Wednesday, 6 April 2011

John Malcolm Obituary

Actor and director
Born, Stirling, March 26th 1936
Died, Edinburgh, June 13th 2008
To found one theatre that helped change the cultural landscape on a global scale is enough of an achievement. To found a second with the ambition of competing with the most high profile symbol of the theatrical establishment in the land borders on the reckless. Yet this is precisely what actor John Malcolm did when he played a major part in the founding of Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre on the site of a former brothel, then again a few years later in Chipping Norton, where he hoped The Theatre would compete with the then Peter Hall led Royal Shakespeare Company in nearby Stratford-on Avon. Throw in a stint with Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop, then blazing its own trail, and it’s clear that Malcolm’s own mercurial vision was never going to fit into any institution unless it was of his own making.

Malcolm’s death aged 72 following a long-term illness brings to a close the at times volatile life of a man who remained outspoken, even as he was subsequently sidelined from the official history of the artistic climate he helped create. The flamboyant figures of Jim Haynes and Richard Demarco have soaked up the lion’s share of publicity regarding The Traverse’s origins, but, if it wasn’t for Malcolm and his friend Terry Lane, it’s unlikely that a permanent theatre would have been set up at all.

Malcolm was born in Stirling in 1936, where, after a damaged childhood, and possibly in response to it, aged just sixteen he trained as a Methodist lay preacher, with all the fire and brimstone that entailed. Then, as Malcolm himself put it, he saw the light, and, following an army tour to Hong Kong, a life on a more secular stage became his ambition. Malcolm gained a scholarship to RADA, and in his mid 20s, in 1962 found himself summarily dismissed from what he considered to be a moribund and old-fashioned Pitlochry Festival Theatre rep season. By that time Malcolm had already appeared at The Royal Court, in The Playboy Of The Western World at St Martin’s theatre and in Joan of the Stockyards at the Dublin Festival.

As Joyce McMillan relates in her book, The Traverse Theatre Story, on his agent’s advice, Malcolm took a part in that year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe in a production of Fionn MacColla’s Ane Tryall Of Heretiks. Such a move was serendipitous for all involved, as the show presented in the paperback bookshop – the first of its kind in Britain - set up by Haynes beside Edinburgh University, and which had become something of a social hub for the nascent underground looking for enlightenment beyond the city’s all-pervading Presbyterian mores. It was also the year that Haynes and publisher John Calder staged their International Writer’s Conference, at which the avant-garde rubbed noses with the literary establishment in The McEwen Hall.

There had been talk among the Haynes-Demarco axis about setting up some kind of permanent arts centre for years, but talk was all it had remained. Seeing the potential in such spaces as the University-run Sphinx Club in James Court, Malcolm seized the moment and approached Tom Mitchell, the future Traverse Chair who owned the James Court space. Malcolm evangelised to Mitchell the necessity for a full time professional theatre space that could embrace the new. Malcolm also brought on board former Pitlochry stage manager Lane, who would become The Traverse’s first artistic director. Not for nothing, then, does McMillan’s book describe Malcolm’s contribution to the muddied origins of The Traverse as ‘in some ways the most important character of all.’

As with many things concerning Malcolm, however, it didn’t last, and even before The Traverse’s opening night of what had become The Traverse Theatre Club, Malcolm was gone. His departure followed a hectic time in the theatre, when he got into a row with Lane during rehearsals for Jean-Paul Sartre’s Huis Clois. Even Lane had described The Traverse as ‘Malcolm’s baby,’ and thoroughly expected to be sent packing. It was Malcolm, though, who was sacked.

Malcolm appeared in TV dramas including Crossroads and Dr Finlay’s Casebook, and from 1964-66 joined the Royal Shakespeare Company.

In 1968, Malcolm and his then wife Tamara, who met during seasons at Stratford on Avon, moved to Chipping Norton in the Cotswolds. Having spotted the potential in a former Salvation Army citadel, the Malcolm’s worked on its conversion with the same drive previously shown at The Traverse. Part of Malcolm’s motivation too, may have come out of a row with RSC boss, Peter Hall, whose theatre in nearby Stratford Malcolm aimed his new space, known simply as The Theatre, to become a serious rival to. Malcolm left Chipping Norton following the end of his marriage in 1977, though Tamara remained in post as artistic director until 2002, and was awarded the MBE in 2000.

During the years that followed The Theatre, Malcolm became a TV character actor of note, with credits in When The Boat Comes In, Te Naked Civil Servant and Pennies From Heaven, plus numerous guest spots. Malcolm also carved something of a niche for himself playing onscreen Nazis, in a sequel to The Dirty Dozen, Enemy At The Door, War and Remembrance and David Hemmings’ film, The Key To Rebecca, with an utterly convincing sternness. Given Tamara’s Jewishness, such a move was deeply if accidentally ironic.

In 1980 at The Lyric, Hammersmith, he played Truscott, the vicious detective in a revival of Joe Orton’s subversive farce, Loot. The production was directed by the equally capricious Kenneth Williams, for whom Orton had written the play. With two such single-minded figures put in such creative opposition, one can only speculate on how rehearsals fared.

The Edinburgh Malcolm returned to in the early 1990s was vastly different to he one he’d left. The Traverse now had a purpose-built space, and the city itself was far more liberal. Malcolm became one of those characters Edinburgh has been full of since the 1960s; someone on the fringes of bohemia enough to have been at the centre of the ferment of change, and able to dine out on anecdotal legends of the era, yet in full possession of a fiery streak from a bygone age that stuck to its guns in the face of adversity. For the last few years Malcolm was supported by the Actors Benevolent Fund, and remained a firebrand to the last.

His daughter Aimee and son Nathaniel survive him.

The Herald, June 27th 2008



megabethbob said...

you never mentioned his only grandaughter Bethany! - (me!)

Neil Cooper said...

My apologies, Bethany. It was an oversight you've now rectified. Thanks for that.