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Needing the buzz
A UK/US region 0 comparative review of THE FIRM by Slarek
 
"We come in peace, we leave you in pieces."
ICC motto

 

The history of the football hooligan goes back to the early days of the game itself, the tribal nature of the sport attracting a small hardcore of hardened thugs that, having aligned themselves under a particular, usually local flag, waged war on anyone of opposing factions with fist, boot and even knife. The early Roughs and later Bovver Boys were all perceived to be from a similar background, working class families living on housing estates in large urban areas. But in the 1980s a new breed of hooligan emerged, one more organised and even more tribal in nature. These were not the impoverished working-class boys looking for an identity in a world out of their control, but affluent young men in well paid jobs. They were the product of Margaret Thatcher's skewed vision of Britain, where collective action was demonised and good and bad citizens alike were encouraged to think of themselves first and get rich any way they could, irrespective of the cost to those around them or society in general. From this grew a new mouthy and obnoxious entrepreneurial class and a new breed of hooligan. Using football as a banner under which to unite, they formed organised gangs that would not just fight on their home turf, but actively hunt out opposing groups and take them on. This was organised war, a new kind of thuggery for a new kind of middle class. These gangs were known as firms.

By the time he came to make The Firm, Alan Clarke had established himself as one of the most boldly exciting and innovative directors working in British TV drama. His TV play Scum had caused a ruckus at the BBC and banned by the very corporation that comissioned it. His response was to re-film the whole thing on 35mm and release it as a feature. The result attracted both praise for its honest directness and committed performances and criticism from government types appalled that someone would have the audacity to expose what many did not realise was going on in British borstals of the time. Made in Britain teamed Clarke with the equally adventurous David Leland, but as Leland eventually went on to direct more mainstream projects such as The Land Girls and Band of Brothers, Clarke's work became increasingly confrontational and experimental, reaching its peak with his 'walking films', which included Road and the brilliant Elephant. The Firm was to be Clarke's final film (he died of cancer just two years later), made when knowledge of this new breed of hooligan was not as widespread as it has since become, and grew in part from the director's own anger at the people he felt were ruining a game that he loved.

Clive 'Bex' Bissell is a successful young estate agent who lives in a London suburb with his wife and small child. He is also the head of a local firm, the Inter-City Crew (ICC, based on the West Ham Inter-City Firm, some of whom acted as consultants on the film), whose main rivals are The Buccaneers led by white-haired Yeti and a Birmingham-based crew led by hard-nosed Oboe. Bex has ambitions to lead a united firm into Europe and calls a conference to propose the idea to the rival gangs. They pour scorn on his suggestion but set Bex a challenge – if the ICC can fight them on their own turf and win, they will fall in behind him and follow him to Europe.

From the opening Steadicam shots focusing on Bex's head and cocksure stride, Clarke establishes that this is to be less a film about the firm itself than its enigmatic leader, and he scores his first gold in the casting of a young Gary Oldman, who brings a sometimes ferocious energy to an unlikable but still compelling central character. Bex is a symbol for the self-centred, destructive element that was so symbolic of 80s Britain, all outward respectability – the nice house, the family, the decent car – under which lurks a barely controlled monster. He fights not for his family or friends or any real cause of note, but because he "needs the buzz." Neither hard drink not drugs are part of Bex's make-up, providing no get-out clause for his behaviour – his addiction lies in the thrill of inflicting violence on others. The only time he even enters a pub is to beat its occupants senseless.

Bex certainly has some serious issues, his fragile self-image being both his driving motivation and his achilles heel. After directly challenging Yeti and Oboe, he cheerfully drops round to his parents' house, where his old bedroom remains a holding cell for the weapons of his trade. Having reacted with resolutory calm to the earlier defacement of his car, it is here we first glimpse the tormented creature that simmers beneath, as he carefully arranges a pillow that he then repeatedly and angrily clubs, furiously yelling the names of his hated rivals as the blows rain down. Later, when things aren't going so well and one of the gang talks about leaving, he turns on him in a sudden burst of controlled fury that instantly brings him into line – their final mission may seem suicidal, but it is still preferable to having Bex as an enemy.

By then the ICC firm is falling apart. Having suffered a serious defeat at the hands of Oboe's ambush and Yeti's hit-and-run tactics, there seems to be nowhere for them to go, but in a brutal final fight the monster inside is finally unleashed, most graphically realised in the animalistic scream Bex lets loose after beating his opponent within an inch of his life. Oldman sells this right down the line – the cocky estate agent, the jokey but still devoted Dad ("Shall we tell mummy to piss off?"), the put-upon husband, the ambitious would-be leader, the threatening soldier and the out-of-control monster – and the transition from one to another is always convincing. His relationship with his wife (impressively played by his then real-life wife Lesley Manville) in particular is most realistically handled, from the saucy small-talk to the screaming rows – the dialogue and delivery here are always just right.

As usual with Clarke, pretty much all of the performances are spot on. Phil Davis, in a role originally offered to Tim Roth (can you imagine?), plays Yeti with a winning combination of cool control and sneering superiority, and Andrew Wilde makes for an effectively intimidating Oboe. The soldiers in the firms themselves are played with energy, but this brings me to a couple of issues I have with this aspect of the film. Bex's ICC firm are made up almost exclusively of familiar faces from British TV and film drama of the time, and although impressive actors they're just not that imposing, and it's kind of hard to believe the ICC ever won a fight with some of these guys on board. Equally problematic is the racial mix of the three firms – given the very unpleasant racism endemic in this aspect of football hooliganism, it seems unlikely that such a cosmopolitan mix could be found in any firm of the time, let alone all of them. But I have to suspect this was a deliberate ploy on the part of Clarke and screenwriter writer Al Ashton to focus our attention on the violence of men like Bex and the driving force behind it – this is a tribal rather than racial issue and to try tackling both would have potentially sidetracked the single-minded nature of the drama, split it two ways. That, perhaps, is a subject for another film.*

But everything else is just right. I grew up knowing these people and recognise almost every one of them as real. The detail in Ashton's script and Clarke's handling is just bang-on, especially in the specifics of the dialogue, which is always authentic to the place and time, even in off-hand moments ("You wanna T-Cut that," Bex's dad advises on seeing his son's defaced motor, to which Bex replies "I don't believe you sometimes – needs a new skin, that does"). This even extends to their choice of clothing (these guys liked to look good) and cars, with sporty, soft-top Escorts and performance BMWs, still the wanker's car of choice round my way. The Buccaneers' targeting of these vehicular status-symbols appropriately links the activities of the firms to the capitalistic aspirations and lifestyles of their members. Indeed, when the Buccaneers demolish the Hornchurch Boys' car in a terrifically edited series of quick cuts, it is, for the car's owner, the final straw, and the end of his time with Bexy's firm. He will take an assault to his body, but not to his treasured possessions. Elsewhere there are nicely low-key references to Bex's financial status in his casual insistence on first class tickets for the trip to Birmingham and his jovial "Well if you've got it..." response to his Dad's suggestion that he is just throwing money away by having his car resprayed. All of which prefigures the present day hijacking of what was originally a working class game by those with the money to buy insanely expensive season tickets, a new club strip for their kids every few months, and even a seat in the company box, where they are protected from the horrors of weather and ordinary people, and where the game itself becomes a distantly located background entertainment.

Clarke's direction is terrific throughout, his handling of the actors matched by his cinematic sense. Shot entirely on Steadicam, the film is largely a mixture of drifting, gracefully circular camera moves and long tracks of Bex as he strides ever-purposefully down roads or corridors. Clarke holds these shots for longer than most other directors would and the effect, as in his 'walking movies', is to connect us completely with his central character, forcing us to watch his face as he attempts to keep that monster inside in check. These long takes give way to faster cutting in more action-driven scenes – the use of urgent editing and grabbed shots in the fights, combined with the committed physicality of the actors, creates a strong flavour of the viciousness of these conflicts without showing us much in the way of graphic detail.

On its first TV showing the violence was, inevitably, a controversial issue, but it is central to what the story is about and thus an essential component. The fights in particular are handled with brutal realism, the furious chaos of an all-out rumble caught with documentary authenticity. If Clarke holds back from showing us the most unpleasant assault – a double nostril splitting – the suggestion of its extreme nastiness still comes through, and it is somehow appropriate that the very same knife is involved in the film's most genuinely horrifying moment, when in the middle of row with his wife over his recent behaviour, Bex fails to notice that his infant child has picked up the weapon and is using it as a toothbrush. This moment powerfully calls into question Bex's sense of responsibility and his priorities regarding his family, as well showing most graphically how his addiction to violence will eventually destroy everything he holds dear.

The film climaxes in two compelling Steadicam tracks and a particularly vicious fight, which itself comes to a tragic but almost inevitable conclusion, given the escalating nature of the violence between the warring gangs. But it is the final five minutes that are the film's coup-de-grace, a largely improvised scene in which the newly united firms passionately justify their way of life to a TV crew. As the interview progresses, emotions run high and the interviewers lose control of the situation – talking gives way to shouting, beer is thrown at the camera and argument mutates into ritualistic and nationalist chanting. Suddenly even the weakest-seeming member of the ICC mob seems threatening, and as a combined force they seem frighteningly unstoppable. It is Hornchurch boy Billy (played by a young Steve McFadden, later to make is mark on TV as hard man Phil Mitchell in Eastenders) who leaves us with this scene's most sobering message: "If they stop it at football, we'll go to boxing, we'll go to snooker, we'll go to darts...." Brilliant, compelling, chilling television.

sound and vision

Shot for TV on 16mm, there is a lot of grain visible on the Second Sight UK release, and far from playing it down, the transfer actually seems to emphasise it, in darker scenes turning the grain itself into very visible compression artefacts. A lot of UK TV in the 70s and 80s was shot on medium to fast 16mm, but there is no reason why a decent transfer cannot render even a grainy picture in (at least) presentable fashion – take the BBC's reissue of Edge of Darkness or VCI's release of Ken Loach's Riff-Raff, for example. (Oddly enough, VCI's disk of Loach's Raining Stones suffers form the very same grain/compression issues evident here.) Though still very watchable, this is distracting at times. Contrast is generally good, with solid blacks and reasonable detail, and we are still a step up from any VHS version. Grain aside, the print used is in good shape with very little dust or dirt.

Second Sight UK disk
 
Blue Underground US disk

The transfer on the Blue Underground disk is a considerable improvement on the Second Sight release. Though the grain is still present, it is far less obtrusive and the darker scenes are in considerably better shape. Contrast and colour rendition are superior here, black levels more impressive and the picture is noticeably sharper. Additionally, as can be seen from the screen grabs above, there is slightly more picture information on all sides.

Sound is Dolby 2.0 mono, with sound spread across the front sound stage. The soundtrack is free of hiss and pops and in good shape otherwise.

extra features

The Second Sight disk hasn't a single extra, reflecting its budget-price status (it was released for £5), leaving the way open for Blue Underground to really deliver. Except they don't. Unlike the other films in their excellent Alan Clarke Collection, there is no commentary and no accompanying documentary, a real shame considering how potentially informative either of these could have been. Given the quality of the extras on the other disks in the set, I have no doubt this was not for the lack of trying, but it's still a bit of a disappointment.

What we do have are two Stills Galleries. The Production Stills section boasts 49 promotional stills and, somewhat ironically, the DVD cover for the Second Sight UK DVD release under examination here as a comparison disc. The stills maximise the screen area, which makes a most welcome change, though a good fifty percent of them are of Gary Oldman and Lesley Manville in Yobby husband and put-upon wife pose. Behind the Scenes has just five photos, but they are of Clarkey in action so are a worthwhile inclusion nonetheless.

summary

Alan Clarke was one of the most important directors working in British television in the 70s and 80s, but a ludicrously small amount of his output has been made available on DVD until now, with previous DVD releases of his work tending to suffer from average (at best) transfers and a complete lack of extras. The Firm was his final film and a mother of a work to go out on – despite minor niggles over support player casting and the (lack of) racial politics, this is marvelous television, the sort of dangerous, fired-up auteurist drama that was always rare, but has now completely vanished from British TV.

The Second Sight DVD was released some months ago at a bargain basement price, and suffers from what looks like artificial grain emphasis and a complete lack of extras. A shortage of extra feature on the Blue Underground disk is also a disappointment given the other films in the set, but the transfer is considerably better than Second Sight's, it's on the same disk as the brilliant Elephant and is part of the best box set of the year. Go with Blue Underground.

 


* As it turns out I was wrong on this point, as the racial mix in the film was in some ways accurate reflection of the makeup of the very crew The Firm was based on. Indeed, the ICF's most famous member was black-skinned Cass Pennant, author of several books on football holliganism and the subject of a feature film of his own. That said, video evidence of the ICF in conflict with other firms tend to be dominated by white faces on both sides.

The Firm

UK 1988
67 mins
director
Alan Clarke
starring
Gary Oldman
Leslie manville
Philip Davis
Andrew Wilde
Steve McFadden

DVD details
region 0
video
1.33:1
sound
Dolby mono 2.0
languages
English
subtitles
none
extras
none
distributor
Second Sight
review posted
29 February 2004
updated
1 November 2004

region 0
video
1.33:1
sound
Dolby mono 2.0
languages
English
subtitles
English
extras
Stills galleries
distributor
Blue Underground

The Alan Clarke Collection
Blue Underground's Alan Clarke Collection contains the following films. Click on a title for a detailed review of that film.
For and overview of the box set, click here.
Scum (BBC)
Scum (feature)
Made in Britain
Elephant
The Firm

See all of Slarek's reviews