Peter Crayford

November 30, 2011
Cressida Campbell, Portrait of Peter Crawford, Woodblock print
Cressida Campbell, Portrait of Peter Crawford, Woodblock print

For 26 years Peter Crayford wrote the weekly film column for the Australian Financial Revew, an appointment he missed on only a handful of occasions. His consistency and the quality of his work become even more remarkable when one understands the circumstances of his life.

When early on Sunday morning, Peter gave up his long, painful struggle to hold on to that unravelling thread, those of us who knew him well felt great sadness but also a measure of relief. His health had been in decline for the past few years, during which time he met every challenge with extraordinary resilience and cheerfulness.

Peter’s stoicism was born of long experience. He received treatment for Hodgkin’s disease at the age of 21, and again when he was 30. The radiotherapy that conquered the disease left his body in a precarious state. Any trip to the doctor could result in some new alarm, requiring medication or even surgery. For the most part his attitude was philosophical: he had been gifted an extra forty years of life and had to accept the consequences.

Regardless of his battles with illness, we remember him as someone with tremendous joie-de-vivre. Peter had an expert understanding of food and wine. He was a skilled, demanding chef, whose efforts put many a top restaurant to shame. He had a life-long passion for travel, and would plan his trips with meticulous care. This practical aspect was most unusual for a writer. Whether it was building renovations, bureaucratic problems, affairs of the heart, or a thousand other issues, Peter always had a solution.

He had an encyclopaedic knowledge of film, and a huge fund of anecdotes. He counted Peter Weir among his intimate friends, and always declined to review his movies on the grounds he could not be objective. He was modest and self-effacing about his work, but was a brilliant raconteur who had the gift of telling a story in a way that never over-emphasised his own point of view.

Peter was born in 1951, in Birkenhead, a Merseyside town near Chester. He was the second eldest of four children, a sister and three brothers. Bill, his father, was a sheet-metal worker, who often had to travel to find employment. In his early teens, Peter sang in the choir and acted as bell-ringer at the local church, tasks he undertook out of aesthetic rather than religious motivations.

In 1965 the family migrated to South Australia, trading the gloom of Merseyside for the arid climate of Whyalla. Peter excelled at school and won a scholarship to Adelaide University, where he studied philosophy, English and Australian literature, and ran a film society.

After university and his first bout of Hodgkins, he worked for the South Australian Film Corporation, travelling overseas to buy movies. At the age of 30 Peter found himself in charge of the Australian Film Institute, spending alternate fortnights in Sydney and Melbourne. This came to an end when the disease reappeared, and he was obliged to return to Adelaide for two years treatment. He used this interval to develop an arthouse film festival called the Adelaide Film Event, which had been held at the Art Deco cinema, the Chelsea, since 1977. He produced stylish posters and programs, which he wrote himself.

With his health restored Peter moved to Sydney in 1983, but the film festival, which had become extremely successful, would remain a preoccupation for a further nine years. This was also the beginning of his long tenure as AFR film critic.

In Sydney he met and fell in love with artist, Cressida Campbell. They were living together within three months, and were married six years’ later. It was a union for life, in which Peter attended to the practicalities while Cressida worked happily in the studio. They constructed an ideal living and working environment, and it was important to both of them that Peter remained at home for as long as possible during his final illness.

Among other projects, Peter acted as a private publisher for a range of books, includng the first collection of William Yang’s photographs, and Tom Carment’s Days and Nights in Africa. His final, triumphant effort was a large monograph on Cressida’s work which is without doubt the most beautiful book ever published on an Australian artist.

The book is not only a tribute to an exceptional artist, but a memorial to a gifted polymath, whose love of life and mastery of its techniques, was fuelled by a constant sense of his own mortality. Peter was a person of rare integrity, a captivating, intelligent speaker, and a loyal friend. He inspired respect and admiration, both in the positive way he lived his life and the dignity with which he departed.

Peter James Crayford, b. 7 February 1951, Birkenhead, UK; d. 13 November 2011, Sydney.

Published by the Australian Financial Review, November, 2011