Fifteen years ago the death of Alan Clarke was followed by belated career recognition in the form of BBC rebroadcasts and a retrospective at the National Film Theatre. Another retrospective at the 1998 Edinburgh International Film Festival rekindled interest, and some sparks came off an American box set of four DVDs released in 2004. (1) Nonetheless, like one of the marginalised characters to whom he gave voice (or like another politically provocative British director, Peter Watkins), Clarke seems again to be flickering out of discussions of film history. Yet – and one grows tired of writing that “yet” – he ranks among the top British directors of his generation alongside Mike Leigh, Ken Loach and Stephen Frears and, as he consolidated his style in the 1980s, formalist auteurs like Derek Jarman and Peter Greenaway. His oeuvre features that rare virtuoso combination: attention to performance and extensive critique of social institutions at a consistent level of formal control and quality, all the more impressive for the number and variety of works he directed.
Clarke’s ability to direct so often and his low critical profile today stem from the same reason: his films were for television, where a weekly feature slot meant numerous directing opportunities and instant ubiquity during transmission, but subsequently (in this pre-DVD era, at least) just as complete a vanishing into studio archives. While the sociopolitical issues he explored in his films and equally the nonjudgmental, unresolved way of presenting them would have made a career outside television challenging, Clarke’s work in television was also a choice, an embrace of the high-volume pseudo-studio-system setup that nationally funded television at the time afforded. The medium was not without its challenges (and, in one notorious case, successful censorship), but the efficiency and strength of his productions, supported by deep ranks of creative and technical admirers, allowed him the leeway he needed.
Born near Liverpool, this chronicler of British social issues would actually first find his calling abroad. After stints in the National Service (stationed in Hong Kong) and less glamorously as an insurance man back home, the restless 22 year-old emigrated to Canada in 1957, where he worked in mining. After an injury he made the fateful decision to study in Toronto, at the Ryerson Institute of Technology, in their then-notable three-year program in radio and television. Returning to England, he worked his way up at ATV and Rediffusion in the 1960s, complementing his technical training with experience as an assistant floor manager, in which capacity he would earn praise as bright, efficient and skilled at managing crew and actors alike. An additional source of expertise, evident in his touch with actors and performance, was continued amateur work in the stage, directing at the Questors Theatre in Ealing.
His directing debut was for the pioneering Half Hour Story drama at Rediffusion for influential producer Stella Richman (whom he had persuaded to see his production of Macbeth at Questors). This first piece, Shelter, about two strangers in distress who take common shelter from the rain and strike up a fleeting but meaningful bond, was broadcast in 1967. After several more short works, and after Rediffusion’s broadcast license ended, Clarke successfully applied for the BBC. There, in the ambitious hour-long weekly drama known first as Wednesday Play and then Play for Today, he established himself as one of the pre-eminent directors, joining the show’s roster of the talents that would include Leigh, Loach, Dennis Potter and Watkins, as well as regular writers like Roy Minton, David Leland, Alun Owen, David Rudkin and Edna O’Brien.
Survey of Works
Other than two theatrical releases, Clarke would remain in television (and in England, barring one trip to Hollywood) for the rest of his career. After promising work on Peter Terson’s The Last Train Through the Harecastle Tunnel in 1969, his first longer work, Clarke would in the 1970s direct his first major works. In these he presented critiques of social institutions both micro and macro, and displayed a powerful empathy for the maligned and unrepresented. Just as crucially, he demonstrated his adaptable formal methods for making such issues both emotionally and politically immediate. These essential texts introduced the thematics, often already to perfection, that would appear throughout the rest of his career: the institutional and male-group dynamics of Sovereign’s Company (1970), the progressive and activist aims of To Encourage the Others (1972), the internationalist sympathies of his adaptation of Solzhenitsyn’s The Love Girl and the Innocent (1973), the mystical focus and anguished yet unglamorised individuality of Penda’s Fen (1974), and the unresolved intimate family drama of Diane (1975), a story of incest. Penda’s Fen had less unusual cousins in the misfit studies Horace (1972), about the friendship between an awkward, fanciful man and a kindred child, and The Hallelujah Handshake (1970), about a chronic, attention-needy liar who insinuates himself into church congregations for a sense of belonging.
This essay will treat a few of these in especial depth, and lesser known aspects of Clarke’s career, as a corrective to the usual overriding emphasis on Scum (1977), the borstal prison drama that, though important to Clarke’s work, has traditionally received disproportionate attention because of the interrelated notoriety of its censorship and subject matter and its subsequent (consequent?) underground status as a cult classic. (Indeed, after Scum, Clarke would direct a version of Büchner’s Danton’s Death  and the exhausting tragedy of two freed Soviet dissidents adapting to life in England, Nina , both of which tend to fall out of the forced-march narrative from Scum to his 1980s work.)
Scum, which Clarke completely remade and released in 1979 as a theatrical film when the BBC refused to transmit the TV version, does admittedly occupy prime place in his oeuvre and solidifies at least one major motif to his later work – the social forms and functions of violence. Its censorship undeniably spurred the relentless Clarke to seek out suppressed subject matter all the more, which he in turn focused with an increasingly stringent style. He would also respond more directly to the new sociopolitical landscape of Britain under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The well-known Made in Britain (1983), about an articulate skinhead who resists stultifying attempts at so-called reform, was a kind of Scum-successor tailored to his view of Thatcher as a barren, blinkered Social Darwinism. Likewise, the ever-ripening crisis in Northern Ireland in the 1980s found expression in Psy-Warriors (1981), a drama about torture techniques used in interrogation; Contact (1985), which follows a British Army troop on lonely border patrols in Northern Ireland; and the near-video art of Elephant (1989), which chronicles 18 sectarian murders in succession without narrative or dialogue.
Though much less understood, another influence on Clarke’s determined trajectory in the 1980s, worth a brief critical detour, seems to have been his sour honeymoon in Hollywood. Arriving under the auspices of Twentieth Century Fox producer Sandy Lieberson, who was seeking foreign directors to import, Clarke initially showed interest in a Hubert Selby novel about a mother with a drug-addicted son, and when that project foundered, he was pursued by another producer at Columbia Pictures for Assassination on Embassy Row, the forgotten history of the only international assassination on American soil, the Pinochet-directed car-bomb murder of dissident Orlando Letelier in Washington D.C. When producers began dropping marquee star names for lead roles, Clarke literally fled town. The whole affair points to a more expansive political focus in his 1980s work, catalysed by a brief collaboration with international unionist hero Charles Levinson on a number of other works. For in this decade Clarke also made a few attempts, strangely ignored, at locating themes of injustice, under-representation, and organised violence not just in his native England but on an international level. Clarke ended up adapting Levinson’s book, Vodka Cola, which detailed covert arms-for-franchise business dealings between the USSR and the West, twice: first as the documentary, Vodka Cola (1980), and second as a fictionalised drama, Beloved Enemy (1981), penned by David Leland, that chronicles a multinational deal between the Soviet Union and a British firm, with a style that utilises both long-shot lenses and alternating scenes of exhaustive negotiation and coercion. An additional chapter in this overlooked period of internationalism was written with Clarke’s The British Desk (1984), a documentary about intelligence work by the South African national secret police on English soil. Though not the focus of this survey, this overlooked strand of Clarke’s themes is worth mentioning to flag for future exploration.
Of course, the rest of Clarke’s better known work in the 1980s hewed to his age-old interests in native social problems: adding to his list of Wisemanesque one-word-titles were Christine (1987), which literally followed a teenage girl on her rounds running heroin to like-aged neighbours; and The Firm (1989), his last drama to be broadcast, which tackled the barbaric side of football fandom, hooliganism. Both bore the characteristic Clarkean approach of a novel look at familiar problems, thematically and formally. The bulk of Christine consists of tracking shots with the girl walking from house to house; the scenes of drug use feature no ad-sheet close-ups and instead depict just a lot of sitting around. The lead hooligan of The Firm (a “firm” is a football fan syndicate) is comfortably middle class, with a career as an estate agent and a wife and a toddler whom he dotes on, but the man dashes off in his free moments to break bones and slash faces of rival gangs.
The 1980s also featured both Clarke’s one feature film, Rita, Sue and Bob Too (1986), and continued work that drew as much upon his background in theatre as upon the moving image: adaptations of Brecht’s Baal (1982) and Jim Cartwright’s Road (1987), and the unprecedented snooker musical Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire (1985). Well-distributed (and even shown at Cannes), Rita, Sue and Bob Too, itself also adapted from a play by Andrea Dunbar, transforms the farcical premise of two babysitters sleeping with a better-off married man into a bawdy yet sympathetic tragicomedy, without softening the challenges faced by the two working-class teenagers despite their good times. The film proves a productive wedge work, maligned by critics who would prefer their Clarke to avoid such “soft” comic ribaldry. In fact, the work forms a vital and rounded complement to the unbridled violent urges with these more pleasure-driven ids. Even early on Clarke did occasional comic work, like I Can’t See My Little Willie (1970) and Everybody Say Cheese (1971).
Road would satisfy even the bleakest of aesthetic demands, though, with its suffocating working-class living at the end of the world in bunker-like buildings. Clarke frees Cartwright’s theatrical script from studio confines the better to confine his characters with lockstep tracking shots as they march away in the street, unspooling the stage-length monologues. Baal likewise merges theatre with Clarke’s formal experimentation, under the sign of Brecht, of course. A split screen introduction precedes each segment of the story, with practiced performer David Bowie singing introductory doggerel on the left, and on the right a line of descriptive text that dissolves into a still. Squared-off long shots accentuate the studio space as black-box stage, and a sequence of countryside walks occurs (on the right of a split-screen) with the character walking endlessly into the camera in a series of lap dissolves.
Billy the Kid and the little-seen Stars of the Roller State Disco (1984) are two more examples to temper our understanding of Clarke in the 1980s as an aesthetic ascetic. The former is a musical featuring the eponymous stock characters of Billy the Kid and a vampire, and whole songs are sung to camera, though without the usual dynamism of filmed musical. Stars is Clarke’s contribution to the genre of dystopias largely defined by art direction, a world where roller rinks and social welfare and employment offices have been combined so that youths skate round and round while waiting for a break. The Steadicam potential of a lead protagonist on roller skates is nauseatingly fulfilled.
Outsider Allegory and The Hallelujah Handshake
Clarke’s 1970s output does not entirely display the style with which he would become identified in the 1980s, but a selection of films show that key tendencies were well in place long before their unification in the well-publicised Scum, and, intriguingly, that Clarke was finding additional viable solutions to similar thematic challenges. A good example is The Hallelujah Handshake, the story of Henry (Tony Calvin), a lonely, compulsive young man who eagerly and devoutly joins a church, where the priest (John Phillipps) soon realises he suffers from some form of mental illness. The film builds upon the sub-category of outsider character studies, like Horace or The Last Train Through the Harecastle Tunnel, in which Clarke’s concern for untold stories manifests in an individual psychology not yet necessarily intertwined with a larger social problem. Yet with Colin Welland’s Hallelujah, the director finds material that allowed oblique commentary without a hard-charging political approach, by following Henry’s flawed efforts to fit in and the inability of even a well-meaning institution such as the church to integrate or rehabilitate.
The structure of the film is a tale broken up with tiered narration, nearly mimicking the perspective of a case study. Scenes of Henry’s getting involved in the church’s community are punctuated with voiceover and cuts to scenes that show the priest relating his increasing worry to a social worker. Toward the end, these priest scenes are supplemented with scenes with parishioners who complain, merging the retrospective concern with the story’s present moment. Thus much of Henry’s tale is selected from the perspective of the world at large, a point of view that serves to underline the process by which we understand character and how it is crucial and often insufficient when evaluating sick individuals. Henry eagerly shows up for every service, teaches Sunday school, and even coaches kids at sport, and yet it gradually emerges that he is a compulsive liar and so hungry for human contact that he is physically over-attentive to the children. Even recognising that Henry’s is not yet a fully developed malignant pathology, the parishioners must balance ideals of inclusion and spiritual improvement with fears about his strange behaviour.
Much of Hallelujah has a recognisably early-’70s aesthetic of looming long or medium shots that don’t necessarily cut in for narrative clarification and instead let action move to the foreground. The approach here heightens the sense of observation and judgment of Henry’s activities, which gradually accrue an aura of dread as the priest’s concern seeps into the viewer. One memorable shot-reverse shot shows a depressed Henry sitting on a park bench ignoring some adoring children who try to get his attention; in a later related shot, Clarke then extends this heady feeling of disconnect to the priest, also on a bench. Clarke also strives for a candid feel, using casual, even obstructed compositions in both exterior and interior shots. The film opens memorably on a series of pseudo-impromptu shots “stolen” from a church gathering, wherein we notice Henry edging up to a group of people standing and talking, toting his own drink – the picture of a man trying to fit in. An interesting counterpoint to this aesthetic occurs in a couple of scenes in what appears to be Henry’s combined workplace and home: a tiny stall with a window from which he sells supplies to construction workers. The cramped setting fits Henry’s own underdeveloped personality, and the workers’ sexually vulgar teasing, which aggravates him especially, reveals sexuality as something that riles him for being out of his control. A later intimate conversation with a fellow parishioner, in which he all but accuses the woman of tempting him into sex, reveals his confusion over libido: as he shouts in frustration, Clarke cuts to a child yelling in a playground, merging the sense of immaturity with the dangers of his socialisation.
Although Hallelujah ends with Henry being caught after a compulsive theft and sale, for which he has no defense in court, the sense of inevitability to the tragic proceedings imprints more than any implied demands for social accountability. Indeed, the shrillest comment, even satire, seems directed at the Catholic church, in scenes between the suspicious priest, an Anglican, and the Catholic priest at the second church Henry attends when finally kicked out by the first. The Anglican tries to warn of Henry’s tendencies, but the priest seems to believe that Henry’s switch to his church was somehow a validation of Catholicism over Anglicanism, as if the Anglican were merely jealous. “Sometimes I wonder if you and I are on the same side”, is the Anglican’s acid farewell. A scene in the Catholic church shows the priest making introductory comments before a mass and warning about a major problem afflicting all of them, which turns out not to be Henry but “the dilapidated state of our vestments”; Clarke follows with reaction shots from disgusted congregants. An almost black-comic moment also occurs, in a nearly unheard line, when the priest offhandedly asks a nurse in a hospital ward, “Anybody new for me, Nurse?”
Henry’s own fate is left somewhat unresolved. The final scene, occurring an unknown length of time after the theft and court date, shows him now part of a marching band, which in an extended shot marches down the road into the distance. The film never pretends any privileged access or elucidation of the character, a frustrating position given the impenetrability of Henry, who comes off as half a person.
To Encourage the Others: Subjective Judgments
At the other end of the spectrum from Hallelujah, as Clarke developed a cinema of social investigation grounded in realist performance, lies To Encourage the Others; such a range was common for Clarke, who worked closely with the writers of his films, the headliners in the television studio world. David Yallop’s teleplay revisited the scandal of David Bentley (played by Charles Bolton in Clarke’s film), a teenager wrongfully tried and hanged. In November 1952, Bentley and Christopher Craig (Billy Hamon) were involved in a rooftop shootout with police; Bentley was captured, but Craig shot a cop, allegedly at Bentley’s urging. Yet of the two, it was Bentley (an adult, unlike his companion) who was hanged, after a trial rife with conflicting evidence and presided over by a judge set upon conviction and disdainful of the notion of defense against such a charge. (2)
Clarke’s 105-minute realisation of David Yallop’s teleplay is a remarkably heterogeneous affair, a “drama-documentary” (3) composed of a re-enactment, courtroom face-offs, family melodrama and, interspersed throughout, document stills and frequent voiceover narration. While Clarke would eventually ground much of his claim to authenticity on naturalistic performance, the acting here is solidly TV-drama – dramatic pauses and sentimentality. He therefore relies instead upon the historical record, with the sub-Brechtian effect of a narrator correcting and explaining in voiceover along the way. In doing so he sets the pattern of extensive use of primary source material, here overtly so but always underlying many of his major dramas: Scum on actual prison accounts, Elephant on statistics and accounts of sectarian murders, and so on, not to mention the selection of socially relevant subject matter. Transcripts of rulings and news clippings of the rooftop “Chicago gun battle” alike are deployed. Above all, however, the film enters that class of true-story cinema that almost intersects with progressive activism, in presenting the facts of this case of miscarried justice and abused authority so compellingly as to make the case for redress ipso facto.
The opening sets the stage for the court debates in a striking and innovative way: Clarke plunges us into the (dramatised) action of the night of the shootings in media res, without titles or narrative exposition. Jagged cutting, withheld details, and even some noirish angles make the action hard to follow, much less remember and define precisely for later. Thus Clarke efficiently presents the unstable text that the court will examine for the rest of the film; the record is further complicated later with short recoups of the same action and full-screen still snapshots of key moments (all this while Errol Morris was still in university). At the end of this fractured sequence, a freeze frame and voiceover (“This is the true story…”) finally indicates a proper beginning.
The courtroom scenes that follow, with compositions full of faces, are compelling only factually, partly because one can almost feel the impatience of all involved to lay out the damning facts, even as the flaccid rhythms slow down the dramatic vehicle. The central debate revolves around the auditory – Bentley’s infamous alleged cry to Craig (“Let him have it!”) and the number of shots fired – and his low-IQ mental capacity. The police stonewall, most memorably represented by a nearly robotic sergeant caught up in misstatements, and the villainous judge reeks of condescension as he openly steers the case towards conviction at every opportunity, with the classic circular argument of pitting the word of trustworthy police against brutal murderers. The legal language is revealed as little more than a vehicle for run-of-the-mill smug prerogative and hauteur (“A judge in the course of his summing up cannot deal with every little point; the judge must be allowed a little latitude, mustn’t he?”), and reveals what would be an enduring sensitivity to register and dialect throughout Clarke’s work.
More interesting is the way Clarke portrays the spheres of the court and Bentley’s working-class family as utterly separate, never to intersect even in this case that requires it. Bentley’s father has preserved his son’s coat as evidence but is never called before the court; he waits outside and heartbreakingly discovers only secondhand that the case has already been decided. Clarke converts what might be soap-opera cross-cuttings between two locales into a compact metaphor for class division and powerlessness before legal instruments. Other scenes show the helpless family receiving sadistic death threats and learning of their appeal denial first through the press.
If the film suffers from the strictures of the TV drama, Clarke had his way with the final scene of Bentley’s hanging by officials (which follows a mawkish scene of the young man dictating a letter via a guard to his family). With brisk Bressonian cuts and framing of the preparations and the event, Clarke’s is one of the seminal modern portraits of an execution. With one shot before the event itself, his sets out the robust critique of capital punishment as damning more than the victim: he composes the procession of officials and victim into the execution room by shooting at an angle, such that the noose is at centre foreground in the frame and “hangs” everyone who enters. The piece ends with a still of a last haughty court letter declaring accusers who believed the police were lying to be in the “realm of fantasy”. There follows the last voiceover, delivered with cool rage over a shot of the hooded head of dead Bentley: “This has been the true story of how one teenager moved into that realm of fantasy.”
This England: Penda’s Fen
Penda’s Fen is Clarke’s first unqualified masterpiece, and a stirring argument for the effective collaboration between writer and director that could occur in television. The tale of the visionary maturation of a teenaged boy in the Midlands of England, this Romantic work differs from the more realistically grounded stories in his oeuvre, yet David Rudkin’s script, heavy with ideas, relies upon Clarke’s straightforward direction and thoughtful but unobtrusive editing to function coherently, drawing upon the same restraint that would serve Clarke well in convincingly portraying skinheads and hooligans. The protean text portrays the boy, Stephen, in a period when doubts spurred by visions impel him to interrogate his identity. The episodic film shifts through multilayered themes – political, spiritual, sexual, familial, cultural and historical, even linguistic – without ever losing momentum. And yet, underlying all that, as Howard Schuman reminds us, is fundamentally an inquiry into English identity, a search that drives so many of Clarke’s films. (4)
Stephen is an adolescent whose rebellion (though he would cringe at the word) takes the form of a conservative worship of political authority and cultural tradition. In school he debates against the presence of an unfettered media; he considers a military administrator at his school “the English norm”; and, in what ultimately catalyses his visionary journey, he as a practicing organist is mesmerised by the turn-of-the-century oratorio The Dream of Gerontius by Sir Edward Elgar. Struggling with his sexual identity in the throes of adolescence, he is confused by urges he considers “unnatural”, notably an attraction to the milk boy that strikes him dumb and induces erotic dreams. Lastly – Rudkin is unafraid to complicate his text – he also finds out he has been adopted.
In short, the film covers a great deal of ground, but so deeply and viscerally do we identify with Stephen’s roiling mind and heart, that the struggle feels natural. Spencer Banks’ performance as Stephen underlies the role of characters in Clarke’s work with whom we can identify without sublimating ourselves to; his baby-fat face, so earnest, is intense, searching, with the overgrown yet naive spirit of a questing intelligence, and the mark of youth in his belief that a “right answer” exists. As in other Clarke films, his education becomes ours, and Rudkin’s interlocked schema allows an early fruitful example of how Clarke meshed a close personal connection with larger issues. One could describe this interrelation as “Who am I” and “What is England”, and Rudkin’s script contributes a sleight of hand: with the main character conservative and immature, that nationalist ideology is posited as something to be outgrown.
Stephen’s visionary journey can be viewed as one of articulation, of himself, his country, and the music he loves. His visions, which occur in dreams and after the milk lorry hits his bike, are such explorations of representation, and Clarke films them as continuous with the character’s daily perception, through cuts that never isolate his point of view, whether a demon appearing at the foot of his bed or in front of his bike (created through a projected image), or the rupturing of the stone floor of a church as he merges motifs of Gerontius on the organ. Likewise, voiceover thoughts and complex music/image counterpoints trace the contours of Stephen’s entangled consciousness. In yet another hallucination, Stephen stumbles upon Elgar himself in an empty house; the composer explains how a popular song is the complemental key to his noble Gerontius, in an interesting mingling of high and low culture.
These visions seem to lead Clarke himself to strive for new means. In one fantasy, in which Stephen emerges from the centre of a gym huddle with hair braided, Clarke alternates rapidly between long shot and close-up of Stephen, before switching to a slow pan to represent the boy’s gaze across the row of assailants; in another, the infamous vision of young girls in yellow in an English garden, volunteering to have their hands chopped off, Clarke cuts abruptly on every chop sound, as Stephen approaches, for an unusually intrusive montage. Landscape location shots also figure prominently, as Stephen comes to realise the land around him is mystically alive, with a history that Rudkin counterpoises with the characters’ bruiting about of a secret military nuclear installation being built underneath. In addition, a horror idiom marks other scenes, such as the amputated girls in yellow, or a seemingly non sequitur scene, in long shot, of a young man in flames throwing himself against a parked car full of teens (presumably electrocuted by a wirelink fence around the nuclear installation). Even the opening shot guarantees the uncanny: a rich voice singing a segment of Gerontius plays over scenes of the English countryside, only to hold on one note indefinitely, as a double-exposure imposes a claw-like hand gripping a fence.
If Stephen searches for answers, he is surrounded by many eager to offer their own articulations, notably his leftist neighbour, a provocative playwright; and his own father, a rector whom he learns has an unconventional view of Jesus and Manicheanism. And the entire saga concludes on a hilltop, in the ultimate scene of confrontation between Stephen and the King who gives the area his name: “Cherish our flame”, he advises, his throne silhouetted against the sky, cautioning against the sick modern conservative ideologies that “would have us children forever.” In Stephen, we have the picture of hope through struggle; even when he learns he is adopted, he wonders earnestly at the “possibilities” of his ancestry, in common with the hybrid heritage of ancient England itself. Through the most fantastical of settings, which seem even to escape summary, Clarke crafts a coming-of-age tale as grounded as it is metaphysical, as sexual as it is mystical, and as national as it is personal.
Physical Violence and the State: Scum, Made in Britain and The Firm
There is perhaps no greater reminder of the versatility demanded of Alan Clarke in television than the fact that Penda’s Fen was followed by A Follower for Emily, an about-face stylistically (almost inert TV-studio direction) and thematically (it was almost an After School Special for the elderly, the tale of a old-folk’s-home romance that fizzles). And ironically, it would be in a borrowed home for the elderly Clarke would film, a few years later in 1977, Scum, the borstal (boys’ prison) drama. Negotiations over cuts to the film proved primarily a fig leaf for its total censorship, with the original TV version not being transmitted till 1991, after the director’s death. The ban against its transmission was implemented for reasons that had less to do with any explicitness of the content and more with the portrayal of prison officials, the representation of government authority. (5)
The story of a juvenile delinquent’s rise to power in a borstal, Scum proved a powerful crystallisation of Clarke’s themes, style, and direction. Eliciting through rigorous rehearsal excellent performances out of a young cast in such difficult scenes as rape, riot and suicide, he seals his ability to treat threatening subjects without exploitation or melodrama, but rather with crisp economy. Looked at together with Made in Britain and The Firm, he has also clearly established his democratic camera not as an organising authority, unlike those institutions he would portray, but as a morally reserved follower of his characters’ free will. And with those films and Scum, Clarke explores physical violence in the context of Thatcherite Great Britain and posits a grim future embodied in the present.
In the common irony of historical fact so shocking that it is hard to believe, the succinct intelligence and integrity of Scum are frequently obscured by its status as a drama of group confinement (an intertextuality that could lead to maliciously classing it as exploitation, a fertile genre in the ’70s). (6) But like Clarke’s other document-based single-issue films, in targeting the borstal system he relied upon interviews with inmates, and Scum‘s Hobbesian system of loosely supervised brutality does not exaggerate either abuse by guards, or the violence among the youth dramatised in young Colin’s struggle to be “the daddy”, the top dog. One of the BBC’s more interesting attacks was not that such events didn’t happen, but that they didn’t happen all in such a short period of time. (7)
By far Clarke’s strongest critique involves the collusion by the prison administration in such deadly king-of-the-hill battle, depicted as useful for their purposes by maintaining a stable subservient power structure. In his episodic film Clarke uses not just repeated scenes of violence (guards frog-marching Colin or threateningly flanking boys who appear before the warden), but scenes of observation: a guard witnesses virtually the entire rape of a small teenager by older ones in a deserted jail greenhouse; he peers through the glass but dashes away before discovery. Notably, Clarke extended this rape scene in the theatrical version that he re-shot after the ban, suggesting its thematic importance. (Clarke would also make some personnel changes to this generally weaker version, such as the wise-guy prisoner Archer; he would also add another suicide and, oddly, remove a homoerotic scene where Colin tells another boy to be his “wife”. The love of playing with context that Clarke would display later also occurred in a new opening shot of the boys on the bus on the way to the prison: we see their faces first, as they ride what could be a school bus, till the pan down reveals their cuffed hands.)
In another scene, a guard pointedly looks away as Colin enters a storage shed on the grounds to dispatch one of his major challengers, but the condonement culminates with the warden’s chilling official speech to Colin. The borstal system, he explains, is meant to foster the development of “natural leaders” – a Social Darwinist view that in the historical context is difficult not to view as an attack on Thatcherite dystopia, where the hands-off state actually bestows privilege upon to the most vicious or the already powerful.
Following a young skinhead Trevor in his path through the social welfare system, Made in Britain makes this societal critique explicit. Clarke does not make the hero sympathetic, beyond his intelligence, and the casting of Tim Roth (in his first major role) only aggravates the obnoxious nature of the character, whose default interaction with a society that has nothing to offer for him is pure aggro. A key scene is Trevor’s confrontation with social workers in a barren room in a social welfare dorm, shot in long mobile takes with 360-degree lighting that allows and maintains an air of spontaneity. One worker plots Trevor’s probable recidivism on a chalkboard, and Trevor responds with his defeatist formulation of Thatcher’s Britain, the credo of a Social Darwinist outlook: “Be the best. Otherwise, forget it.” Nonetheless the film shows a sympathy for the character’s own self-destruction, which is epitomised by the swastika tattooed on the forehead.
What might the future hold for someone like Trevor? One answer could be Bexy (Gary Oldman), the star of The Firm: a grown-up hooligan with a career as a real estate agent, and a wife and child. Another superbly acted drama, The Firm, coming at the end of Clarke’s career, marked both the culmination of themes and style and an advance of his ideas on society and responsibility. The loose narrative follows the Cockney Bexy as he and his gang fight others for the privilege of representing England in a match on the continent. Yet the opening scene sets the agonising facts of this individual’s already complete integration into society: a Steadicam shot follows Bex on a real estate showing with a neatly dressed couple, to whom he openly and snidely describes the house as falling apart from the damp. He lets them in alone, saying “If this house doesn’t sell itself I’m a monkey’s uncle”, and proceeds to walk off mockingly with a brief chimp impersonation. Although the target of this film is ostensibly hooliganism, it is difficult to ignore the socioeconomic structure behind the posturing contempt: intelligence and aggression translated into upward mobility, but at a cost. But Bex is a complex character – he loves his child, clucking constantly over him, and the movie’s best moment has him silent with inward fury when his toddler almost eats his combat razor blade. His internal contradictions of bloodsport and blood ties embody those in the dog-eat-dog society at large. Some of his hooligan rivals try to locate his brutality and aggression in his class, even as they themselves do worse.
This trilogy of films could seem Clarke’s final word on England, but his work always reflects the universal challenges of human nature, and in this case of this physical violence, one is reminded of his description of The Firm in one interview: “It’s about tribes”. (8) Even as his Steadicam shots and long takes exalt the freedom of individuals, he seems to allow that if institutions don’t imprison human beings, the surge and thrust of people’s self-motivated group dynamics might create their own hells – a dialectic between society and societies that immunises Clarke’s dramas from seeming one-sided condemnations of The State. “That’s peer group pressure” says Bexy at one point; “That’s psychology” says Colin in Scum. The simplicity of human tendencies, the unconquerable adolescence of male aggression, is writ throughout, as when Bex has little response to his wife other than “I need the buzz.” He returns repeatedly to his mother’s house, where his old room remains covered in soccer paraphernalia, and where he practices his assault technique on a pillow, and his father’s approval (and memories of his own raids) suggests a cycle of violent heritage.
The Paradox and Politics of Naturalism: Contact, Christine and Elephant
Clarke’s sure eye for realism steered him towards one form of naturalism that didn’t aestheticise the violence of works, yet an additional basis to his naturalism emerges in the 1980s. Alongside works like The Firm, he also posited an aesthetic that sought its authenticity in capturing the routine in most activities, mundane to exotic – a kind of experiential counterpart (almost Warholian at times) to the violence and unstylised acting that marked his other methods. It was an approach one could perhaps discern as early as A Life Is Forever (1972), which assiduously plots out the repetitive days of a prisoner in jail for life. In the 1980s the sense of the character against society was matched or even overridden by the inhabiting of that individual’s experience – society from the inside out, as it were. Once again Clarke would distill his technique over the course of several films, and Contact, Christine, and the ultimate, Elephant, ably show the progression.
Based on the author A.F.N. Clarke’s experiences as a sergeant in Northern Ireland, the episodic Contact follows (the word seems requisite to Clarke’s technique) a troop making patrol rounds. The lack of narrative arc or even pacing evokes perfectly the eternal present of soldier’s life in no-man’s-land, which can alternate with sudden and entirely unpredictable violent death – pretty much the precise conditions for inducing psychosis. The only refuge from the endless little meadows and groves that the troop investigates are the few scenes in the white and featureless, equally claustrophobic barracks, the usual Clarkean presence of institutionalised spaces. Clarke uses the Steadicam to join the rounds, and even deploys a night-vision effect shooting in night-time with green filter. The sergeant (Sean Chapman) becomes our main point of identification, and the camaraderie in survival, harsh and protective even when members are killed, is a moving portrayal of a certain type of male interaction (aided by the avoidance of typical soldier stereotypes of the psycho or the poet). Perhaps one of the tensest scenes in cinema appears in this movie, a long shot (temporally and visually) of the sergeant determining whether an abandoned car on a roadway is wired to explode. Another scene investigates the sexuality in the posture of military domination, when the sergeant absently luxuriates in putting a gun in a hostage’s mouth, which also comments upon the condition of stillness before authority.
Drug abuse is the subject of Christine, but once again neither the characters nor the approach would be too familiar to viewers. The hero (Vicky Murdock) is a pasty-faced teen in a windbreaker and ill-fitting striped shirt who walks endlessly from one peer-aged client to another during the deserted daytime of the suburbs. Needless to say, from the first shot, Clarke is on the trail: Steadicam shots of Christine walking take up the majority of screen time, with the journeys culminating in affectless shoot-ups in empty homes. Some seem to be her friends; they conduct small talk about a party. A caring young woman but for her destructive habit, she repeatedly quizzes a friend whose parents are fighting as to her well-being and housing options. Nothing happens, much less anything glamorous (no close-ups of shooting up), and the movie ends just as vacuously: the camera rests on Christine’s face as she watches a cartoon of Paddington Bear wind to its insipid close. No one has gotten hurt that we can see, but then again the pattern of behaviour and environment looks to repeat until someone does, a willed wasteland.
Clarke takes isolated behaviour and the distilled physicality of reality to the greatest extreme in Elephant (the last of these one-word titles that aim to pare down to the essentials). The title refers to the figure of speech about an ignored problem (the elephant in the room), but the film’s aesthetic stringency could well evoke the parable of the blind men and the elephant: 18 pursuits that end in gun murder are shown in succession, through a series of long Steadicam takes without any exposition or narrative, and almost zero dialogue. For a viewer who does not recognise the unremarkable Belfast locales or the unnamed murders from news accounts, the anonymous action could remain unidentified as the Irish sectarian murders which, from actual incident reports and statistics, are what Clarke is dutifully reproducing. There are murders in a parking lot, by a pool, on a soccer field, in a gas station, in a home, in a warehouse – some swift, others involving heart wrenchingly futile pursuit, and all the protagonists nameless. (Clarke omits only those murders where children were left behind alive with their slaughtered parents.)
Every one ends with a held shot on the murder scene, a forced contemplation in silence and sudden stillness. By the third or fourth, the viewer is primed to cringe at anyone walking anywhere, since the endpoint is always the same. The formalist rigour and factual basis distill the art and social concern of his work, and the film is the supreme manifestation of his experiments with withholding context towards the social purity of the physical event. Still, this is not to say that Elephant achieves some perfect realism (whatever that would mean), for clear decisions have been made for the almost mythical isolation of the murders: the occasional fish-eye lens, the lack of dialogue, and the deserted locations.
Women and Men: Rita, Sue and Bob Too
Clarke’s only theatrical release in the ’80s, Rita, Sue and Bob Too, is often seen as an embarrassingly light departure from his usually weighty material (despite being screened in Cannes, albeit out of competition). Yet this story of a married man (Bob, played by George Costigan) who beds two babysitters (Rita and Sue, played by Siobhan Finneran and Michelle Holmes, respectively) proves just as astute and true to its characters, with an immediacy that renders sex at first farcical and then tragic, in the usual eruption of social context into naturalistic form. The young women’s eager libido and curiosity – their first time having sex is with Bob in a car, one after another – provides an erotic counterpoint of unbridled will to the violent will that so often prevails in his films.
Just as importantly, it testifies to Clarke’s facility with women characters as well, whom he also dutifully follows with the Steadicam. His portrayal is true to their socioeconomic situations despite the comic setup: Sue has a domineering patriarchal boyfriend; and Bob’s wife is beset by insecurities about herself and the marriage that she is unafraid to voice. Clarke resists dismissal as purely a poet of men in groups, and one is reminded for example of Bexy’s wife in The Firm, a complex, conflicted character, and a strong woman besides, who ultimately throws her husband out, even as she regrets she must.
Class is also an open festering topic even in this wide-release feature. When the affair is discovered and a confrontation breaks out on estate housing front yards, the stakes for a solidly middle-class husband and the impoverished young women are achingly different. Conformist neighbours provide an additional note of societal surveillance, forever snooping on the goings-on. An enigmatic, almost tacked-on ending even nudges the film toward an ill-defined allegory: lying in a bed spread with a Union Jacket blanket, the girls invite the married man to reconcile and join them, and Clarke freeze-frames him mid-jump.
It is a rare director who is at once one of the foremost stylists and pioneering realists of cinema, but Alan Clarke falls into both categories. His relentless and innovative examination of contemporary British society, paired with the integrity of his approach, makes him an exemplar for socially conscious filmmaking. While speculation is a mug’s game, the final scene of The Firm, in which hooligans that survived Bexy’s death offer muddled tributes, suggests Clarke was nowhere near stagnating: a cut reveals that the thugs are all making their lugubrious pitches to a documentary filmmaker, in Clarke’s acknowledgment of the ever-growing distorting potential of his own medium and the media. In this and other prescient themes, and in all his many willful walkers, he made, as one critic put it, “genuine motion pictures – the tracings of our times.” (9)
Year is either of theatrical release or date of broadcast transmission, where available. As is standard practice in archives records, titles for television include name of series rubric.
The Wednesday Play: The Last Train Through the Harecastle Tunnel (BBC tx. 1/10/1969)
The Wednesday Play: Sovereign’s Company (BBC tx. 22/4/1970)
Play for Today: I Can’t See My Little Willie (BBC tx. 19/11/1970)
Play for Today: The Hallelujah Handshake (BBC tx. 17/12/1970)
Play for Today: Everybody Say Cheese (BBC tx. 3/6/1971)
Horace (BBC tx. 21/3/1972)
To Encourage the Others (BBC tx. 28/3/1972)
Play for Today: A Life Is For Ever (BBC tx. 16/10/1972)
Achilles’ Heel (ITV tx. 18/3/1973)
Play for Today: Man Above Men (BBC tx. 19/3/1973)
Play of the Month: The Love Girl and the Innocent (BBC tx. 16/9/1973)
Penda’s Fen (BBC tx. 21/3/1974)
Play for Today: A Follower for Emily (BBC tx. 4/7/1974)
Play for Today: Funny Farm (BBC tx. 17/2/1975)
Playhouse: Diane (BBC tx. 9/7/1975)
ITV Playhouse: Fast Hands (ITV tx. 4/5/1976)
Play for Today: Scum (BBC 1977 but banned, first tx. 27/7/1991)
Play of the Month: Danton’s Death (BBC tx. 23/4/1978)
Play for Today: Nina (BBC tx. 17/10/1978)
Scum (1979) (1979)
Vodka Cola (ITV tx. 22/7/1980)
Play for Today: Beloved Enemy (BBC tx. 10/2/1981)
Play for Today: Psy-Warriors (BBC tx. 12/5/1981)
Baal (BBC tx. 2/3/1982)
Brief Encounters (tx. 1983)
Made in Britain (ITV tx. 10/7/1983)
The British Desk (ITV tx. 8/5/1984)
Stars of the Roller State Disco (BBC tx. 4/12/1984)
Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire (tx. 1985)
Screen Two: Contact (BBC tx. 6/1/1985)
Rita, Sue and Bob Too (1986)
Screenplay: Christine (BBC tx. 23/9/1987)
Screenplay: Road (BBC tx. 7/10/1987)
Elephant (BBC tx. 25/1/1989)
Screen Two: The Firm (BBC tx. 26/2/1989)
Half Hour Story: Shelter (ITV tx. 19/5/1967)
Half Hour Story: A Man Inside (ITV tx. 26/5/1967)
Half Hour Story: The Gentleman Caller (ITV tx. 16/6/1967)
Half Hour Story: Which of these Two Ladies Is He Married To? (ITV tx. 12/7/1967)
Half Hour Story: George’s Room (ITV tx. 30/8/1967)
The Informer: Sleeping Dogs Lie (ITV tx. 27/11/1967)
A Man of our Times: Sally Go Round The Moon (ITV tx. 18/1/1968)
A Man of our Times: Got Yourself Sorted Out At All? (ITV tx. 25/1/1968)
Half Hour Story: Goodnight Albert (ITV tx. 6/2/1968)
A Man of our Times: Never Mind How We Got Here – Where Are We? (ITV tx. 14/3/1968)
Half Hour Story: Stella (ITV tx. 19/6/1968)
Half Hour Story: The Fifty-Seventh Saturday (ITV tx. 3/7/1968)
Half Hour Story: Nothing’s Ever Over (ITV tx. 17/7/1968)
Half Hour Story: Thief (ITV tx. 24/7/1968)
The Company Of Five: Stand By Your Screen (ITV tx. 8/12/1968)
The Company Of Five: Gareth (ITV tx. 15/12/1968)
Saturday Night Theatre: The Piano Tuner (ITV tx. 8/3/1969)
The Gold Robbers: The Arrangement (ITV tx. 25/7/1969)
Plays Of Today: The Ladies – Doreen (BBC tx. 18/9/1969)
Plays Of Today: The Ladies – Joan (BBC tx. 18/9/1969)
Saturday Night Theatre: The Comic (ITV tx. 29/11/1969)
Thirty Minute Theatre: Under The Age (BBC tx. 20/3/1972)
The Edwardians: Horatio Bottomley (BBC tx. 28/11/1972)
Films About Alan Clarke
Director: Alan Clarke (Corin Campbell-Hill, 1991)
Alan Clarke: His Own Man (Andy Kimpton-Nye, 2000)
The first critical appreciation of Alan Clarke has only recently been published (Alan Clarke, by Dave Rolinson). Fortunately, it also features the most thorough bibliography available.
Richard Kelly (ed.), Alan Clarke, Faber and Faber, London, 1998.
Dave Rolinson, Alan Clarke, The Television Series, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2005.
Howard Schuman, “Alan Clarke: In It for Life”, Sight & Sound, September 1998, pp. 18–20.
Amy Taubin, “Small Screen Giant”, The Village Voice, 20 September 1994, p. 60.
David Thomson, “Walkers in the World: Alan Clarke”, Film Comment, May–June 1993, pp. 78–83.
The 52nd Edinburgh International Film Festival, festival program, 1998.
Legions of capsule overviews of Alan Clarke exist, but few more extensive resources.
Article by Robin Carmody, for Elidor website, 2001.
Play for Today: Alan Clarke
Article by Dave Rolinson for The Mausoleum Club website, 2004.
Entry on Clarke for the BFI’s Screenonline resource, 2003.
The Wednesday Play / Play for Today (1964–1970 & 1970–1984)
Good overview of The Wednesday Play / Play for Today, as part of the TV Cream website
Click here to search for Alan Clarke DVDs, videos and books at
- The Alan Clarke Collection: Scum, Made in Britain, The Firm, and Elephant. Includes the documentary, Director: Alan Clarke, commentaries by Ray Winstone, Margaret Matheson, Tim Roth et al, Blue Underground, DVD, 2004.
- Bentley would be posthumously pardoned, but not until July 30, 1998.
- Dave Rolinson, Alan Clarke, The Television Series, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2005, p. 1.
- Howard Schuman, “Alan Clarke: In It for Life”, Sight & Sound, September 1998, p. 18.
- For a good account of the different sides to the controversy, see Chapter 2 of Rolinson.
- Indeed, one VHS edition of Scum packaged it with Bad Girls Dormitory, one of the titillating 1980s lite offspring of ’70s exploitation.
- Rolinson, p. 125.
- Richard Kelly (ed.), Alan Clarke, Faber and Faber, London, 1998, p. 202.
- Amy Taubin, “Small Screen Giant”, The Village Voice, 20 September 1994, p. 62.