Dylan in the Madhouse
It was the coldest winter on record: Britain was frosty and grey. Millions of milk bottles were buried in snow drifts, Cliff was number one, and there were two TV channels and three radio stations (all BBC). This was the world a 21-year-old Bob Dylan entered when he visited London for the first time in December 1962, having never left America before.
Dylan had been spotted playing in a Greenwich Village club by enfant-terrible TV director Philip Saville. Saville felt he’d be perfect for the part of Lennie, the rebellious young lead in a high-profile BBC drama Madhouse on Castle Street.
Despite his total lack of acting experience, Dylan was hired for a substantial fee, brought over to the UK and put up at one of London’s poshest hotels, The Mayfair. He was in London for three weeks. He introduced himself to the folk scene, which was a direct parallel of the one he’d left behind in New York. Both were leftish, vibrant, cultish affairs that would provide Dylan with the springboard to transform popular music.
As for the play, it exposed Dylan to Britain’s disturbing and surreal new genre of so-called ‘boarding house drama’. Madhouse on Castle Street is set in a boarding house somewhere in England. One of the tenants, Walter Tompkins, has retired to his room and vows never to come out again. Dylan sang four songs including the first ever broadcast of Blowin’ in the Wind.
The BBC wiped the play in 1968 and it’s since become the Holy Grail of missing Dylan archive. Arena goes in search of that lost treasure, finding the rarest ever Dylan tracks along the way and exploring the bizarre, magical, not to say hilarious story of the first time Bob Dylan was let loose in London.