Malcolm McDowell: Lindsay Anderson and me

'He was the most extraordinary person in my life.' Malcolm McDowell explains how one director has shaped his career
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The Independent Culture

Welcome to cyberspace. Malcolm McDowell, the 63-year-old star of If... and A Clockwork Orange, is currently to be seen on a computer near you, giving an illustrated, interactive lecture about Free Cinema - "One of Britain's most important and influential film movements, even if you've never heard of it," he can be heard saying.

When he is not haranguing viewers, McDowell is an excellent lecturer: informative, humorous and impassioned. He shows us a photograph of a huge queue outside London's National Film Theatre in 1956, when the first Free Cinema documentaries were shown in public. These were films that looked at everyday life: honest explorations of such subjects as funfairs, dance halls or youth clubs. In the context of the emotional repression of so much British cinema of the era, they seemed ground-breaking. The initial programme included Lindsay Anderson's acerbic 12-minute short O Dreamland, exploring the joys of a day out in Margate.

Ask him why he agreed to take on the unlikely role of cyber-professor for the British Film Institute and McDowell replies loftily that he wants "to put something back into the business that has been so good to me". The real reason, it soon becomes clear, is his devotion to Anderson.

Since Anderson's death in 1994, McDowell has proselytised tirelessly on behalf of his old mentor (who directed him in If..., O Lucky Man! and Britannia Hospital). He appeared in a one-man show about Anderson and even volunteered to play him in a planned Michael Winterbottom movie that never got off the ground.

Anderson and McDowell first met in the late 1960s at the audition for If.... They made an unlikely couple. The former was a sharp-tongued, fogeyish figure with the air of an Oxbridge don. The latter was a freewheeling jack-the-lad trying to make his way as an actor after a brief career as a coffee salesman.

The Yorkshire-born son of a publican, McDowell was Anderson's kind of actor. That's to say, he wasn't an effete, Home Counties type. He had an anarchic quality and a physicality that immediately appealed to the director. "Lindsay loathed the Establishment-type Englishman and the rather dispassionate, cold and disapproving air that they give off. I always played up my roots from the North and I think Lindsay liked that."

The novelist, screenwriter and critic Gavin Lambert (who died last summer) was a close friend of both McDowell and Anderson. Nonetheless, some of Anderson's circle were outraged by Lambert's memoir, Mainly About Lindsay Anderson, in which he posited the idea that the film-maker was a repressed homosexual who fetishised the male body on camera.

Lambert had "come out" very early. Anderson, the son of a major-general, was from a background where - as McDowell puts it - "you don't come out... I think he [Anderson] was what you call now a celibate homosexual. I remember having a great discussion with Gavin and saying that he [Anderson] would never have made If... like it was, with this repressed homosexuality throughout, if he had been out like you. He would not have made these films with this angst, this edge and this poetic side.

"I know that he was in love with Richard Harris [the star of Anderson's first feature, This Sporting Life]. I am sure that it was the same with me and Albert [Finney] and the rest. It wasn't a physical thing. But I suppose he always fell in love with his leading men. He would always pick someone who was unattainable because he was heterosexual."

Anderson was a self-reliant and opinionated figure, a Daily Telegraph-reading polemicist who wouldn't back down in an argument and whose motto was never to apologise. To McDowell, he had always been a mentor - someone who gave him a crash course in world cinema (taking him to Kurosawa and Preston Sturges movies and Humphrey Jennings documentaries on the South Bank), and even employed him as a painter when McDowell was between acting jobs.

Reading Anderson's diaries after the director's death, McDowell belatedly realised that his saturnine friend was a far more vulnerable figure than he had seemed. "I really felt for his loneliness. I had never realised quite how utterly lonely he was. Of course, If I had thought about it for a moment, I would have realised. But he was such an imposing figure. You always thought that he was a tower and a pillar of strength."

McDowell tells stories of blazing rows that he had with Anderson. "We had tremendous fights and make-ups. It was like any great friendship that lasts for most of your life. It was up and down, but mostly up. He was the most extraordinary person in my life. He changed the course of my life."

Through Anderson, McDowell met the playwright David Storey as well as all the key film-makers of the British New Wave, directors such as Tony Richardson, Karel Reisz and John Schlesinger. Anderson never attacked McDowell for his career choices. Nor did he question his protégé's decision to pursue a career in the US. "He knew that one is a working actor. You have to take what work is on the table. He knew that - although Lindsay was rather luckier than most of us. He had a small trust fund, so he could afford not to do commercial crap."

Depending on your point of view, it is either McDowell's great good fortune that he was able to work with film-makers of the calibre of Anderson and Stanley Kubrick (on A Clockwork Orange), or his bad luck that he has since done so many movies with lesser talents. Busy as ever, he doesn't seem to be in the slightest embittered about a recent career that has taken him from playing child killers (Evilenko) to roles in Mr Magoo and Star Trek: Generations.

There are a couple of plum parts coming up. He is shortly off to Russia to play Prince Bolkonsky in a mini-series version of War And Peace; he is playing a professor who sets up an escort agency in Pound Of Flesh; and he is also due to star in Every Time We Say Goodbye, a new film written and directed by Bo Goldman (who scripted One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest), about an old man dying of Alzheimer's.

In the meantime, he is only a click away, lecturing on Free Cinema. Ask him about his flashes of temper during the interactive presentation and he says it is all make-believe. "That's Lindsay. It's all Lindsay Anderson. Just click it off if you don't like it."

Malcolm McDowell's presentation on Free Cinema is available via