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Made in Britain: Alan Clarke at the BBC

  Alan Clarke (1935-90) made a small handful of feature films, including the comedy drama Rita, Sue and Bob Too which often shows up on television to this day, only fitting as it was the small screen where he made his greatest contribution. He was one of the pioneers of British television drama from the nineteen-sixties onwards, and after a short spell in Canada, then at ITV, he moved to the BBC where he made some of his finest works, which have been collected as a box set (Blu-ray and DVD) by the BFI with a wealth of special features. On the first disc is his initial 1969 BBC production for The Wednesday Play strand, Last Train through Harecastle Tunnel, which if not his most accomplished effort did at least strongly indicate the direction he would plough onwards in with his state of the nation interests brought out with observational clarity. It concerned a trainspotter who is spending his holiday weekend on the locomotive of the title, and on his journey there and back he meets a variety of typical Brits, from the train obsessives like him to the officials and general public, leading to an encounter with Angela Pleasence, aggressively free-spirited daughter of John Le Mesurier, who disturbs him in ways he cannot quite grasp. Written by Peter Terson, it was a decent announcement as to where Clarke would be going artistically.

His second and final Wednesday Play was Sovereign's Company, written by Don Shaw, which like his first had the theme of the difference between the past and the future, and how the expectations and firmly held beliefs of the former were being uprooted by the new world of the latter, in this case encapsulated by the society of the British military. It was set in an officer's training division and started out busily, with a collection of hopefuls introduced, though as the story drew on it became apparent the man we should be watching was Cantfield (Gareth Forwood), who is on the course purely because he wishes to live up to the expectations of his General grandfather (Roland Culver) and keep the regiment the old fellow used to command alive and in his family. As the training continues, he realises that with his sensitive demeanour Cantfield is utterly unsuited to officer material, and indeed life in the army could well be a waste of time when even the top brass are noticing he is too nervous and unpredictable for the position he is applying for. Rather than being an indictment of the system, the play exhibited some canny understanding of what was altered in the modern military, and though you expect it to go all Full Metal Jacket it concludes thoughtfully, yet with a hint of anger.

The Wednesday Play was replaced with the Play for Today strand in 1970, and one of Clarke's first productions there was the Colin Welland script for The Hallelujah Handshake, one of those dramas centred around a character who was not quite right somehow that were popular in this decade. With Henry (Tony Calvin), his problem appears to be that he is a fantasist and when he joins the church of the vicar Geoff (Jeremy Wilkin) he is welcomed as someone who obviously needs help, and as it is the Christian thing to do the congregation contribute to that assistance. However, as more and more of Henry's stories don't add up and his behaviour becomes increasingly erratic Geoff feels he has to step in and try to make the man see sense, that he cannot continue to spin his yarns, and that his interest in the youth group and the children is unhealthy rather than improving. Frustratingly, he has no proof other than his gut instinct that Henry is a bad influence, so what does he do? Wait until he commits a crime? That the misfit does indeed eventually do that was no surprise, but the play doesn't allow the audience much relief since it's not the crime they were expecting, and the whole story brings up troubling questions about those who cannot fit in to society because of their mental capacities not being up to snuff.

A feature length drama from 1972, To Encourage the Others was an adaptation of David Yallop's book about the notorious miscarriage of justice that was the Derek Bentley case of the nineteen-fifties, the same subject matter that was made into the nineties drama Let Him Have It, which gives you some idea of how long it took for the executed Derek Bentley (here played by Charles Bolton) to have his conviction overturned, not that it did him much good that far after the fact. Clarke took the approach of a courtroom drama, indeed almost every scene took place in that courtroom as the case was heard, not something that would be attempted these days even in television, though you could see it succeeding on the stage. There was an establishing sequence where we were offered a look at the killing of a police officer by the sixteen-year-old friend of Bentley, though interestingly the crucial piece of evidence given by three other policemen, that Bentley yelled out "Let him have it, Chris!" and that incited the murder, was absent in the reconstruction, indicating early on where the programme's sympathies lay. In its methodical technique, the true horror of the establishment led by a public baying for blood no matter that the grounds for the death penalty were shaky at best was well delivered, leaving us in no doubt the mentally disabled Bentley was hanged for someone else's crime.

Under the Age was a 1972 episode of the fairly long-running series of short plays of the late sixties and early seventies Thirty Minute Theatre, a rather inscrutable work from a script by E.A. Whitehead which took place entirely within the confines of an underpopulated pub in Liverpool. We are introduced to the barman who goes by the name of Susie (Paul Angelis) as he puts on his lipstick and eyeshadow, and everything about his demeanour speaks to being a tough, unapologetic homosexual as we see him bully his assistant and act prickly towards his sole two customers. Presumably this was intended as a slice of life, a dip into one half hour in the life of a tavern, but it kept the viewer so off balance that you may be bemused at best. When two girls barge in out of the rain, the tension is increased as Susie believes them to be underage and therefore will not serve them, though there's nothing to stop the first two customers from buying them a Babycham. However, they want more, and we begin to wonder who the victims will be in this scenario as the drama draws closer to the possibility of sexual assault, a note that leaves the story hanging, never to be resolved except in the darkest recesses of the viewer's imagination.

Horace was also made in 1972 and as with many of Clarke's plays was interested by the misfits of this world, the title character being a man with learning difficulties who lives with his mother in a small Northern English town. Roy Minton was the author, and this made enough of an impression that he returned to Horace for a 1983 television series, this time on the other side at ITV, also played by Barry Jackson. This was a bittersweet tale of a vulnerable man led astray, but not by another manipulative adult, by a schoolboy, Gordon (Stephen Tantum) who is having trouble at home when his single mother has no time for him and basically slaps him about whenever she deigns to tell him anything, usually at the top of her voice. Although this seems like it is heading for tragedy, or at least something very grim, it ended up more reflective than that with both protagonists not really suited to one another's company, Gordon being too argumentative which he takes from his parent and Horace being too meek and unable to read others' motivations, which leaves his large collection of joke shop novelties amusing to nobody but himself. There was a minor theme running about how playing tricks wasn't funny, with Horace’s squirting camera and jumping spider failing to find an appreciative audience (though he does have a friend at the café who indulges him), and Gordon sabotaging his mother's breakfast before running away from home with the diabetic Horace in tow, mostly so the boy can spend his savings. Nothing groundbreaking for Clarke, but well observed nonetheless.

Play of the Month was BBC One's move to bringing highbrow culture to the masses on the BBC’s most popular channel, and Clarke was given Alexander Solzhenitsyn's The Love Girl and the Innocent to direct, a relentlessly dour project detailing the great Russian author's tales inspired by his lengthy ordeal in the gulags of the Soviet Union. In this case it was set in 1945, just as the Second World War had ended, and the drab, oppressive surroundings recreated for the play certainly created an authentic mood and imagery. David Leland was the nominal hero since he is the only man largely uncorrupted by the camp for which he pays a heavy price since he is expected to take bribes and indeed give them out to assist the workings of this Soviet society in miniature, yet resists this in the position of authority that was foisted upon him and finds himself booted out to a far more demeaning post. As this was effectively a microcosm, the parallels with the wider community were apparent, and our protagonist got to fall in love with a fellow prisoner (Gabrielle Lloyd), not that this move towards making an affectionate connection proves beneficial. With a thoroughly grey pall, the actors' breath visible to show how cold it was, and misery in bucketfuls, not even Patrick Stewart's small screen debut lifted the mood. But any levity would have been out of place.

In 1973, Clarke directed a Play for Today that would haunt the minds of impressionable folks for years. Penda's Fen was written by David Rudkin, a singular talent whose work could be viewed as deeply insightful or utterly pretentious and impenetrable depending on who you spoke to, but one thing he was not was compromising. Clarke admitted himself that he did not understand everything in this story, yet such was his confidence with the actors and the tone of the spiritual moving into the mystical that you would never know that to watch it. It concerned a teenage boy, Stephen (Spencer Banks, from the Timeslip TV series), who starts out certain of his patriotism and faith in Christianity, yet by the end has had all that overturned as he realises, among other things, that he is homosexual and that he has a link to the pagan past of England. Rudkin threw other aspects into the mix such as a chemical warfare test that sets people on fire on the fields around Stephen's village, the ghost of Sir Edward Elgar, and a selection of visions, often quite alarming ones, that could all be in the young man's head but could very well be real. It summed up the confusion Britain was enduring politically and socially in this decade in a manner that may not have been entirely lucid, yet after experiencing the play you would have to admit was brought out with great accomplishment; if the purpose was to encapsulate a mood of social turmoil, then there was little doubt Rudkin and Clarke succeed in one of the strangest programmes ever broadcast on mainstream television.

He followed this up with another Play for Today in 1974 that could not have been more different in subject matter, A Follower for Emily, a tale of love among elderly people at an old folk's home, as they used to call them. The central couple were Harry (Herbert Ramskill) and Emily (Betty Woolfe) who have gotten to know one another since moving into the establishment and decide as they are obviously not getting any younger they should tie the knot. However, as much as that was the main plotline, there was a lot arranged by writer Brian Clark around it to build up the milieu of staying in one of those places, knowing it will likely be your last home, left with the issues of either having little but your memories to sustain you and occasional visits from relatives if the company of the other residents does not do much for you. We see them having a sing-along, some like Harry are able to get out to the pub and the bookmakers, but others are nearing the end of their lives with pressing speed, and indeed one of the characters does pass on while Harry and Emily find out that they may have been wasting their time getting wed as they were content as they could have been expected before, and have no choice but to carry on as if the marriage had never happened. This wasn't bleak, exactly, the pensioners were depicted with sympathy, even warmth, but it was aware everything you do at that stage is just marking time before the inevitable.

In 1975 Clarke directed a script on one of his important issue productions, the issue not being one much talked about in the mid-seventies, that of incest in the BBC2 work Diane. Almost always the subject of child abuse would be tackled by warning children away from strangers who might do them harm back then, and the far more common danger from inside the family was more or less left undiscussed when it was regarded as a private matter and not one to be interfered with by those outside that unit. But though the script by prolific author Anthony Read, here using a pseudonym, shied away from showing anything too explicitly, even leaving the dialogue rather vague for the most part when it pertained to what the teenage Diane character was going through after being impregnated by her father, if you paid attention then it would all become disturbingly clear. Diane was played by Janine Duvitski, here about ten years older than the part she was performing but so convincing thanks to Clarke's guidance that she credited the role with starting her long career; the girl is obviously troubled when you see how spiky she is in company, telling to those who notice when people have something terrible in their lives that they are not able to cope with but supress instead. Interestingly, once the scandal was exposed halfway through (this was yet another seventies drama featuring a heart to heart with a man of the cloth), we went forward a few years to catch up with Diane, wondering if she could ever move on from the betrayal of trust that she had suffered. If made now, the drama would have been more overt in its worries, but there was a quiet power in this, shaded by compassion for its protagonist.

Back at Play for Today and still in 1975, Clarke directed another of Minton's screenplays, this one about a mental hospital ironically named Funny Farm since there was very little funny about it. It ends with some stark facts about mental illness in Britain, including the fact that every three hours a baby is born who will need psychiatric care for the rest of their lives; we are aware that doesn't mean they are locked up for that time, as the patients we see are discharged and re-admitted frequently, but we are also clear that the services were being strained as modern life took its toll on the health of a wide variety of the public, be they suffering depression, psychosis, alcoholism or any number of other complaints, and the inference was that they were not being taken as seriously by those who have no experience of these conditions since the wards were so understaffed for what was an increasing collection of patients across the country. That within this ensemble cast the main character was one of the nurses, Alan (Tim Preece, soon to be best known as the wine brewer in classic sitcom The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin), offered a bleak note of pessimism for while we can recognise he is very good at his job, we can also see he is being forced out of it thanks to stress and low pay, and indeed he hands in his notice during the course of the drama. The patients were well drawn, sometimes pretty much sketches but not allowed to become walking and talking issues as the actors were given enough to work with to render a three dimensional environment, but also why they are such a problem for a society that more or less sticks them in a corner and feeds them medication: as Alan observes, he doesn't think anyone he has ever seen will ever get better, they can only be managed.

Clarke and Minton reunited once again in 1977 for their most controversial project yet, indeed one of the most controversial television programmes ever made, with their play Scum. It was completed and judged far too much for television audiences to handle, which led to its banning, much to the director and scriptwriter's dismay since they thought they were delivering a valid statement on the state of youth detention prisons as they stood in the late seventies. It was broadcast eventually, but only some years later, and after the creators decided to restage it in a film version in 1979 from which it is better known, though in some ways the shorter, punchier television original was the superior work. The point they were getting across is that these prisons spawn nothing but criminals, with a community of victimisation: the warders victimise the inmates, the inmates, having nothing else to go by as a template for their miserable existences, victimise one another in turn, resulting in the ultimate tragedy at the close of the story. As was typical with Clarke, he gave a bunch of young British actors their break here, including Ray Winstone as the new arrival who takes the place at the top of the tree as the new "daddy"; he would reprise his role in the film, which has become one of the most quotable of his performances. Interestingly, the character of his role’s "wife" was left out of the film, but the rest was more or less intact in a production that begs to be termed hard-hitting, and with very good reason, it remains hard to take to this day.

Also in 1977, Clarke directed a documentary for the BBC on the release of the Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky from incarceration, simply titled Bukovsky. This followed him from the airport where he had arrived from the Soviet Union who had been so keen to silence him and to stay with the actor and activist David Markham who had campaigned for his freedom. There are also parts where a rally held the previous year was documented and the protestors complained about the regime's dreadful misuse of psychiatry for their own ends, basically taking anyone who stood up against the authorities to be mentally ill and imprisoned in supposed mental hospitals that were little but jails where heavy medication and other treatments ensured the "patients" remained docile. An important programme, though now the most famous person featured would probably be playwright Tom Stoppard who appears in a shirt open almost to the navel with a medallion nestling in his chest hair, in case you were in any doubt what decade this was.

Inspired by his dealings with Bukovsky, Clarke went on to make Nina, which had been written by David Markham's daughter Jehane Markham, leading one to ponder over how true to life her tale of a Russian dissident was. Here the rabble rouser was Yuri (Jack Shepherd) who just as Bukovsky was, ended up suffering at the hands of the Soviet state mental hospital, but managed to win his freedom after an intervention by Nina (Eleanor Bron), a psychiatrist at the institution he was being held in. He flees the country, but they stay in touch to the extent that "under Hebrew law" they are married, only Yuri does so over a long distance telephone call from Israel, which should give you some idea of how much hope the union has. Nevertheless, Nina does make it out of the country, leaving her son behind, to reunite with Yuri in Britain where they are passed around by activists interested in their cause, but the fact remains no matter how committed they are to justice, that doesn't put food on the table nor nurture their affection, and indeed that relationship suffers because of this. Well-acted but unavoidably despairing, this was less political than you might have anticipated, being more of a drama about love under pressure, both from the powers that be whatever country you may be living in, and from the society that is not conducive to keeping the flame of love alive. We feel Nina's humiliation very deeply, but the play offers no solution as we leave her just as she can take no more.

Political injustice was very much the subject of Clarke's only other entry in the Play of the Month series where he "freely adapted" the play Danton's Death, penned in the previous century by the shortlived author Georg Bruchner, best known for his play Woyczek which had become a film by Werner Herzog around the same time as this production. In this instance, as the title suggests the story concerned the French Revolution, and that period between the massacres of the aristocrats and when the revolutionaries began to turn on each other when they found they could not achieve the harmony they had hoped for, or indeed promised. Here it seems as if they were so keen on bloodletting that they could barely help themselves from continuing to execute anyone who disagreed with the prevailing mood, a mood that could change like the wind, though with this construction it becomes more of a clash of personalities between Danton (Norman Rodway) and his great rival Robespierre (Ian Richardson). It is the latter who has exploited the will of the people and since Danton has tried to stop the tide of death he is marked as public enemy number one. There were a lot of speeches in this effort, which can wear you down when it's far from the approach twenty-first century drama takes on television, but Rodway proved charismatic enough to hold the attention and it was obviously with the earthy Danton where the sympathies lay, rather than the prissy and officious Robespierre. No location shooting this time, it was all recreated in the studio.

1980 turned up and the Cold War was hotter than ever, as demonstrated by Beloved Enemy, a play written by David Leland about the problems of business deals between large British companies and the Soviet Union as the fictional UKM tries to expand their operations into Eastern Europe. With their technologies needing new markets to flourish in, and the Soviets interested, it seems like the obvious choice, but as we see from the many scenes away from the boardroom, much of the negotiation is done behind the scenes, walking in parks, speaking in men's rooms with the taps running in case the place is bugged, and so on. The latest thing is lasers, and UKM regards the East as the ideal partner in an agreement to manufacture them and make sure they are put to lucrative use; initially this is for making tyres as cost-effectively as possible, but this being the era of Ronald Reagan's Star Wars initiative, the matter arises that they could make very effective weaponry as well, specifically in neutralising other weapons such as nuclear missiles. We now know that Reagan's dream was pure science fiction, so that aspect hasn’t held up to modern scrutiny, but don't dismiss this as it capably predicts how multinational corporations would begin to overtake the nations themselves as rule makers and employment specialists, not to mention the problem with those businesses taking their money out of the developed world and into the emerging economies where such issues as strikes and worker's rights and laws were not so strictly implemented, leaving mass unemployment and what jobs there are relying on the unskilled in Britain. It's possibly a cynical take on global economics, but set aside the Cold War and you had a drama that seemed all too prescient, all the more troubling for being so low key, with Graham Crowden a very worrying business leader, despite his outward bonhomie.

Even more troubling, though overtly so, was another David Leland script for his 1981 issue drama Psy-Warriors which took military psychology as its theme, plunging the viewer straight into the action as we see three people, two men and one woman, subjected to gruelling mental and physical torture, nothing bloody but enough to make it apparent there was something cruel and unusual going on. Making sure he was not going to compromise in the nineteen-eighties much as he had not in the seventies, Clarke delivered the hot topic of dealing with terrorists which was very much in the headlines for the whole of the decade, and one of the examiners (Colin Blakely) is given a selection of superbly written speeches to delineate where the problems stem from and where they will be going as the colonial past of the United Kingdom comes home to roost. He takes the Palestinians as an example, first we are supposed to pity them because they are refugees, yet when they arm themselves we find ourselves fearing them; the I.R.A. are another example, indeed we initially believe the trio are being forcefully examined because that is who they belong to, though the truth arrives in a twist halfway through that makes you worry for the safety of anyone caught in the middle of the authorities and the insurgents when they are participating in a game of give and take that creates a dreadful balance in Western society. Starkly presented and fiercely intelligent, not even those who claim not to know what to do about terrorism are let off the hook, since that is a privileged position in itself, clarified by a quote Blakely mentions very deliberately from a historical figure.

Clarke's other work from 1981 saw him collaborating with the biggest star he would ever work with, and not for a change one who he had discovered himself: David Bowie. The musician was still at the peak of his powers having just enjoyed success in the pop charts across the world, but the tunes in Baal, an adaptation of a Bertolt Brecht play, were about as far from radio friendly as the artist had got at this stage in his career, basically accompanying himself on the banjo with some very spiky folk ditties that told the tale of the title character, who he played. Baal was a shiftless layabout, but also a poet who is lauded for his verse, and Bowie dirtied himself up for a role he was by all accounts very enthusiastic about performing with his teeth yellowed and dressed in drab, shabby clothing, usually a pair of brown trousers and a vest. The action would be interspersed with bits and pieces of the singer delivering those songs as captions appeared ("Baal abuses his power over women", that sort of thing), delivered in split screen style as used with the new video technology, though not in this case showy. Clarke was evidently drawn to the antihero as one of the misfits he was so keen on bringing to the screen, but even considering the provenance of the material this was hard work, with Baal a distinctly poor companion for just over an hour of drama, no matter the natural magnetism of Bowie, as he seduces, abandons and eventually murders his way through a life that may not have been worth living in the first place. Heaven knows what Bowie's fans thought when they tuned in to watch in '81, but he was never one to court mass appeal with every single project.

After a sojourn to ITV to make Made in Britain (and a star of Tim Roth in the process), Clarke returned to the BBC to create a science fiction tale from a script by Michael Hastings called Stars of the Roller State Disco. That’s not a typo, for in the year of George Orwell's predictions for 1984 it was the oppressive state that was the pressing matter, as we see on an elaborate set the drama stayed in throughout that a group of young school leavers are forced to rollerskate around a rink for something to do while the powers that be tried to find jobs for them. Our lead character out of the ensemble was Carly, played by Perry Benson, who is determined to secure a position that will make the training he has in furniture manufacture worthwhile, but every job he has been called to investigate so far has been unsatisfactory, leaving him stuck in a limbo of going round and round the so-called disco (and also giving the director an opportunity to use the extensive Steadicam he had discovered in this decade). The youth has female company among the other skaters, Paulette (Cathy Murphy), who as we meet them has just joined up today to be near him, only as the story draws on she becomes increasingly disillusioned and ready to leave Carly behind, recognising him as a loser who has no future. This was a none-too-thinly disguised accusation against the state that they were throwing a generation on the scrap heap before they had a chance to prove themselves as almost every job they are offered has no prospects or is so poorly paying that they might as well skate round and round ad nauseam. Though in Carly they also had a character who has grown so used to his no hope status that he cannot move on anyway, leading to another bleak ending.

Keen to depict topics with social relevance, one of those in the eighties was the issue of Northern Ireland, but with 1985’s Contact, the first entry in BBC2's Screen Two series of plays, Clarke eschewed the speechmaking of the politicians to craft what he hoped would be an authentic depiction of the experience of the troops in South Armagh. To that end he worked from a script by an actual ex-paratrooper, A.F.N. Clarke, who had penned a book on his time there, and for many this was one of the most true to life dramas about what such a job was like, from the boredom of patrolling (there are many shots of the troops simply walking silently through the countryside) to the unwanted bursts of violence that nevertheless the soldiers had to deal with as part of their duty. Sean Chapman, yet another of this director's discoveries and probably best known for the first two Hellraiser movies, played the nameless (and unshaven) company leader, and though there was not much in the way of dialogue there was enough in his body language and expressions to make it apparent how much of a toll this was taking. From one day to the next the soldiers could be talking with one of their comrades who could very well be dead within twenty-four hours, and that is the case as the terrorists pick them off with bullets and bombs. But tellingly the play began with the British troops dragging a local from a car and shooting him dead, so we can understand the animosity on either side, to say the least, though what we did not get was anyone telling us what to think: we drew our own conclusions.

Similarly non-judgemental was Christine, written by Clarke with Arthur Ellis (who the following year would pen the celebrated play The Black and Blue Lamp), which took a matter of fact approach to the teenage heroin addicts it followed. Or rather, it followed the title character (Vicky Murdock) who would wander from house to house in a suburban, middle class neighbourhood and supply her friends with drugs, which she would either take with them or leave them to take alone, often with the question "You all right?" when they are overcome with the effects of the narcotic. It was taking what would have been a sensational theme in other hands - just look at the character's almost-namesake Christiane F from a few years before to see how you could go overemphatic with such material - and rendered it so commonplace that it became quietly disturbing. These were not quivering junkies shooting up in squats, they seemed to come from decent homes yet as we never see any adults, it appears they have no guidance or have simply rejected it to opt to indulge themselves in heroin as an alternative lifestyle. You could barely call it a rebellion it was so banal, but the loss of innocence was plain to see as every television set in every well-decorated and kept living room is showing a cartoon to underline the fact that these are still essentially children who have become mired in decidedly non-childlike activity.

Clarke's style of having his cast do a lot of walking in the eighties was well to the fore in his filming of Jim Cartwright's much-respected play Road, which had been one of the writer's successes until he hit the big time with Little Voice (Jane Horrocks, star of that show, was present here as well). To open out the drama which was heavily reliant on dense passages of dialogue, in 1987 Clarke took his cast to an estate in Darlington which was already run down and even derelict in places, all the better to reflect the state of mind of the characters who were at the end of their tether after the poor hand life had dealt them. He then had them deliver those lines in the barely furnished, dilapidated buildings or alternatively presented them walking, marching even, through the deserted streets in a manner that was compulsive to watch but also oppressive when you began to see the place as a maze that they were struggling to escape from, a literal evocation of the poverty trap millions of Britons were suffering. Despite the desperate circumstances, there were occasions of laugh out loud humour before the pressing need to survive asserted itself, resolved in a chant by four of the characters having been inspired by an unexpected note of sincerity on hearing Otis Reading sing Try a Little Tenderness. Yet more evidence of Clarke's innovation, he still showed no signs of slowing down.

That was proven further when he delivered one of his most popular, if notorious dramas, filming Al Ashton's screenplay for The Firm which remains the finest production to take a look at football hooliganism ever made. It may have had its flaws, mostly because thanks to budget reasons the hooligan crew led by Bex (Gary Oldman in one of his most electrifying performances) only numbers about ten members, which for those who had encounters with the real thing would appear blatantly underpopulated. Nevertheless, this also helped to focus the narrative on a troublemaker who was not some underclass lout but a middle class man who had a wife and young son, not to mention a decent job as an estate agent, rendering this supposedly respectable façade all the more shocking when he lusts after violence to define his masculinity. Over and over the macho culture involves frequent references to homosexuality in those you want to denigrate and that prizes a social standing brutality can bring is invoked, with Bex and his gang, who we never see attending a match (though the story opens with an amateur game they are playing), resorting to the nastiest activities they can dream up to ensure they are considered real men. Bex wants to lead the entirety of English hooliganism to Europe for the championships there, but we can see for all his psychopathic tendencies he's actually rather pathetic and sowing the seeds of his own destruction. More a scrutiny of where masculinity had wound up in the conservative late eighties than one of the hooliganism phenomenon, it was funny and worrying in equal measure.

The eventual extreme of Clarke's preference in his last decade to capture his cast walking about while the Steadicam followed them intently was 1989's Elephant, and sadly his last completed work for television or cinema. He was commissioned (with producer Danny Boyle) to make one of a trio of plays about the Troubles in Northern Ireland, but found he was less interested in getting mired in the politics of the situation and more captivated by the ultimate expression of those politics: murder after murder after murder until it's difficult to understand why any of it is happening at all, and why anyone thinks it will solve the major issues in the nation. With no plot, barely any dialogue aside from one line, it was not setting out to be true to any set of actual crimes as this would have been judged to be in bad taste, hence a stylised method of tracking one man across the streets Belfast who would then shoot another man dead, and the process would be repeated to the extent that any initial shock was replaced with something far more disturbing: complacency. By not telling us anything about the murderers or the victims, not even what side they were on, we were, as often with Clarke, forced to draw our own conclusions, and a lot of BBC viewers did not like that one bit. It was perhaps fitting that he should end his career no less controversial than he was throughout it, but Elephant has gone on to be very highly regarded, one of this man's classics.

Clarke succumbed to cancer in 1990, unable to get an American project off the ground thanks to his illness, and for a long time it was difficult to see most of his work since his greatest was largely for television. With the BFI release of what there existed in the BBC archives, it is easy to recognise his towering, uncompromising talent and how he shaped modern television as capable of what cinema was widely thought of as achieving, and how it could not only equal the movies at its best, in many cases it could better them. The box set has a documentary on each stage of Clarke's career on every disc, and audio commentaries with the likes of Gary Oldman, Janine Duvitski and Danny Boyle, and archive footage of discussions of his work. Nobody could say Clarke had not received his proper due after this; Penda's Fen and The Firm (which includes a director's cut) are available separately. A bonus disc supplies half hour dramas made for Rediffusion in the sixties.

Click here to see a featurette on Clarke's walking Steadicam technique.
Author: Graeme Clark

 

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Last Updated: 18 March, 2006