Scum: 2-Disc Collector's Edition Review

This review contains plot spoilers for both versions.

The film begins with a group of prisoners arriving at a Borstal somewhere in England. Among them is Carlin (Ray Winstone), transferred from another Borstal for hitting a “screw”. Plenty of the inmates want to have a go at him. But Carlin sets out to become the “Daddy” of the Borstal…

Roy Minton was an established TV writer, with credits going back into the 1960s, when he wrote Scum, based on extensive research at several real-life Borstals. The script was written for Play for Today, a regular slot on BBC Television for new drama, often topical and provocative, a natural progression from the 60s Wednesday Play which had nurtured such talents as Dennis Potter and David Mercer. Margaret Matheson, the new producer of the Play for Today strand, commissioned Minton’s script. The director was Alan Clarke, a TV veteran known for realistic, controversial and often political work. Clarke shot the 75-minute film on 16mm with the aid of a cast of young actors, many of whom had not acted before. A transmission date was agreed, and the Radio Times went to press. All as you would expect.

The first indication of trouble came from the BBC board of directors, who asked for cuts. (Toyne’s suicide was removed, which leaves his remaining scene in an odd kind of limbo, and the scene showing the screw looking in at the rape in the greenhouse was shortened, to make him less complicit.) Then Matheson was told that the play would not be broadcast. Scum was shown to the press. The BBC’s reason for the ban was that although they acknowledged that all the incidents in the film happened in real life, it was unrepresentative to have them all happening in the same Borstal in a short period of time. (The answer to that, as Matheson and others point out on this DVD, is that selection, heightening and emphasis is the nature of drama.) The ban was undeniably political, a reflection of the BBC’s relationship with the government of the day. They were nervous about such a negative vision of an aspect of the British prison system – with screws just as brutalised and institutionalised as the boys they look after – going out on national television to an audience of millions.

It’s worth mentioning that violence in the media was a hot topic at the time, as was censorship. Some very strong material was available in cinemas from major distributors: graphic rape in Lipstick, violence as catharsis in Taxi Driver. In the same year, 1977, the BBC1 crime series Target (starring Patrick Mower and produced by a post-Doctor Who Philip Hinchcliffe) was cancelled partway through its run due to complaints about its violent content. Also, the Scum banning was one of several BBC vetos of the time: the previous year’s Brimstone and Treacle, by Dennis Potter, had been produced but not shown, likewise the Howard Schuman-scripted Censored Scenes from King Kong, and Ian McEwan’s Solid Geometry had been stopped at pre-production stage. So it’s hardly surprising that the censorship of Scum made national headlines. Add to that the fact that 1977 was the Year of Punk, and antisocial and violent kids were scary. It's hard to believe for anyone who wasn't there at the time, with the former Johnny Rotten turning up on I'm a Celebrity...Get Me Out of Here!, how frightened people were of the punks. It may not be too much of a stretch to suggest that the film version two years later caught the tailwind of the punk movement, helping it build up its cult following. (I’m spelling this out as the DVD extras don’t go beyond the censorship of Scum itself.)

Eventually, the rights to Scum reverted to Roy Minton, and he and Clarke set about remaking the film for the cinema. Scum was released in 1979, passed uncut for a X certificate (over eighteens only), to good box office. Then, in 1983, Channel 4 television in the UK showed the film late on a Friday night (with cuts to the rape and suicide scenes) – which resulted in Mary Whitehouse raising an unsuccessful lawsuit against the channel. The TV version had its one and so far only showing on BBC2 in 1991, as part of a tribute season following Clarke’s early death from cancer. Subsequent broadcasts of the theatrical version by Channel 4 have been uncut.

Whichever version you see first, Scum is undeniably a shocking film, with almost one brutal scene following the next. It’s easy to see that this would have been very strong meat for a TV audience in 1977. But it never seems gratuitous. Minton’s message is voiced in the film by Archer (played by David Threlfall in the original, Mick Ford in the cinema version), an older prisoner who rebels against the system in his own way, by being as awkward as possible. Excused Mass for his supposed atheism, Archer tries to persuade a screw that the system doesn’t work: warders are just as brutalised as inmates, taking out their humiliations on their charges.

I’d seen both versions before, but in preparation for this review, I watched the two versions on consecutive evenings. It’s noticeable how similar the two are. One difference is that Minton, in rewriting the film for the cinema, took advantage of the licence to use strong language. In the TV version, no-one says anything stronger than “shit”. (Carlin says “effing” once, but that doesn’t count.) The television play is an odd time capsule of an era where pervasive racist abuse could be allowed but no-one, in any circumstances, was allowed to say “fuck”. This was a time when films were routinely censored for language, whatever their merits and whatever time of night they were shown. (For the record, apart from unscheduled utterances on live TV from Kenneth Tynan and Peregrine Worsthorne - not to mention the Sex Pistols on the other side - the first scripted and approved “fuck” on BBC Television didn’t arrive until 1980, in a dramatisation of the 1960 obscenity trial of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover.)

There are some other differences between the two versions. As already mentioned, Toyne’s suicide, and a couple of scenes referring to it, were removed from the TV play and remain unrestored. (The DVD extras don’t say if this footage still exists.) However, in the feature film, the subplot where Carlin makes a younger prisoner his “missus” was taken out, as was a late scene where Davis (Julian Firth), after being raped, seeks help from Carlin but is turned away because he’s unwilling to talk in front of Carlin’s “missus”. Other additions to the feature film are minor: Archer asking the Matron about vetos on books, and Angel asking her if people can be called by their first names, plus a brief scene of Archer painting “I AM HAPPY” on an outside wall. There’s also a tendency towards a lack of subtlety in the big-screen version: for example, it’s spelled out that the night warder is ignoring Davis’s second alarm call, rather than letting this be implied as in the TV version. Also, the rape is more prolonged and the suicide bloodier in the cinema film.

Mick Ford’s definitive and slightly sinister portrayal of Archer rather unfairly overshadows David Threlfall’s more hippyish take on the character. Star of the show is Ray (billed as “Raymond” on TV) Winstone, in his acting debut. The part of Carlin was originally written for a Glaswegian, but Winstone won the role for his distinctive walk. His plot is one that has served gangster films since the 1930s: the criminal making his way to the top. It’s due to Winstone’s undoubted charisma that we do want to watch his violent progress to becoming the “Daddy”, but I tend to find that his character is somehow a little more glamorised in the cinema version. Charismatic he may be, but he’s just as much a violent criminal as anyone else. The trailer on this disc compounds this impression, giving Carlin a voiceover that’s not in the film about how he’s a survivor and he “gets by” and fights back. Carlin has become a folk hero of sorts, and I’m not sure if he should be. That said, Scum is a film that gets its message across as directly as possible. It’s certainly not for the squeamish or the easily offended, but it’s a hard film to forget.

The feature film version of Scum has been available on DVD before, either on its own or as part of two three-disc boxsets. “The Daddy Collection”, a Winstone triple also including Births, Marriages and Deaths and Last Orders, or the “Hard and Brutal” collection (with Romper Stomper and Chopper) can be bought from your usual retailer. The present new release – which has to be definitive just for including the 1977 version – also comes in two versions, one with a cardboard slipcase illustrated above, and a limited edition in a tin box. There are two discs, both encoded for Region 2 only: the television version on a DVD-5 and the feature film on a DVD-9.

The 1977 version was made for television and shot in 16mm. In a day when many TV productions (including Plays for Today) were made on videotape, the use of film throughout was deliberately intended to be as realistic as possible. That, in fact, was another complaint about the production: that it looked too much like a documentary and could confuse people. That had been a common complaint since Ken Loach and others had started using real locations and documentary film techniques in their drama productions a decade earlier. Naturally, the picture looks a little softer and grainier than the 1979 version (shot in 35mm), but both go for a cold, hard, natural-light look and the DVD transfers convey this admirably. The 1977 version is in the normal TV ratio of 4:3 and is non-anamorphic. The feature film is is anamorphically enhanced in a ratio of 16:9, which is as close as dammit to the cinema ratio of 1.75:1 or 1.85:1.

There’s little to be said about the sound mixes, which are both in mono as they were originally made. Both are professional jobs, mixing dialogue and sound effects and ambience very well indeed. You can feel the crunches and thumps during the numerous acts of violence. There is no music score on either version (apart from a rather incongruous song called "Wide Boy" which plays over the end credits of the TV version), which makes a 5.1 remix even less desirable. Both TV play and feature film have fifteen chapter stops. Hard-of-hearing subtitles are provided for the films but not unfortunately for the extras.

The original DVD release contained just the trailers and production notes. For this edition, Prism has assembled a substantial set of extras.

Both versions have commentaries. The film version features Ray Winstone, the TV version Phil Daniels, David Threlfall and Margaret Matheson. Both are moderated by critic Nigel Floyd who evidently did the Winstone commentary first as he refers to it in the other commentary and forgets to introduce himself. For entertainment value, the Winstone chat wins. The other one is a more low-key affair but is still worth a listen, with some rapport between Daniels and Threlfall. Margaret Matheson’s contributions tend to duplicate her interview elsewhere on the disc.

On the disc containing the TV version, there are two quite extensive interviews, with critic Derek Malcolm talking about Alan Clarke (11:19) and Margaret Matheson discussing her involvement with the TV production and how it was banned (17:50). As with the film producer Clive Parsons on the other disc, Malcolm occasionally gets facts wrong: for example, Clarke did not make two cinema films (the other one being the Channel 4-funded Rita, Sue and Bob Too) but three. But Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire doesn’t fit the prevailing view of Clarke as a political realist (but then he didn’t just do realist drama on TV – see for example, his production of David Rudkin’s quite fantastical Penda’s Fen). In any case, by all accounts it is best forgotten.

On to the second disc, and there are several more interviews available. First up are film producer Clive Parsons and writer Roy Minton (15:53). Again, Parsons’s memory is occasionally at fault (he claims the rape scene was not edited when Channel 4 first showed the film – I was watching and it was). Minton talks about the differences between the two versions. Incidentally, Minton seems to have done little work at least in the cinema or on TV since Scum: his only subsequent credit on the IMDB is his contribution to the script of the somewhat undervalued 1983 film Scrubbers, a similar film in many ways, set in a girls’ Borstal.

Then we have Parsons again, this time with his producing partner Davina Belling (8:10). Parsons rather dominates this, talking about how he saw the TV version on its showing to the press and set up the film version with Clarke and Minton on the spot. Executive producer Don Boyd, who found the finance, talks about his involvement (11:58). He recounts an anecdote about how he and Clarke were appalled at cheering when Carlin beats up the black “Daddy”, which certainly was not intended. Then Minton solo (18:54) discusses how the project came about: he’d worked with Clarke before and suggested a trilogy about British institutions, and the Borstal one was the one that got commissioned. “Cast Memories” (16:42) features Phil Daniels, David Threlfall and Julian Firth. The latter talks about how he was allowed to watch the riot sequence being filmed, even though his character was dead. All the interviews are in 4:3, with film extracts in the same ratio (open-matte for the feature film clips).

Finally, there are two trailers. Apart from the instant nostalgic fix for anyone much over thirty-five of seeing “U (or X) trailer for a X film”, they are interesting in how the film was sold. The U trailer shows stylised stills from the film and a voiceover promising scenes that cannot be shown in this trailer, interspersed with critics’ quotes. I’ve mentioned the X trailer already, with its Carlin voiceover. It also has a music score, unlike the feature.

Scum is a difficult film to ignore, and it stands as the best work of Clarke’s short cinema career. Prism’s two-DVD set, given the unavoidable absence of the director, is probably as definitive an edition as you are likely to get.

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