It is regarded as Halliwell's greatest success in a writing career that was considered radical and groundbreaking and included many works for television (The Wednesday Play, Play for Today, The Bill, Crown Court and even an unmade Doctor Who for the 'Trial of A Time Lord' season in 1986) as well as many plays for radio and theatre.
Little Malcolm's origins are rooted in Halliwell's own brief expulsion from Huddersfield College of Art where he studied between 1953 and 1959 and although Halliwell denied it, according to early collaborator and friend Mike Leigh, the central character of Malcolm Scrawdyke, an art student humiliated by his own ejection from college and plotting revenge, is seen as something of an alter ego or a self-portrait of Halliwell. He created the part for himself and it was one which he took in the original six hour long production at the Unity Theatre in 1965, directed and designed by Leigh.
Although the Unity Theatre version of the play was considered unsuccessful, later in 1965 it was revived and revised for the West End, playing at the Garrick Theatre. Directed by Patrick Dromgoole (who would go on to oversee a highly creative period of drama production as director and producer at HTV in the 1970s), this more concise version of the play starred John Hurt as Malcolm and cemented Halliwell's reputation and his influence on the alternative theatre scene in the 1960s. Hurt knew both Halliwell and Leigh from RADA where incidentally David Warner, who appears in the film version of Little Malcolm, was also a contemporary and it was a visit by Brian Epstein and the Beatles to the Garrick that would later sow the seeds of the play's film adaptation by Derek Woodward, another RADA contemporary, in 1973.
"... allow the actors the opportunity to perform and to capture that performance"
Produced by Apple Corps, the wintry six week shoot took place completely on location at an abandoned gas works and in the surrounding streets of Oldham. Cinematographer John Alcott, having just previously worked on Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, a film that thematically mirrors Little Malcolm in some ways, extemporised with the available locations and inclement weather conditions and made the best use of natural light with faster lenses and mounts. Cooper set out to retain the essence of the play and feared that any attempt to really open it out, as is the case with many film adaptations of theatre works, would dilute the performances and the characters. As he goes on to say in the notes accompanying this release: "My attitude was to allow the actors the opportunity to perform and to capture that performance."
The film opens first with with a voice over and then a moment of inner-monologue as Malcolm (John Hurt) attempts to get out of bed, the scruffy revolutionary considering that "it's no use just theorising about getting up. It's the act that counts." This immediately underlines one of the major themes of the films about political will as Malcolm becomes the leader of a movement, loquacious about its desire to act out its manifesto as the allegory progresses and yet, by the film's conclusion, he's back to square one, unable to act, politically and sexually impotent. His reflection about exercising the will also aligns the character to his Hitler-like charismatic control of the three misbegotten followers he recruits, Wick (John McEnery), Nipple (David Warner) and Irwin (Raymond Platt) as he plots to revenge himself against an unseen art college lecturer, Allard. Allard becomes a representation of the 'eunuchs', the conformist mass of society against whom Malcolm constantly rails in order to prove his masculine potency.
The squalid aesthetic of student life, their agitations and pretensions to overturn the status quo was always a central element of Halliwell's prescience about the oncoming student revolutions of the 1960s, anticipating the protests against Vietnam, their solidarity with the civil rights movement and an attempt to replace what they saw as capitalist, bourgeois liberal ideology. Little Malcolm reflects and parodies in particular the clashes between art students and higher education institutions with their perceived deficiencies of art education that often led to demonstrations and occupations of university and college buildings. Those studying on arts and media courses seemed to want something better from their institutions and their society and Halliwell creates a fantasy of protest that would eventually be synthesised within that typical 1960s concept of 'student power' while also accurately capturing the naivety and earnestness of the art student milieu. The development of Malcolm's Party of Dynamic Erection and its leader's own increasing lurch into fascism uncannily reflects how the Director of the Polytechnic of North London regarded similar protests in 1971 as the outpourings of "these student guerrillas of the Fascist Left."
"Hitler started with seven!"
The film depicts the three members of the Party as rather frightened of women, a point which the solo female character of Ann (Rosalind Ayres) provocatively confronts them with in the film's disturbing conclusion. This is immediately set up when Wick and Irwin visit Malcolm at the start of the film to bring him news of the inter-institutional meeting about his expulsion. Wick describes his encounter with the college's matriarchal figures,"Them two chastity belts on legs... that little Ackroyd's really vicious when she gets goin'. Nearly clawed me eyes out when I said we should back yer. Didn't she, Irwin?" The meek Irwin simply undercuts this male bluff with, "Aye, she nearly touched yer" and offers that even the mere touch of a woman is anathema to the maintaining of their collective Dynamic Erection. Wick's response of "I'd 'ave touched her," foreshadows his own sickening violence towards the threatening presence of Ann later in the film and the idea that women undermine male potency and the only way to deal with that is through violence.
Wick and Irwin are immediately set up as opposites - the former full of male braggadocio, the latter almost childlike, asexual - whereas Malcolm is presented as an angry but charismatic intellectual politico. When Malcolm and his cronies go to the pub to debate their next plan of action, their leader is seen to have no time for Ann sitting just opposite and dismisses her with an abrupt, "Ah, women!" And yet, as the film progresses, the relationship between Ann and Malcolm is seen as far more complicated. There is a tentative romance alluded to in which it becomes clear that Ann is actually in awe of Malcolm's reputation as a "real man", one that she eventually discovers isn't true, and Malcolm is completely inept trying to relate to her. When he goes home and has coffee with Ann he rails against his own inability to court the woman, "What is this block? What is it? Why am I so inhibited?" and he's reduced to small talk about kitchens and wallpaper.
Ann directly attacks the three men, an echo of the feminism that took on the patriarchal society of the times and when, as a result, gender roles underwent a problematic deconstruction. In reflecting this gender crisis Yvonne Tasker also ironically points out how this, and its relation to the film's title and use of the concept of 'eunuchs' to symbolise conformism and themes of male impotence, were outlined in Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch, published in 1971. The shocking twist is that the film moves from a fantasy of male power, highly comic in tone, to a rather brutal, sickening assault on a woman who suggests they "resign all claim to being men", a claim Malcolm originally offers in the pub as a mark of failing to challenge another man, Allard.
In the pub, the revolution begins in finely judged comic style. When they form the Party, Irwin argues it cannot be run by three men but this is refuted by Malcolm's claim that "Hitler started with seven!" With the Party's manifesto declared as, "we're against the eunuchy, we're against the castrated wherever they are, against all of them who want to reduce us to their level", Malcolm suggests they kill Allard, become martyrs and exploit the situation. Watch Raymond Platt's reactions to this and the suggestion he could spend time in prison for the cause. He's wonderfully funny. Over a pint and a fag, they "rule out assassination" and instead plan to kidnap Allard and blackmail him by exposing Allard's affair with another woman in the pub, Margaret Thwaite. Interestingly, Malcolm here accuses Allard of wearing a mask to hide his true sensibilities and later we understand, in some of the monologues and voice overs in the film, that Malcolm is also afraid that his mask will slip and his admirers will see him for what he is, "a little man." Also note that masks act a significant symbol in the fantasy kidnap sequence.
"I'm a walking seismograph of sensual innuendo"
However, the film is almost stolen by David Warner as duffel-coated aspiring writer Dennis Nipple who bursts onto the screen in close up immediately after a moment of Malcolm's late-night self-reflection, arguing with the film's 'hero' about the colour of a cordoroy jacket. Warner's physicality in the role, hood permanently up, eyes framed by NHS glasses, hands constantly thrust into the duffel-coat's pockets, offers the film a comedic reflection of Malcolm. This reflection is also key to Malcolm's belief in his own power trip in the later trial scene with Nipple. when the 'game' becomes reality.
Similarly verbose, Nipple is awkward and odd in contrast to the black coated Malcolm's hairy tempestuousness. A brilliantly realised character, summing himself up as a man who has a "keen perception of the world of the senses; sights, sounds, odours, tactile titillations. I'm a walking seismograph of sensual innuendo." Nipple argues that the jacket wasn't cordoroy but was of an imitation fabric, yelling at Malcolm, "you can't afford real cordoroy!" Warner gets several very amusing scenes like this, showing off Halliwell's extremely witty script into the bargain. Nipple challenges Malcolm's claim that he has not eaten for 48 hours by recounting a sublime tale of going on hunger strike ("to seek the unknown vistas of the 'allucinated mind") and seeing the gas works at night as a dark, hallucinatory vision. "Terrible place that gas works. If that's what it does to young mystics they ought to put a screen round it," demands Malcolm.
As Party Archivist and Minister of Records, Nipple criticises the current Party salute and suggests they go for something that he demonstrates as a very exaggerated, but entirely appropriate, Nazi salute. When he's forced to use the 'clawed hand' salute and swear allegiance to the Party there's a wonderful moment where Halliwell plays with the audience's expectations. How can anyone have the surname Nipple, you ask? As Wick recites, "I, Dennis Nipple...", Nipple interjects, "that's not my name!" The audience thinks the game's up. When Wick asks him what his name is, he continues "I, Dennis Charles Nipple..." During the fantasy tinged rehearsal of the kidnapping, Nipple's geeky appearance is enhanced by having to employ someone's mucky vest as a mask and the implied attack on Allard, here role-played by Wick, again underlines the real and later consequences of their child-like aping of male virility embodied by beatings, car chases and kidnapping.
The fantasy of the kidnap, conducted in an immobile, wrecked car, is enchanced by non-diegetic sound effects and subtle use of red and green light to suggest non-existent traffic lights. It's an hilarious piece of physical comedy from the ensemble cast that concludes with a dark rant from Malcolm as the film tips over from playful comedy and games into its much more sinister second half, the scene culminating with Wick, posing as Allard, offering his daughter to Malcolm because "she's ripe" and symbolically destroying Stanley Spencer's painting, 'The Garden at Cookham Rise' (Halliwell having a go at the symbols of privileged liberal bourgeois art education perhaps), as his fellow Party members scream uncontrollably "Smash it!" in anticipation of the far more horrifying attack on Ann that rings with their cries of "Punish!"
"you're the biggest virgin outside of a convent"
The 'final solution' is meted out to both Nipple and Ann by the end of the film. Nipple is put on trial for treason, where the verdict is either "guilty or very guilty" and, as a rival, he is ostracised from the Party for daring to expose the fantasy as distinct from the reality of the situation (he declares Malcolm "mad") and then Ann receives a punishment for daring to question the inadequacy of the man she bluntly offers herself to and then confronts ("you're the biggest virgin outside of a convent"). Even though she also pledges her help, Malcolm rejects it as a form of castration and her punishment is brutal and realistic (with Wick and Irwin convinced they've murdered her and then offering one of the very few moments of genuine male tenderness and fragility in the entire film) and is perhaps the only moment of realism in the film that can snap these deluded men out of their dangerous fantasy. Halliwell's message is also surely a warning to those who would obey such charismatic but impotent leaders. Malcolm's final countdown and inability to act, mirroring the opening of the film as he struggled to get out of bed, brings the film full circle as the "great leader" remains "petrified" and Cooper zooms in to Hurt's hooded, terrified stare and freezes the frame.
The film does not escape its theatrical roots and I suspect it never intended to if we bear director Stuart Cooper's comments in mind. The art student milieu is one that is recognisable and is used to synthesise the distinctions between adults and adolescents and explore a subculture where sexual and political differences were at their most fluid in the 1970s. It is a provocative and playfully surreal satire that examines power, gender and fantasy with the performances and larger-than-life characters driving these themes along to their devastating conclusion. Hurt, McEnery and Warner are particularly good, able to deliver very long speeches and remain utterly mesmerising, hilarious and terrifying.
About the transfer
The BFI does the film proud with a rather lovely high definition transfer of the 35mm negative from the Apple Corps archive. Boasting images with real depth and thick contrast, the details on faces, objects and clothes are exceptional. Look at the close-ups of David Warner and his duffel-coat or the vivid red scarf that Ray Platt sports to see how fine detail and glorious color sing from the screen. This beautifully shows off Alcott's color palette and use of shadow on the film's interiors and the very luminous quality he imbues on the landscapes of the film, be they the ruined gas works (the brick walls look as if you could reach out and touch then) or the wintry hills of Oldham.
The mono audio is for the most part very clear even though there are some intermittent moments of distortion. They're not particularly distracting but one of the inadequacies of shooting on location is betrayed in the trial of Nipple. It's conducted in what looks like an old council chamber and the acoustics are often so bad that it is hard to understand what Malcolm is saying in some scenes. It's a drawback of the original recording and not the fault of the soundtrack's transfer which is good and sharp in the main.
Original Little Malcolm trailer
Put Yourself In My Place (Francine Winham, 1974, 25 mins): fraught gender relations trigger a startling role reversal in this polemical comedy starring Judy Geeson
The Contraption (James Dearden, 1977, 7 mins): in a final act of defeat or defiance, a man (Richard O’Brien) builds a sinister contraption in a dark cellar
Illustrated booklet featuring original artwork and contributions from Stuart Cooper, John Hurt, Mike Leigh (who directed the debut stage production of Halliwell’s play) and Yvonne Tasker from the University of East Anglia
Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs
Apple Corps and Subafilms Ltd 1974
BFI Dual Format Edition / Released 24 October 2011 / BFIB1123 / Cert 15 / colour / English, optional hard-of-hearing subtitles / 111 mins / Original aspect ratio 1.85:1 / Region 0 / BFI Flipside title no. 020 / Disc 1: BD50 / 1080p / 24fps / PCM mono audio (48k/24-bit) / Disc 2: DVD9 / PAL / PCM mono audio (48k/16-bit) (Extras Dolby Digital 320 kbps)