Palmer has made over 100 films, ranging from works featuring The Beatles,
Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Rory Gallagher and Ginger Baker,
to classical profiles of the likes of Maria Callas, Stravinsky, Wagner, John Adams,
Benjamin Britten and Vaughan Williams. He is also a stage director of theatre
He interviewed FZ in 1968 for his film, All My Loving. The film was deemed potentially ‘harmful to youth’ and David Attenborough, then Director of Programmes for BBC Television, wrote an internal memo stating that the film would be broadcast over his dead body. It did though air 'after hours' and, happily, Sir David is still very much with us.
In 1970, Frank contacted Tony to say he had been impressed by the courage of his film and asked if he would be interested in helping with a project of his own. That project was 200 Motels.
Both parties subsequently had a lot of conflicting things to say about their experience working together, with FZ stating "I found his behaviour very strange," while admitting he did a good job on the film.
To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the project, I decided to throw a few questions at the esteemed director.
been some debate about whether or not the black monolith from Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey was still on the
set at Pinewood. Are you able to confirm or deny this?
It was – although I didn't want to make it too obvious.
Was it your
idea to rope in John Williams?
Yes; he was – and is – an old friend.
Who were the
other members of John's classical guitar ensemble – it has been suggested they
were Big Jim Sullivan and Timothy Walker?
I don't think so, but I think Tim turned up one day and decided it was not for him![i]
As well as Ringo and Keith Moon, didn’t you also try to get The Who's Peter Townshend involved?
No; it was my idea to conscript both Ringo and Keith. I think Pete thought that was quite enough!
How did you
manage to persuade Wilfrid Brambell
to come along and rehearse for the film?
Again, I knew him from before, but he also decided it was not for him. He never stopped apologising to me afterwards.
there to witness his departure from the set?
I was. It was not acrimonious, as has been reported.
choreographer Gillian Lynne make of it all?
I had seen something she had done for the Royal Ballet, so I told Frank he must have a choreographer. She greatly enjoyed it all and we became firm friends. She later told me that many of the 'movements' she devised for Cats had taken their inspiration from 200 Motels.
the The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s conductor,
I had used him in something I had done while still at the BBC, and thought he would not be fazed by the shenanigans. I later used him in a film I made about William Walton.
I think he thought we were all crazy but enjoyed hobnobbing with Ringo et al.
Did you ever
visit Zappa at the house he rented in Ladbroke Grove during filming?
All the time.
Did you have
any interaction with his wife Gail?
All the time.
claimed that she recorded you threatening to burn the master tapes for the
film. Any truth in that?
None. It was MGM, the principal financiers, who wanted to offload the entire project, partly because of its foul language, and also they didn't understand what they could do with videotapes since all their cinemas could only show celluloid. I said if necessary I would seize the tapes – not 'burn'; that's nonsense – to prevent this happening.
Turtle Howard Kaylan has suggested that the cancelled
Albert Hall concert was just a big publicity stunt. Your
Certainly not. It was very serious – hence our joint appearance at the Law Courts.
Ah, that was
in 1975. Had Frank changed much then?
No. He was very grateful that I agreed to appear as an expert witness, thus totally disproving that we had 'fallen out' (as in 'burning the master tapes', which I still have incidentally).
What is the
current status of 200 Motels? As I
understand it, MGM/United Artists own both the film and the soundtrack. Did
that have any bearing on your crowd fund campaign, or did that just collapse
with PledgeMusic? Hopefully there are still plans to
reissue the film, with
The 'ownership' of the film has long been disputed.
Herb Cohen, Zappa's longtime manager as you know, (a) gave me the tapes; (b) gave me the correspondence proving that the distribution agreement with MGM/UA had long since expired. I have a letter from Herb confirming all this.
We then discovered that some outfit in North London called 'Hollywood Classics', whom no-one had ever heard of, had been 'granted' the distribution by MGM/UA, but had done absolutely nothing to promote the DVD.
Quite apart from all the bootleg copies and Dutch so-called distribution rights.
We tried, repeatedly, to persuade MGM/UA to allow us to distribute the film in return for a substantial royalty.
But in spite of having apparently done so with this mysterious North London outfit, they would not be moved, and wrote some fierce lawyer letters telling us to lay off or they would sue.
The trouble was we would not have the resources to fight a conglomerate like MGM/UA.
And yes, we wanted to re-release the film; we have a lot of extra material.
I know nothing about a crowd fund campaign, and PledgeMusic folded a few years ago.
meant the proposed 2CD/2DVD box set with extras and exclusives that was
supposed to happen in 2019; I wasn’t sure if that ended due to pressure from
MGM/UA, or if it just coincided with the demise of PledgeMusic.
Did you have any further contact with Frank or his family after that?
On and off. When the score of 200 Motels was due to be performed at the Festival Hall, Gail got in touch to ask if I would introduce the film. But I got a bit fed up with Frank constantly re-writing the 'truth' of what actually happened.
Photo of Tony taken on the set at Pinewood.
[i] John Williams’s manager subsequently confirmed that the other two players were indeed Jim Sullivan (1941-2012) and Timothy Walker (1943-2021). In the 60s and 70s, Sullivan was one of the most in-demand studio musicians in the UK, while Walker was recognised as one of the foremost guitarists in the world of chamber music.
[ii] George Wall, who was Principal tuba of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra from 1969 to 1974, very kindly contacted Howarth for me a few days after this interview. Unfortunately, ‘Gary’ felt unable to provide any fresh insights on the taping of 200 Motels. George told me, "he wasn’t involved as conductor any more than we players were: just turned up at the studio and did what we were told. That’s an orchestral musician’s lot, I’m afraid."