Miles Halliwell

Teacher who walked into a lead film role
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Miles Halliwell played the title role in the 1975 film Winstanley, and had a small role in the 1964 production It Happened Here, although he was not a professional actor, but a teacher.

Miles Godfrey Clare Halliwell, teacher: born Farnham, Surrey 4 October 1931; married 1958 Alison Fulton (two sons, one daughter; marriage dissolved); died Farnham 26 October 2004.

Miles Halliwell played the title role in the 1975 film Winstanley, and had a small role in the 1964 production It Happened Here, although he was not a professional actor, but a teacher.

Halliwell was a boyhood friend of my film-making partner Andrew Mollo and, when we could not afford professional actors, he agreed to play the role of a National Socialist lecturer in our film It Happened Here. He delivered his long speech impeccably - and with alarming conviction.

But no one's outlook could have been further from that of a Nazi. The first thing that struck you about Miles Halliwell was his charm. And then you became aware of his enthusiasm. He was immensely knowledgeable, and his enthusiasms covered a wide spectrum. Halliwell loathed violence and was deeply concerned with people in trouble. In the old days, he would have been a much-loved village priest. Or, as a friend put it, "Miles is the nearest thing I have ever met to a hermit saint."

Halliwell was responsible, too, for our making Winstanley. He brought Andrew Mollo and me David Caute's 1961 novel Comrade Jacob, which described the brief existence of a remarkable community, the Diggers, that occupied St George's Hill, Weybridge, in the spring of 1649. Led by Gerrard Winstanley, they were a Utopian group, opposed to private ownership and the injustices of privilege. They were non-violent, hard-working people - many ex-soldiers - who cultivated the commons and the wasteland in order to survive. Unfortunately, local landowners managed to enlist military support to destroy them.

It took us eight years to persuade someone to back Winstanley. Eventually, Mamoun Hassan at the British Film Institute Production Board took the risk. I was convinced we had to have professional actors in the main parts, but Mollo suggested Halliwell for Winstanley. I had no mental picture of the man, but could not fit Halliwell's ascetic features to the character described in Caute's book. Mollo seemed so positive I suggested we did a test. Halliwell was transformed by the camera.

Having accepted the role, he asked us over to Frensham Heights, the school in Farnham, Surrey, where he was a teacher, to show It Happened Here. The picture went over without any noticeable degree of enthusiasm until Halliwell appeared, when the audience applauded and cheered him to the echo.

He rescued us again and again with suggestions of friends to play leading roles in Winstanley. Not wanting to push his ideas, he would wait until we were absolutely desperate, then introduce us to someone who looked perfect. Miles Halliwell's wife, Alison, played the wife of Parson Platt; a friend, David Bramley, played Platt; and a school colleague played Everard.

Halliwell studied the period, visited museums, researched the Quakers. There was a charisma about him, both on and off screen, I had not noticed before. He became the conscience as well as the embodiment of Winstanley.

He might have looked right, but he had an upper-class, public-school accent. Winstanley had been a merchant before his bankruptcy and would have spoken with the accent of Lancashire. Although his family came from the Yorkshire-Lancashire borders, Halliwell's attempt at North Country was pure Workers' Playtime. His natural delivery, on the other hand, conveyed a sincerity which would have been erased by another voice. When we heard him read Winstanley's words for the narration, they were so moving I knew we had made the right decision.

Halliwell's performance was highly praised - he was particularly touched by the glowing reviews he received when the film was recently re-released in the United States.

Miles Halliwell was born in Farnham in 1931. His twin brother, William, remembers him as being "frequently in trouble" and playing truant from their prep school, Barfield:

He was never bottom of his class, not quite, yet he was popular with his teachers and was a great athlete.

At Epsom College, although his father was a GP, and his brother intended to be a doctor, Miles went on to the Modern Languages side. William Halliwell says,

He continued his career of crime at boarding school, but with a light heart. Of another boy, our housemaster said, "You will go to prison and from there to hell", but not to Miles. He was naughty, never unkind or malicious. He had house colours in everything except boxing. He hated violence even then.

He left Epsom in 1949 and joined Doulton's pottery in London. Hard to believe for those who knew him, he commuted in a grey suit, bowler hat and rolled umbrella. The work did not appeal to him, and he joined Eugene Mollo, Andrew's father, at his firm called Aerocem. "Miles had more and prettier girlfriends than any one else I know," his brother says. "One rather smart one he took to dinner - at a fish-and-chip shop. He thought it would be good for her."

Aged 26 and by then a teacher at a secondary school in London, he met his future wife at a party:

In the middle of dancing, he stopped, looked at me closely and asked, "What do you most value?" Though I was very immature, his question shocked out of me the response, "Compassion." There was a quality in him even at 26 that was disconcerting. He decided we should marry. We lived in a basement flat in Clapham and a leaking houseboat on the Medway.

From 1969 until 1974, Miles Halliwell taught at Frensham Heights School. Outside the classroom, his pupils were taken to unforgettable events like a Peter Brook production, a performance by Muddy Waters, an exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery or to meet Krishnamurti.

Then he joined Grafham Grange, near Guildford, a school for maladjusted children. One of his Frensham Heights pupils, David Maclean-Thorne (now headmaster and psychologist at Whitstone Head School in Devon), who observed him at Grafham Grange, said:

Miles found himself surrounded by young people who had severe difficulty in coping with the demands of daily life. With his discipline of gentleness, buttressed by patience and an iron determination not to yield to intimidation or hostility, Miles worked with his colleagues to rebuild the pupils' lives. If there is a miracle, it is to give life and to give that life hope, opportunity and meaning. For many that knew his work, Miles's great gift was his ability to perform this miracle.

Halliwell had an unusual way with discipline. At Grafham Grange, a new boy tried to disrupt his class. The other pupils said to him, "You're wasting your time. He'll get you in the end." And by "get you" they meant he would turn the rebel into an enthusiast for his subject.

When he retired from teaching, he tried to break into professional films but found only extra roles, though he enjoyed these enormously. (He had a small part in The Gathering Storm, 1974.) He seemed too youthful to have retired, yet he lived in an ancient almshouse provided, as a sign of 1619 says, "for eight poor honest old impotent persons". He worked as a security guard, he delivered pizzas and worked for a survey firm. In recent months, he had returned to his true métier, as a home tutor.

Miles Halliwell was one of the finest men I have known. He was forever trying to understand another religion, enthusing over another novel or film, his seriousness undermined by subversive jokes. He had a kindness and a degree of selflessness which are rarely encountered in the age in which we live.

Kevin Brownlow