UK Teleplay Retrospective: Scum (1977)
Before getting into the meat that is Alan Clarke's controversial 1977 teleplay Scum, let’s take a moment to look at its director. Clarke’s distinguished career was mostly rooted in television, occasionally branching into feature films (three movies including his remake of Scum since the BBC refused to air the initial teleplay) his extensive work includes over thirty titles for British television. Operating in this medium was his creative niche, and his staggering roster of groundbreaking classics, established him as a massively influential voice in British cinema that was sadly lost too soon.
By 1977, Clarke’s subtle benevolence sustained his tonal explorations, however controversy sounded off the loudest, when his terse filmic vernacular touched on socio-political territories that were too close to home regarding British classicism and institutions. Ironically, Clarke’s verite handling of material became the thesis for the BBC’s banning of the finished product that was his 1977 version of Scum. Clarke and collaborating writer Roy Minton's visceral depiction of life in Borstal (an institution for juvenile offenders) proved to be too harsh for the BBC to air; the crux of their inconsistent reasoning lies in their contradictory claims for banning the teleplay. On the one hand, Scum’s matter of fact depiction of racism, violence, sexual violence, and dehumanizing brutality among inmates and staff led to the conclusion that, "There was too much incident packed into too short a time and that they doubted the veracity.” Tipping the scale in the opposite direction, the collective opinion was that Scum "looked too much like a documentary" (not a very consistent argument, is it?). Rightfully frustrated, Clark and Minton filmed a theatrical version of Scum in 1979. However, their original vision retains the rough-hewn veracity that attributes to a constant in Clarke’s cinema, unflinching realism.
Never a stranger to controversy or incendiary material, Clarke’s proclivity for thematic relevance bore the sign of a dedicated craftsma,n and not the cage rattling rabble-rouser that seems to pollute 'important-message' movies throughout the years. His cinema is a rare marriage of filmic technique that conveys a bevvy of insight and gravitas, expressed in the most unembellished style. Alongside The Firm, Elephant, and Made in Britain, Scum is one of Clarke’s most highlighted works; it’s a rare concentration of revelatory realism and unguarded, unapologetic social commentary, that doesn’t sacrifice characterization and warmth in its dissemination of the monstrous mechanizations of Borstal life.
The story is simple; Scum takes place entirely in a borstal school focusing on a newly transferred prisoner number 4737 Carlin, a hardened youngster whose tough guy reputation precedes him. Having been the former ‘daddy’ (pugilist, or boss among the inmates) of the Borstal in Bagthorpe, Carlin was dismissed for assaulting a guard, with this newly placed regime is devoted to “setting him straight”. However, his instincts dictate a different fate, as a means of survival in a brutal system of violence, Carlin seeks to become the new daddy by whatever means possible.
Scum is a story that owes its sustenance in part to a superb writing-directing team, though in terms of literal viewing, the momentum of Scum is thanks to a register of talented young actors, whose fresh faces bolster the director’s stalwart sense of realism. Among them is a very young Ray Winstone as Carlin. Hindsight viewership will likely marvel over how young Winstone is (this was a big starting vehicle) and instantly recognize it’s no wonder that this actor would go on to do great things. Carlin is a headstrong, intelligent, and most dangerously smart; Winstone brandishes a swagger, and his overall commanding screen presence carries itself in a physical performance that communicates a sense of power and youth; a dangerous combination in a flawed system.
Clarke had an eye for casting, and seemed to have a sixth sense for finding young talent in the mold of the “angry young man”. Following Ray Winstone in Scum, Clarkey would cast Tim Roth in his breakthrough role in Made in Britain, and later, Gary Oldman in The Firm. All controversial entries, but Scum is a turning point in the director’s career. While his blunt force is in full effect here, this excursion is effective in being technically unadorned, while the Steadicam would be Clarke’s weapon of choice for subsequent vehicles (Elephant, Road, Christine, Made in Britain). The structure and framing evoke a feeling of meta-physical societal alienation, and heighten the sense of discordance by slightly removed static compositions.
For all the flickers of realistic brutality, Scum is at its best with it’s few scenes of warmth - on the other side of Carlin, there’s his mate Archer, another prisoner who’s also dedicated to rupturing the status quo. Archer, by comparison, is the existential rabble rouser; a vegetarian by choice so that staff must prepare him special meals, refusing to wear the standard uniform leather shoes, and overall, upsets the system with his confrontational means of social protest. Despite their differing methods of upsetting the powers that be, Archer and Carlin are a dimension expanding contrast in what could have been a fully dour expose.
There’s a platitude of ironies that surround Scum; it’s a teleplay that was intended as a flagship production for the Play for Today strand, and yet was never aired. Clarke adopted most of the same cast and shot a feature film of the same material but of lesser avail, interesting given how television films are seen as weak compared to their cinematic counterparts. And yet, the BBC withheld any broadcast of the play until 1991, just one year after Clarke’s untimely death at 54. In the case of most controversial productions, Scum more or less gained more momentum as time went on, but is now considered as one of Clarke’s finest work that also marks a turning in his career. If you’re tired of message-heavy movies with the obligatory shaky camera aesthetic that plague the sea of saccharine realism, Clarke’s unimposing pragmatism will be more refreshing in the way that few directors can manage docudrama or social realism.
Alan Clarke’s Scum can be found on DVD and Blu-Ray, and if you’re feeling adventurous (and have a region free Blu-Ray player) the BFI Collection Dissent & Disruption: Alan Clarke at the BBC is a comprehensive collection of his work.