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Little Malcolm: The cult classic that never was

David Halliwell’s play about politics, sex and corduroy is getting a much-needed revival.

This year is the 50th anniversary of David Halliwell’s Little Malcolm and His Struggle against Eunuchs, about an art student turned armchair autocrat who forms The Dynamic Erection party with the sole aim of seeking revenge on the teacher who excluded him.

Known as the playwrights’ playwright, Mike Leigh described Halliwell as “one of the great writers who never happened”; Dazed and Confused called Little Malcolm a “treasured relic of British counterculture” and George Harrison was so inspired by the original, that he invested all his profits from Yellow Submarine and made Halliwell’s play into a film.

But despite its iconic standing, no production has ever succeeded in transferring the play to a wider audience. So why has something so well known and loved been plagued by a lack of commercial success?

It could be because the original script is over six hours long, its lead character is a thoroughly unlikable pariah and the whole thing is performed in an unmistakably Northern dialect, which Variety blasted as “quasi-baroque Huddersfield patois”. However, these are the very aspects that have given it such cult appeal.

Now for the first time in 16 years, a group of young theatre producers has decided to stage a version at the Southwark Playhouse in London.

“It’s not a sexy proposition for a producer to do a three hour play” explains Barney McElholm, one of the producers behind the new version.

“Our first run was three-and-a-half hours long, which is crazy. It’s not put on a lot but every generation of actors has seen it. Ours was the first to miss out on a production of it.”

The last time Little Malcolm was performed in the capital, in 1998, the lead was played by Ewan McGregor, in a production by his uncle Denis Lawson. The BBC hailed it as a hot ticket,  sales topped £500,000 before its opening night and the premier was littered with famous faces, from Steve Coogan to Melvyn Bragg.

Despite such a promising start, the production never transferred to Broadway. The only time the play has travelled across the pond was Halliwell’s original 1966 production, which premiered on 28 November 1966 and closed on 3 December that same year, running for a total of eight performances.

Perhaps this flop was due to a last minute name change to Hail Scrawdyke or the play’s typically British nature, which may not travel well.

Whatever its downfall, producers have always struggled to keep hold of an audience.

Coming of age classic

Little Malcolm has all the ingredients of a coming of age classic. It uses big ideas to explore the fragile dynamics of teenage friendships, while ridiculing those who seek out power for power’s sake.

Centered on freezing bedsit in Chapel Hill, Huddersfield, the play follows a group of students from the local art school as they try  to establish a tyrannical political party under the guidance of Malcolm Scrawdyke, a dogmatic leader with no aspirations other than to further his own ego.

Armed with the rallying cry of “Hail Scrawdyke!” the party has only one policy, to unite against the eunuchs. But it soon transpires that the Party of Dynamic Erection is nothing more than an ill-fated ruse for Malcolm to seek revenge on the art teacher that excluded him. The endeavour slowly becomes a metaphor for the boy’s descent into adulthood as they attempt to cement their own legacies.

A scene from George Harrison’s Little Malcolm, Starring John Hurt and shot by Stanley Kubrick’s cinematographer, John Alcot

Under the umbrella of a grass-roots fascist doctrine, the group hatches a plan to steal a Stanley Spencer painting from a local museum, with the aim of blackmailing their art teacher into destroying it and ending his career.

Such a complex, long and somewhat out-dated play doesn’t seem a likely vehicle for an emerging contemporary production company.McElholm says that when he first read it, it seemed to resonate with the current political climate.

“When I was reading it, a couple of years ago, it was the height of the student riots in London. The play explores the impotent nature of student revolt and how angry young people can come together, not quite knowing how their ideas can change things. Like how the student riots weren’t just about education fees – they were generally about a sense of discontent.”

After reading the script and deciding it was time for a revival, the group went about trying to secure the rights. It turned out a couple of friends in the year above them at LAMDA had already purchased them. After sitting on them for 18 months, they couldn’t figure out what to do with the so passed it on.

“They released the rights and we got them, but for only about two weeks. Unfortunately a West End producer came along and bought them for £2,500. We’d only put a 50 quid deposit down so it was out of our hands for a year.”

It seems like a lot of effort to put into a production that has been resistant to revival.

McElholm thinks it might be because producers want to use the film as a star vehicle for an emerging actor, and doing so fail to cast Malcolm as a feeble impersonator, choosing to sex him up and make him an anti-hero.

“Mike Leigh said the last production failed because McGregor got him [Malcolm] totally wrong. He portrayed him as a loose, cool, young guy trying to find his way in the world, rather than this nervous ball of energy.”

The current production doesn’t fall victim to an earnest vision of young ambition. Played Daniel Easton, the new Malcolm is unlikable. And so he should be. The only followers he manages to entice are a troupe of outsider art students, brought together by a collective failure to get girls. So instead of dating and socialising, they plough their frustrations into precocious ideologies and half-baked plans.

The play was written in the 1960s, just before a wave of student revolt and occupations hit art schools up and down the country. Grass-root parties and the power of individuals to mobilise groups and enact activism was on the rise. (Coincidence or not, US activist Malcolm X was christened Malcolm Little)

Although some of the language and iconography references the leftist movements at the time, the play has more to do with individual reasons for joining a fringe political party than politics itself.

“The ideas in the play aren’t nearly as broad as revolution,” McElholm clarifies.

“It’s more about hierarchies within groups of young men. It’s about being discontented and not having anywhere to push those feelings of anger. You have these four guys who can’t get their end away, who become bizarrely obsessed with dicks; they make dick flags and posters and rage against eunuchs. Whatever it means, presumably someone one without a thought or a purpose, the fact is they’re still called eunuchs.”

“I think Malcolm uses the politics as a form of identity,” adds Easton. “Just having anyone around him distracts him from his own wildly horrible thoughts of self loathing. He wouldn’t care if it was a knitting club, because to him it’s all about the distraction.”

One scene features Malcolm and a nerdier member of the group, Nipple, arguing over the exact colour of a friend’s corduroy jacket. Nipple, a lanky boy in a hooded parka with thick rimmed glasses waxes lyrical about his unique perception of detail.

“I’m a walking seismograph of sensual innuendo. I feast on them. They’re the raw stuff from which I weave.”

A scene Little Malcolm

As a writer, Halliwell never managed to recreate the success of Little Malcolm. He spent the rest of his working life experimenting with process, pioneering the idea of lunchtime theatre and experimenting with multi-viewpoint drama and divisive theatre, neither of which aligned with his calculated and methodic approach to dialogue.

He never viewed working with other actors at a collaborative process. It was the opposite of organic, which is why devise theatre was such a weird thing to do,” McElholm tells me.

Halliwell’s deceptive ability to pinpoint why certain individuals seek power and fame while others do not is a constant theme throughout his work. Another of his plays, produced for LAMDA in 1969 entitled KD Dufford Hears KD Dufford Ask KD Dufford How KD Dufford'll Make KD Dufford, features a protagonist who murders a child in order to gain instant notoriety.

In later life Halliwell wrote a never-aired episode of Doctor Who and a few episodes of the Bill. Unfortunately, nothing seemed to take shape like Malcolm. It was only in 2006, after Halliwell died a recluse who had spent the latter part of his life away from the limelight, that it emerged just how strong his influence was on the world of drama.

He cast Janet Street-Porter as journalist for a television play, based on a séance in Cricklewood, London. The show only got one airing, and received no reviews. Despite its lack of success, Janet and David continued to work together, and would often meet-up in down the pub to discuss future projects. In a tribute printed in the Independent, Street-Porter described him as: “Totally uncompromising and never interested in fitting in. A one-off.”

Similarly Mike Leigh, who first met Halliwell when they studied together at the Rada, holds him in the same regards as many of great playwrights.

Nobody who knew him or his wit, intelligence, or indeed his writing would disagree that he could and should have been up there with Beckett and Pinter.”

Perhaps it will take a breath of fresh air and a new uptake by the next generation of dramatists to finally establish Little Malcolm as a lost relic of the 20th century.

Little Malcolm is at the Southwark Playhouse until 1 August


Caroline is the section editor of Art & Design at Little Atoms. She has written for The Guardian, Vice and Dazed & Confused.

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