There can’t be many documentary-makers still working at 90.
But former BBC and ITV journalist and producer Peter Williams is one of them. His memoir, Being There: Titanic, Marlon Brando and the Luger Pistol, provides a fascinating account of more than 50 years of intrepid, globe-trotting TV journalism.
We learn how persistence pays as, incredibly, Williams persuades Marlon Brando to narrate a three-part Thames Television documentary – the company’s first to be filmed in colour – on Native Americans, Now That the Buffalo’s Gone, a subject close to the actor’s heart.
By virtue of Williams’ doggedness and good luck, Brando agreed – and even waived his fee. Though he did charge expenses, including for two hotel rooms at the Hilton, one for himself and one for his girlfriend – plus jewellery and flowers.
As Williams’ then boss, Jeremy Isaacs, said: “It might have been cheaper to settle for a fee.”
Williams was part of the team that discovered the wreck of the Titanic for National Geographic in 1985. He also made films on the birth of the first IVF babies in the UK and the US.
As for the Luger pistol in the book’s title, this is a reference to an incident that took place when Williams was working for Thames’s highly regarded weekly current affairs show This Week.
He was interviewing a hitman who claimed he would kill anyone for £2,000. Williams asked him why he should believe a single word he said. At which point, the criminal paused, reached into his inside pocket and took out a revolver.
Elsewhere, the reader gains fresh insight into the execution of Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain, the US space programme, and an intriguing encounter with the late Queen.