Movies inspire a lot of passion, but the back catalogue of film history can be daunting. For every fan who’s obsessed with an actor, director or sub-genre, there’s another struggling to know where to start. Sometimes all it takes is the right recommendation to set you on your path from newbie to know-it-all…
Your next obsession: Alan Clarke’s controversial films and TV.
Alan Clarke is the man who wasn’t there of British cinema. Though highly regarded by contemporaries such as Stephen Frears, Danny Boyle and Paul Greengrass, his reputation never quite garnered the same commercial reach or institutional support as those admirers. And while he’s an acknowledged influence on Harmony Korine and Gus Van Sant, his own standing as an auteur rests primarily on work made for television.
In fact, on his death in 1990 at the age of 54, Clarke had made only three films for theatrical release. Born in Birkenhead, Cheshire in 1935 – the same year and unfashionably working-class Merseyside town as playwright John McGrath – he emigrated to Canada in the 1950s where, after working as a gold miner, he studied radio and television arts.
Moving back to the UK soon after graduating, Clarke directed a number of plays, including Macbeth, for the Questors Theatre in Ealing. He began his career in television in 1967, directing standalone episodes for Half Hour Stories, and an episode of the two-season Ian Hendry series The Informer.
Penda's Fen (1974)
Between 1970 and 1981, Clarke contributed regularly to the BBC’s renowned Play for Today series – including Penda’s Fen (1974), David Rudkin’s extraordinary, psychotronic pagan drama set against the Malvern Hills.
Given that he’s one of several directors now synonymous with Play for Today and the BBC’s glory years, it’s a deep irony that the corporation banned Clarke’s most famous work. Scum, commissioned in 1977, is a brutal portrait of borstal Britain (snooker balls collide with jaws, skulls smash against sinks, an almost unwatchable rape scene takes place in a greenhouse). He remade the film as a theatrical feature two years later. That the BBC banned it in the first place, however, gives some indication of Clarke’s unflinching approach to hard-hitting stories – and of UK officialdom’s safe-playing short-sightedness.
In the decades since Clarke’s death, distributors have sought to homogenise a gap in the home-entertainment market for ‘cult classic’ macho-mayhem crypto-nihilism, suggesting that the director’s reputation is reducible to grim’n’gritty portraits of angry young men: walk past the Father’s Day bargains in many a sorted-by-genre videostore these days and you’ll find Made in Britain (1983), The Firm (1989) and indeed Scum alongside the likes of Romper Stomper, Chopper and Sexy Beast.
Such minimal, even cynical efforts to make Clarke’s films commercially viable fail to acknowledge just how wide-ranging his output was. This is to say nothing of his artistic interests, which included Georg Büchner, whose play Danton’s Death he directed for the BBC in 1978, and Bertolt Brecht, whose Baal he directed for the BBC in 1982 (starring David Bowie). Clarke’s is a cinema of bleak exposés and downbeat assessments, yes, but it’s also full of humour, energy and warmth.
The best place to start – Rita, Sue and Bob Too
For evidence of just how adept Clarke was at rendering bleak tales accessible with mirth and compassion, look no further than Rita, Sue and Bob Too (1987), his third and final feature. Adapted from two of her own autobiographical plays by Bradford-born playwright Andrea Dunbar – who died of a brain haemorrhage aged 29 the same year Clarke himself passed away – the film follows the friendship of two working-class teenage schoolgirls who embark upon a clumsy, unavoidably complicated ménage-à-trois with a married man who lives in a better part of town.
Gender and class divisions collide (tagline: “Thatcher’s Britain with her knickers down”). Clarke shoots Dunbar’s effing and blinding script like an unvarnished dress rehearsal acted out on the communal lawns and concrete verandas of the council estates in which the drama is to unfold. Only, this is already the drama, raw and real, with everything all fleshed out into an effortlessly vivid, lived-in milieu: chalk swastikas, anti-Thatcher graffiti, and nosy neighbours.
What to watch next
Clarke’s trademark Steadicam shots were deployed most memorably in his loose trilogy about angry young males: Scum, Made in Britain and The Firm. Emphasising cramped, maze-like interiors, the singular focus of such aggressively elegant camerawork imbues physical action with a mental torture. Each tramp down these arterial passageways to nowhere is a futile attempt at autonomy, a dormant howl against the institutional machine.
These are powerful and painful portraits of how one of Thatcherism’s chief tenets – that there’s no such thing as society – finds brutal expression on the lower rungs: the youth detention centre in Scum, in which Ray Winstone’s Carlin must survive by becoming ‘the Daddy’; the residential assessment centre in Made in Britain, in which Tim Roth’s desperately misguided racist skinhead Trevor must contend with pettily punitive policies and transparently hopeless rehabilitation strategies; and the back alleys of The Firm, in which Gary Oldman’s upwardly mobile estate agent Bex Bissell applies viciously self-regarding Thatcherite principles to the weekend pastime of football hooliganism.
Made in Britain (1983)
Hereafter, it’s into those pockets of an under-championed career. Proceed through Clarke’s literary adaptations: the abovementioned Brecht works as well as The Love Girl and the Innocent (1973), adapted from Solzhenitsyn. Penda’s Fenand military drama Psy-Warriors (1981) are among his best Play for Today entries. Contact (1985) is a later teleplay, about a platoon of British paratroopers caught up in a senselessly divided Northern Ireland.
Where not to start
With a title evoking westerns and horror films, Clarke’s Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire (1985) is a more oblique (and, as a musical, more bemusing) take on the prevailing moods of Thatcher’s Britain. Phil Daniels plays an up-and-coming snooker prodigy, who agrees to a grudge match against the reigning champion (Alun Armstrong). Though snooker was an easy sell in 1985 – the black-ball conclusion of that year’s world championship was watched by 18.5 million people in the UK – Clarke’s second theatrical release proved less so, and failed to take the box office by storm.
Similarly oblique is Elephant (1989), Clarke’s beautifully abstract 40-minute follow-up to Contact. Based on 18 real-life sectarian murders that took place in Northern Ireland, Elephant presents a succession of one-take scenes in which anonymous men march purposefully along choreographed routes to execute other anonymous men. As a formally experimental political exercise, it’s perhaps not the best introduction to his diverse body of work – but the director’s sparsest implementation of relentless Steadicam might also be his most brilliant. Alan Clarke is the man.