Alan Clarke: A man of our times

❉ A whirlwind overview of Alan Clarke’s work for the BBC, recently restored by BFI.

“Alan Clarke is maybe my favourite filmmaker, the best of the British New Wave. Christine is a masterpiece and I like The Firm and Made in Britain. What I like is that he approaches drama in a different way. There is never a beginning, middle, and end — the films just exist, the drama just seems to happen.” – Harmony Korine.

“He is his own man, not one of the shadows of this world. You meet him and remember him.”

This is Roy Minton describing Carlin, the lead character of Scum, but he could just as easily be talking about Alan Clarke, a truly subversive figure of television in its heyday, entirely lacking in artifice.

Alan Clarke & Gary Oldman on the set of The Firm

This summer saw the BFI’s release of Dissent & Disruption: Alan Clarke at the BBC (1969-1989), a mammoth 13-disc Limited Edition Blu-ray box set, and two DVD volumes – Alan Clarke at the BBC, volume 1: Dissent (1967-1977) and volume 2: Disruption (1978–1989). Also released, one week prior to the box sets, were The Firm Director’s Cut (1989) and Penda’s Fen (1974); both on Limited Edition Blu-ray and on DVD.

These collections, the most comprehensive packages ever produced by the BFI for a single filmmaker, feature newly remastered presentations of all surviving Alan Clarke BBC TV productions, including Penda’s Fen, Diane, Scum, Nina, Baal, Christine, Road, The Firm and Elephant, along with lesser-known work and previously unseen rarities.

Alan Clarke was born in Birkenhead, Cheshire, on 28 October 1935. Like many of the notable television writers and directors of his generation, he came from a working class background, before passing his 11 Plus to go on to grammar school.

After leaving grammar school and completing National Service, he emigrated to Canada to study Radio and Television Arts in Toronto for three years.

On his return to Britain, Clarke worked as an Assistant Floor Manager at ATV and Associated-Rediffusion, on various productions including Ready Steady Go! After gaining entry to a director’s course, he served an apprenticeship directing The Epilogue. Between 1967 and 1969 he directed several plays for Half Hour Story, Company of Five and Saturday Night Theatre for ITV, as well as episodes of The Informer, A Man Of Our Times and The Gold Robbers.

Moving to the BBC in 1969, as it began broadcasting in colour on both channels, he first made his name developing his directorial style on the stand-alone drama strands The Wednesday Play and Play For Today.
According to Stephen Frears, Clarke was attracted to the medium of television because “one of the things that television told was the history of ordinary working class people in England.”

The television medium during the golden age of the BBC offered Clarke an in-house studio system that gave him access to a sympathetic and tolerant drama department (although there was one notable case of censorship), an efficient rehearse-and-record production set-up, and a growing body of experienced, adaptable technicians.
Although Clarke worked with a team of high-calibre writers that included David Leland, David Rudkin, Roy Minton, Alun Owen and Edna O’Brien and he was fully clued up on Brecht, Buchner and Solzhenytsin, he was making directors’ television, not writers’ television. The medium was the message.

“Go through the list of the British actors that he’s worked with, or more importantly, discovered. It’s pretty impressive. And there’s intensity, if you want, with each of us. In some shape or form. When you think of Phil Daniels, you’ve got Ray Winston, you’ve got Tim Roth, Phil Davis, there’s an innate energy. An intensity, if you want, with all of us. So I think his casting was, that was obviously very, very important.”

Gary Oldman said in 2000: “Go through the list of the British actors that he’s worked with, or more importantly, discovered. It’s pretty impressive. And there’s intensity, if you want, with each of us. In some shape or form. When you think of Phil Daniels, you’ve got Ray Winston, you’ve got Tim Roth, Phil Davis, there’s an innate energy. An intensity, if you want, with all of us. So I think his casting was, that was obviously very, very important.”

One thing that Clarke did understand was actors. This was a product of his years as a floor manager. His willing accomplices in getting under the skin of a character included Gary Oldman and Phil Davis (The Firm), Ray Winstone and Phil Daniels (Scum), Tim Roth (Made in Britain) and even David Bowie (Baal).
Clarke believed in television – to paraphrase Made In Britain, Clarke was in it for life.

As he developed his directorial style, he offered sharp critiques of social institutions, taking in everything from the brutish hierarchies of Borstal (Scum) and football hooligans (The Firm), cultural identity and psychogeography (Penda’s Fen), rootlessness and amorality (Baal) and the paramilitary (Elephant).

There were a number of concerns that became synonymous with Clarke’s style, and uniquely suited to television during its exploratory, experimental golden age. England and Englishness was a major theme. He examined class and social status in a completely different way to his contemporaries – especially Ken Loach with his Marxist agenda. In contrast to Loach, Clarke was more concerned with such pragmatics as how his characters responded to structures rather than class.

Penda’s Fen (1974) has become something of a cult classic over the years. It is in part a coming of age story that addresses themes of sexual awakening, notions of England and Englishness, pagan heritage, semiotics, and the relationship between music and landscape. In the words of Howard Feldman, Penda’s Fen is “fundamentally an enquiry into English identity, a search that drives so many of Clarke’s films.”

Another recurring thematic obsession was that of hermetically-sealed spaces and enclosures, whether it was the Army, Borstal, the enclosed hills of the Malverns or Black Ops intelligence facilities. Rather than forensically examine his subjects at the other end of a telephoto lens like Loach, or collude in moving his characters around the chess board like Mike Leigh’s social games, Clarke honoured WH Auden’s maxim to “Be just, among the Filthy filthy too”. In his TV plays, he pushes his characters every which way to see how they broke and where the pieces fell. Clarke once identified his interest as being “boxes –people being somewhere they don’t want to be.”

Scum (1977) crystallised these themes, dealing with institutional behaviour, systemic hierarchies, and brutalities of man upon man in the enclosed hothouse of a boys’ Borstal – rape, suicide and riots figure heavily, but portrayed in unflinching documentary-style realism rather than exploitation, as young Carlin attempts to become “The daddy” – the top dog.

Clarke completely remade Scum as a theatrical film in 1979 when the BBC refused to broadcast the TV version. Its attendant notoriety because of its subject matter and censorship afforded it a cult status that has overshadowed more accomplished works such as Nina, Diane or Christine (his films about women are important), but it does underline one of his principal obsessions – tribes and institutionalised violence.

The Firm (1989) continued the examination of an institution awash with its own systemic hierarchies and code of violence, the world of football hooliganism; while acting as a critique of Thatcherite yuppie-era ‘divide and rule’ selfishness, echoing the credo of Made In Britain’s Trevor: “Be the best. Otherwise, forget it.”
As Clarke said of The Firm in one interview: “It’s about tribes.”

Clarke was in the trenches, getting dirty, framing in extreme close up and finding every line and crease of emotion on his character’s faces. The effect was visceral and immediate. He achieved this by a combination of naturalistic performances and effective use of film and video techniques, many of which were deployed to great effect in his adaption of Bertolt Brecht’s ‘Baal’ (1981), in which David Bowie played the itinerant vagabond. Although stage-bound, the play made use of split-screen introductions, dissolves, blocked-off long shots, and colour separation overlay, an effective updating of Brecht’s ‘distancing effect’ in the videotape age.

Ignored at the time, as Bowie and Brecht went head to head in a ratings war with John Mortimer’s ‘A Voyage Around My Father’ starring Laurence Olivier, the “rock star who can act a bit” was found to be lacking against Sir Larry, but it can now be appreciated on its own merits.

Clarke took this combination of actors’ naturalism and filming technique to its logical conclusion with the astounding ‘Elephant’ (1989). ‘Elephant’ is the final third of his loose trilogy of films concerning the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Although he’ll be more remembered for Penda’s Fen or Scum, this triptych marks a forensic examination of the problematic English response to the Irish question.

It’s a powerful piece of work, depicting eighteen gun killings, with nothing about the gunmen or their victims, or indeed anything in the way of exposition, narrative or dialogue. We see eighteen pursuits that end in murder, all shot on 16mm film and making extensive use of Steadicam shots and long, unbroken takes, recalling William Burroughs’ famous line, “The camera is the eye of a cruising vulture”.

Clarke first used Steadicam in 1987, on his feature film Made In Britain to give the impression of constant movement, and in his teleplay Christine, a gritty portrait of a heroin addict, where Steadicam shots trail the protagonist as she walks endlessly from one would-be client to another.

“I remember lying in bed, watching it, thinking, ‘Stop, Alan, you can’t keep doing this.’ And the cumulative effect is that you say, ‘It’s got to stop. The killing has got to stop.’ Instinctively, without an intellectual process, it becomes a gut reaction.”

Here, though, the viewer is faced with death after death after pointless death, documentary-like in its gritty realism, relentlessly for forty minutes. After watching the film, Clarke’s contemporary David Leland wrote: “I remember lying in bed, watching it, thinking, ‘Stop, Alan, you can’t keep doing this.’ And the cumulative effect is that you say, ‘It’s got to stop. The killing has got to stop.’ Instinctively, without an intellectual process, it becomes a gut reaction.” ‘Elephant’ elicits a visceral response from the viewer, like being punched in the guts repeatedly, and will make you feel uncomfortable, no question.

Alan Clarke died on 24 July 1990, two years after the broadcast of ‘Elephant’.

Clarke has been praised by diverse voices, from his leading men including Gary Oldman (“Alan’s work is about character. And that’s narrative, you know, behaviour is plot”), to collaborators such as Danny Boyle (“One of the most gifted, innovative and radical British film-makers”) and filmmakers Gus Van Sant and Harmony Korine, not to mention esteemed institutions such as Cahiers du Cinema and BAFTA (who never honoured any of his work during his lifetime). In 2001, Clarke was posthumously rewarded in the form of BBC rebroadcasts and a retrospective at the NFT.

He ranks alongside the most important British writers and directors of his generation – Ken Loach, Mike Leigh, Stephen Frears, Dennis Potter, Derek Jarman and Peter Greenaway. Producer Mark Shivas described him as “a real auteur in a way that very few British directors are.”

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