Poet, playwright, visionary

Born November 15 1941

died July 1 2017

Heathcote Williams, who has died aged 75 following illness, never rested in expressing his anger at an unjust world. Barely a week seemed to go by without some eloquent epistle appearing, either online in reinvigorated counter-cultural newspaper International Times, or else in YouTube montages, with Williams’ words often read by actor Alan Cox. Williams’ poems were up to the minute documentary polemics took on the establishment that bred him with forensic laceration and an intellect and wit that punctured pomposity at every turn. This was the case whether attacking the Queen in Royal Babylon: The Criminal Record of the British Monarchy, fellow old Etonian Boris Johnson in The Blond Beast of Brexit: A Study in Depravity, or what he saw as as the obscenity of Donald Trump in American Porn, published this year on the day of Trump’s inauguration as president of the United States.

In this way Williams followed in the tradition of political pamphleteering, and was both an old school classicist and a utopian romantic who channelled the anarchic spirits of Swift, Blake and Shelley. As a playwright, his first play, The Local Stigmatic, was championed by Al Pacino, who produced and starred in a film version, while his lavishly illustrated ecological epics, Whale Music, Sacred Elephant, Autogeddon and Falling For A Dolphin were performed in Edinburgh, and were broadcast on television. Autogeddon inspired Julian Cope’s album of the same name.

Williams was at the heart of the 1960s and 1970s counter cultural underground, both with the original incarnation of IT, and as an activist in the London squatting scene, and ran the Ruff Tuff Cream Puff ‘estate agency’. He was one of the main players behind the squatters state of Frestonia in a yet to be gentrified Notting Hill, where his polemical graffiti became a feature. With Williams as UK ambassador, Frestonia declared independence from Britain, producing its own postage stamps featuring the face of London Zoo resident, Guy the Gorilla.

Over the next half century, Williams retained a revolutionary spirit that combined righteous anger with a playful disrespect for authority which, in the current global climate, seems to have found its time again. In this respect, Williams was more than a counter cultural agitator, but was a prophet and visionary whose beautiful truths argued for a better world.

John Henley Heathcote Williams was born in Helsby, Cheshire, the son of barrister Harold Heathcote Williams and his wife Julian (nee Henley). He was educated at Eton and studied law at Christ Church, Oxford, but didn’t finish his degree. Williams real education, as he described it, had begun when he started to visit Speakers Corner in Hyde Park from the age of twelve. Williams collected money for a tattooed orator called Jacobus van Dyn, and watched in awe as anyone who spoke out against the royal family was arrested. It was here Williams developed an anarchic, anti-establishment streak that never left him. It was here too that the seeds were sown for his first book.

The Speakers was published in 1964 when Williams was 23, and observed the daily life of Van Dyn and others at Speaker’s Corner. A stage adaptation was the first production by Joint Stock Theatre Company, set up by Max Stafford-Clark and William Gaskill in 1974. By this time, Williams had written The Local Stigmatic, which critiqued fame and celebrity. His first full length work, AC/DC, which appeared at the Royal Court in 1970, poked holes through some of psychiatrist R.D. Laing’s then voguish ideas regarding mental health. The play won the London Evening Standard’s Most promising Play award, and the 1972 John Whiting Award, and was hailed by theatre director Charles Marowitz as ‘the first play of the twenty-first century’.

By this time, Williams had made a four minute film, Love, Love, Love, with poet Allen Ginsberg, and, with Jim Haynes, Germaine Greer and others, had co-founded the sexually driven Suck magazine.

Other plays included The Immortalist, Hancock’s Last Half Hour, which remains one of his best known works, and, with Ken Campbell, Remember the Truth Dentist. Beyond his writing, Williams was taught fire eating by Bob Hoskins, only for him to accidentally set himself alight on the doorstep of his then girlfriend, Jean Shrimpton. Williams was a member of the Magic Circle, and in 1983 wrote a TV play, What the Dickens!, about Charles Dickens’ propensity for performing magic tricks.

Williams penned the sexually explicit lyrics for Why D’Ya Do It?, sung by Marianne Faithfull on her 1979 album, Broken English, but not before Williams’ words caused a walk-out of female workers on EMI’s production line. New poems appeared in Michael Horovitz’s magazine, New Departures, and the 1988 publication of Whale Nation and its subsequent success in other media put Williams back in a spotlight he studiously avoided, much to the apparent exasperation of his publishers.

Having been burned by fame twice-over, Williams spent much of the next twenty years painting, “a fairly silent activity” as he put it in a 2011 Herald interview, his first for many years. In 1993, a spoof Channel Four TV documentary presented by comic performer and Williams fan John Dowie looked at Williams’ reclusive nature through a series of interviews with the likes of Harold Pinter and Al Pacino, with Williams himself appearing in various guises.

As an actor, Williams was perfect as Prospero the magician Duke of Milan in Derek Jarman’s 1979 film adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The same year he was described in the London Review of Books as ‘a kind of Prospero to the alternative society’. He was dolefully comic as the befuddled psychiatrist attempting to analyse teenage temptress Lynda, played by Emily Lloyd, in Wish You Were Here (1987), with the pair sharing an iconic scene going through an alphabet of swear words.

Williams also appeared in Sally Potter’s 1992 film of Orlando alongside Tilda Swinton, and in Mike Figgis’ 1999 version of Strindberg’s play, Miss Julie. With Saffron Burrows and Peter Mullan in the lead roles, Williams played one of several servants that also included Scottish actor Tam Dean Burn. Williams even appeared in Basic Instinct 2 (2006) and an episode of long-running American sit-com, Friends.

In 2011, Williams faced the unwelcome attention of the tabloids, when his son with Polly Samson, Charlie Gilmour, who had been adopted by Pink Floyd guitarist Dave Gilmour following his marriage to Samson, was imprisoned following student protests in 2010.

Having returned to writing, in 2011, Williams was awarded a Herald Archangel following performances by long term collaborator Roy Hutchins of a new collection of poems, Zanzibar Cats. The award also recognised Williams’ huge body of work in Edinburgh, from The Local Stigmatic to Whale Nation and beyond. A book of science based poems, Forbidden Fruit, was published the same year, since when he published new work with increasing frequency.

For all the oppositionist intent of his writing, laughter was never far from Williams in both life and work. His outlook on life was summed up in his 2011 interview with the Herald when he quoted Robert Anton Wilson, co-author of science-fiction hippy conspiracy epic, The Illuminatus!, which was brought to the stage by Ken Campbell in 1977.

“If it doesn’t make you laugh, it’s not true,” Williams said. “Children learn first by playing. And laughing. In fact, you learn much more when you’re happily absorbing something than when it’s being shoved down your throat. Plato believed we’re the playthings of God, and therefore the greatest act of devotion as God’s playthings can be seen as just having fun. Which is a great perspective on life.”

Williams is survived by his long term partner, Diana Senior, their two daughters, China and Lily, three grand-children, Freya, Albi and Wilf, Charlie Gilmour, his son with Polly Samson, and his younger sister, Prue.