Chris Wade - On His Malcolm McDowell Book

Written by
  • font size decrease font size increase font size
  • Print
  • Email
/malcolm mcdowell on screen by chris wade john bance zani 1.j

ZANI - How did you first discover Malcolm and what qualities does he have that makes him appeal to you?

Chris Wade - Well the first film I saw Malcolm in was Royal Flash because funnily enough I used to collect Bob Hoskins films. Actually Hoskins is a great actor, but that’s beside the point now. Hoskins had a small part in it. But when I saw Malcolm as Flashman, I just thought now there’s an actor I knew he was in Clockwork Orange but all the images of that film, the eyelash, the rape and all that, use to scare me when I was a kid. Besides it was still banned in the UK then.

To me it was this dark forbidden area that I wasn’t allowed to see.. Even when it came back out I was told not to watch it by my mum, who remembered all the controversy. The next one I saw was Gangster Number One when it first came out on rental in 2001.

I was sixteen and thought that Malcolm was terrific in that film; really angry and nasty. It made me want to get the rest. Next was Clockwork Orange and from then it was just clear that here was a very under rated actor; charismatic, funny and brilliant to watch. The qualities in his acting that I like are his energy and his humour, which always lifted my spirits when I was in my down moods of my teenage years, and also the intenseness he brings to roles. He is unlike any other actor I have ever seen.. His philosophy is basically if it looks like he is having fun, then we will have fun too. It is true. I have sat through some awful films in which Malcolm saves the day by just being HIM He is amazing.

ZANI - What made you decide to write a book on Malcolm’s screen career and what are your aims for the book?

Chris Wade - Well firstly, I knew very few people who had heard of him and if they had it was because of either Clockwork Orange or Star Trek Generations when he plays the bad guy Tolian Soran. I learned all about him through all his films and interviews and stuff like that. One day I just started writing about him for a project and I thought ‘why don’t I write a book about this guy?’ I had learned so much about him and his career over the decade or so I had been watching his movies, so why not put it all down in a book so other fans can enjoy it all? I was shocked to see he had never had a book written about him before.

Any way I thought that was unbelievable really for such an important figure in British film not to have that kind of respect and so I thought I would be the chap to write this book My aim with it is to really pay homage to an important man, someone who helped me through my teenage years and has made an unbelievable and overlooked contribution to film. But I have tried to be critical when I really needed to be too. He is so under rated, only known for a handful of things and I wanted people to look at the other things he had done and recognize his importance and his brilliance really.

ZANI - What research did you do for it and how was the experience for you of bringing it all together?

Chris Wade - Well on a research level I re read all my archives (old interviews, reviews, pieces on Malcolm from old 70s and 80s film mags I had collected over time) and re watched all the films. The book reviews about 100 or so of his film and TV credits. There are more he’s been in but some are deleted and some I found it impossible to get hold of. I also had the honour of talking to Malcolm’s son Charlie who lives in LA and is a film maker.

Malcolm was too busy to talk but I don’t mind because I still got to send him and his son a copy of the book, which Charlie tells me he loved, especially the cover. It was fun researching his life and career because he is such a colourful character and interestingly, what always appeals to me, he has had a varied career with many ups and downs and that is fun to evaluate.

ZANI - Malcolm has done many roles in both TV and film over the years including of course the iconic roles in If, O Lucky Man and Clockwork Orange..what are your favourite roles and why?

Chris Wade - Well I would be a liar not to say his role in Clockwork Orange, so that is an obvious stand out. As Alex he is such a bastard but as he’s having so much fun doing all this stuff (rape, murder, theft) it is kind of impossible not to like him, his lust for life. I don’t think anyone else could have pulled this off, and Kubrick obviously thought so too seeing as he wouldn’t have made the film had McDowell not been available. It is beyond iconic, his performance in that film.

Also O Lucky Man is fantastic, the Mick Travis from If.. has grown up and is struggling to find himself in the big bad world. Malcolm embodies that wide eyed innocence so well in O Lucky Man and he is really likable in that one. Two films there, made right next to each other that really represent his over looked versatility. I really like his performance in Gangster No.1 too; totally insane no doubt about it.

ZANI - Tell me more about If and the ideas behind it?

Chris Wade - Well If stands as a real rule breaker of its era. It was the late 60s and Britain was still a very stuck up, repressed place. If..., as Malcolm and director Lindsay Anderson said, really stuck a dagger into the heart of the establishment. Here was a public school, and in it on the big screen were all those things we all knew existed but were never supposed to speak about; repression, cruelty, unchallengeable rules, prefects getting sexual favours from the younger boys.

The end where Malcolm and his gang get up on the roof and machine gun all the teachers and parents was so symbolic but I think people took it and still take it too literally. It is really a surrealistic release for them all. If is certainly a fantasy but it was seen as this revolutionary force in British film. It also shot Malcolm to fame, as a kind of anti establishment figure of UK cinema. The school represents Britain; Anderson was a patriot alright but one who couldn’t deny the sickening flaws in his country. Malcolm was the face of this anger; fashionable leading man for late 60s- early 70s rebellion.

ZANI - The controversies of course continued with Clockwork Orange in 1971 directed by Stanley Kubrick and I think we could do a whole interview around the film but could you tell me more about the film, its reputation, the ban and its influences?
Chris Wade - Well Ken Russell was eyeing the film for a while and the Rolling Stones almost starred in a version of it, but that did not happen. Kubrick read the book and could only picture Malcolm in the role, after watching If... It was based on Anthony Burgess novel of the same name, a moral tale of free will and man’s freedom to choose, whatever that choice may be. In Alex’s case it is evil. It starts with Alex’s rampage on a future Britain where he and his gang of Droogs terrorize, rape and steal at every opportunity. When Alex gets caught he undergoes a treatment experiment which plans to turn the bad good by brainwashing treatment. After the government is roasted for turning a human being into a vegetable, the government returns Alex to his former self, and in the chilling finale he and the system are side by side. It was controversial at the time and for years later due to copycat violence in the UK, and when death threats to Kubrick shook him up, he had it withdrawn from the public in the UK.

It remained banned there (here) until 99 when Kubrick died. As for the influence of the film you see it everywhere. Rock bands like The Addicts based a full act on the film and dressed up as Droogs on stage. Other bands like Moloko and Heaven 17 took their names from the film. You found its influence in fashion, especially punk and glam, and even now on the cat walks. Everyone knows the film and everyone has their own view on it. In America, they do a full term on it at film schools. It is a phenomenon that has influenced countless areas in popular culture. 40 years on it is still as brilliant and important as when it was released. A true cult classic. But it kind of cemented Malcolm as Alex; forever he will be known as that character. My book attempts to change that a little, but of course I will never succeed. Clockwork Orange is just too embedded into culture.

ZANI - More controversy occurred for Malcolm in 1979 and his performance in Caligula which I believe is one of your favourite performances from him…can you tell me more about the film and how it ended up being totally different film to what Malcolm expected?

Chris Wade - Well firstly it was produced by Bob Guccione who I am sure you’re aware is a big name in porn. He secretly wanted to make what he called “a legit porno” so he got in the best of British acting (O Toole, Gielgud, Helen Mirren and McDowell as Caligula) to act out the high drama, telling the story of Rome’s maddest emperor. With Tinto Brass directing the stellar cast, Guccione was inserting (bad choice of word there), should I say slipping in (even worse choice of words) hardcore porn scenes. In the end, the final cut is a mess and nothing like what the cast expected to see. It damaged his career enormously really.

Hardly credible for a serious actor, appearing alongside all that muck. He said, when it was released, “I now have some feeling what it is like to be raped.” It is a shame that it is such a mess of a film as Malcolm is totally amazing as Caligula. He plays him as an anarchist, very much like if Alex from Clockwork gained power over the whole world; a powerful, twitchy and occasionally funny tour de force. Unfortunately it is in the wrong film.

ZANI - One of my favourite performances is when he plays the good guy for once, HG Wells in Time After Time in 1979. How would you describe this film and is it one you admire? I believed Malcolm met his then wife Mary Steenburgen on the set?

Chris Wade - Yes Malcolm met his future wife on the set, and they fell in love. You can see it on the screen amidst the action and the love story and it really makes the film classic. That real quality amidst the ludicrous plot of HG Wells pursuing Jack the Ripper through 1970s San Francisco. But the silly plot is never questioned in your mind; the combination of Malcolm’s great timid performance, Nicholas Meyer’s spot on directorial style and the love story that unravels makes this a great little film, under rated for sure and like you said, he is playing the good guy for once. I love this film, I really do.

ZANI - Why do you think his career stalled in the 80s and could you tell me more about his often underrated parts in recent years?

Chris Wade - Well he had moved to Hollywood. I think they didn’t know what to do with him. Hollywood has to file an actor, categorize them, it’s just done that way. Malcolm is so unique I think they struggled to find what to do with his talent. He was a villain to them, plain and simple, that’s what they saw him as. Caligula damaged his bankability I am sure about that, no matter what anyone says. The start of the 80s was Ok for him, two good roles in Cat People and Blue Thunder, but he just drifted out of contention, into B movies and stuff like that. He was a bit fond of the old cocaine and booze for a bit, and his marriage broke down as a result and by the early 90s he hadn’t appeared in anything notable for ages.

Thank god he made a comeback and now he’s quite big again thanks to Halloween, Heroes, Entourage and all that US stuff. But he has done some really under rated stuff. There is one called Assassin of the Tsar which, I don’t think has even been seen outside Russia. It is hard to get hold of, but Malcolm puts in a powerful and subtle performance as a mental patient who believes he is the man who killed the Tsar in 1918. Excellent, dark film. Another brilliant dark performance, and probably his best is in Evilenko where he plays the Russian serial killer Chikatilo. That film is brilliant and Malcolm really embodies the bastard, not looking or acting anything like the Malcolm McDowell we all know.

A total creep there; it is an Oscar worthy performance but unfortunately seen by very few. There are so many films people should track down if they like McDowell in his well know films; I recommend Disturbed, Gangster No.1, The Company and Between Strangers. He is always watchable but some of the films are questionable. As he once said, “I’ve made 5 great films, the rest are questionable.”

ZANI - Finally tell me more about your writing and what is next for you?

Chris Wade - I’ve got a few bits and bobs out there. I have a novel out called Cutey and the Sofaguard, on Bright Pen books, a kind of surreal mindbender that can be best described as a mix of Clockwork Orange, Pete and Dud and Reeves and Mortimer. Totally off its mush Anyone into surreal humour will like it; it was basically an experiment in doing something totally different, and I mean totally different. It is totally original; I can guarantee you have never read a book like this, although that might not necessarily be a good thing for some people. It’s all about this guy stuck in a lift on his way to see what we think is the love of his life in hospital. He tells us his life story and basically the reality is questionable. In one part he buys a new sofa and the company sends along a guy called The Sofaguard, a big soldier with a gun, to watch over the couch until he sees the owner fit enough to look after it.

 And no I am not on drugs. My next one is Hugh Cornwell: The Hoover Dam Companion, which I am really excited about, being such a big Stranglers and Hugh fan It’s a book about his latest album, Hoover Dam. That’s supposed to be out in time for his UK tour and available from his live shows. I am also in negotiations with a few publishers for another project, but I am still weighing up the companies before I let anyone know about that. That is going to be a much awaited book too. Also I am getting my band back off the ground too. My old one, The Dc Horns has kind of crumbled out now so I’m starting this new one called The 7/ 11s.Should be fun. Or not, we’ll see.

Read 4388 times Last modified on Friday, 08 May 2015 16:45
Rate this item
(0 votes)

About Us

ZANI was conceived in late 2008 and the fan base gradually grew by word of mouth. Key contributors came from those of the music, film and fashion industry and the voice of ZANI grew louder. So, when in 2013 investor, contributor and fan of ZANI Alan McGee* offered his support to help restyle and relaunch the site it was inevitable that traffic would increase dramatically and continues to grow. *Alan McGee co-founder of Creation Records and new label 359 Music..


What We Do

ZANI is an independent online magazine for readers interested in contemporary culture, covering Music, Film & TV, Sport, Art amongst other cultural topics. Relevant to modern times ZANI is a dynamic website and a flagship for creative movement and thinking wherever our readers live in the world.