Peter Watson-Wood, director and producer who chronicled the surfing craze in Cornwall and the making of Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs – obituary

Peter Watson-Wood - Peter Aspden
Peter Watson-Wood - Peter Aspden

Peter Watson-Wood, who has died aged 92, enjoyed a remarkably varied life, from joining The Beatles’ transcendental meditation guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India and drawing inspiration as a painter from a group of Cornwall artists to making documentaries, then producing feature films.

His love affair with Cornwall began in 1956, when he teamed up with a local photographer to erect the celebrated Land’s End sign with an arm into which could be slotted the names of holidaymakers’ home towns and distances away.

With few having their own cameras in those days, they queued up to have their pictures taken next to – or on – the customised sign.

Cornwall became Watson-Wood’s home from 1959, when he bought a cottage in Newlyn, and he credited a visit from the songwriter and actor Anthony Newley, a friend, with changing his life. “Why don’t we get a camera and make a silly short film?” Newley suggested.

Watson-Wood described the result, shot with a 16mm Bolex, as a “camp silent movie”. This inspired him to start making short documentaries locally. He then found himself shooting news film for regional TV when a friend who freelanced for BBC Scotland and Scottish Television took him on a story about a remote community being rescued after three weeks cut off by snowdrifts.

Watson-Wood continued covering stories across Scotland, then contacted Westward Television, the newly launched ITV company in his region, and enjoyed a long association with it, filming news and documentaries.

In 1967 he had footage screened nationally by ITV news when the Prime Minister Harold Wilson, who had a holiday home on the Isles of Scilly – and would almost drown there after falling into the sea six years later – visited Cornwall to view the wreck in the aftermath of the Torrey Canyon oil tanker spill. He also brought a cultural landmark to national audiences in The Surfers, a 1973 documentary looking at the newly emerging surfing craze in Newquay and St Ives.

In another vein, Watson-Wood shot a music video to accompany Donovan’s 1967 hit Mellow Yellow, and travelled to India to make a film about the Maharishi. While he found the meditation enriching, he recalled, the documentary was never made as he feared interference by a group of the guru’s acolytes, a bunch of young clean-cut young Americans he referred to as “the Harvard boys”.

When his interest turned to being a producer, one of his first successes was a Channel 4 television series, Go Fishing with Jack Charlton (1983). He also produced a documentary on South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela for the BBC’s Arena programme in 1985.

One of Watson-Wood's first successes was the 1983 Channel 4 series Go Fishing With Jack Charlton - Peter Atkinson/Alamy
One of Watson-Wood's first successes was the 1983 Channel 4 series Go Fishing With Jack Charlton - Peter Atkinson/Alamy

He made his cinema début with the stylishly filmed fantasy thriller Dream Demon (1988), starring Jemma Redgrave, while Liz Hurley portrayed a drug addict in Mad Dogs and Englishmen (1995).

His mystery movie The Bulldance (1988) was written by Robin Hardy. Later, Watson-Wood reunited with him for The Wicker Tree (2011), a sequel to the 1973 cult classic The Wicker Man, both directed by Hardy.

In between, Natasha Little played the milliner accused of murdering her husband in Another Life (2001), with the victim played by Nick Moran, who also starred in Watson-Wood’s comedy Chaos and Cadavers and the crime drama Ashes and Sand (both 2003).

Stephen Fry, Miranda Hart and Steve Coogan were among the big-name voice artists for a feature-length version of the television series Tales of the Riverbank (2008).

Watson-Wood also produced Princess in Love (1996) and Diana: A Tribute to the People’s Princess (1998), before and after her death.

Peter Christopher Watson-Wood was born in Watford, Hertfordshire, on September 24 1928 to Molly (née Peyton) and Dougie Watson-Wood, a journalist, and brought up in Cheam, Surrey.

His mother frequented fashionable restaurants and nightclubs, and numbered among her friends the American actress Tallulah Bankhead, famous for her acerbic wit, struggling with alcoholism and having relationships with both men and women.

Peter’s love of storytelling began when, shortly before his eighth birthday, he contracted meningitis and his mother endlessly read books to him as he slipped in and out of consciousness.

He cheated death again when a German incendiary bomb crashed through the roof of the family home in Cheam, Surrey, and landed on his bed while he was in a dining-room shelter. He threw it out of a window before it burst into flames.

Watson-Wood's company Matador co-produced Ken Loach's film about Ireland in the early 20th century
Watson-Wood's company Matador co-produced Ken Loach's film about Ireland in the early 20th century

On leaving Sutton High School for Boys in 1946, Watson-Wood joined the RAF’s bomb disposal squad, then took brief jobs at a labour exchange, then a citizens’ advice bureau.

He began to find his way in life when he became an account manager with advertising agency John Mitchell & Partners. From the first-floor windows of its offices in St James’s, London, near Buckingham Palace, he had a front-row seat as George VI’s funeral procession passed in 1952.

Watson-Wood also started mixing with stars such as Newley and Diana Dors, and spent several months as an usher at the Odeon cinema, Leicester Square.

Within weeks of arriving in Cornwall in 1956 to visit a friend, he had given up his advertising job and was working as a photographer taking pictures in Penzance to sell to holidaymakers.

He and his business partner, Mike Courtney, also developed other “pitches” in Aberdeen, John O’Groats and Land’s End, and Watson-Wood began filming news stories for television.

He also shot documentaries such as Straw Dogs at St Buryan (1971), a behind-the-scenes look at the notorious film starring Dustin Hoffman and Susan George. Watson-Wood recalled the maverick director Sam Peckinpah testing a set of knives by throwing them around a technician standing against a wall.

“Six knives were embedded in the timber, encircling the petrified guy,” he recalled in his 2012 autobiography, Serendipity... a Life.

Over the previous decade, he had discovered a thriving artistic community of painters, sculptors and poets across the Penwith Peninsula, in an area embracing St Ives, Penzance and Land’s End. By the mid-1960s, he himself was painting – a passion that he retained for the rest of his life.

Matador Pictures, one of Watson-Wood’s companies, co-produced The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006), director Ken Loach’s drama about the early 20th-century history of Ireland, from the War of Independence to the civil war, which won the Cannes Film Festival’s top prize, the Palme d’Or.

Watson-Wood’s 1957 marriage to Wilma Smith ended in divorce. He is survived by his second wife, Anne (née Howard), whom he married in 1987, the adopted son from his first marriage and, from the second, his son and two stepchildren. A daughter of his second marriage died as an infant.

Peter Watson-Wood, born September 24 1928, died August 31 2021