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Name and number to the gov'nor!
A region 0 DVD review of the feature version of SCUM from the Alan Clarke Collection by Slarek
 
"Right Banks, you bastard! I'm the daddy now! Next time I'll fucking kill you!"
Carlin

 

As 1979 began I was in my second year of film school. There were something like eight cinema screens in the immediate area which I made a point of visiting at least three times a week. The local arts centre was where you went to see the older classics or the more recent foreign language releases, while the mainstream and more successful independent American releases could be caught at one of three very large screens within walking distance of the college. Many of these films were decent if unremarkable, but just occasionally were extraordinary enough to convince you that attending the first week of its release made you part of cinema history (Alien, Halloween). What rarely played in either location were British movies. This was the one thing I felt was missing from my regular trips to the cinema, films that reflected my own life, had characters that spoke as I did, that took place in believable settings and had stories that were drawn from real life. Where were the British realist films that had seemed so crucial during the sixties, from Jack Clayton's Room at the Top (1959) through to Ken Loach's seminal Kes (1969)? Even Loach had fallen into the cinematic wilderness at this point in his career and was working only sporadically in TV. So my hopes were high when I queued up to buy my ticket for Scum. I emerged from the cinema bristling with excitement. After close to a year made up largely of mainstream Hollywood products, this was a thumping kick in the bollocks, brutal and confrontational, but also intelligent and searingly well directed and acted. It seems ironic that this cinema feature was my introduction to the work of one of the country's greatest TV directors: Alan Clarke.

Scum was Clarke's first film made specifically for the cinema, but was never intended to be that way, having been commissioned as a TV play and then banned (for more details of this and an outline of the plot, see my review of the BBC version). The feature was effectively a remake of this, using the same script and employing many of the same actors, but with a few crucial changes. The most obvious one to those who have watched the TV version first is the stronger language. Some have seen this as part of a the process of sensationalising the story for the wider cinema audience, but I could not disagree more – in the original, racial abuse is used as a method of verbal bullying by guards and inmates alike and the swearing is a logical and non-racial extension of that; had the TV play been made ten years later when restrictions on language had been eased for British television, then I have no doubt that this is how the script would have played from the start. Indeed, given the characters and the environment, the idea that such language would not be used is patently absurd, and its inclusion here adds to both the realism and danger of the threats and has contributed to most of the film's most quoted lines. Carlin's confrontation with rival black 'daddy' Baldy, for instance, is transformed by just one word: "Where's your tool?" "What fucking tool?" Wallop. "THIS FUCKING TOOL!" Now THAT is a threat.

Crucial to selling this, though, are the altogether more confident performances of the leads. No longer first-timers and well rehearsed in their parts, they now inhabit their roles as if born to them. This is especially evident in Ray Winstone's electrifying performance as Carlin – where his more low-key delivery worked perfectly for the matter-of-fact approach of the TV play, his burning, ferocious anger here propels the story forward like a bulldozer on steroids. Nowhere is this more evident than in the scene in which he confronts and defeats incumbent daddy Banks and his cronies – this was always a great scene, but Winstone's calm tooling-up at the snooker table ("Yeah, well, carry on"), the viciously physical beatings and his furiously delivered pronouncement to the defeated Banks, "I'm the daddy now! Next time I'll fucking kill you!" leaves you in no doubt that from now on Carlin is in charge and that it's going to take a force of some considerable power to dislodge him. It is no small testament to my identification with Carlin that when I first watched this scene I nearly stood up in the cinema and cheered. Looking back, this generates the very same visceral power as when John C. Macreedy suddenly unleashes his jujitsu skills in John Sturges electrifying Bad Day at Black Rock (1955). No surprise, then, that on the commentary tracks of both this and the BBC version, host Nigel Floyd draws comparisons between Scum and classic western plots and characters.

Once again the flipside of Carlin's power-though-aggression approach is Archer, the intellectual misfit determined to cause as much trouble for the system as he can using methods methods that his custodians, notably the overtly religious governor, have no experience of handling. He was played in the original by David Threlfall, but his contract with the Royal Shakespeare Company forced a re-casting, and here Clarke struck gold with the talented Mick Ford, a young actor relatively new to film and TV (his only previous film role was in Jack Gold's The Sailor's Return the previous year) who works such wonders with the role that he almost steals the film from Winstone. His cocksure gameplaying with the routines imposed on the inmates is both hilarious and inspiring, a smart and non-violent fuck-you to a system that only knows how to respond with aggression. Personal favourite Archer moments include the comically mannered delivery of his name and number when called before the governor, whom he then outrages by announcing his calling to Mecca; the drawn-out pronunciation of the word "Trust" when baiting the Matron during a discussion period (his qualifying explanation suggests an intellectual superiority on his part that she clearly finds intimidating); and the painting of the words "I am happy" on a wall he is supposed to be decorating. Ford's interpretation of the role differs from Threlfall's enough for both to be enjoyed for different reasons – my preference for Ford's interpretation is no slight on Threlfall, its just that at times the Archer played by Mick Ford reminds me of me, at least it would had I even a fraction of Archer's self-control and natural cool.

The supporting cast are as impressive as they were in the original, the one notable improvement being Richard Butler's delicious turn as prison Governor Mr. Baildon, replacing the original's Peter Powell and clearly relishing the lines given to him by Minton, investing almost every word with an extraordinary degree of self-righteous judgment. His delivery turns even the straightforward into something memorable: just listen to how he says the single word "Indeed" when confronted with Archer, a word that simply slipped by in the original. Few who have seen this version will not smile at the memory of "Ah, Archer," or "We'll have no more talk of MECCA!"

Matching this increased confidence on the part of the actors is Clarke's sometimes more animated direction. I've met very few film-makers who would not relish a second stab at a cherished project, and this includes the Hollywood exulted, evidenced by Spielberg's re-working of Close Encounters and George Lucas's endless tinkerings with the few works he has directed. Clarke takes this opportunity not just to adjust his camera placement (witness the telling reverse of angle on Carlin after has asked for a single cell and is dismissed by the warder advising him to watch his step), but also the handling of some key scenes. It is here that the director began to experiment with his 'walking shots', long takes following characters as they move between locations, most effectively used to focus on Carlin when he seizes power from Banks. This adds an undeniable urgency and vigour to an already gripping scene and was a signpost of things to come, when Clarke would later shoot entire films on Steadicam using walking shots (although the Steadicam was invented and in use by now, the walking shots in Scum were done hand-held), culminating in the extraordinary Elephant.

Another area in which it was claimed that the feature sensationalised a story told with more subtlety in the TV play is the upping of the violence, but this simply isn't the case. Key scenes used in evidence include the greenhouse rape and the suicide of Toyne following the death of his wife, but both scenes were in the original and fell victim to post-production trimming (the rape was shortened, the suicide completely removed) in an effort to appease those wanting to stop it being shown. Indeed, I would argue that Carlin's bathroom assault on Banks is more violent in the original, the initial ramming of his head into the sink being shown in close-up, whereas here it is in wide shot. Both the notorious murderball sequence and the final riot are virtually identical in both versions (right down to the kinetic tracking shot during the pre-riot "Dead!" chant), and lest there be anyone out there in these more cautious times who believes the murderball match is a flight of fancy on the part of the writer and director, be advised that we used to play it once a term at my humble comprehensive school – and it really was that violent every time.

What surprised me most watching Scum again for the umpteenth time is how much of a wallop it still packs. With too much British cinema consisting of either twee middle class romances or ludicrous mockney gangster dramas, Scum is still around to remind us that once upon a time British cinema was urgent, realistic and had something worth saying. It also had balls the size of asteroids.

sound and vision

For anyone familiar with the now budget-priced UK release of the film from Odyssey Video, the print on the Blue Underground disc is going to come as a major revelation. Where the Odyssey print is 4:3, grainy and blighted by a few scratches and dust spots, this new Blue Underground transfer, released as part of The Alan Clarke Collection, is as close to perfect as you could hope for a low budget British film from the late 70s. Framed 1.66:1 and anamorphically enhanced, the print is clean and sharp, with spot-on contrast and colour. Grain is still evident, but minimal and never intrusive. A very nice job indeed.

There are three sound mixes available: the original mono, a Dolby 2.0 surround track and a 5.1 remix. Obviously the mono track is the most faithful to the original release, and as with the BBC version the on-location recording has been very well done and is cleanly reproduced here. If anything, I'd say the location recording on the original BBC version actually has the edge on this one, at least in terms of clarity and acoustics. The Dolby 2.0 track has better fidelity and spreads the still essentially mono sound across the front soundstage a bit more, while the 5.1 track has just slightly more clarity and spreads some ambient sound to the rear speakers, though you have to stick your ear against them to hear this most of the time.

The menu offers English subtitles only, but there seem to be two subtitle options once in the film, both English and identical to each other.

extra features

The key extra feature on this disk has to be the commentary track with lead actor Ray Winstone, hosted by Nigel Floyd. Putting aside the fact that it appears to have been recorded in an empty warehouse (at one point you can hear some drilling going on somewhere in the background), this is an excellent track – Winstone is still as down-to-earth and direct as ever and has plenty of great anecdotes about the filming. Some of them are well known, such as Clarke's way of firing up the actors for the murderball sequence, while others – when actor John Judd (playing warder Mr. Sands) got a bit 'realistic' when losing his rag at Banks for letting Carlin beat him and feared genuine recrimination during the riot scene – were new to me. The language is stronger than on most commentaries, stronger than the film in places, but this adds to the sense that you're sitting down with Winstone for a pint and a chat about the film. Initially busy, it trails off a little towards the end, but is still a fine inclusion.

Also included are Interviews with producer Cliver Parsons and writer Roy Minton. Running a total of 17 minutes, this extra has been transferred over from the 1999 Odyssey region 2 release and is very honestly announced as a pair of EPK interviews. Shot on video and framed 4:3, it includes extracts from the film, giving you the chance to compare how it used to look on DVD before Blue Underground got hold of it, though they do take up a sizeable chunk of this extra, too much in places (notably Archer's talk with Mr. Duke, which is shown in its entirety). The interviews themselves are very worthwhile – Parsons gives some useful background on the genesis of the film version and the controversy that followed its release, and Minton muses on one of the key differences between the BBC and film versions. Both men offer interesting retrospective viewpoints on the film and its characters.

Poster and Stills Galleries includes 3 posters for the film (including one for a double-bill with Quadrophenia which I still own), 32 production stills (which are reproduced at a decent size) and 4 video covers.

Finally there is the Theatrical Trailer, which is framed 1.85:1, anamorphically enhanced and in surprisingly good shape. Interestingly it has a music score, while the film itself has none, and a voice-over recorded by Ray Winstone as Carlin specifically for the trailer. It runs for 3 minutes 15 seconds, is edited in a most rudimentary style, but still sells the film quite well.

summary

It still has its naysayers, but for my money Scum is one of the finest British films of the 70s, which makes it one of the greatest British films of modern times, end of story. Although already available on a now budget price UK DVD, Blue Underground's version blows it out of the water with its pristine anamorphic transfer, its multiple soundtrack options and its fine commentary track, and it even includes the interviews from the UK release. Following on from the inclusion of the BBC original, this is reason 2 of 6 to immediately buy The Alan Clarke Collection.

Scum
Feature version

UK 1979
98 mins
director
Alan Clarke
starring
Ray Winstone
Mick Ford
Julian Firth
Phil Daniels
John Blundell
Martin Philips

DVD details
region 0
video
1.66:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 2.0 mono
Dolby 2.0 surround
Dolby 5.1 surround
languages
English
subtitles
English
extras
Ray Winstone commentary
Interviews with Cliver Parsons and Roy Minton
Poster/stills gallery
Trailer
distributor
Blue Underground
release date
Out now
review posted
17 October 2004

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