Ron Peck obituary: filmmaker behind Nighthawks, Britain’s first feature set in the gay community

Peck, who has died aged 74, was a pioneer in Britain’s independent film scene of the 1970s and 80s, whose Nighthawks is a milestone in LGBTQIA+ cinema.

Nighthawks (1978)
I saw Flesh in London in 1969, when I was 21. I remember the experience and venue particularly well. The shock of the film was part of it, but there was a lot more to the night than that. Word about the screening had circulated through clandestine channels. The film wasn’t playing at a proper cinema but in a dark basement somewhat off the beaten track. To get inside, I had to pay to join a club and sign my name in a book. The audience I recall, was particularly furtive and predominantly male. It felt like the initiation in to a secret ritual.Ron Peck on Paul Morrissey’s Flesh (1968) in Eyeball Compendium 1989-2000, edited by Stephen Thrower

Cinema was a potent tool for self-realisation for Ron Peck, who died on 2 November 2022. A director of six feature films and numerous shorts and documentaries, he also amassed hundreds of hours of additional moving image material, documenting collaborations, projects and tests with the various individuals and communities with whom he worked. Nighthawks (1978) was made with more than 200 members of the London gay scene, while Fighters (1991) saw Peck work closely with the East End boxing world, the members embracing him in the process. Some of them would go on, with their friends and associates, to work on Peck’s follow-up gangster film Real Money (1996). Peck believed in collaboration, notably calling his production company – formed with Mark Ayres in 1985 – Team.

Ron PeckMark Ayres

Peck’s death deprives us of more such projects, films, conversations and that gentle energy that made things happen. He was there right from the start of the British independent film scene as it developed and became more organised and more oppositional from the late 1960s. He trained at the London Film School and in the day worked as a teacher – foreshadowing the story of Nighthawks, as yet unwritten – as well as working on the box office at the Other Cinema, the organisation at the time for political, alternative film. A founder member of the Four Corners collective (along with Joanna Davis, Mary Pat Leece and Wilfried Thust) – one of the first such groupings in the 1970s – he and his friends made films that examined social and political histories as they inform real places (see Railman and On Allotments, both 1976), while establishing a production, screenings and exhibition site of the same name in the East End, which survives to this day.

As a gay man growing up in Merton Park in the 1950s and early 60s, traditional Hollywood presented an exciting alternative to a repressive England when homosexuality was still illegal and rejected as a social ill. Dreams of America and Hollywood would later haunt his documentary Edward Hopper (1981), about the American artist and his lonely, alienated vistas, and also, perhaps surprisingly, Fighters. In the latter boxing documentary, Peck’s narration kept returning to a scene from a film in which a man in a room prepares for his fight, as if the struggle went on both inside and out.

Reckoning with his homosexuality prompted his most famous film, Nighthawks (named after the famous Hopper painting). The film took shape around a teacher character who struggles to come out to his friends and colleagues as he becomes newly acquainted with the underground gay scene. It was the first British feature film explicitly about contemporary gay life, made by out gay people and presenting a powerful portrait of pre-AIDS London. Through it Peck met Paul Hallam, the Nighthawks co-writer who became an important collaborator and confidant. 

The film was superficially social-realist in shape, and yet the searching point-of-view camera shots travelling down London’s tungsten-lit roads, plus the strange, plastic, electronic music in the club scenes, lend the work an eerie, almost sci-fi perspective. It powerfully evokes the Ballardian London of the 1970s, a city emptying itself of people while bracing for the onslaught of Thatcherism. Derek Jarman, who befriended and regularly championed Peck as a fellow traveller in the quest for a different type of cinema, took a cameo.

What Can I Do with a Male Nude? (1985)

The status of the male body and its place in classical art, while remaining homo-eroticised yet verboten, prompted the witty 1985 short What Can I Do with a Male Nude? With bold, if unrealistic vision, Peck hoped it might play in support with Rambo First Blood Part II (1985). 1987’s Empire State extended the scope of enquiry, looking at the redevelopment of London’s Docklands and the gangsters and corruption that moved in as the city remapped itself. Peck interviewed male sex workers for the scenes set around Piccadilly and asked Jarman to experiment with a new Olympus VHS video camera, shooting sustained shots in a gay club in Mile End while dancing to the latest chart music. This last test was rediscovered in 2014 and screened at festivals around the world under the title Will You Dance with Me?

Two main themes run through Peck’s work: first and foremost the story of London and its communities, this continuing up to his Canning Town Voices (2020), made with Alexander Kviria and retired boxer Jimmy Flint – his all but last film after 2011 feature Cross-Channel. But there was also cinema and its capacity to extend his personal vision and to create a kind of context for events, to meet people, and to perhaps find himself.

Keeping exquisite notes and records, Peck had hoped to write the full story behind Nighthawks. He was an archivist and documentarian of his own practices and other worlds too (much of that archive is already split between the BFI National Archive and the Bishopsgate Institute). I would have loved to have read his memories of making this most searching of films, if just to, after the fact, remotely experience his calm, always questioning voice, and the incredible lengths to which he went to realise his personal vision.

A version of that story can be glimpsed by way of his 1991 sequel/making of, Strip Jack Naked: Nighthawks II. Juxtaposing extracts from extensive reels of unused footage with personal recollections and intimate biography, it’s a compelling place to start understanding the film’s journey and impact. It shows how truth and fiction, storytelling and autobiography, can all be inflected through each other as a way of chasing some larger, difficult-to-reach goal – perhaps freedom, but ultimately to change the world around us.

Peck lived through immense changes in the British film industry, across both its mainstream and independent sectors, and also, significantly, in the way homosexuality is and has been viewed in the UK – all things he seemed to continually grasp at through the way he tried to see the world through his very personal and particular lens. Rest in power, Ron, but also in peace.

  • Ron Peck, 15 May 1948 to 2 November 2022
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