Heroically uncompromising author of 'Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs'
Wednesday 05 April 2006
David Halliwell, playwright: born Brighouse, Yorkshire 31 July 1936; died Charlbury, Oxfordshire c16 March 2006.
The titles of David Halliwell's plays - they include A Last Belch for the Great Auk, The Freckled Bum, Janitress Thrilled by Prehensile Penis and, his first-produced play, for which he remains best remembered, Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs - rightly do not suggest the conventional well-made play.
A major participant, as writer, director and actor-producer, in the establishment of a viable Fringe or off-West End theatre in London in the 1960s and 1970s, Halliwell constantly experimented throughout his career. He may only rarely have been a mainstream figure but his ceaseless battering against routine and shopworn convention in his idiosyncratic but rarely dull plays had about it something of the heroic.
Halliwell originally studied art in his native Yorkshire at Huddersfield College of Art (it would provide the background for Little Malcolm) before deciding on a stage career and training as an actor at Rada. He worked regularly as an actor in the early 1960s in repertory theatres both fossilised and adventurous, appearing in some moth-eaten rep warhorses (it isn't easy to imagine the combative Halliwell in anodyne pieces such as Worm's Eye View) but also, crucially, in Samuel Beckett, a major influence; during his time at the lively Everyman Theatre in Stoke-on-Trent under Peter Cheeseman he was Pozzo in Waiting for Godot (1963).
Along with other keen younger talents - David Calderisi (with whom Halliwell collaborated on several occasions), Norman Beaton, Dan Crawford at the King's Head and Verity Bargate at the Soho Poly included - Halliwell, a vital part of the Quipu theatre group between 1966 and 1976, became active in a burgeoning alternative London theatre scene and his first success had its origins there before its West End exposure. Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs (Garrick, 1965), even with a talented cast, was only a succès d'estime on its first commercial outing. It was a rapid flop on Broadway, given the pointless title-change of Hail, Scrawdyke! (1967).
The play saw characters mostly new to the stage. Its anti-hero, Malcolm Scrawdyke, was the first of several Halliwell Hitlerish figures, a failure just expelled from art school in the north, who enrols three similarly inadequate figures into his new political party (the Party of Dynamic Erection) to help him plot his revenge (doomed to remain a fantasy) on the authority figures who cast him out. The play has terrific energy and some hilarious rabble-rousing oration from Scrawdyke as he rehearses the future in his Huddersfield digs ("Today Huddersfield, tomorrow the world"), the dialogue sparking off the page with an often exhilarating zest.
Thereafter Halliwell remained remarkably busy, if less visible, as writer and director, later also taking on radio and television work including original plays as well as episodes of leading television series such as Dr Who, Crown Court and The Bill. In the theatre, he produced a prolific output, some of the best of it in the wake of Little Malcolm.
Out of his most beguiling plays, A Who's Who of Flapland (1969) originally written for radio, confronted two archetypically paranoic Halliwell characters, while he explored his central preoccupation with the interplay between fantasy and reality in K.D. Dufford Hears K.D. Dufford Ask K.D. Dufford How K.D. Dufford'll Make K.D. Dufford (1969). Its eponymous central character plots the kidnap and murder of a child, with Halliwell using different versions of each scene to reveal real events compared with the imaginative versions of the same events by other characters. He continued to explore the dramatic possibilities of multiple-viewpoint writing in a whole series of short plays, although, compared with K.D. Dufford, their technical devices seem less potent.
A staple of the Fringe for a while was The Experiment (London and New York, 1967) which Halliwell co-authored and co-directed with Calderisi. Partly improvised by its cast, this gleefully skewered inflated theatrical pretension; Halliwell also appeared in the play as Jackson McIver, a Peter Brook-ish international theatre director working with his troupe on an obscure Icelandic epic somehow based on the equally obscure assassination of President James Garfield. Both Halliwell and the play were often extremely funny, as McIver solemnly urged his company on to plumb new levels of insignificance.
Halliwell's later work continued to attempt to move theatrical goalposts. Always strong on dialogue, along with devising stronger plots he expanded too his range of characters; a Bradford Pakistani and an exiled Zulu appear in Prejudice (Sheffield and London, 1978), while in the appealing A Rite Kwik Metal Tata (Sheffield and London, 1979), a tough cockney teenage girl and an awesomely smoothy-chops MP feature among its predominantly Yorkshire characters.
The biggest commercial success of Halliwell's career came not with a new play but with the West End revival of Little Malcolm (Comedy, 1999) when it received better notices - and drew much bigger audiences (Ewan McGregor's appearance as Scrawdyke undoubtedly helped) - than for its original production nearly 40 years previously.
In May 1976 I got a phone call from David Halliwell, writes Janet Street-Porter. He told me that he'd written a play for the BBC, and was I interested in being in it? After all the abuse I'd received over my voice when I'd presented a daily radio show for LBC in 1973, I wasn't initially that keen.
It was one thing presenting a television series but quite another to learn someone's script and play a character. I had absolutely no confidence that I could do it. I met Halliwell and the director Philip Saville and they explained that the drama was part of a series of single plays for BBC2 entitled The Mind Beyond, dealing with the supernatural.
I was fascinated by Halliwell's script, which dissected the story of a girl called Meriel, who appeared at a seance in Cricklewood. Did Meriel ever exist? Through the eyes of three different sleuths, an underground journalist (played by me), a private detective (John Bluthal) and an investigator of psychic phenomena (Donald Pleasance), the viewer would be taken on a journey of discovery into the world of the paranormal. The play was shot through the eyes of the three main characters, in three different styles, rich saturated colour, black and white, and hand-held, wobbly amateur footage.
David Halliwell was a bluff northerner of few words and few social graces. I warmed to him. I'd enjoyed the 1974 film of his play Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs, which starred John Hurt in the leading role, with David Warner as his sidekick. Halliwell perfectly captured the student protests which had led to sit-ins and demonstrations at campuses all over Britain in the late Sixties. In Little Malcolm Halliwell turned a black comedy into a bleak drama as things go wrong for Malcolm and his grandiose plans.
I identified with Malcolm in so many ways, having been the permanent protester at grammar school, the girl who loathed rules and hated the restrictions of the established way of doing things. Halliwell was an extremely political writer - and I couldn't really see why he had got involved with theories about the supernatural. He was more concerned with social realism than fanciful conceits about the afterlife.
The play was transmitted on BBC2 on 29 September 1976. It was hardly reviewed at all, and has never been repeated. I was relieved that my dramatic début had passed unremarked; it meant that I escaped being publicly pilloried. David Hallliwell was disappointed that Meriel, the Ghost Girl didn't get more attention, especially as Saville's production had used so many innovative techniques.
Halliwell was keen to work with me on another project. In 1977 we co-wrote the outline for a drama series to be called The People's Voice, about Sheila Garrett, a young woman who worked as a television presenter and came from a working-class background. Fame and success had brought her all sorts of drawbacks, and the ordinary people who loved her so much because they felt she was one of them become intrusive. She appears drunk and her show gets cancelled - she's back on the scrap heap, condemned to being ordinary. David was keen to draw on stuff that had happened to me. He also wanted to write a part for me in a play he was working on called Blood Relations, to show the doubters that I could act. I knocked this idea on the head straightaway - I knew my limitations.
David Halliwell (like me) was fascinated by the concept of celebrity and fame, and how television was throwing up new kinds of heroes. We would meet regularly in pubs and chat for hours. He finessed our outline and had meetings with various producers at the BBC and ITV, but nothing came of the idea. Eventually we went our separate ways, but I had learnt an awful lot from my chats with David. He was totally uncompromising and never interested in fitting in. A one-off.
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