The films of writer/director Alan Clarke are some of the most forceful, passionate and challenging in the history of British cinema and television.
Most of his acclaimed work has been unavailable to the public ever since his untimely death in 1990. Thankfully, the British Film Institute has released a definitive reissue of 23 BBC television dramas spanning Clarke’s remarkable 30-year career.
For those of us that were too young to see them when first broadcast, these films are nothing short of a revelation. Here is a deeply committed political artist creating extraordinary films about the lives of working class people in all their multiplicity.
For those who believe that Clarke’s reputation is based solely upon notorious dramas such as Scum (1977) and The Firm (1990), they may have to reassess the violence at the heart of both films when viewing Clarke’s work in its totality. Their power remains undimmed by the passage of time, precisely because they are indictments of the violence within society and its institutions.
Clarke once said, “You’ve got to portray violence as graphically and as honestly as you can”, and in Ray Winstone’s Carlin and Gary Oldman’s Bexy are unrepentant exemplars of masculine violence, not merely defined by their rage but fatally compromised because of it.
Carlin’s power is only relative to his status within the Borstal system; Bexy is the archetypal Thatcherite, an estate agent and proud father who cannot exist without the “buzz” of hideous violence, living to excess.
However, Clarke’s image as a blood-and-guts merchant is undermined by the depth and emotional range of his work, and the sheer empathy and compassion for his characters, such as the socially awkward George in Colin Welland’s gentle religious satire The Hallelujah Handshake (1970) and the painfully precocious teenager Stephen in David Rudkin’s supernatural Penda’s Fen (1973).
A fierce radicalism courses throughout everything he made — the right to strike is robustly asserted in Penda’s Fen, and his critique of the dehumanising effects both of state mandated and sectarian violence in Northern Ireland is more than made manifest in later works such as Contact (1985) and Elephant (1989).
Clarke’s political sympathies are with those who are dealt the harshest blows by society. Those blows fall heavily upon his female characters, who nonetheless prove to be among the most resilient. Janine Duvitski gives one of the most heart-wrenching performances ever seen on British television for the one-off drama Diane (1975). Through its elliptical narrative and naturalistic setting, a story of deprivation and abuse is transformed into one uncompromising woman’s journey beyond those trials into ordinary life.
Clarke’s characters never passively accept their lot; they are articulate, passionate and unforgettable. Lesley Manville is more than a match for Gary Oldman in The Firm, and Jane Horrocks, Neil Dudgeon, David Thewlis and Leslie Sharp burst out of the screen in Clarke’s adaptation of Jim Cartwright’s play Road (1987).
This bawdy, poetic vision of working class deterioration is one of Clarke’s most affecting dramas. Filmed around the ruined streets of Easington, a series of wounded men and women vent their frustrations to each other and to themselves, spitting their venom right into the prowling camera that follows their every move.
It is a lament to the decline of industrial Britain, brought low by the defeat of the 1984-85 Miners’ strike, while its victims refuse to die, asserting themselves with whatever they have left — booze, sex, memories of good times past, the dream of escape.
The experimental daring of Clarke’s work in the 1980s has yet to be equalled. His 1982 adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s Baal is an exercise in formal theatrical control, with David Bowie giving a remarkable performance as the loathsome/seductive anti-bourgeois avatar. The claustrophobic Psy-Warriors (1981) is a far-sighted critique of the British state’s use of torture on terror suspects.
But it’s with Contact and Elephant that Clarke reached the height of his powers.
Breaking with narrative entirely and paring dialogue to the bone, Contact places a battalion of nameless soldiers in hostile territory on the border with Northern Ireland, fighting unseen enemies in an unremittingly tense series of battles in which both sides kill and are in turn killed.
Elephant is Clarke’s most disturbing film, a clinical analysis of violence with perpetrators and victims stripped of identity and motive as men hunt other men through the streets, workplaces and homes of Belfast in an unending cycle of senseless sectarian murder.
For 30 years Clarke transcended what it was possible to achieve on the “small screen”: his raw, passionate depictions of working class resistance have influenced film-makers as diverse as Paul Greengrass, Shane Meadows, Nicholas Winding Refn and Gus Van Sant.
Garlanded with extra content and commentaries, and available on one Blu-ray boxset and two DVD sets, this is the definitive restoration of a great artist’s creative legacy.
Alan Clarke at the BBC, Volume 1: Dissent (1969-1977) and Volume 2: Disruption (1978-1989) are out now on DVD and in a complete set on Blu-ray