The BFI’s increasingly essential Flipside range continues with another dual format release of a great but hardly seen British rarity; this time it’s the little remembered 1974 adaptation of cult playwright David Halliwell’s original stage play “Little Malcolm and his Struggle Against the Eunuchs” in which John Hurt reprises the eponymous role that gave him such critical notice during the play’s West End run at the Garrick Theatre in 1966. George Harrison came to finance the evocative film version after his name was suggested to screenwriter Derek Woodward by Hurt himself; Brian Epstein had earlier brought his ‘boys’ to see the stage play in London in the mid-sixties and its sardonic black humour clearly connected with the Beatles guitarist’s own offbeat sensibility. It was directed by former actor Stuart Cooper, who attended RADA with Woodward and the film’s two stars, John Hurt and David Warner.
Hurt plays Malcolm Scrawdyke – a dishevelled, long-haired would-be revolutionary who stalks the blackened cobbles of a bleak Lancashire mill town and plots revenge on the unseen tech college head who expelled him from the local art college for his disruptive influence on the other students. Halliwell had himself briefly been expelled from Huddersfield art college and the play’s meditation on the impotence of thwarted masculinity diverted into routines of petty fascistic posturing clearly had some grounding in the playwright’s own personal difficulties, at least according to his friend, and the director of the original five hour version of the play -- staged at the Unity Theatre, London in 1965 -- Mike Leigh, whose own 1993 film “Naked” cast David Thewlis in a role that has a great deal of resonance with Hurt’s portrayal of Scrawdyke, both visually and in the character’s unceasing loquaciousness.
Scrawdyke has a trio of devoted acolytes to help him enable his absurd and vindictive plan. John McEnery plays arch lickspittle and second-in-command Wick, while Raymond Platt is the younger, nervous, scarf-wrapped hanger-on, Irwin. David Warner makes an instant impression as the memorably named Dennis Nipple – a verbose and incessantly argumentative rival for leadership of the group (the Trotsky to Scrawdyke’s Stalin) who’s always eccentrically garbed in a hooded duffel coat from which he peers wearing a pair of owlish horn-framed spectacles. Halliwell’s densely worded play has been transposed to the desolate, dark, red brick wasteland of 1970s Oldham in the middle of one very grim and frosty-looking winter (you can see the actors’ breath condensing in the cold throughout most of the film) for this striking adaptation, beautifully rendered in all its benightedly bleak Northern wintertime glory by “A Clockwork Orange” lighting cameraman John Alcott. The crew had the run of Huddersfield gas board council buildings because of a strike -- and from these vast grey brick environs they shot a great deal of material for almost all the film’s various semi-derelict settings.
From his untidy, scrappily furnished careworn rooms, overlooking the towering architecture of the college of art which has cruelly shunned him, Scrawdyke and his eccentric rabble of friends meticulously plot to steal an expensive painting, then kidnap the college head and force him to publicly destroy it, thus turning him into an outcast. Most of the film’s dark humour exists in the obvious contrast between Malcolm Scrawdyke’s persuasive oratory powers (which draw in the impressionable, the disenfranchised and the weak around him) and his own constitutional inability to act. The opening scene sees Hurt, scruffy-haired and snivelling from behind a fuzzy beard and droopy moustache, discoursing in highly inflated terms on the need to set aside theory and to simply act without thinking. The rhetoric sounds like the speech of a political left wing revolutionary, but in fact Scrawdyke is simply trying to force himself to get out of bed! Malcolm’s ability to use compelling speech and overblown verbiage in order to wield great influence over his dishevelled troupe of inadequate followers is situated in marked contrast to his complete hopelessness when it comes to communicating with the opposite sex; and indeed, the film’s central conceit is that a lust for power in the public and political arena can be directly equated with impotence and inadequacy in the private sphere. Malcolm is infatuated with a neighbour of his -- Ann Gedge (Rosalind Ayres) -- and despite her being perfectly willing (and making her willingness as obvious to him as it could be possibly made), Malcolm is unable to function in her presence and becomes uncharacteristically sullen and nervous whenever he encounters her. Even forcing himself to walk past her house becomes a Herculean task of will power demanding hours of torment and self-rallying beforehand.
Instead, Scrawdyke asserts his masculinity by adopting a comically transparent indifference to women in the company of his three friends and by sublimating a strident sexual aggression into his rhetorical cod-revolutionary poses. Scrawdyke characterises his enemies as ‘eunuchs’ and makes up his own political party (his three friends are the only members) which he calls the Party of Dynamic Erection, whose symbol is designed around a stylised depiction of an erect penis. The group spends its time engaged in obsessively staging a fantasy world reconstruction of their plot to humiliate Allard, the college head. The Party’s only aim is to wield power for its own sake and Scrawdyke’s increasingly deranged hate diatribes in which he elaborates, using ever more exaggerated grandiose language, exactly how he will force his enemies to cower and beg for eternity at his feet begin to take on a disturbingly fascistic tone, and are augmented by the ‘party’s’ absurdly extravagant clawed-hand sign and Hitlerian ‘Heil Scrawdyke’ salute.
The middle section of the film is given over to a depiction of the group acting out their proposed kidnap plot in an elaborately staged dress rehearsal with Wick playing a cowering version of Allard (the real one is never seen), deliriously staged by Cooper with a combination of whirling handheld cameras and kaleidoscopic overhead shots in an abandoned warehouse, with Wicks comically indulging his leader’s vanity by making his portrayal of the hate figure Allard constantly defer to Scrawdyke’s supposed monumental honesty and his great revolutionary virility. Once again, the humour comes from the contrast in the inflated beliefs and claims to power of the group with the fact that they are merely playing, like children, at one point imagining making a getaway in a wheelless junkyard car, with Wick making ‘vroom vroom’ noises.
The one thorn in Scrawdyke the great leader’s side is the wayward, aforementioned Dennis Nipple (a fantastic turn from David Warner): from arguing about the colour of a corduroy jacket Scrawdyke once owned (or indeed whether or not it was even real corduroy) when we first meet him, to incessantly pointing out niggling flaws or taking issue with various aspects of Malcolm’s deluded plans, Nipple threatens to shatter the illusory spell Scrawdyke has established over his friends, and Malcolm suspects him of having designs to replace him as leader, especially because Nipple is given to delivering highly overblown accounts of his sexual magnetism (which are sharply at odds with his ridiculous appearance and prissy pronunciation) that we know Scrawdyke himself cannot match in real life.
This small-time rivalry obviously has a satirical aspect to it, since it mirrors the inevitable round of purges, putsches and expulsions which always occur in the obsessively cliquey world of so-called radical politics, and Scrawdyke’s petty rivalry with his equally pathetic and deranged former friend is an illustration of the hopeless posturing Halliwell finds to be at the root of the student radical movement that was yet to fully emerge when the play was originally written, but was already something of a cliché by the time the film version came out in 1974. The stylised staged ‘court room’ sequence, in which Nipple is forced to stand inside a packing crate in an empty mahogany-panelled council building and plead either ‘guilty’ or ‘very guilty’, demonstrates the play’s avant-garde mix of farce and Beckett influenced surrealism while the evocative Oldham locations situate these absurd characters in a wonderfully immediate and tangibly physically real-world setting that grounds their highly articulated flights of verbal fantasy in a believable sense of place and period. The rain-lashed grey-brown evening streets and their broken cobbles -- grim disused Lancashire mills towering in the distance, the brooding hilly countryside surrounding the town itself – gives the film a real cinematic charge despite its dense wordiness, and a particular highlight comes when Scrawdyke holds a party rally (still with only the same three acolytes in attendance) in the middle of a driving snowstorm, with the Lancashire hills visible as a backdrop.
As several of the essay’s in the disc’s accompanying booklet point out, this is very much an actor’s film, most notably Hurt and Warner’s, both of whom really get to let rip with Halliwell’s ornate but precisely worded dialogue; but it also provides the material for a magnificent performance from Rosalind Ayres who gives a quiet, sympathetic performance for most of the run time as Scrawdyke’s potential girlfriend Ann, until the climax of the film when she gets to ‘speak truth to power’ in the presence of her impotent suitor (who suddenly affects an insulted prudishness when she directly propositions him), drawing from Scrawdyke a terrible retribution when it is pointed out to him that behind his carefully cultivated front he’s all mouth and no trousers and ‘the biggest virgin outside a convent’.
By the time the film was released, the rise of radical feminism had perhaps started to make the play and the film’s conflation of radical politics with an impotent form of masculinity that seeks its demented outlet in wild political schemes and cruel violence seem slightly more problematic (feminism could be equally factional and prone to its own pointless posturing during the 1970s, after all) but the work retains a stark power made most evident in the central performances of its small cast, and captures the group dynamics of insulated, delusional and powerless individuals whose inability to function on a personal level is masked with grandiose ideological rhetoric and unrealistic political ambitions. This duel-disc edition from the BFI presents a magnificent HD transfer struck from the original 35mm negative made available by the George Harrison Estate. It looks grand, with sharp detail and wonderful colour. Despite the often bleak urban landscape of Oldham it showcases, the film is often immensely colourful, John Alcott employing a similar naturalistic style in its lighting to the one he created in “A Clockwork Orange” to produce a striking, sometimes bleakly ravishing mise-en-scene. The mono audio track is slightly thin but clear and loud enough throughout and reproduces very nicely the score, which mixes atmospheric cues from Stanley Myers with George Harrison’s trademark lilting melodic title theme. Removable English subtitles for the hard of hearing are also available.
The main feature is accompanied by two shorts from the BFI vaults, each based on themes dealing with representations of masculinity. “Put Yourself In My Place” (1974) sees Judy Geeson swapping roles with her middleclass husband in a whimsical 25 minute film about the politics of gender roles, written and directed by Francine Winham. The presentation itself is grainy and full of tram lines and spots and speckles, but concerns itself with a comical undoing of the tropes of a 1970s representation of the middleclass male, revealing its absurdities through the simple strategy of reversing the roles and having Geeson’s put-upon housewife transformed into a cigar-chomping, trouser-suited go-getter who harasses her meek male secretary (who is forced to give up his job when his new wife demands it) and requires her own piny-wearing househusband to sit quietly while she entertains her boorish group of female friends as they crack off-colour jokes and make sexist remarks about various subordinate men at the office.
The second film is a five minute piece called "The Contraption", written and directed by James Dearden (son of Basil Dearden) in which “The Rocky Horror Picture Show’s” Richard O’Brien constructs a strange device in his cellar.
The two discs in this set both feature the same material in Blu-ray and DVD formats and come with an excellent booklet of essays and film reviews by Yvonne Tasker and Gordon Gow; production credits; an interview with director Stuart Cooper; short written pieces by Mike Leigh and John Hurt; biographies of Stuart Cooper by Robert Murphy, and of David Halliwell by Alan Strachan; plus reviews and analysis’ of both the short films accompanying the main feature.