Scum of the Earth: On Alan Clarke’s Borstal-Set Drama
More so than the Western, the prison film is recognizable by setting. The prison film is mostly interiors with that occasional scene in the prison yard or “life on the outside,” the civilian life. Cells, bars, concrete, wardens, inmates, needles, shivs, riots — this is just some of the imagery and iconography of the prison film. What are you in for? Are you in for life? Inmates are inside looking out. They’re planning to break out. A man escapes and another man does not. Whether in parts of François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959) and Martin Bell’s Streetwise (1984) or the subject of Mehrdad Oskouei’s Starless Dreams (2016) and Marek Piwowski’s Psychodrama (1969), it’s tough to watch incarcerated kids. Add Alan Clarke’s scorching borstal-set drama, Scum (1979), to the list. It’s a film that hammers home the depravity of institutionalization — a recurring interest in Clarke’s work.
Scum begins with a group of boys entering the reformatory — Carlin (Ray Winstone), Angel (Alrick Riley), and Davis (Julian Firth). Transferred to this detention center after attacking an officer, the wardens are quick to remind the simmering Carlin that they are in charge. Although once powerful, later they’ll look to him to influence the boys and quell rising tensions. Angel, a black boy, is immediately subject to racial slurs. Davis, a small boy, is immediately subject to severe bullying and humiliation. From there, the film alternates its focus between the characters previously mentioned as well as Archer (Mick Ford) and Pongo (John Blundell). Doing his time in his own way, Archer takes any chance he can get to challenge authority, whether that is becoming a vegetarian or considering himself an atheist interested in Mecca. Pongo is the leader of the pack with cronies at his side. He’s “the daddy” that rules the borstal, and who will eventually come to blows with Carlin.
As the film flows between these characters, muddying any sort of traditional narrative causality, you are privy to the machinations of the institution, as well as a whole host of behavior found within it. This is a film with a thesis: borstals operate based on loyalty, alliance, and above all else, authority. What you’ll find in these settings are racism, sadism, and other forms of depravity. Clarke is rough-hewn and blunt in the execution of his message. Moreover, the violence on display is a bit excessive and just hovering on the precipice of sensationalism.
The violence comes in bursts, and is contained in a well-honed stripped-down aesthetic. Scum is reminiscent of the careful formalism and de-dramatization of A Man Escaped (1956). Clarke’s rigid, harsh compositions evoke the sense of claustrophobia with characters hemmed in by geometric lines in the mise-en-scène. Clarke had been honing this terse style ever since working with historian Tony Parker — author of such works on criminals and criminal life as The Courage of His Convictions (1962) and The Frying Pan: A Prison and its Prisoners (1970) — on A Life is For Ever (1972), another film set in a prison. Parker suggested an understated, barebones look that was accompanied by only diegetic sound. Clarke proceeded to adopt such an aesthetic for subsequent works, including Scum, which functions as a transitional film in his body of work.
Scum is not representative of Clarke. Along with Rita, Sue and Bob Too! (1987) and Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire (1987), it is one of only three theatrically released films. However, Scum is Clarke’s most well-known work because the 1977 television (and superior) version was banned in the U.K. It isn’t known precisely why BBC banned it, but several reasons have been suggested, the most often cited being the film’s violence. When Clarke made the theatrical version two years later, he increased the violence, mired in the generic conventions that it wants to transcend. Nevertheless, Scum was a turning point in Clarke’s career. He would go on to make more formally rigorous works — at the point of abstraction in some cases like Elephant (1989) — in the medium that he excelled in, television. He would make more social dramas, but that label cheapens what Clarke does. Despite Scum’s setbacks, his other works are not gray, hamstrung, and monotonous films, but ones that tackle issues of the day such as neo-Nazis, teen drug addicts, soccer hooligans, and the Troubles head on with a roving camera stationed on a Steadicam, following people on the fringes of society wherever they may go.