If he could see me now

Malcolm McDowell is paying homage to his mentor Lindsay Anderson - and their seminal Sixties film
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

When British director Lindsay Anderson had a massive heart attack 10 years ago by a remote lakeside in the Dordogne, Malcolm McDowell lost one of his closest friends and his mentor of 28 years. Their working relationship peaked with the 1969 public school-set, state of the nation satire If.... and playing Mick Travis got McDowell his signature part in Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange.

When British director Lindsay Anderson had a massive heart attack 10 years ago by a remote lakeside in the Dordogne, Malcolm McDowell lost one of his closest friends and his mentor of 28 years. Their working relationship peaked with the 1969 public school-set, state of the nation satire If.... and playing Mick Travis got McDowell his signature part in Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange.

McDowell has spent the past few months rifling through other people's letters and stealing their anecdotes about Anderson. Not that he needed to do much of the latter ("I'm in most people's stories about him anyway," he smiles). Later this month, McDowell will use them to present a one-man show about the director at the Edinburgh Festival.

"All that stupid Thatcherite jingoism about the Falklands War" is what did for Anderson's cult satirical trilogy of films, says McDowell. If...., O Lucky Man! and Britannia Hospital, scripted by David Sherwin, all starred McDowell as Mick Travis. None of the films received UK industry backing in Anderson's lifetime, but they are now receiving renewed attention. If.... was re-released in 2002, and O Lucky Man! will play at Edinburgh in August.

Born in Leeds and raised in Liverpool, McDowell came to London in his early twenties to seek his acting fortune, not, as in the self-scripted loosely autobiographical O Lucky Man! in a bus full of travelling musicians, but because he asked for a work transfer while working as a salesman, taking acting classes before joining the RSC.

"At least I had some of the tools when I went for up for the If.... audition. I wasn't a complete novice, but working with Lindsay was like being taught by an Oxford don. He'd take me into production meetings and tell everyone, 'Malcolm can sit in, he's got to learn.' He was constantly testing me, shocked at my lack of knowledge."

McDowell started out on just £90 per week ("Of course that turns out to be millions over the years" he admits), but he was broke after If.... finished filming. Anderson would come up with schemes to keep him afloat, which included painting his kitchen and bathroom whilst he was away on holiday. "I hated painting, but he gave me £20, which was loads then. Lindsay's brother Murray came over and he was a bit of a philosophiser and he sat there and just chatted for a week. When I noticed he'd painted over the windows in the bathroom, he said 'Don't worry about it, we don't ever open them' so we did all the rest too. Lindsay hit the roof."

Later moving to America, McDowell battled with alcohol and drug addiction, which came to a head whilst filming Cat People in 1982, and shortly afterwards he booked himself into a clinic. He hasn't touched alcohol or drugs for the past 20 years.

McDowell now lives in a ranch in rural California - "small-town America, a real one-street place, just a coffee shop and a breakfast place. Everyone knows each other." He bought his 1,000 acres of "virgin land" in the early Nineties, some time after the break-up of his second marriage to actress Mary Steenburgen, staying in America "to stay close to my children".

McDowell overcame the possible difficulties of assimilation by whipping out a pencil and drawing the "perfect house" for himself and new wife, artist Kelley Kuhr: a vast timber-framed ranch.

"When you're given carte blanche to build something on virgin land, it's scary because it's easy to screw up," he says. It's as though he's mapped out the American Dream, finding his own patch of land and building a new life, complete with basement cinema, panoramic views and garage for his collection of vintage cars. "I suppose it is," he says, "but actually, it's just the dream of a lad from Liverpool. It's my dream."

Thirteen years down the line and the McDowell family, including six month old Beckett, no longer look out on desert, but a vast orchard of avocado trees, through which the family wander with McDowell's rather British pitbull terriers. He might not have started farming avocadoes, he says - rather unconvincingly - had he not had to fight off a huge bush fire a few years ago, which cleared his land and nearly burnt down the house.

His American retreat sounds like paradise but it only remains so because he gets away, says McDowell. "If I had to stay in one place all the time I'd go nuts. It's been a part of my career, meeting new people, going to strange places - I love it". His latest excursion was to Moscow, filming Mirror Wars at an airfield, the former Soviet strike command HQ, with Rutger Hauer.

Lindsay Anderson stayed on McDowell's ranch just before he died, and McDowell remembers, softly, how he looked rather old. But it was, he says, like old times. When he heard of his friend and mentor's death, he immediately rushed to France to see him at the mortuary, which was a horrifying experience. After the service, McDowell went for a swim in the same lake with Jocelyn Herberts, a "dear friend", and the designer who'd worked on O Lucky Man! with Anderson and McDowell, "to say our goodbyes".

It's perhaps these feelings of remembrance that make it hard to let go of the last project Anderson bequeathed to him, a film based on the life of Glasgow murderer Roy Fontaine called Monster Butler. "It's just lying there like a ghost" says McDowell, a little tiredly. "It's a part of me. It's emotional rather than anything else." Anderson had plans too for a sequel to If...., set 25 years down the line. "I think that was a bit of a fantasy of Lindsay's, after Britannia Hospital flopped, but at the time I didn't quite believe in it and I don't think Lindsay did either. It's hard for a director to face rejection in the way that he did."

McDowell says he once asked Anderson what Mick Travis would be doing 25 years down the line. "'I think he'd be a bank manager, don't you?' he said. I thought he'd be an insurance salesman or something." Neither of them even thought of avocadoes.

'Lindsay Anderson: A Personal Remembrance' shows at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh (0131-228 1404) on 23 August

Comments