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Remembering Alan Clarke, the King of Bleak, Violent British Cinema

The auteur died 25 years ago, leaving behind films about borstal life, soccer hooliganism, and British skinheads, influencing the likes of Gus Van Sant and Harmony Korine in the process.

Fearless, unflinching, and often brutally graphic, Alan Clarke made films that rank among the most original—and controversial—in British cinematic history. From razor-wielding yuppie football firms to the brutal realities of borstal life; urban fascism and the troubles in Northern Ireland to teenage sex, Clarke was unafraid to shine a light on the kind of unpalatable areas of British society that most directors feared to touch.


Films like Scum, Made in Britain, and The Firm captured the vicious reality of life in Thatcher's Britain, showing an increasingly violent (non) society seething in malcontent; characters constantly on the verge of some bloody reprisal and an atmosphere of crackling malevolence. They also marked him out as a true auteur, his films instantly recognizable. Known for his masterful use of the steadicam and long tracking shots—he once described his films primarily as "walking movies"—Clarke rarely used music, was insistent that his actors "stop fucking acting" and managed to fill his films—no matter how ostensibly dark—with flashes of great humanity. He died in 1990, and though his films are not as well known worldwide as they should be, he has long been hailed as a cult hero by the likes of Gus Van Sant, Stephen Frears, and Harmony Korine.

Born in Merseyside in 1935, Clarke had a background in theater, and had directed several plays at The Questers Theatre in Ealing during the 1960s, but found his true calling directing television films. This was an age when serious, controversial, and experimental work was often commissioned for television, and the medium enabled Clarke to work both (largely) free of studio interference and on smaller budgets. Tackling emotive issues early on, his 1972 film To Encourage the Others was based on the notorious Derek Bentley case. A mentally immature young man, Bentley was implicated in the murder of a policeman despite not actually pulling the trigger himself, and, in 1953, was the last man to be hanged in Britain. A hugely controversial case, the film set a precedent for Clarke and his ability to face down emotive issues with integrity.


A plethora of TV movies followed—he worked for both ITV and also on the BBC's Play for Today series for much of the 70s—and it was here that he directed screenwriter Ray Minton's Funny Farm, a blackly comic depiction of life inside a psychiatric hospital. However, his next film (also scripted by Minton) was to prove both his most notorious and iconic: Scum. Originally commissioned by the BBC as a Play for Today in 1977, the film was deemed excessively violent and the BBC refused to broadcast it. Clarke remade it wholesale in 1979, this time for cinema release. Casting a young Ray Winstone in his first major role as Carlin—a young offender who arrives in an unnamed borstal to begin a sentence for assaulting a prison officer—Scum depicts a drab, gray-scale world of racism, sadism, and physical and sexual violence.

Clarke himself was keen to give a realistic picture of life in the long since defunct borstal system. Intended to give inmates a "short, sharp, shock" and thus—so the thinking went—prevent reoffending, borstals in fact offered a brutal, quasi-military environment with a near total lack of emphasis on actual rehabilitation or education. It was an atmosphere where bullying and violent intimidation were allowed to thrive, and Scum paints a vivid picture of the dehumanizing effect of the regime, guards constantly screaming at inmates to give their "name and number"; weaker inmates raped and beaten by those stronger; and any sign of individuality consistently stamped on.


The trailer for 'Scum'

Typical of the way that Clarke approached his work, the film offered no frills, no music, and absolutely no flinching. Mick Ford played the memorable part of young anarchist agitator Archer in the film and, speaking to me, recalled Clarke's approach.

"As soon as I read the script I knew that I wanted the part of Archer," he said. "With all that brutality going on—everyone kicking the living shit out of each other—you have Archer almost sailing through the middle of the movie, not participating in that side of it. The thing is, Alan really hated 'acting'—he absolutely hated it. He didn't want to see anyone acting; he was looking for absolutely real performances and, because of this, he managed to get the most incredible work out of his actors.

"He wouldn't spend much time looking through the actual camera. He watched, like a hawk, what everyone was doing. To see him handling all those kids was incredible; the energy it took. I mean, you've got to remember that most of the cast was only 17 or 18 years old, crazy young kids from east London—but he knew exactly how to get the best out of them. He was dead straight: Scouse, chain smoker, y'know, 'Get the fuck on with it.' And he'd really take a scene by the bollocks if it wasn't working. All the kids in that film could act without 'acting,' and that's why Scum worked so brilliantly."

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Notorious for a number of graphically violent scenes (Carlin attacking an inmate with a snooker ball concealed inside a sock; the brutal gang rape of Davis in the potting shed; the chaotic riot), the BBC felt the film painted an unrealistically harsh view of borstal life—something both Clarke and screenwriter Roy Minton passionately refuted. The pair had gone through a painstaking research process, conducting over 100 separate interviews with ex-cons, staff, police, and governors to ensure realism.

The finale—in which the borstal breaks out into a riot following the suicide of two inmates—saw serious tension on set, as Clarke had bussed in extras for the scene, many of whom had "come equipped," as Mick Ford recalled:

"That riot scene was like being in an actual riot. We shot it down in Redhill. There were a lot of boys there—it was their only time on the film, and a fair few of them were actually tooled up on set; [they] had to have lead pipes or whatever taken off them. I distinctly remember when we were filming that scene, one of these lads looking across at me like, 'Right, you're having it.' I remember going up to one of the producers and saying, 'Can I just ask if we're insured?' [laughs].

"We were told not to 'destroy the fabric of the building,' but otherwise it was all fair game. It was one take, and Alan said to everybody before we started, 'If anyone starts fighting during this'—under the cover of the scene—'the film will never be released.' The anger was supposed to be directed at the institution, the system itself, rather than each other. There were other scenes, like when we were playing Murderball, where it got properly rough, too. People were really going for it. But you can't see me in that scene—I think I was hiding [laughs]."


The movie eventually got a cinema release in 1979, but was dogged by controversy, with infamous family values campaigner Mary Whitehouse, among others, calling for it to be banned.

Tim Roth in 'Made in Britain'

Following Scum, Clarke tackled similarly gritty ground with the equally well-respected Made in Britain. Marking the debut of Tim Roth, the movie cast him as disenfranchised young skinhead Trevor, trapped in a hellish half life of glue sniffing, random violence, and petty crime. The searing, borderline maniacal energy that Roth brought to the role was astonishing, and he remembered the process in an early-90s interview:

People said to Alan, "How dare you make a film about a racist?" But if you don't make films about these people, does that mean they suddenly don't exist—that we can all go home? What are you supposed to do, make picture-postcard films? It was that Thatcher mentality of "crush the critic." Rehearsal was really meticulous; it's the kind of rehearsal I don't normally do, where you get up and you walk the scenes around. You can't just play a "monster" with one note. We talked about the character history and where he was heading—but that script was fantastic; they were wonderful words to say.

Famed for his long speech damning society, spit flying as he lashes out the words with terrifying conviction, Roth gave a performance that instantly marked him out as an actor willing to go to some very scary places, and the film was praised for its atmosphere of oppressive claustrophobia, with Clarke's use of the steadicam—in particular the opening scene of Trevor walking through the subway—one of the hallmarks of his directorial style. Film critic David Thomson once stated that "nobody has ever grasped the central metaphor of the cramped existence of walking as well as Alan Clarke."


A scene from 'Rita, Sue and Bob Too'

Indeed, the idea of "cramped existence" was tackled by Clarke time and again—not least in his 1980s comedy Rita, Sue and Bob Too. Based on the play by Andrea Dunbar, the film told the story of two bored teenage babysitters from the notorious—and long since demolished—Butterworth estate in Bradford, and their affair with a married suburban salesman. At once funny and a searing critique of ever growing economic divide, the film was straight up in its depiction of sex, family strife, and alcoholism; the reality of daily life for people at both ends of the fence. Though badly misunderstood at the time, it has endeared as a cult classic. George Costigan, who played the titular Bob, spoke to me about working with Clarke:

He was a true artist, and he was adamant that—this time—he didn't want to make a "dirt under the fingernails" working class film, although in a sense that is exactly what he did make [laughs]. He didn't want a whole bunch of people commenting on the "tragedy of the working class," because, by and large, the working class don't think they're living in the midst of some kind of fucking tragedy; they're just getting on with life. There isn't another movie like Rita, Sue and Bob Too. It was a very different film for Alan. Every other film about the working class is like, "Fucking hell, it's grim up North." But he portrayed—alongside the darker stuff—everybody having a whale of a time: shagging their heads off, drinking like mad, arguing, fighting, and fucking.


However, even though George has fond memories of making the film, the crew found the less than glamorous location shoot on the Butterworth Estate challenging. Made up of drab post-war housing, the estate had gained a serious reputation for crime, unemployment, incest, and drugs. The writer, Andrea Dunbar—who penned the play on which the film was based—grew up on the estate herself, writing about the place she knew best. Plagued by alcoholism, Dunbar died at the age of 29 in 1990.

"The Buttershaw has gone now, but it was a tough place," remembered George. "It's not often you see a hardened film crew—cynical working men—flee a place [laughs]. When we all said 'wrap' on the last day of shooting, they couldn't wait to get out of there. The incest rate on that estate was through the roof; the deprivation was appalling; there was nothing to do. There was one particularly funny memory from that shoot, though: We were filming the sex scene in the car, and just down the road there was this cherry picker with a bloke fixing the lights. It'd got stuck with the bloke still in it, way up high. Eventually he started shouting down to the crew, saying that he needed a shit. The crew sent this bucket up for him to shit in [laughs]. Alan demanded a running commentary on it while we were doing the scene: 'What's happening now? Does he still need a shit?' It was classic."

The film itself drew a harsh response from metropolitan critics unable to accept that—though ostensibly a comedy—it had its basis in a reality, as George recalled:


"People didn't get it at all. I remember doing this press conference in Brighton; they said, 'Do you seriously mean this is a real portrayal?' They thought we'd come up with some preposterous pastiche because it didn't relate to their Daily Mail day-to-day experience. There were about 100 of them there; they all hated it. I said, 'You know what, I've just been in a play about city men who pay £80 for a bottle of champagne or a couple of hundred quid if there's a blowjob thrown in.' Now, if I told that to the people on this estate, they would say, 'Fuck off, you're having a laugh.' Now, you all know that sort of thing goes on in London, so wise up, because what you've just seen in this movie happens, too."

Rita, Sue and Bob Too found Clarke on unusual territory, genre-wise, but his next film brought him back to grittier ground, with his bravest, most original work yet. Completely devoid of narrative, dialogue, or music, Elephant found Clarke painstakingly recreating a series of paramilitary killings (18 in all) in 1980s Belfast. Unrelenting—at times almost impossible to watch—Elephant depicts each killing in unflinching detail, with Clarke drawing on the actual police reports available at the time.

As the killings go on, a sense of disbelief at the scale, senselessness and awful, drab, everyday fabric of the violence is instilled in the viewer. A huge influence on Gus Van Sant's own Elephant (Van Sant in fact named his movie after Clarke's), which dealt with the Columbine high school murders, Clarke's film was one of perhaps the most compelling documents on The Troubles in cinematic history. Although it only lasts 40 minutes, there is a horribly grave feeling that kicks in at around the 10-minute mark, when you realize that yes, this is all you're going to be shown: a stream of unrelenting carnage. Named after novelist Bernard MacLaverty's memorable description of The Troubles—that they were like "having an elephant in your living room"—the film remains a unique document of the age.

The trailer for 'The Firm'

While Elephant saw Clarke at his most experimental, his next movie The Firm—sadly his last—was a narrative tour de force that dealt with upwardly mobile football firms (though never explicitly stated, it was quite clear the film was based on West Ham's Inter City Firm), and it introduced some superbly realized anti-heroes to the UK underground celluloid lexicon: Bex, Yeti, and Oboe.

Forget the bon homie of The Football Factory, the plastic absurdity of Green Street (or indeed the 2009 Nick Love remake), because The Firm remains the definitive celluloid document on football hooliganism: a panoramic masterpiece that captured a world of vicious violence and material aspiration.

Gary Oldman played Bex—a white collar estate agent who leads the firm—with crackling malevolence, powered through the narrative by his searing hatred of arch-rival Yeti (played by Phil Davis), leader of rival firm The Buccaneers. Clarke showed a world far removed from the media portrayal of football hooligans as unsophisticated beer boys, shining a light on organized, well-dressed, ostensibly "respectable" suburbanites who lived in manicured houses in the suburbs—and for the adrenaline rush of organized violence. It personifies exactly what director Paul Greengrass recalled about Clarke in a 2001 Guardian piece:

"Let's let the pig out," Clarke used to say to his actors. "Let's have a look at him, and then kill him." That's what his films do—they show us the truth of monstrosity, injustice, violence; just what those things look like. And by showing us, they show us a way to kill them.

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