress. She turned out to be Dido: they married six weeks later, having persuaded Bianca to come to the wedding.
'I'd seen Bianca having long conversations on the phone with this Peter Whitehead,' says Dido, at that time a committed partygirl-about-town, 'and you know how you build up a picture of someone in your mind. He wasn't at all the type I imagined Bianca to consort with - not the night-club set, more a country bumpkin. But when he took me back to his black room the next day, and I saw him in the context of his own place, with his objects from Ancient Egypt, heads, sculptures and amazing pictures by Max Ernst, I had a definite feeling that I had arrived. I have never been back to a night club since.' When she was twelve, she adds, she had bought with her own money a mummified falcon with gold in its mouth. She had not known why she had bought it, but kept it as a sacred object in her bottom drawer. Now she gave it to Peter.
Peter likes to define women, in many ways, in many words: 'There have always been two females in my life, either the actress/dancer, or the sculptress/artist - they are my archetypal women. The actress is using her body for real, and the sculptress is recreating her body in terms of her work: Penny Slinger and Niki de St Phalle were the epitome of the latter. The dancers are usually blonde, acid-like, phallic - my feminine counterpart, who always challenges, and who will dance me to death. My dark archetypal woman is always the soul, the anima, the sculptress. Dido, at last, was both. All these other women were merely a preparation for Dido.'
Both had been married before. Peter's first wife was an actress, Diane Lee, by whom he had two daughters; he also had a son by Coral Atkins, founder of the Coral Atkins Homes for Disabled Children, whose book Seeing Red has just been make into a major Hollywood film. Dido had a daughter, Maxine (now nineteen), by her first husband Roberto Shorto, and has since produced four more children - Robin (fourteen), Leila (thirteen), Charlene (ten) and Rosetta (nine).
Dido has published a charmingly quirky children's book called The Zen Book of the Mouse. 'I've always drawn mice and frogs, and I once wanted to be a zoologist. I was very inspired by John Aspinall when I was young - he was a great friend of my father's (Teddy Goldsmith, ecologist and author of The Way), and we used to go there often. But the mouse story is only one side of me: I've worked on stories of adult erotic fantasies. I'm drawn to the underworld, the darker, more complicated side of everything around me.'
Peter and Dido returned to Arabia to create the Al-Faisal Falconry. Sadly, it had to be pulled down in 1991; the birds were given to Peter. Because of curtailed flights, he landed in Casablanca, but while attempting to finish the journey by truck the birds were impounded by the Spanish authorities. 'They stole the lot - 125 birds! In one fell swoop, many years of my life came to an end.'
Peter, Dido, and their four children live in a rambling cottage in Northamptonshire, all steps and corners, and rooms that lead into others. The hair, silver now, is still flowing, and so is the charm. 'I feel the same as I did 25 years ago, and I look in the mirror and say "Who is that old man?"'
He took me into the kitchen for tea and olive pâtè. The sun was shining through the window, and reflecting brilliant colours from what I assumed was one of his crystals hanging in just the right geometric spot (there are many references in The Risen to the image derived from the diamond pyramid on the cover of Dark Side of the Moon). 'Oh no,' he said, laughing. 'That's just something the children put there. My crystal is here' - he showed me the pointed crystal he always keeps in his trouser pocket - 'charged with energy from the Pyramid of Chepron.'
It must be powerful, because since The Risen he has written ten books, about two a year. 'It's been a bit of a problem,' he admits, sighing. 'I just go on writing them. I finished another one last week. I can't stop.'