Back to his roots: a walk around Alan Clarke’s old haunts

A wander on the Wirral reveals much about how the vision of one of our greatest directors was shaped by the environment in which he grew up.

Adam Scovell

The view of Liverpool from Seacombe

The view of Liverpool from Seacombe
Credit: Adam Scovell

Alan Clarke, one of Britain’s most important figures in film and television, had a complex relationship with his place of birth. Though born on the Wirral, like many from its shores he is falsely attributed with being a product purely from the other side of the Mersey river, the city of Liverpool.

Clarke is one of a number of cinematic notables from the peninsula including Alex Cox, Charles Crichton and Glenda Jackson, though he has arguably carried the place with him more than most. Andrew Collins even referred to him recently as the “Bresson of Birkenhead” in an article for The Guardian. The Wirral’s cascading mixture of urban, suburban and rural facets creates a microcosm of British society, and the director’s creative impetuousness clearly channels a number of elements from its streets.

Walking around Clarke’s old haunts, variously placed around the peninsula’s north coast, reveals a surprising amount of likenesses between his films and the place he would eventually leave behind for good. This is, of course, in spite of the fact that Clarke would only pay it fleeting visits after he emigrated to Canada and never made work about it as such. But there are Clarkian resonances everywhere around the streets and roads that he once traversed. As the screenwriter Howard Schuman suggests in the documentary Alan Clarke: His Own Man, Clarke’s background “was always with him”.

Ferry View Road, one of the few redbrick estates left in the area

Ferry View Road, one of the few redbrick estates left in the area

Clarke was born in Edgemond Street in Seacombe on 28 October 1935. His time there was short-lived with the war soon to break out, meaning that he and his younger sister, Norma (born three years later), moved with their father to the Isle of Man where he was stationed in the army. Though some attempt was made to get back to the property later on, Seacombe had been heavily bombed by the time of their return so the family were forced to move. As Norma recalls in Richard Kelly’s book on Clarke: “When we got back, about 1941, our house in Edgemond Street was uninhabitable really – bombs had blasted it to bits.”

Road (1987)

Road (1987)

Seacombe today still surprisingly bears some of the scars of these raids. Walking around its streets reveals a number of miniature edgelands growing between buildings with small clumps of buddleia – the “bombsite plant” as it is sometimes known – proliferating in between the cracks. Its working-class character is recognisably the same as that which Clarke would define within his films, though Edgemond Street has since been built upon.

The area still possesses the type of street that the Clarkes lived in, almost purpose built for a Chris Menges or John Ward steadicam shot, capturing walking as an escape and as a protest past endless redbrick properties, such as those embarked on by the many characters in Road (1987) and Christine (1987). The most startling of this type of architecture is found by the waterfront under the shadow of the ventilator shaft for the Mersey Tunnel; standing like a strange, brutalist cathedral overlooking the adjacent estate.

Borough Road in Seacombe, known as Victoria Road in Clarke’s day

Borough Road in Seacombe, known as Victoria Road in Clarke’s day
Credit: Adam Scovell

Tudor Avenue, off Mersey Street

Tudor Avenue, off Mersey Street
Credit: Adam Scovell

Finding their property reduced to rubble, the family moved further inland to Gorsedale Road, a long council road that stretches from Seacombe through to neighbouring Poulton, where Clarke first went to school at Poulton Primary. The move seems poignant in the context of his work because of what lies parallel behind it: the Wallasey Tunnel that leads to Liverpool.

Made in Britain (1983)

Made in Britain (1983)

Though famous in more recent years for being used in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 (2010), it seems more than fitting as a neighbouring zone for Clarke and worth considering in the context of one of his most startling images from Made in Britain (1982), a film written by David Leland and made for the ITV strand, Tales out of School. Trevor (Tim Roth), a troubled and violent skinhead, has his most isolated moment in the play when he is finally unleashed from any sort of restraint left by seeing the false vision of the family he clearly never had symbolised through mannequins in a shop’s window display. He walks shirtless along a traffic tunnel of similar aesthetic guise to that of Wallasey’s, venting his mania at a passing car. 

Though this is most definitely not framed as the Wallasey Tunnel (it’s actually Rotherhithe Tunnel, south London), Clarke seems to be someone attributed with channelling his own relationship to his place of birth through film, and it seems apt that he lived in close proximity to such a similar road. As academic David Rolinson recalls of Jehane Markham, the writer of Clarke’s Play for Today episode, Nina (1978): “Jehane Markham wondered if his ‘annihilation of domesticity’ was related to ‘where he came from’”.

The tunnel seems a perfect symbol for Clarke’s characters; failed by various systems and forced to move forward to get out but with little implication of any light at the end. After all, Trevor does walk through it at night. This is even before mentioning Clarke’s Wednesday Play, The Last Train through the Harecastle Tunnel (1969), written by Peter Terson and centred around a trainspotter’s desire to ride through a condemned train tunnel before its demolition.

Gorsedale Road, the second road where Alan Clarke lived

Gorsedale Road, the second road where Alan Clarke lived
Credit: Adam Scovell

Gorsedale Road still has a recognisable Clarke character to it, full of endless terrace houses and potholed roads. It is also one of the longest purely residential streets in the area, something which became apparent while walking from one end to the other; cracked pavements creating patterns with shadows cast by various telephone wires above, as houses pass endlessly by.

The Magnet (1950)

The Magnet (1950)

Perhaps Clarke developed his propensity for walking here and it seemed fitting that it eventually led to a dead-end for vehicles with only pedestrian access available to the next road, Gorsey Lane; hinting that the place must have been known for gorse in an older time if these road names are anything to go by.

The reality of the area is far from, say, the middle-class politeness of Charles Frend’s Ealing comedy, The Magnet (1950), which looks at the same territory but with a young James Fox exploring a more gentle, placid vision of its roads and streets. A slightly more accurate presentation of the place can be found in Jack Gold’s The Reckoning (1970), which in part uses it as a double for inner-city Liverpool. 

Even exploring its roads digitally on Google Earth reveals a Clarkian drama occurring down the street, where a hooded scooter rider seems to come to an affray with the Google Earth van, crashing on the street that lies at Gorsedale’s other end, Oakdale Road.

Oakdale Road on Google Earth

Oakdale Road on Google Earth

Nothing quite so exciting happened on the day of this walk, which presented the roads as oddly emptied of people. The sense of both bubbling rebellion and boredom was palpable; Clarke’s channelling of such streets has clearly rubbed off on a number of other British directors including Andrea Arnold, Ben Wheatley and Clio Barnard.

But most of all, there’s a sense that there’s a mounting pressure in the place, as if a wild-eyed Lesley Sharp could turn the corner at any moment as in Road. If ever a director channelled in earnestness the reality of the British urban road, it is Clarke, whose Merseyside history is centred around mazes of such redbrick and terraces. Clarke’s sister even suggests that it was his experience of these roads and streets that contributed to his later directing skills. In the TV portait Alan Clarke: His Own Man, she recounts: “Obviously we all used to play in the streets a lot and I think Alan’s directing skills may have come to the fore there as he was always the organiser of the street gangs.”

Gorsedale Road

Gorsedale Road
Credit: Adam Scovell

Clarke would move once more on the Wirral after his return from national service (which Norma tells of being partly stationed in Hong Kong) and before he would emigrate to Canada with friends. It could be said that it was this move that drew him out, pushing him to finally fly free of the peninsula. The family moved further down the coast to the Leasowe estate which is dominated in part by its long coastal road and several liminal areas, aesthetically similar to the suburban tension points found in The Firm (1989).

Leasowe is interesting in the context of Clarke as it has that same mix of scrubland rurality and terraced urbanity found in Penda’s Fen, the Play for Today folk horror instalment he made in 1974 with the writer David Rudkin. Though Penda is explicitly set in Edward Elgar’s Worcestershire, its deliberate mix of potential slippages between conservative ruralness and urban zones is positively Wirral-esque, at least aesthetically if not sociologically as well. It explains Clarke’s ease of direction in what initially seems an anomaly in his work.

Castleway Road in Leasowe, the last place Alan Clarke lived before emigrating

Castleway Road in Leasowe, the last place Alan Clarke lived before emigrating
Credit: Adam Scovell

This in-between-ness is most apparent at the end of the road, some way down from where Clarke lived, where Leasowe Lighthouse stands. It’s an oddly semi-rural locale that eventually morphs into a modest industrial park. Vegetation, mesh fences and closed concrete roads sharing common ground just as in the fictional Pinvin in Penda’s Fen: “No road to Pinvin, go via…”

Clarke’s grammar school has since moved to this coastal road too, as if ghosting his steps in order to try and keep up with him. He was, after all, far from a rebellious idler but a formidable Eleven-Pluser who even won an award for Latin and whose talent for dancing found a home at the, since demolished, Tower Ballroom down the coast at New Brighton (perhaps the raw material again reflected in Road: “I’m in the mood for dancing…”).

Norma recalled her brother’s varied talents, writing to me that “During his teen years, Alan and his mates spent many weeks in New Brighton drinking in the many pubs there and going to the Tower Ballroom to dance nights at weekends, and on the New Brighton Pier. He also took ballroom lessons at Greenbank Dance School on Stroud’s Corner.”

Leasowe Lighthouse

Leasowe Lighthouse
Credit: Adam Scovell

Though overtly known for political work dealing with class, Clarke’s films seem consistently to be looking back in an attempt to place himself within his own background, albeit indirectly. He would rarely return back to the Wirral but the peninsula is part of his creative genetic makeup all the same. As the four characters ritualistically chant at the end of Road: “Somehow, somehow, we might escape!”

Elephant (1989)

Elephant (1989)

Clarke eventually did. Rolinson suggests that Clarke was one of a number of television figures to come from such a background but whose work, like that of Dennis Potter, Tony Garnett and others, fostered a class consciousness through their “subsequent alienation to their backgrounds”. Clarke’s films may not be recognisably Merseyside in a general sense but underneath lies a history built through a traversing of its coastline and estates; their gliding steadicam-calmness hiding rapturous undercurrents of political and social dissent.

It’s fitting that Clarke’s chief vision of Liverpool would have been one of looking onto rather than purely in from, almost a mirrored vision of that of Terence Davies. The sun’s brightness on the day of the walk made the river reflect excited shards of light with each ebb of the water. It’s a space that imbues the viewer with a desire for exploration, for travelling over and onwards with that very same frenetic excitement.

It perhaps also explains Clarke’s rising need to move on, to cross the river and beyond to some new unknown. But, in the words of King Penda himself, the Wirral can be seen to have fostered Clarke’s “sacred demon of ungovernableness”; that essential spark that led the director to create some of the most daring, monumental and provocative work in the whole canon of British film and television.

Thanks to Norma Mcminn, Sean Mcminn-Davies and Jan Scovell

 

Walking into Film History: Alan Clarke’s Steadicam Shots

A huge influence on Gus Van Sant, Danny Boyle and Paul Greengrass, British film and TV director Alan Clarke was one of the poets of the Steadicam. In this video, we explore how his run of films from Made in Britain (1982) to Elephant (1989) exploded the storytelling potential of the walking shot.

Created by Jon Spira

Dissent & Disruption: The Complete Alan Clarke at the BBC (Limited Edition Blu-ray Box Set) is available now

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