Malcolm McDowell is pointing to the end of the world out his window. The actor is speaking to The Big Issue from a hotel in St John’s, the biggest settlement on Newfoundland, facing his phone towards the harbour. This is the island that reaches so far into the Atlantic that flat earthers think the edge of everything is somewhere nearby.
“Isn’t it amazing? It’s a great place,” McDowell enthuses. “All around this coast there’s craggy inlets and these fishing boats, I mean, the cod literally jump on the line. Absolutely my favourite place I’ve been to make any movie or television show.”
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Over half a century after his two massively big breaks, in Lindsay Anderson’s if… and Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, McDowell has close to 300 acting credits, most not quite as memorable as his debut double.
“All careers have peaks and valleys, it doesn’t matter who you are,” he says. “But I always wanted to be and always thought of myself as a working actor. My hero was John Gielgud, who was calling his agent when he was 93 asking, ‘Anything for me?’ ‘John, we don’t get many parts across the desk for 93-year-olds’” – McDowell does a really good Gielgud impression recalling his response: “‘I can play younger.’”
McDowell continues: “I enjoy working. I don’t have to work, and I haven’t had to for a few years now. So that’s not the point. As long as the memory holds.
“I remember working with Laurence Olivier on a Pinter piece with Helen Mirren and Alan Bates, called The Collection. An amazing piece. We all felt so badly for Olivier because he couldn’t remember his lines anymore. It was so frustrating for him, not to be able to be in command of the text. I remember really suffering with him, I felt so bad. When your memory goes, then the game’s up. I’m lucky in that my memory seems to be, touch wood, reasonably intact.
“I found it difficult after Covid though, coming back and having to learn a load of stuff. I guess I hadn’t used the muscle in a year or whatever. I had to work 10 times harder than normal.”
The job that’s taken him to Newfoundland has been a breeze though (“The scenes are no more than two pages”). Son of a Critch is a coming-of-age comedy series, like a Canadian version of The Wonder Years or The Goldbergs, based on the childhood of comedian and writer Mark Critch. McDowell plays Pop, the grandfather who shares a room with the young Mark, played by Benjamin Evan Ainsworth.
Is it the chance to visit places like Newfoundland that decides what roles to take?
“No, that’s a complete bonus. I took Son of a Critch on the scripts. I’d just come off playing serial killers and god knows what else and I remember calling my manager saying, I’ve read the scripts, make it work, and that was it. Pop is amazingly spry. It’s the first time I’ve played a character who’s older than me. I’m 80. I’m actually not quite 80 yet, but I’m getting there.”
Does it feel like a big landmark age?
“It’s a minefield! The annual check-up is now biannual. I dread going. The last time he said, ‘Well, everything is fine, even your cholesterol.’ Hallelujah. That’s gonna give me at least three months then.
“I’m being a little facetious about it. I’ve got young children, a 13-year-old, I want to be around for them as long as I can possibly be. A couple of years ago, I came down and my youngest son was sobbing at the table. He’d worked out how old I would be on his graduation. And he was really affected by it. So in the end, I had to say to him, ‘Look, the alternative would be that you would not exist. So, what do you prefer?’ And he suddenly cheered up.”
McDowell still has three teenage boys (and two bulldogs) living with him at home. Until last year they hadn’t seen the film their father is most famous for. To celebrate A Clockwork Orange’s 50th anniversary, a screening was held in LA.
“I went out to eat while the film was being shown, they wanted to watch it. And they… they didn’t make much comment about it. I didn’t really push it.”
You let the 13-year-old watch?
“Yeah, but don’t forget they’re way more sophisticated than you ever were at that age. There’s social media and all that.”
Are you saying young people today are desensitised because they’ve been exposed to so much, almost in the way eye-clawed Alex is in the film?
“No, but I don’t think they are so shocked. But I do think that the film is graphic in its depiction of so-called London of the future. That is still really interesting. If you haven’t seen it, it’s hard to imagine.”
A Clockwork Orange and Kubrick’s enduring legacy as a whole was recently repurposed for The Exquisite Gucci Campaign, where fashion models popped up in some of Kubrick’s iconic scenes. McDowell says the master director wouldn’t be impressed.
“I think he’d be quite shocked because he didn’t like to commercialise things. But listen, I think it’s fantastic that after all these years that is what is still inspiring them.
“We know the film is very influential in all parts of the social fabric. They did whole collections based around A Clockwork Orange. And here’s the joke, I was over at Stanley’s before we started shooting. I’d go over there and we’d have Chinese takeaway. He was walking to my car in his driveway and he goes, ‘What do you think you’ll wear?’ ‘I don’t Stanley.’ ‘What have you got?’ ‘What have I got? I’ve only got jeans and a T-shirt. And my cricket gear in the car.’ And he goes, ‘Put it on. What’s this?’ I went, “Well, that’s a protector.’ ‘Wear it on the outside.’
“And the eyelash I found at a cash register – a yard of eyelash, three foot long. I bought it as a joke and he went put it on. That’s how that came about.”
And so the instantly recognisable look that appeared on the poster hung in every student dorm was born.
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Son of a Critch has led McDowell to reflect on his own formative years. He grew up in Liverpool as the Sixties started to swing and watched as the four (or three at that point) were becoming fab.
“I saw them as the Silver Beetles, I still remember it very graphically,” he says. “The Cavern was packed with seething teenagers. The dancing was hopping from one foot to the other, because there was no room to dance at all, which they called the Liverpool Stomp. They were incredible. Just raw talent.”
Pop’s role in the show is to offer advice to his adolescent roommate. Comforting young Mark after his first break-up, Pop says: “I wish I could tell you that it doesn’t matter, that you’ll forget her. The truth is you’ll always remember the first one – and the last. It’s just the ones in the middle that don’t seem to matter all that much. You just try to squeeze in as many of those as you can.” Do you stand by that advice?
“Yeah, sort of true for me. Don’t forget, I’m a child of the Sixties, you know, the pill had been invented. That was so fucking huge. I mean, that was insane. The best news ever. There was no Aids or anything like that, so there were these few years of a lot of fun.
“I make it sound like there was a lot of bed hopping, I really don’t remember it that way at all. It’s probably no different than it is today.”
Son of a Critch is available now as a box set on Paramount+
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