Heathcote Williams is an English anarchist poet, actor, political activist and dramatist. “Scourge of the establishment for 50 years”, 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.”
Heathcote 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’.
As well as being a prolific playwright and screenwriter, Heathcote also had a successful Hollywood career. In his early acting career, he appeared in such films as the drama “Malatesta” (1970) with Eddie Constantine, “Nightshift” (1982) and the dramatic period piece “Wish You Were Here” (1987) with Emily Lloyd. He also appeared in “Stormy Monday” (1988) with Melanie Griffith and the sci-fi fantasy “Slipstream” (1989) with Mark Hamill.
His passion for acting continued to his roles in projects like the dramedy “Blue Juice” (1996) with Sean Pertwee, the Sally Potter drama “The Tango Lesson” (1997) and “The Imax Nutcracker” (1997). He also appeared in the Rene Bazinet dramatic fantasy “Alegria” (1998).
Film continued to be a passion as he played roles in the “The Legend of 1900” (1999) film with Tim Roth, the drama “The Escort” (1999) with Daniel Auteuil and “Miss Julie” (1999) with Saffron Burrows. He also appeared in the action picture “Honest” (2000) with Nicole Appleton, “Revelation (Cyclops Vision / Romulus)” (2002) , Bill Murray’s family adventure “City of Ember” (2008) and is known for “The Legend of 1900” (1998) and “Miss Julie” (1999).
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”.
Heathcote also writes lyrics, collaborating with Marianne Faithfull among others.
He 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.
He 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, Heathcote accidentally set himself alight on her door step.
He 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 he was appointed UK Ambassador. Frestonia lasted almost a decade and had its own institutions and postage stamps.
He 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.
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. 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, and 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.
Heathcote 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.
Energetic publicity efforts on his 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.” Heathcote separated from Samson in 1990.
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, and Autogeddon performed by Jeremy Irons.
Williams is a consummate reader of his own poems, as well as of the literary classics. His public readings of Whale Nation have been known to reduce some members of the audience to tears. His recordings for Naxos Records, which include readings from the Buddhist scriptures, Dante and the Bible, have won awards.
In 2011, Heathcote 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.”
In December 2011, Huxley Scientific Press published a collection of poems by him on science and nature entitled Forbidden Fruit. 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, written by Hathcote 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.
He 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.
One of Heathcote’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, Heathcote asserts that Khan’s ‘jihad’ of peace, kindness and gentleness lives on in the hearts of millions of Muslims.