The wild and wonderful Bill Gavin, 1936-2020

From a life of Himalayan white water rafting, to motors, music and movies

Bill Gavin in New Zealand last year, telling a good story of the “old days” from his eventful life. Photo: MICHAEL CLARK

“Oh dear, look what happened to my pants!” We pulled onto the beach and Bill clambered out of the big rubber raft having just emerged from one of the more impressive rapids on Nepal’s Trisuli River. The chilly curtain of cold water and adrenaline rush of surviving Upset without an upset had us all whooping with excitement. Bill’s stylish beige linen trousers had shrunk with the dousing and were clinging to his legs like an unseemly pair of tights.

Bill Gavin was with us on one of the early three-day river runs, to be followed by a few days wildlife watching at Tiger Tops Chitwan. It was 1982 and the road from Mugling to Bharatpur was nearing completion. Villagers along the banks still found our overnight camps a curiosity, and no belching truck fumes polluted the evening beers around a driftwood blaze or disturbed the silent nights under a canopy of stars.

The wild and wonderfully wicked Bill Gavin was a legend brimming with passion, vigour and colour who had exploded into my life as a friend of my louche and much-loved Uncle Terry. Together they haunted the glamorous Grand Prix circuit of the swinging 1960s. Bill writing about motor racing (he was European editor of Car & Driver magazine and biographer of world champion Jim Clark) and Terry managing a Formula I driver who was killed in a crash, as happened all too often in those unsafety-conscious days.

When I hooked up with them in London, Terry was in the music business (signing Dire Straits was his claim to fame) and Bill was big into movies after a spell managing pop groups. The third of this unlikely trio of best mates was Stanley Myers, composer of the haunting Deer Hunter theme.

The story goes that Bill talked his way into movie production starting as the GTO boss’ chauffeur and ending up as the boss, but stories like that abound about Bill Gavin. He toured with chart-toppers The Sweet, New Seekers and Springfield Revival, and did gigs with Gary Glitter. He was almost recruited by the CIA, narrated the 1966 film Grand Prix, managed a Ferrari team, released the first Antipodean movie Picnic at Hanging Rock in UK, took Apocalypse Now to Australia, and helped finance New Zealand’s What Became of the Broken Hearted? and Whale Rider, that marvellous Maori classic.

At the time we were camping riverside on the Trisuli in his terminally shrunken pants, Bill was riding high as the hard-driving distribution and sales wizard on the board of Goldcrest Films, on his way back to London from the Killing Fields’ shoot in Thailand. Goldcrest’s other best pictures included Chariots of FireLocal Hero and Gandhi, and Bill had his own UK company, Gavin Films.

Bill loved to shock and push the envelope, long before the #metoo generation. He ricocheted between marriages and girlfriends, had three wonderful children, Tom, Panda and the eldest who was saddled with the name Gavin. Yes, Gavin Gavin, whose gorgeous mother Sarah Jane was Bill’s first wife and a Mary Quant model. At their parties you might meet Graham Hill and other racing drivers, Victor Hugo’s granddaughter, Polish film directors with unpronounceable names, or Barry Humphries aka Dame Edna slumped in their sitting room telling cannibal air-crash jokes: “We’re on the last leg of the flight.”

At one of these eclectic gatherings, I had a Scottish neighbour in tow: “See you later, I’ll look after myself,” he called cheerfully as I disappeared into the smoky crowd. Finding himself next to a skinny, bespectacled chap on the sofa, attempts at polite conversation were not going well. “I’m a guitarist,” was all he could extract. “What sort of guitar - rock or pop or jazz - or classical guitar, like John Williams?” Andrew was struggling. “I am John Williams,” came the laconic reply.

Bill was famous for behaving badly and being in love with him was a recipe for disaster. He had a mercurial temper and a reputation for bullying employees. I once saw him explode into unjustifiable road rage as he deftly wove his flash car through the London traffic -- speed was a religion. And our brief walk-out in the early 1980s ended dramatically and finally when he ran off with my brother’s girlfriend, on the Concorde to New York no less, thus delivering a memorable family double whammy. We consoled ourselves that they thoroughly deserved each other, and it didn’t last long.

Bill’s plunge from these dizzying heights of fame and fashion followed a few too many divorces and the vagaries of the British film business. His expensive mews house in Notting Hill, silver Porsche, trendy Italian restaurants, and champagne Pimms parties under the yellow laburnum all evaporated in the 1990s when he beat a hasty retreat to his native New Zealand.

Adapting with aplomb to life in a downtown Auckland high-rise council flat, Bill painted it rich dark colours, and filled it with books, pictures and an oversize leather casting couch shipped across the world from his West End office. At economical shepherd’s pie dinner parties renowned for bevies of loyal media and driving friends, over a glass or three of wine Bill would regale us with tales of the “old days”, his braying laugh filling the room. Despite his straitened circumstances he contrived to drive a smart Mercedes donated by a kind admirer who shared his petrol-head passion.

In a rare moment of quiet reflection, Bill confided that his ideal retirement was a cottage in the Bay of Islands, in New Zealand’s far north. It was the first time I had heard of the place, but it never happened. Aged 83, Bill Gavin died last month at home in Auckland, rescued by friends and family from grim isolation in a locked-down Covid-19 hospital, he peacefully departed a life packed with motors, music and movies.

Some young devotees recently videoed Bill for a school project, deftly capturing his enthusiastic essence, even at the end: “Looking back on all my careers, motor racing was certainly the most exciting … I was attracted by the intellectual intensity of the sport … I knew everybody ...”

In our last call arranged by Bill’s kind niece his laboured breathing penetrated the long-distance WhatsApp line, but he squeezed her hand and I could feel his smile as I told him that, despite everything, I still loved him and always would. Bill had that sort of effect on people.

Lisa Choegyal