Author’s note: a version of this essay first appeared in the booklet for BFI’s brilliant box set “Alan Clarke: Dissent and Disruption”, which was released in 2016. The set is available for purchase here. This essay discusses the plot of Scum [the 1977 TV version] in detail, so if you want to experience its litany of heartbreaking abuses fresh, please read this after you’ve seen the film.
Shot on grainy 16mm inside, and on the grounds of Surrey’s cavernous Redhill Hospital, Alan Clarke’s borstal-set docudrama Scum (1977) is a riveting, necessarily discomfiting exploration of institutional malaise and its corrosive spiritual and corporeal effects.
It follows three young offenders — Carlin (an imposing early turn from Ray Winstone, who was paid just £365 to appear), Davis (Martin Phillips), and Angel (Davidson Knight) — who arrive at an unnamed borstal, where they are quickly confronted by its callous, manipulative staff and a trio of bullying inmates who tacitly collaborate with the officers to maintain a hierarchy of intimidation.
Carlin, freshly transferred from another institution for assaulting an officer, is warned by glowering senior screw Sands (John Judd) that he will not stand for any nonsense. The patently fragile Davis is remorselessly targeted, while Angel, who is black, is subjected to virulent racism from staff and inmates alike. Within the film’s brutal, relentlessly claustrophobic opening minutes, he is casually referred to as a “jungle bunny”, a “coon”, and a “black Brixton slag”.
Having been accused of fighting, though he’s actually just been beaten up in his bed, Carlin is placed in solitary confinement. Upon emerging, he resolves to improve his lot by employing the unambiguous language of violence. In Scum’s most stomach-churning sequence, he thwacks one of the key bullies, Richards (a weaselly, pre-“Parklife!” Phil Daniels), in the face with a pool-ball-enhanced sock, then savagely assails arch-villain Pongo Banks (John Blundell), before informing him, in the film’s most oft-quoted moment: “I’m the daddy now!”—‘daddy’ connoting being the boss of the wing.
Carlin assumes control of Banks’ lucrative money-laundering scam, and the borstal higher-ups move him to a single cell on the proviso that he will use his newly elevated position to help maintain a semblance of order. With another explosion of uncompromising violence, this time assisted by a metal pipe, Carlin sees off a challenge to his position by an inmate from another wing. Then, for the first time displaying any hint of vulnerability, Carlin takes on a “missus”, the hesitant, fresh-faced Rhodes (Ian Sharrock), but only after explaining to the boy that he is definitely not gay. It’s worth noting that Carlin, as portrayed with a chilly cockiness by Winstone, is not a likeable character, nor is he positioned as a “hero” by Clarke and writer Roy Minton; rather, his propensity for violence allows him to become a useful cog in a rigged system.
Events come to a head when Davis, while working alone in the greenhouse, is raped by two other boys. Sands witnesses the rape, but does not attempt to prevent it. Later that night, the distraught Davis, having had his pleas for help ignored by another callous screw, slits his wrists and bleeds to death in his cell. Davis’ suicide is the catalyst for a riot that erupts in the borstal’s dining quarters. In the final, charged sequence, the administration delivers a patronising plea for conformity and order to a sea of stony faces before a minute’s silence. Further revolution, one feels, is brewing in the grey, chilly air.
Scum has a long-held reputation as a controversial work. It was originally made for BBC’s Play for Today strand in 1977, but was deemed too unsavoury by company management, who effectively banned from it broadcast. Only in 1991, a year after Clarke’s premature death from cancer, was it finally screened on Channel Four’s censorship-themed “Banned” season. Clarke and Minton circumvented institutional suppression of their work by remaking the film for cinema release in 1979 — this version was shot in a different location, features a handful of cast changes and increased levels of violence, but excises the relationship between Carlin and Rhodes.
The latter version almost escaped contention, but, following a 1983 screening on Channel 4, caught the attention of infamous moral crusader Mary Whitehouse, who took the Independent Broadcasting Authority to judicial review for allowing its transmission. (Whitehouse was left with costs of £30,000 — subsequently paid by an anonymous donor — when the Court of Appeal overruled the High Court’s initial decision to prosecute.)
All this attendant outrage — and the way in the which the 1979 film has been marketed as an aggro, bovver-boy romp in prior home video releases — has obscured the fact that Clarke’s original 1977 version is in fact a sublimely controlled, technically brilliant piece of filmmaking. Its spare, episodic plot is propelled by Ken Pearce’s crisp, unflashy editing, while the lack of a musical score fosters a bracing sense of realism.
Clarke would later become famed for his innovative deployment of long, prowling Steadicam tracking shots in films like Made in Britain (1982) and Elephant (1989), but Scum is characterised by its relative stillness. Clarke films mostly in mid-shot to keep the viewer distant, fostering an uncomfortable surveillant quality: the camera-as-loitering screw. He uses facial close-ups judiciously, for maximum impact, such as the devastating shot of the distraught inmate Toyne (Trevor Butler), who has just discovered that his wife has died.
Elsewhere, Clarke frames the action to accentuate how the employees and inmates alike are trapped literally and metaphorically by the building’s towering structure. This is most apparent in the brilliant, lengthy discussion scene between an older prison officer and vegetarian, lefty wiseacre Archer (future Shameless star David Threlfall), who verbalises the film’s politics: “The only thing I’ll take from borstal is evil,” he says, “[H]ow can anyone build character in a regime based on deprivation?” Though the meat of the sequence is artfully constructed from medium reaction takes, it is bookended by shots which place the men on extreme opposite sides of the screen, at the foot of the frame, dwarfed by the borstal walls.
Scum’s stark, unfussy formalism is offset by the occasional, striking expressionistic touch — consider the shot of a post-rape Davis howling in his cell, bathed in the electric, midnight-blue light flooding through his window. Or the brusque, immersive opening sequence: a point-of-view shot from inside a police car that’s careening towards a young man, who is eventually captured by another officer. Without warning, the viewer has been implicated in a glum safari where young men are the prey.
While no other film has matched Scum’s bleak, blankly unromantic force, its DNA can be traced far and wide: from American semi-remake Bad Boys (1983), to the bruising, barracks-set first half of Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987), and, most recently, David McKenzie’s Starred Up (2013), a well-made and powerfully-acted prison drama which is let down by a late lurch into hysterical melodrama — a tonal territory never once traversed in Clarke’s canon. And while the film’s impact no doubt played a role in the Criminal Justice Act of 1982, which abolished the borstal system in the UK, it is no museum piece. Its stinging institutional critique and portrait of Britain’s disenfranchised youth resounds powerfully today, in a post-2011-riots era.