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.
Kick-Ass TV Heroines: Xena – Warrior Princess
What was not to love about Xena? As Lucy Lawless says: “Xena is a bad-ass, kick-ass, pre-Mycenaean girl.” Evildoers, clearly, must stand down, but not only bad guys (and girls) have Xena-phobia. Even heroes quake when she swings her broadsword.
Originally created as a syndicated complement to Kevin Sorbo’s Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Xena pretty much kicked Herc to the curb. It was like when the Bionic Woman made us lose interest in the Six Million Dollar Man–only more so.
Unlike Lindsay Wagner’s early half-woman, half-machine, Xena wasn’t prone to frailty. Nor did she need robot parts. In fact, the Warrior Princess never lost. If she’s down, it’s not for long.
Plus, she was in touch with the dark side: This big-boned bruiser had definite moments of blood lust, as well as lust of some other varieties. Garbed in a leather miniskirt and armed with her trademark razor-edged, boomerang-action chakram, we watched Xena single-leggedly kick down entire platoons of Roman soldiers.
Sure, there were murmurings about Xena and her softer female sidekick, Gabrielle (actress Renée O’Connor). So what if they liked to conserve bathwater by doubling up? And what’s wrong with close friends frenching once in a while?
Then again, maybe it was true–and there’s anything wrong with that.
Actress: Lucy Lawless
Show: Xena: Warrior Princess
Classic TV Revisited: McMillan And Wife
Starring Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James, McMillan and Wife was a super cute crime-solving saga from the 1970s made for the NBC’s Mystery Movie series.
Who were they?
Hubby was the debonair San Francisco police commissioner Stewart McMillan.
Sally was a foxy, rather scatterbrained dame with a knack for finding corpses.
Worked down the morgue did she?
Hardly. Sally’s finds were usually in some glitzy mansion which the couple were frequenting for a weekend cocktail party. She also had a habit of getting her life threatened or being kidnapped.
Who was in it?
Tragic Hollywood star Rock Hudson no less. He took on Stewart McMillan in his first TV role, after years as a matinee idol with movies such as Giant.
Fans of the lantern-jawed star were dismayed when he went public about having Aids. He had long kept his homosexuality secret. He carried on working in ’80s glam drama Dynasty, but make-up could not disguise the deterioration of this once-statuesque man. He died in 1985, aged 59.
What about Sally?
That role fell to raven-locked Susan Saint James. The Ali MacGraw lookalike was previously in shows such as Alias Smith And Jones and The Name of the Game.
A vital ingredient to McMillan And Wife was sharp-tongued housekeeper Mildred, played by Nancy Walker. Somebody needed to keep the place tidy while they gallivanted about solving crime.
Famous guest stars?
The couple’s conception?
Like Hart To Hart, the idea was borrowed from Dashiell Hammett’s Thin Man books of the ’30s.
Gritty crime drama?
Hardly. These were cosy whodunnit cases, where the brutality of murder was never portrayed. The show was more about the interplay between McMillan and Sally.
Had viewers arrested?
Certainly in the US. It was the fifth highest-rated show in 1972 and 1973.
Fate of the golden couple?
Susan Saint James quit in 1976 over a contractual dispute. Nancy Walker also packed away her duster as housekeeper Mildred.
The dame’s exit was a fatal blow?
Certainly for the character of Sally – she was killed off in a plane crash. But Rock soldiered on with new assistant Sgt Steve DiMaggio (Richard Gilliland). The show became McMillan.
Audiences dwindled and the plug was pulled.
Cosy pillow talk, cocktail parties, Rock Hudson, pyjamas and numerous corpses.
Let’s go to bed. Turn the light out, darling.
Must you eat toast in bed, darling. Apologies, but I’ve got terrible flatulence. Separate bedrooms.
Not to be confused with
My Wife Next Door, Harold Macmillan, The Merry Wives Of Windsor and Mr And Mrs.
Classic TV Revisited: The Royal
The Royal was an ITV drama commission and was inspired by its sister programme Heartbeat.
The lowdown: This nostalgic family drama is set in the swinging 1960s and centres on the staff of a cottage hospital in Yorkshire. Newly qualified doctor David Cheriton (Julian Ovenden) is determined to make a difference to the world and arrives at St Aidan’s Royal Free Hospital in Elinsby full of big ideas. But he clashes with the hospital’s secretary TJ Middleditch (Ian Carmichael) who is determined to run things his way. Then there is the Matron (Wendy Craig) who rules her nurses with a rod of iron and tries in vain to stop them being distracted by the handsome arrival.
Memorable moments: Watch out for former Heartbeat favourite Bill Maynard who crosses dramas and continents as Claude Jeremiah Greengrass. Greengrass has returned from a Caribbean holiday with a mystery illness but that doesn’t stop him trying to earn a fast buck. It doesn’t take long before Claude attracts Matron’s ire.
Trivia: The Royal is a family affair for real life husband and wife Robert Daws (Ormerod) and Amy Robbins (Weatherill). No fewer than seven members of their clan have appeared in the series including their daughters and stepson.
Michelle Hardwick, who played receptionist Lizzie, says her favourite moment in the whole series didn’t come on screen but in the actors’ green room. She says: “I was sitting in there with Wendy Craig and Honor Blackman and we were having a lovely conversation. I sat back and thought ‘Wow, this is great, I can’t wait to tell my gran’.”
A modern day set version called The Royal Today aired 7 January – 14 March 2008.
First broadcast: 2003
Starred: Wendy Craig, Ian Carmichael, Michael Starke, Robert Daws and Julian Ovenden
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