“It’s no good theorising about getting up, it’s the act that counts”
David Halliwell’s by-now-legendary play, here turned by an American director into one of the essential works of British art cinema (even though the playwright himself would doubtless have disapproved of such categorisation) has previously been approached from many angles, but there, less than 20 seconds in, is possibly the one single line that encapsulates its very essence more than any other.
It is also befitting that it should be uttered by the film’s central and titular character, played by John Hurt, as he lies on a bed he wrestles daily to rise from, just as the final scene, some 105 minutes later, sees him still failing, even whilst stood firmly erect, to plunge headlong into the revolutionary action he dreams and talks of. And while it would be wrong to suggest that everything that happens in between is mere exposition of this very simple premise, the film’s subject matter- the inadequacy, inefficiency, rhetorical nature (and ultimately, barely contained but misdirected violence) of armchair student revolutionaries- could not have been handled better any other way.
Such a concept would be in danger of seeming reactionary, of course, were it not for the humanity (and therefore malleability) of the film’s central characters, and while presented as a group of malcontents whose only “decisive action” manifests itself in a shocking display of amateurish brutality, they are (at least up until that moment) essentially likeable because, rather than in spite of, their failings.
Malcolm Scrawdyke is a theoriser, a rambler and a procrastinator, a self-styled Svengali/Hitler/Marx (delete as appropriate) figure who, having been turfed out of technical college for unspecified reasons of ‘disruptive influence’ by his unseen enemy, tutor Phillip Allard, gathers together his three closest allies- the loyal, supportive, yet cynical, pragmatic and in many ways stronger Wick Blagdon (John McEnery) the disturbingly immature and demi-psychotic child-man Irwin Ingham (Raymond Platt in his film debut) and the delusional, verbose, perpetually duffelcoated and yet somehow incisive Dennis Charles Nipple (David Warner) a would- be dialectic writer who likes to kid himself that he refuses publication and public acceptance on the grounds that it demeans the true artist, but in point of fact is never in any danger of receiving such accolades.
Thus marshalled, they form (largely at Hurt’s bequest, as, with the possible exception of Wick, they seem initially incapable of independent thought) the Party Of Dynamic Erection, an organisation which espouses pseudo-liberalist doctrine but whose aims- again, primarily those of Malcolm himself- are revealed, as the plot develops, to be little more than fascistic. Whether or not Halliwell believed this to be true of all such parties is a moot point, but the original play (over five hours long!) – set in 1959 and first staged in 1965 by director Mike Leigh with the author himself in the central role- was indeed based on his own experiences following his expulsion from Huddersfield School Of Art. The play’s commercial failure onstage, in both its original form and the truncated version which first introduced Hurt to the role in 1966, was followed- ironically given its subject matter- by several years of umming, aahing, despondency and deliberation, before its eventual rescue at the hands of an avowed (and thankfully extremely rich) fan, ex- Beatle George Harrison, who had not only attended its London run with Brian Epstein and “the lads” first time round, but liked the actor’s performance so much he insisted he also be cast in the film, now realised as an Apple release.
A pre-production recce of several towns resulted in Oldham, now a suburb of Greater Manchester, to be chosen as the location, both in reality and fiction, but this shift in setting from Yorkshire to Lancashire, while an accidental one borne out of necessity as much as anything else, does nothing to detract from the original purpose: if anything, the cold, blustery, empty, wintry environs of the high-altitude moor town actually add to the sense of detachment and loneliness that is essential to its backdrop. Plus, as director Cooper was later to admit, the abandoned gasworks used (treated as such within the storyline also) together with their surrounding car park, give Scrawdyke a suitably solitary venue within which he can live out his fantasies of dictatorship without interruption or distraction from the ‘real’ world.
But even the most committedly unconventional of human beings is prone to one such distraction or weakness- sexual attraction- and it is Malcolm’s fondness, even if not fully acknowledged, for fellow student Ann Gedge (Rosalind Ayres) that constantly nags at him, returning intermittently to drag him from his imagined life of militant leadership into a possible alternative existence of love, vulnerability (best displayed when, having declared his political intentions to her during a romantic date in a local rock club, he is subsequently left to sit contemplating the lyrics of “Lonely Man”, sung by fellow Apple signings Splinter, of “Costafine Town” fame) and having to engage in “action” of quite a different kind. It has often been suggested, in a number of diverse texts ranging from serious works such as John Fowles’ The Magus (1962) to satires like Douglas Adams’ Hitch Hikers Guide To The Galaxy (1977) and The Mary Whitehouse Experience Encyclopaedia (1992) that an overwhelming obsession with abstracts masks an inability to form interpersonal relationships, and Scrawdyke’s ambivalence over whether Ann or his thus-oxymoronic belief in Dynamic Erectionism represents for him the ultimate triumph is further demonstration of this: in an early scene, having walked her home and failed to act upon it, he actually yells “fuck the Party!!!” before further ruminating “If I could bring this off, if I could get Ann, that would be the real conquest” yet, as the story progresses, his priorities shift to the point where he believes, albeit misguidedly, that he is now so entrenched in his own illusion that to achieve success with her would be to admit failure on every other level.
A further allusion may be hinted at here, a widely unspoken (yet oft-felt) belief that romance, particularly heterosexual romance, which finds its ultimate apotheosis in marriage, childbirth, mortgage and acquisition, is the downfall of all creative thought: this theory may be given further credence by the realisation that many (although by no means all) of the great visionaries of cinema, music, television, literature and even politics have been either gay or implicitly asexual, thus suggesting that intellectual fulfilment is best achieved when undistracted by fringe concerns of love and/or “conventional” physical union, and while this remains an unproven hypothesis, I know, speaking from a personal standpoint, that I would have gotten round to writing this review a lot later had I not recently voluntarily ended my relationship with my most recent girlfriend. Granted, such messages may be only in the minds of the individual wherever they choose to find them, and, using such logic, one could easily find any ‘hidden’ meaning in any work of fiction, but this theme in particular is one that recurs throughout both the scripts of many films and the personal lives of those involved, and Little Malcolm is no exception.
Granted, such messages may be only in the minds of the individual wherever they choose to find them, and, using such logic, one could easily find any ‘hidden’ meaning in any work of fiction, but this theme in particular is one that recurs throughout both the scripts of many films and the personal lives of those involved, and Little Malcolm is no exception.
Indeed, the very ‘male’ nature of the interplay between Malcolm, Wick, Nipple and Irwin, while in no way homoerotic, points towards a dismissal of, if not fear of, feminine influence, as does their opening gambit of intending to blackmail their unseen tutor with revelations about his dalliances with a female student, thus forcing him to destroy a work of ‘conventional’ art in the form of a Spencer painting, and, eventually, their violence towards Ann, who comes to Malcolm’s flat to literally lay it on the lines for him (“how would you like to fuck me?”), castigating him for his unwillingness to do so, calling him “little” and “the biggest virgin outside a convent”, claims to be the only one who can see through him, and is subsequently accused of spying before being savagely beaten and kicked- leading to one last futile attempt at regaining the party’s dignity before final dissent within the ranks draws proceedings to a sudden close.
But Ann is not the only one who can see through Scrawdyke- Nipple, whilst a delusional fantasist, has at least had some experience, however limited, with the opposite sex, and possesses an insight superior to Malcolm’s, which means he must be “removed” forthwith, and his rejection/dismissal (yet again galvanised by externalised rage on the part of the leader, who, having failed with Ann at the gig, now feels an urge to ‘do something’) at the hands of the other three Erectionists is equally brutal. In a scene chillingly reminiscent of Orwell’s 1984,Warner is charged with a non-existent treasonable offence, told he may only plead “guilty or very guilty”, given a “death sentence” and told that until time of execution, he remains a non-person and may communicate with no-one- yet this action, while it may represent a show of power in the eyes of the other three, probably comes as a welcome relief to the defendant, who utters “you wouldn’t really do it….you’re mad” (sadly, due to poor sound quality even after remastering, the first half of Hurt’s reply is muffled and inaudible) and walks away from Scrawdyke’s imagined world back into the real one, thus avoiding the ignominy of the violence which is soon to follow.
And here, surely, lies the crux of the matter: there is, of course, no way in which the Party would have actually executed anyone, as its aims, beliefs and plans are not only vague but utter fantasy, a point which the film’s low budget origins (despite having been financed by one of the world’s biggest rock stars) actually help realise perfectly. During pre-production there was an awful lot of talk, as there always is with adaptations, about “opening the play up” for the big screen, but Cooper’s insistence on not doing so, or at least only doing so within the confines of a small locale taking in the college, the club, some nearby walkways and Ann’s house, works better. The scene, for instance, in which the Erectionists rehearse their kidnap of Allard, is conducted in a wreck of a burnt-out car in outside the gas works, and provides the perfect compromise betwixt the ‘imagined’ vehicle of Halliwell’s original play and the desired ‘real’ car of co-producer Gavrik Losey: it goes nowhere, and nor do they.
Similarly, we see them think about the gallery in the Tech but never see them enter it, the Harrison song playing in the background in the club as they first hatch plans is “Living In The Material World”, which the four of them will probably never manage to do, and the film’s most celebrated sequence, in which Hurt stands covered in falling snow conducting an imagined Erectionist rally (a stock soundtrack of Nazi cheering and chanting providing further indication of the dangerous nature of self-appointed leaders) while his followers hold their arms aloft in the “claw salute”, takes place in an eerily empty yard, a device not only redolent of earlier realist fantasies such as Billy Liar (1965) and The Swimmer (1966) but also employed a year later by Richard O Brien and Jim Sharman in The Rocky Horror Picture Show when Frank N Furter sings “I’m Going Home” to an imagined audience of cheering, bouquet-throwing acolytes, only to look up again and see himself facing an empty hall.
It is in these respects that Little Malcolm comes close to being a masterpiece: some may say it exists within a world that’s hard to make sense of, but surely that’s the whole point of exactly what Malcolm is trying, however badly and wrongly, to do- and in any case, even the most convoluted nonsense of previous decades is relative plain sailing compared to the multi-layered (yet ironically simultaneously dumbed down) alternatives presented today. It’s also often criticised for its supposed over-reliance on dialogue, but to make such comments (let’s face it, if ever a British film was principally reliant on the spoken word, it’s this one) is to miss the point of the film entirely: to Malcolm Scrawdyke, and those of his kind (although not, as we later discover, Wick Blagdon), dialogue is everything, the ultimate refuge, and action anathema.
It is still, in point of fact, relatively easy, even in security-guarded 2011, to stroll into a university or municipal building and nick something, and, as we regularly read in the news, quite simple to abduct someone, but rather than do either, Hurt and Warner- the latter actually top-billed at time of release, due to a considerably longer time in the spotlight beginning with Morgan! (1966)- prefer to hold forth on minutiae such as whether or not a jacket is green, blue or made of corduroy, what someone’s full name is, how one ‘saunters’, or what street a chippie is located on. Similarly, they claim to despise creative “castration” and the “eunuchs” of the title, but it is never made clear what constitutes this eunuchy, until we are led to realise (if we hadn’t already gathered) during Ann’s denunciation of Malcolm, that it is best displayed within the Party member, and that the biggest struggle “Little” Malcolm (this description, whether physical or emotional, remains paramount) will ever have to face is against himself.
Yet it is through their rhetorical ramblings that all four actors- counterpointed by the wonderfully natural and relaxed contrast provided by Ayres- find their natural expression at its peak. Hurt, who was still at this stage essentially a supporting player in films like Tyburn’s The Ghoul , and was yet to achieve immortality as either Bob Champion or The Elephant Man, is a towering tour de force of fiery anger, hatred and spite (yet not without, as pointed out earlier, fallibly human humour), Warner’s flights of exaggerated fancy are among the best monologues seen on celluloid, Platt, as the nascent baby-faced psychopath, makes an impressive debut that leaves you to wonder why his career never really took off, and McEnery, easily the most likeable of the lot due to a mixture of sarcasm and sensitivity, balances the other three whilst also providing the Party’s sole possible leaning towards brute strength. They also all look great, particularly Warner the ubergeek in in hood, jacket, glasses and bicycle clips and Hurt, who with his mane of tousled long red hair and tattered black Crombie, resembles some sort of dishevelled Viking warrior attending a prog rock festival (making it understandable why Ayres’ hippie-chick artisan would be drawn to him), his freckly white pallor adding to the character’s underlying air of inadequacy.
Halliwell’s dialogue, ably adapted by Derek Woodward, crackles with tension (although its innate Northernness makes it easy to see why, despite winning a ‘Best Foreign Film Award’ at an American festival, it flopped Stateside) and John Alcott’s photography, shot, in perhaps the ultimate irony, in a medium entitled ‘Spherical’, which is what the Erectionists not only lack but spend most of the film talking- is perceptive and exemplary, even more so after receiving the typically thorough Flipside recovery job which emphasises not only the drab greys and browns of a post- 1960s North West, but the icy beauty of its winter months. Difficult to categorise except under the previously mentioned sub-heading of “fantastical realism”, it is often referred to as a black comedy, but progresses slowly into far darker waters. Demographically, that is if one puts any stock in such absurd concepts, Cooper’s movie can be enjoyed by devotees of both the kitchen sink and the arthouse, or anyone who loves John Hurt- but it’s hard to see who, other than obsessive Beatles fanatics (who will no doubt draw great joy from debating the similarities between Malcolm Scrawdyke the violent pseudo-revolutionary castigated by Ann Gedge and John Lennon the violent pseudo-revolutionary castigated by Todd Rundgren) will rush out and buy it, especially considering that most people I spoke to (self-professed cult film buffs one and all) had never even heard of it until the release was announced, the one notable exception being writer-director Graham Bendel, whose mother had seen the original play. I know this is something I often mention with regard to Flipside releases, but as long as it continues to be true, I’ll continue to do so- after all, anyone who loves and understands British cinema would surely prefer them to continue to exist.
In truth, it is that very stand-alone uniqueness which remains the film’s strongest asset (that, and the flawless acting) but if I were to draw parallels with any other British pictures, I would say that while its satirization of ‘false prophets’ who promise much but deliver nothing invites obvious comparisons to the sitcom Citizen Smith or Ken Russell’s Tommy, its small cast and use of contained tension within a one-location setting have more in common with the output of Peter Collinson, particularly The Long Day’s Dying (1972), Pete Medak’s Negatives (1969) starring McEnery’s older brother Peter, Joseph Losey’s Figures In A Landscape (1971) – although, admittedly, its two characters do move around more- Mark Rydell’s Canadian adaptation of DH Lawrence’s The Fox (1967), the short film The Contract (1975), earlier American productions such as Five (Arch Oboler, 1951) and Ladybug Ladybug (Frank Perry 1963) and even some works within the horror genre, particularly Pete Walker’s The Flesh And Blood Show (1972) and Norman J Warren’s Prey (1977) And that’s before we even get to the obvious Pinter and Beckett comparisons……
In other words, if you like a film featuring a minimal cast shouting at each other a lot, with superb performances from all concerned, you will love Little Malcolm. You may also like the ‘extra’ films, both dealing, as Malcolm does to some extent, with gender and identity: the first is Put Yourself In My Place (Francine Winham 1974) a quasi-feminist 25 minute short in which Judy Geeson and Christian Roberts play a married couple who argue over his repeated habit of bringing uncouth business associates home for drinks, then imagine the reversal of gender and employment roles. Whilst it works on, again, a realist-fantasy level (although in no way as much of an absurdist fantasy as the Two Ronnies’ The Worm That Turned ) it fails in its depiction of stereotypes: in its ‘real’ world, all men are drunken boors and women the opposite, whilst in the ‘imagined’ world of reversed roles, the idea that women get drunk and talk openly about men’s endowments and financial status’ is presented as an anomaly rather than something which has actually been going on since time immemorial, even in the seemingly Roedean- educated background Geeson’s cohorts all appear to hail from, and thus the film really only functions as a nice slice of kitsch in which we get to view a nice vintage record player, some clog shoes, a fondue set and some interesting glam rock hair. Also, it hasn’t been remastered (the budget must be running out), and at various points the sound quality is lamentable. Still, it looks brilliantly Seventies, which is always fine by me, and I’m glad to have seen it.
Much better is James Dearden ‘s debut short The Contraption (1977) in which an unnamed man (Richard O’Brien) is seen, to the sound of some beautifully ominous saw music, to be building a device of unspecified purpose, which will become hideously apparent in the final shot- also the only shot to contain any words, spoken as a voice over by his wife (Charlotte ‘Rock Follies’ Cornwell) and containing the word ‘bloody’, making it the only film ever made to contain a single line of dialogue yet still get rated ‘A’ for language!! Belonging to a particularly sought-after and fascinating subgenre of bizarre supporting feature of the mid-70s to early 80s (see also Dark Water, The Kiss, The Pledge, Invitation To Hell, Dream House, Victims, Footsteps, Red, The Dumb Waiter, the same director’s own Panic), it’s nice to finally see it in a decent print. Sadly, as is also often the way with these films, it led its director to Hollywood cheese infamy, its success (and that of Panic) spurring on the financing of the 1979 feature Diversion, which he would subsequently remake in America as Fatal Attraction seven years later, leading to the invention of the phrase “bunny boiler” and a slew of utterly shite copycat two-word-titled ‘psychological’ (yeah, right) blockbusters- Indecent Proposal, Jagged Edge, Basic Instinct, you know the drill, enough already- everybloodywhere.
Strangely, Dearden claimed until recently to not want to discuss his early shorts- until, presumably, the BFI weighed in with some readies with which to cushion the blow, causing him to change his mind and “reappraise his work”. The irony is, they’re still better than anything he did since, but I’m sure his bank manager disagrees with me. Such is the way of things. And his Dad was such a great man as well….but, opinions of Transatlantic schlock directors aside, the inclusion of The Contraption on this disc makes it one of the company’s best releases so far, the overall programming of the contents avoiding any attempt at ideological bias and allowing- maybe even inviting- the viewer to draw their own conclusions. So, Flipside, what rare delights will come next? One can but wonder.