In a time when integrity was irrelevant and avarice good, film director Alan Clarke fought back. In 1979, the year the Conservative party returned to power, the director’s best-known work, Scum, was released in British cinemas.
Its unrelentingly brutal explosion of borstal life was banned from TV screens two years before, so Clarke shot a film version. Such tenacity and a refusal to be silenced typifies a career of rare intensity, met with an indifference which still sees him as the poor relation behind Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, whose films bear some similarity to his own.
Clarke’s affinity with working class life arose from his diversity of experiences. Born in Cheshire in 1935, he left school and went into national service in Hong Kong (army life would later inspire some of his best work). Returning to work in Liverpool, he emigrated to Canada a year later to work as a miner. His media baptism came with a television and radio course at the University of Toronto and subsequent theatre directing in New York.
In 1961 he returned to England to work as a floor manager with Lew Grade’s ATV, ditching the job to stack supermarket shelves when it interfered with his night job directing plays at the Questera Theatre, Ealing. Such audacity could have finished his career, but Clarke went on to work with the RSC before returning to television and a series of unparalleled dramas for the BBC.
The twelve years from 1977 onward saw his most fertile and imaginative work, with Clarke emerging as a major force in British drama who nurtured talent and fast-tracked its development.
This was best illustrated in 1983 in Made in Britain, an unflinching tale of skinhead Trevor and his quest to establish an Aryan nation. The then unknown Tim Roth took the central role and implicated the audience in his daily round of bigotry and violence as taboos fell around him.
Gary Oldman had worked with Roth on Mike Leigh’s council house classic Meantime, but working with Clarke in The Firm in 1988 brought out a hidden ferocity in his role as an estate agent with a penchant for football hooliganism. They were both predated by Clarke’s first protégé, Ray Winstone, who was cast in Scum on instinct based on his intimidating manner — “It was nothing to do with ability,” the actor told The Times. “It was the walk and the look”.
On paper, Rita, Sue and Bob Too seemed like a diversion. Its central story — a ménage à trois — actually proved to be vintage Clarke, with white stiletto ‘glamour’ underpinned by a sexual abandon his late Tory MP namesake (and moral antithesis) would have appreciated.
Loss of a leader
His final film consolidated his skills and increased his impact as a film-maker. Christine (1987) is the story of a drug dealer whose work creates a sort of bleak lyricism. In the same year, Road saw the debut of Jane Horrocks as a tenant of a housing estate starved of hope. 1989’s Elephant recreated 18 murders in Northern Ireland, using Steadicam and close-ups to choreograph the mechanistic cycle of slaughter with unsettling nihilism.
Alan Clarke was diagnosed with lung cancer, and died in 1990. His spirit and insight live on, most notably in Roth and Oldman’s directorial debuts — The War Zone and Nil by Mouth (both starring Winstone) — which inhabit bleak worlds with an integrity and compassion worthy of the legendary director himself.
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