In the twenty-four-seven matrix of our media world it's hard to imagine films languishing forgotten, cast out into obscurity, left behind by the forward-moving juggernaut of time. Now everything exists at once. History is a time-line we can traverse at will. Everything of value (and much that isn't) is being championed somewhere, everywhere, as we speak, as the never-ending desire for new stimuli goes on, for new old things even, rediscovered gems, lost classics. How is it possible for a film (or anything else) to remain hidden, gathering dust, a rumour, a secret, a film maudit, the preserve only of dedicated enthusiasts and lovers of the willfully obscure? Even cave paintings locked away for thousands of years are exposed to our prying cameras these days, find themselves on t-shirts, mugs and computer screens. What could possibly escape the voracious, interactive maw of 21st century multi-mediated culture?
Well, nothing probably, to be honest. But things can certainly still fly under the radar, existing on sporadic blog entries, occasional screenings at festivals or a brief appearance on the Guardian's Clip Joint. It was during a recent Clip Joint on The Beatles that I encountered Little Malcolm and his Struggle Against The Eunuchs, the first film produced by George Harrison. The clip shown, this corduroy exchange, stopped me in my tracks. How could something so good have never crossed my path? Surely I'd have heard of it before at least, a film with a Beatles connection starring two stalwarts of British cinema like John Hurt and David Warner? But no. It was a complete mystery to me. I had to investigate more.
What I discovered was a darkly comic political allegory based on David Halliwell's acclaimed 1965 play which marries kitchen sink Northern locations (we're in Oldham) to word-driven scenes of heightened theatricality. Which is to say it doesn't try to normalise the play, but like Glengarry Glen Ross, uses the camera to intensify scenes, to revel in the language and the glorious opportunities for actors to take off into spellbinding monologues. While many films would end up falling between two stools, Little Malcolm manages to achieve a convincing symbiosis between play and film, a third way. Somehow the locations, superbly captured by cinematographer John Alcott (A Clockwork Orange), with their wintry drabness, isolated plots of land, dour high-ceilinged bedsits, industrial red-brick grime, all-pervading misty dampness, anchor the characters, allowing them to breathe and exist as both real people and political allegory. They're the kind of misfits places like this breed, men driven crazy by the never-starting futility of their existences, dreamers and idealists, fantasists, but also blowhards and inadequates, comical in their self-deluded bragging and schemes, their determination to force themselves into the flow of history.
We first see Malcolm Scrawdyke in his cold, run-down flat trying to make himself get out of bed, to trick his mind into moving, to act before thinking. (It's like everything that follows is the result of this desire to act, to avoid the sheer boredom and inertia of his life). We soon learn he's been expelled from Art College for being a disruptive influence. He takes two of his loyal followers, Wick (John McEnery) and Erwin (Raymond Platt) to the pub where they plot their revenge not just on the art college tutor they despise but on the whole country. Malcolm considers himself a leader, a militant revolutionary, and now he sees his expulsion as an opportunity to put into action what they've often spoken about, to start their own political movement, magnificently called - Dynamic Erection.
They bring in Dennis Charles Nipple (David Warner), a duffle-coat-wearing would-be writer, a rival to Malcolm in his ability to use language, his half-hearted participation and argumentativeness. They proceed to rehearse kidnapping their nemesis, stealing a painting, practicing speeches and how to deal with assassination attempts, all the while seeming like overgrown children at play. This is a point it's making of course. So much revolutionary talk and posturing is just that, fantasy and play, childish in essence, and just as threatening or likely to succeed. Malcolm is like a militant Billy Liar, Lancashire rooftops echoing to the cheers of imaginary crowds as he prepares his rousing speech. He's the leader because he's the most eloquent, knows the tricks of oratory, the emphatic hand gestures. But behind all the talk of action, the railing against the eunuchs, he's just as impotent and 'little' as the rest of them.
And yet, despite all this, we kind of like these deluded malcontents. They're in a fine line of British losers railing impotently against their lot from Hancock to Steptoe and Son. In fact only three years after Little Malcolm, the sit-com Citizen Smith would mine a similar seam, making comic hay from the gap between leftist revolutionary ideals and the mundane reality of British life. But beneath the comedy, the sympathy, runs a warning about taking these things for granted. The parallel is with Hitler (an art-school reject himself) and the National Socialists. A laughing stock in 20s Germany basically, little men acting big, until, that is, the political geography altered and they found themselves in power. Then it wasn't funny anymore. And so it is here. As Little Malcolm gets darker, we see how censorship and bullying evolve from the words, from the refusal to see any other reality but their own. They're dreamers but cowards, socially and sexually inadequate, fantasists unable to access or deal with reality.
It's like a cross between Dennis Potter and Harold Pinter. Director Stuart Cooper understands that the words are king, they lead to the performances and the whole thing works from there. The camera is another layer, another visual language, and the play needs to be translated into it, but not transformed into something else altogether. Why shouldn't cinema have the same freedoms of expression as theatre, the right to be an imaginative space not held down by the actual? We seem to have no problem with cinema making the visual more heightened or amazing but if people speak in oddly eloquent ways we seem to find this objectionable.
Despite winning the Silver Bear at the 1974 Berlin Film Festival Little Malcolm quickly disappeared from view, only to be resurrected by the BFI in 2011. Yet echoes of it can be found in other films like sarky misanthropic Johnny in Mike Leigh's Naked (Leigh directed the first stage production of Little Malcolm), Withnail and I for the comic verve of the dialogue and even Chris Morris's inept terrorists in Four Lions. Yes it's a filmed play but when the dialogue is this good it doesn't matter and the acting is sensational. You have no idea how great an actor John Hurt is until you see it, or David Warner. When Malcolm gives his would-be speech to the massed ranks of snowy Oldham rooftops Hurt launches into an oratorical tour-de-force while at the same time hand gestures and passionate emphasis of words are pitched just too much to make them ridiculous. It's brilliant. The way he bellows 'seeeeeeize the init-i-a-tive' is both thrilling and hilarious. In its own uncompromising, unique way, it's a classic.