The Draughtsman's Contract

UK 1982, 107 mins
Director: Peter Greenaway

Peter Greenaway on ‘The Draughtsman’s Contract’

The Draughtsman’s Contract. A film that is 40 years old. Made in 1982 about events in 1694. Elaborate, stylised, enjoyable, spiteful and mysterious, a film in black, white and green. With sheep. Eminently enigmatic. Always associated with frames, so much so indeed that a framing device of the late 1600s is on hand to remind you that what is outside the frame is strictly irrelevant. The French newspapers described Peter Greenaway as a cinematic dandy and the English, once they had passed their enthusiasm for being outside their comfort zone, slowly warmed to it. Shot on 16mm blown up to 35mm for cinema release, it surprised the art-cinema circuit and irritated some English cinematic luminaries to declare that filming in England was no longer tenable if such films were going to be made there henceforth.

I am delighted at its re-mastering. I remember it being made on a somewhat unorthodox filming procedure – being shot on super-16mm and enlarged to 35mm for cinema release. I was concerned that it should be seen as an English landscape film situated around a somewhat arcane proposition of ‘draw what you see and not what you know’. Your eyes must be solely your guide. I never expected it to be as successful on the art-cinema circuit. It’s a story about a ‘frame-up’ both in metaphor and for real, and the film frame is unremittingly ubiquitous with the appearance of that late 17th-century framing device to remind you of the tyranny of the film frame. The French especially enjoyed it though a French newspaper said I was a cinematic dandy and the English newspapers, at first, until they settled on a more relaxed approach were appalled at its literary, theatrical, and visual pretensions.

The costumes by Sue Blane surprised and delighted me, so many layers, cuffs, tails and frills tailored to exhibit the body. When everyone wore white the Draughtsman was out of step and wore black. When everyone wore black the Draughtsman wore white, an arrangement to persistently demonstrate the artist being out of step manoeuvred by the wealthy establishment whose controls were out of reach however hard he tried to learn and catch up. The music by Michael Nyman surprised and excited and delighted me, energetic often to a point of frenzy and exhibiting much irony.

When we had finally finished filming in the Groombridge Kent fields we wanted to start again. I wrote a sequel called ‘The Hedgecutters’ about trimming boundaries. Since the draughtsman was too blinded, damaged and too dead to be resuscitated, the follow-up hero was to become his overdressed effete servant primed to die with cut extremities. But it didn’t work. For a start the title was too mundane and too artisanal. It was winter and the vegetation was becoming leafless. The next film titled A Zed and Two Noughts was calling. Leaving a film behind is always painful.

It was truly an idyllic experience to film in unusually persistent English summer weather that only collapsed when the weather finally broke when the characters appropriately began to complain in 1694 about the arrival of storms. It was another delightful appropriate reference of the film being determinedly self-reflexive, a persuasive reason and excuse for me evermore to insist that when you were watching a Greenaway film you were only watching a film and should never ever possibly consider that you were doing anything else.
Peter Greenaway, Summer 2022 (extracted from The Draughtsman’s Contract BFI Blu-ray booklet)

There is probably a greater jump between The Draughtsman’s Contract and my last film than on any previous occasion. The jump often seems irreconcilable since I’m beginning to concern myself with much more conventional modes. But then I think that there’s a lot of similarity with what went before. And I shall certainly cut this film very much with past considerations in mind. There are very strong visual associations with Vertical Features Remake. This concern with the draughtsman seeking out particular characteristics of a landscape and pursuing them in an almost minimalist way. And the way the film is structured to keep going back to the same landscapes at different times of the day, to see how the light has made shapes, forms, verticals, how they’ve changed and what new significance they have at different times of the day.

My prime interests are the landscape, the ideas involved in the sheer interplay of plot, the symmetry, and those concerns characteristic of the whole sub-text of gardening; also the games that can be played with the dialogue, its content and the forms it takes. It’s a very literary film, the dialogue has been very carefully worked out for puns and conceits. The whole thing is an elaborate charade, a conceit, which the 17th century enjoyed doing, witness Restoration Tragedy. One of the characteristics of my filmmaking is a whole series of stories, anecdotes, apocrypha which all come together and create a total world.

Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough rehearsal time. What I wanted to do was to make sure we all knew the text very well before we started filming. The other thing I suggested was doing very, very long takes. We were going to let the actors get themselves in the dramatic situation and let the whole thing evolve. I wasn’t going to make an over-edited movie. So, that was another reason why we chose to use people with a very considerable theatrical background. Because of the rhythm of the dialogue, I would have preferred to take a more cerebral approach and to stand back more from the action. I found that in moments of high physical drama, like the various killings, the dialogue had to operate on a different sort of scale. I couldn’t get that distancing effect which I’d hoped for.

The convention of the long take – some are eight minutes long – has occasionally resulted in highly literary verbiage. This gratifies and excites me, but whether it will gratify and excite a much larger and more ‘public’ audience I don’t know. I’m also worried about the film’s length. It’s very long and I must get it down to a semi-commercial length, about 110 minutes [Greenaway’s original cut was four hours long]. There’s a lot of material which, due to pressures and exigencies, has gone missing about the details of the gardens. There are numerous pressures on the film partly because of extended budgets, commercial concerns, and so on.

I would like to think that the characters – not just Neville but also Talmann – and their dialogue, which is often near the knuckle, represent some aspects of myself. As they do in a key scene between Neville and Mrs Talmann where they talk about ‘arrogance’ and ‘innocence’. That may be my particular problem as well, balancing the ‘arrogance’ with the ‘innocence’. Although Neville is ostensibly a very arrogant figure, bouncing through the world and destroying all in his path out of his own self-centredness, it’s through his innocence that he gets involved in other people’s plots. Because, if he was a wiser man, he would have seen these machinations a mile off. But his innocence opens him up, makes him vulnerable.

All the strength of image and plot and feeling in The Draughtsman’s Contract is pretty universal. It just happens to be put in this particular format. I want to make a good movie which has got punch, visual excitement and cerebral entertainment.
Peter Greenaway, Monthly Film Bulletin, November 1982

Directed by: Peter Greenaway
©: Peter Greenaway
a British Film Institute production
In association with: Channel Four Television Company
Producer: David Payne
Head of Production: Peter Sainsbury
Production Assistant: Marie Meyrick
Production Officer: Peter Broughan
Production Secretary: Fiona Latto
Assistant Director: Andy Powell
Casting: Lucy Boulting
Written by: Peter Greenaway
Lighting Cameraman: Curtis Clark
Rostrum Camera: Hugh Gordon
Camera Assistant: Luke Cardiff
Gaffer: Steve Blake
Assistant [Gaffer]: Paul Woods
Grip: Simon Archer
Stills: Simon Archer, James Merrell
Editor: John Wilson
Assistant Editor: John Taylor
Art Director: Bob Ringwood
Design Assistants: Jane Hamilton, Digby Howard
Calligraphy: Kenneth Breese
Props: Michael Hunter, Tommy Raeburn
Construction Manager: Charlie Simmons
Carpenter: Bob Coleman
Painter: Alan Brown
Rigger: Gordon Wright
Costume Designer: Sue Blane
Costume Design Co-ordinator: David Perry
Costumes Made by: Colin MacNeil
Assistants: Ellen Cairns, Caroline Bayliss
Hat Makers: Michael Jones, Linda Eke
Wardrobe: Anthony Williams, Sue Langridge
Make-up: Lois Burwell
Assistant: Christine Allsopp
Wigs Created by: Peter Owen
Wig and Hair: Peter King
Stylist: Robbie Gardner
Titles: Hugh Gordon
Laboratory Supervisor: Len Brown
Lighting: Lee Electric (Lighting)
Laboratory: Kay Film Laboratories
Music Composed by: Michael Nyman
Musicians: Alexander Balanescu, John Harle, Elisabeth Perry, Steve Saunders, Keith Thompson, Stina Wilson, Ben Grove, David White,
Malcolm Bennett, Edward Pillinger, Ian Mitchell, Michael Nyman
Counter-tenor: Chris Royle
Music Producer: David Cunningham
Music Recording: Studio 80
Music Engineer: Martin Rex
Sound: Godfrey Kirby
Sound Assistants: Clive Osborne, Bob Doyle
Sound-mix: Cinelingual Studios Ltd
Dubbing Mixer: Tony Anscombe
Dubbing Editor: Doctor Lion
ADR: Lionel Strutt
ADR Studios: Mayflower Studio London
Drivers: Gillian Strachan, Safi Farrah,
Rupert Christie, Michael Coulson

Anthony Higgins (Mr Neville)
Janet Suzman (Mrs Herbert)
Anne Louise Lambert (Sarah Talmann)
Neil Cunningham (Thomas Noyes)
Hugh Fraser (Louis Talmann)
Dave Hill (Mr Herbert)
David Gant (Mr Seymour)
David Meyer, Tony Meyer (The Poulencs)
Nicholas Amer (Mr Parkes)
Suzan Crowley (Mrs Pierpoint)
Lynda Marchal (Mrs Clement)
Michael Feast (the statue)
Alastair Cummings (Philip)
Steve Ubels (Mr van Hoyten)
Ben Kirby (Augustus)
Sylvia Rotter (governess)
Kate Doherty (maid)
Joss Buckley (Mr Porringer)
Mike Carter (Mr Clarke)
Vivienne Chandler (laundress)
Geoffrey Larder (Mr Hammond)
Harry Van Engel, George Miller (servants)

UK 1982©
107 mins

Remastered by the BFI National Archive

A BFI release

There will be a Seniors’ matinee screening on Mon 14 Nov, a screening with an intro by Kieron Webb, Head of Conservation, BFI National Archive on Fri 11 Nov, and a screening with an intro by Film Editor John Wilson ACE on Thu 17 Nov

The remastered The Draughtsman’s Contract will be available to buy on BFI Blu-ray from Monday 14 November

A Zed & Two Noughts
Tue 18 Oct 18:10; Sat 5 Nov 17:40; Sat 12 Nov 17:40; Mon 21 Nov 20:40; Sun 27 Nov 12:15
Peter Greenaway: Frames of Mind Season Introduction
Wed 19 Oct 18:10
The Belly of an Architect
Wed 19 Oct 20:30; Fri 18 Nov 18:20; Tue 22 Nov 18:10; Sat 26 Nov 15:30
The Falls
Sat 22 Oct 13:50; Sun 6 Nov 14:40
The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover
Sun 23 Oct 15:30 (+ intro by Justin Johnson, Lead Programmer); Sat 12 Nov 14:55; Mon 28 Nov 17:50
Drowning by Numbers
Sun 23 Oct 18:00; Sat 19 Nov 14:30; Sun 27 Nov 18:00
Peter Greenaway Shorts Programme 1
Mon 24 Oct 18:10; Thu 10 Nov 20:40
Experimental Sound and Vision: Found Sounds, Lyrical Loops and Landscapes
Thu 27 Oct 18:15; Thu 17 Nov 18:15 (+ intro by author and musician David Toop)
Prospero’s Books
Tue 1 Nov 17:40; Sun 20 Nov 18:00
Peter Greenaway: Pioneer of Cinema
Sat 5 Nov 12:00-17:00
The Unreliable Narrator: Adventures in Storytelling, Documentary and Misinformation
Sun 6 Nov 12:40; Fri 25 Nov 21:00
A TV Dante: Cantos 1-8
Tue 15 Nov 18:20
The Baby of Mâcon
Wed 16 Nov 20:30; Fri 25 Nov 18:00; Mon 28 Nov 20:30
The Pillow Book
Fri 18 Nov 20:30; Thu 24 Nov 20:30; Tue 29 Nov 17:40
8½ Women
Sun 20 Nov 12:50; Wed 30 Nov 20:35

Welcome to the home of great film and TV, with three cinemas and a studio, a world-class library, regular exhibitions and a pioneering Mediatheque with 1000s of free titles for you to explore. Browse special-edition merchandise in the BFI Shop.We're also pleased to offer you a unique new space, the BFI Riverfront – with unrivalled riverside views of Waterloo Bridge and beyond, a delicious seasonal menu, plus a stylish balcony bar for cocktails or special events. Come and enjoy a pre-cinema dinner or a drink on the balcony as the sun goes down.

Enjoy a great package of film benefits including priority booking at BFI Southbank and BFI Festivals. Join today at

We are always open online on BFI Player where you can watch the best new, cult & classic cinema on demand. Showcasing hand-picked landmark British and independent titles, films are available to watch in three distinct ways: Subscription, Rentals & Free to view.

See something different today on

Join the BFI mailing list for regular programme updates. Not yet registered? Create a new account at

Programme notes and credits compiled by the BFI Documentation Unit
Notes may be edited or abridged
Questions/comments? Contact the Programme Notes team by email