The Firm (1988): Special Edition Review

London. We first meet Clive Bissell (Gary Oldman) in his day job as an estate agent. It’s the late Eighties, and money is there to be had. But out of the smart suit, Bex (as he is known) is the leader of one of the capital’s foremost “firms”…of football hooligans.

Alan Clarke’s final feature film was made, like the majority of his work, for the small screen, specifically for the BBC. However distinguished his past record was, Clarke’s relationship with the Corporation was more than occasionally fraught., most notoriously with the banning of his 1977 play Scum. The Firm, made in and copyrighted 1988, was hardly less controversial. Cuts to the more graphic scenes of violence were made (with Clarke’s consent) before its transmission in February 1989. Even so, Mary Whitehouse complained about the end result.

Clarke and scriptwriter Al Hunter do not overtly condemn Bex, which is something those opposed to the film had a problem with. But it’s hard to find him an admirable character. Despite a wife, Sue (Lesley Manville, who really was married to Gary Oldman at the time) and a young son, Bex is very much an overgrown adolescent, living for the “buzz” of Saturday afternoons and the fights. The film says a lot about men and masculinity and how it is made and reinforced. This has very little to do with football, as the “rucks” often take place away from the grounds.

Yet Clarke and Ashton are honest enough to show that Bex does have a certain laddish if not charm then certainly charisma, helped no end by Gary Oldman’s performance in the role. You can understand how someone like him came to lead this gang. Many of these men are not the disaffected youngsters you’d expect, but men in their thirties who have made money during the Thatcher years. It’s a small but telling detail that Bex, when buying train tickets to Birmingham for his “firm”, makes a point of travelling first class. References to Harry Enfield’s then-current character Loadsamoney – which Southern football fans used to chant to visiting Northerners – does date the film, but only superficially. They probably use mobiles and the Internet now, but hooligans like this are still with us, and while they are this film will not date in its essential aspects.

The Firm is as well made as you would expect. Its extensive use of the Steadicam especially recalls his 1983 film for ITV, Made in Britain, a film which in subject matter and approach anticipates The Firm in many ways. The scenes of violence, though toned down, are still unsparing: you can’t watch Yusef (Terry Sue Patt, previously best known as Benny Green in Grange Hill) having his face slashed without flinching. Which is as it should be: Clarke abhorred violence but had no qualms about showing it honestly. Another aspect of Clarke’s talent was his skill with actors, and that’s much in evidence here, with fine work not just from Oldman but also from the rest of the cast, many of them unknowns, all of them convincing. Philip Davis, a Clarke regular, plays rival gang leader Yeti: he went on to direct his own film on a similar subject, the overrated i.d.. And it’s not just the men: watch Lesley Manville’s final scene for a fine example of telling the audience everything they need to know without any dialogue.

Clarke, along with Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, Stephen Frears and others, belonged to a generation of directors who spent significant parts of their career working for television. This was an era where The Wednesday Play, Play for Today and their successors meant something that entertained, but could also provoke and disturb, leaving you with something to think about and discuss the following day. With more channels, and generally more conservative ones at that, that’s an age that has gone. Even if Clarke hadn’t died in 1990 (aged fifty-four, of cancer) it’s hard to imagine a film like The Firm being made nowadays.

The Firm has been released on DVD in the UK before, in a bare-bones 2001 all-regions release from Second Sight, reviewed by Michael Brooke here. This Special Edition from 2Entertain is encoded for Regions 2 and 4 only. This is the version as broadcast, which was slightly cut with Clarke’s approval.

Like much of Clarke’s TV work, The Firm was shot in 16mm, using natural light where possible and a deliberately muted colour scheme. The results are a little grainy and soft by today’s standards, though this is the way the film has always looked. The DVD transfer is in the original 4:3 aspect ratio.

Experimental TV broadcasts in NICAM Stereo had begun in the London area only in 1988, and if it had been made a year or so later, The Firm might well have had a stereo soundtrack. As it is, it was broadcast in mono, and we have a mono soundtrack on the DVD: dialogue and ambient sound are precisely balanced. There is no music score. Subtitles are available for the feature and all the extras except the commentary.

The audio commentary is moderated by TV archivist Dick Fiddy and features cast members Philip Davis and Lesley Manville and Dave Rollinson, author of a book on Clarke. This is a very good commentary: Davis and Manville’s memories are clear, and Rollinson brings a different perpective.

After Clarke’s death, BBC2 ran a comprehensive retrospective seaon in July/August 1991. This included the first TV broadcast of Scum and a repeat of The Firm. (Neither has been shown since.) David Leland’s introduction to the Firm repeat (2:34) includes footage of Clarke as the “last word” to his last film.

Also in that season was Director Alan Clarke (51:25), a documentary profile and tribute to the man. It traces his career through his television work in the 1960s and 1970s, including clips from some rarely-shown work. Interviewees include friends and colleagues such as Stephen Frears and his producer Margaret Matheson. Given that Clarke worked in the pre-widescreen era, this programme and the majority of the extracts are in 4:3, but in a nice attention to detail, extracts from cinema work such as Rita, Sue & Bob Too are properly letterboxed. Clarke makes appearances via on-set footage and archive interviews.

The night after The Firm had its first transmission, The Late Show hosted a discussion on the film. Paul Morley introduced the programme, which began with an interview with Clarke, before leading a discussion featuring Alan Yentob (then Controller of BBC2), John Williams (a sociologist) and Ian Stuthard (author of a book on football hooligans). Yentob begins by being defensive about accusations of censorship, before pointing out that the cutting was part of the final editorial process and involved Clarke’s input while Stuthard considered the film unrealistic. This extract runs 21:28.

Finally, there is an extract from a Timewatch documentary about hooliganism and its history (13:50). This follows investigations into newspaper archives which reveals that incidents were likely to have been just as frequent in the two decades leading up to World War One as they are now, if not more so.

It would have been good to have some input from Al Hunter (aka Al Hunter Ashton and other names, an actor and writer who died earlier this year) and of course Clarke’s absence is unavoidable. However, 2 Entertain, drawing intelligently on the BBC’s archive have done as comprehensive a job with The Firm as is likely to be possible. Recommended.

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