Few directors better addressed the lives of volatile, working-class men than Alan Clarke. Carving a niche for himself in television with the BBC, Clarke became synonymous with controversial work usually dealing with brutal violence. His camera wanders through the lives of lost individuals who are subject to the tough systems of an uncaring Thatcherite society. This focus is never more apparent than when adapting Roy Minton’s borstal drama, Scum, first for the BBC in 1977, and later as a standalone feature in 1979. The history behind the making of this controversial and vivid drama twice over is simpatico with its main theme: of an establishment trying to sweep social problems under the carpet.
Get the latest from the BFI
Sign up for BFI news, features, videos and podcasts.
Both versions of Scum follow the lives of young men in a strict borstal. Carlin (Ray Winstone) is a violent, powerful figure, moved there after fighting back against the wardens of his previous home. He raises the ire of the group running the wing he has been put in, including its ‘Daddy,’ Banks (John Blundell). Yet Carlin soon gets the upper hand through a series of violent confrontations and gradually he makes improvements in the way the centre is run. The weaker inmates, including Davis (Julian Firth), find life marginally better with Carlin as the Daddy. However, with the insistent brutality and the wardens proving as violent as the inmates, pressures soon rise; a number of assaults and deaths lead to a mass riot.
The 1979 version of Scum is in many ways a product of censorship, despite being one of the most violent British films ever made. Originally adapted by Minton for a Play for Today slot two years earlier, the BBC lost their bottle when it came to broadcasting it, just as they had three years earlier with Dennis Potter’s Brimstone and Treacle. The era was falling quickly into the paranoid realm of linking onscreen violence to the collapse of society. The influence of Mary Whitehouse and her Nationwide Festival of Light found a strong foothold after its emergence in the early seventies, rallying against everything from Robin of Sherwood to Doctor Who. However, the original decision for Scum’s withdrawal came from the very top of the BBC, not just due to its violence but also its representation of borstal life. The suggestion was that even if the incidents portrayed were inspired by real events, they hadn’t all happened in one borstal, nor in a single year.
The film version, made in defiance of this censorship, differs in a number of ways. The laddish elements, sometimes darkly comic in the television version, take on a horrific guise in the cold, empty world of the feature; shot with the precise Kubrickian eye of cinematographer Phil Méheux, who would shoot John Mackenzie’s The Long Good Friday (1980) the following year. The camera roams with the dreamy, steadicam menace that would quickly become Clarke’s trademark. Scum’s narrative followed his thematic interests (violent, marginalised working-class men), while the visuals of the 1979 film defined the aesthetic that would become increasingly apparent in films such as Christine (1987), The Firm (1989) and Elephant (1989).
The biggest change comes in the portrayal of violence, which is even more provocative than before. Clarke seems to be venting his frustrations at having to shoot the film again by allowing these explosions of aggression. It’s unsparing, sometimes bland, but always blunt. Even the scenarios brought over from the previous version take on more disturbing overtones. Blood runs black, skulls are cracked with disturbing glee and Davis’ infamous rape in the potting shed is extended to excruciating length; the camera never tracking back, forcing the viewer to face the violence of this system head on.
This was Clarke and Minton’s original intention: to show the system – in particular the routines within the borstal – as toxic. Even with the presence of the matron (Jo Kendall) – blind and uncaring through deference to duty – the space is hyper-masculine, reduced to the common denominators of the bully and the bullied. The borstal officers play into this too. They are either wilfully blind to the horrors happening under their watch or actively complicit in them. The inmates cannot speak their minds: they are nothing, simply scum. Bodies of working-class men are commodified by the system and weaponised against one another.
When Channel 4 eventually broadcast the film version of Scum in 1983, Mary Whitehouse went on the war path. She was briefly successful, winning a court battle against the broadcaster for showing the film. The judgement was overturned on appeal but Clarke and Minton had touched a nerve. The end of Scum comes with a hollow plea from the governor (Peter Howell), suggesting with unbearable pathos that, “There is no violence here.” An evangelical Christian, he’s as blind as Whitehouse was to the genuine trauma suffered by working-class men left behind in such places. Clarke and Minton won in the end, not only by creating a work which far outlasted its critics, but one which argued for genuine changes to a flawed system. In 1982, the borstal programme was scrapped.