Made in Britain Review

Michael Brooke has reviewed the Region 2 DVD release of Made in Britain

Alan Clarke (1935-1990) was, without the remotest shadow of a doubt, one of the most important and influential film-makers ever to emerge from this country. While all too many British directors make cinema films whose natural home is the small screen, Clarke was the exact opposite: although virtually all his films were made for television, they have an incendiary power that made, as Made in Britain’s writer David Leland memorably put it, “people want to go round the back of the set to see if it was plugged in properly; in other words, ‘How did this get on our screens’?”

The tragedy of Clarke’s career – at least in terms of profile and reputation – is that most of it was spent in the confines of British television. This not only meant virtually no publicity (let’s face it, how many of us could name the directors of even such unquestioned TV milestones as Pennies From Heaven, Boys From the Blackstuff, Edge of Darkness or Prime Suspect without cheating?), but it also condemned his work to, for the most part, one-off screenings (and, in the case of much of his early work, subsequent tape wipings).

Worse, his three cinema films – Scum (a markedly inferior, more violent but paradoxically less hard-hitting remake of his notorious banned BBC TV play), the Northern sex comedy Rita, Sue and Bob Too! and the unclassifiably weird but sadly not very good Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire – comfortably rank among his weakest work, at least when set against such extraordinary television films as To Encourage the Others, Penda’s Fen, Contact, Road, Elephant and The Firm.

But Made in Britain is the real thing: pure Alan Clarke, red, raw and dripping. Despite being older than its teenage protagonist, it’s lost none of its impact, and just about the only thing that dates it is the disconcerting sight of Eric Richard (aka Sgt Cryer from The Bill) sporting dark hair. In all other respects, its portrait of life in Britain with all its petty bureaucracy and misguided sociology is as spot-on today as it was then. And anyone who thinks that copious swearing on TV is a recent development – as the likes of a Mail on Sunday campaign at the time of this DVD’s release would have us believe – is in for an eye-opener (or ear-bender): Clarke never patronises his characters or his audience by toning things down.

Skinhead Trevor (Tim Roth) is pathologically antisocial, foul-mouthed, racist, violent, tattooed with swastikas and spiders, an unrepentant thief and vandal given to urinating on official files, he’s also highly intelligent, articulate, and an unremitting nightmare for the hapless authority figures who have to deal with him in his journey through care homes, job centres, police stations and courtrooms, endlessly parroting the same old patronising clichés and not showing the slightest inkling of what makes him tick – and even less about how to fit him into the society that he utterly rejects.

Like all Clarke’s greatest films, Made in Britain pulls no punches. No attempt is made at making Trevor even remotely likeable – his racist rants in particular see to that – but he’s an intensely charismatic figure: despite this being his first ever acting role (amateur or professional) I don’t think Roth has ever given a better performance. The film offers no answers, but it raises all the right questions: how do you deal with the likes of Trevor without resorting to the tactics that he uses or despairingly concluding “it’s your shit, you roll in it” (almost the final words of the one social worker who genuinely seems to think he has a chance of fitting in).

The film’s pivotal scene is right in the middle, where in a series of long, riveting takes Trevor confronts three social workers who attempt to slot him into every pigeonhole they can come up with (even sketching out his past and future as diagrams on a blackboard) until Trevor silences them by emphatically stating his own nihilistic credo: how can you urge someone to be honest in a society whose education system is dedicated purely to suppressing your own true feelings and punishing you when you express them?

It’s not a million miles removed from A Clockwork Orange territory – but without the flashiness and stylistic overkill that diluted and distorted that film’s argument. Although just as much of a Steadicam virtuoso as Kubrick (Clarke’s films from Made in Britain onwards are dominated by a fluid, constantly moving camera), Clarke always puts his characters first: style is subordinate to content – another reason that his work has often been underrated.

Given that Made in Britain was shot on 16mm and made for early 1980s pre-NICAM pre-widescreen TV, only the most wildly irrational optimist would expect anything other than a 4:3 picture, mono sound and more than a modicum of picture grain. And that’s exactly what you get – and unlike the situation with an open-matte cinema film like Scum (also available on DVD), owners of 16:9 sets are advised to stick to the original framing.

The print is in very good condition physically, but the image is very grainy (and distinctly soft as an inevitable by-product), largely thanks to Clarke’s fondness for shooting in natural light on high-speed film. That said, it certainly suits the material, and there’s little wrong with the actual DVD transfer: it’s certainly the best version of Made in Britain yet released (though as the competition comes from TV broadcasts and VHS releases that’s not saying much!).

Sonically, there’s very little to report – designed for early 1980s lo-fi TV speakers, we’re talking seriously no-frills mono here, emphasising dialogue against a purely functional background. The dynamic range is – as one would expect – fairly limited, but the recording quality is surprisingly good, with remarkably little tape hiss given its origins. There are fifteen chapter stops (more than adequate given the brief running time) and – somewhat unexpectedly given the no-frills package – a set of optional English subtitles.

Tantalisingly, a trailer is promised on the (surprisingly well-designed) menu, but it turns out to be the same Carlton Silver Collection promo that accompanied their original batch of classic British films, which looks hilariously inappropriate in this context (can you honestly see too many Made in Britain fans turning to each other and saying “Wow, Genevieve and The Importance of Being Earnest are out on DVD – well, I know what’s next on my shopping list!”?).

But for the price – a mere £9.99, which I’ve seen widely discounted to even less – I shouldn’t complain, especially as I got exactly what I wanted. And if this is going to encourage more distributors to delve into Clarke’s back catalogue, I’m only too happy to encourage them.

Michael Brooke

Updated: Feb 27, 1999

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