Dissent & Disruption: Alan Clarke at the BBC (1969-1989): A Follower for Emily/Diane
This is one of a series of reviews of the BFI's box set. For the other reviews, in chronological order, go to:
Half Hour Story
George's Room/The Last Train Through Harecastle Tunnel/Sovereign's Company
The Hallelujah Handshake/To Encourage the Others
Under the Age/Horace
The Love-Girl and the Innocent/Penda's Fen
Penda's Fen (standalone release)
Danton's Death/Beloved Enemy
Stars of the Roller State Disco/Contact
A Follower for Emily (63:39)
There's a strong case for A Follower for Emily being among Alan Clarke's most undersung plays and films. This video-shot Play for Today (broadcast just once, on 4 July 1974) isn't discussed in Richard Kelly's 1998 book on Clarke. On the face of it, a documentary-style comedy/drama set in a retirement home with a majority elderly cast is not the first thing you'd expect the director of Scum, Made in Britain and The Firm to make. Yet it is another study of an institution and how those inside it – staff as well as residents – are affected and moulded by it. One difference between other Clarkean films about institutions and this one is that the script writer is not the more usual Roy Minton but Brian Clark. Clark (no relation, and note different spelling, born 1932) is a stage and television playwright, active in the latter medium from the early 1970s to the early 1990s. His best-known work is a 1972 ITV play, Whose Life is It Anyway?, turned into an award-winning stage play in 1978 and, transplanted to the USA, a Hollywood film in 1981. He had worked with Clarke in 1973 on Achilles Heel, made for London Weekend Television. A Follower for Emily is the second of five Plays for Today which Clark wrote.
A Follower for Emily is an ensemble piece, but one storyline becomes dominant, the love story between Harry (Herbert Ramskill) and Emily (Betty Woolfe). “Follower”, Emily explains at one point, was slang in her youth for “boyfriend” or “sweetheart” and that's what Harry becomes for her, in the later years of their lives. They marry, and go away for a honeymoon – which gets cut short, another way that Clarke and Clark show us how people can become institutionalised. Unlike some of the Minton-scripted films, there's no intention of showing this old people's home as anything to be condemned: the staff are clearly dedicated and the play is unsentimental in showing the effects of dementia in some of the residents. It's naturalistic to a fault, coming quite close to a fly-on-the-wall documentary instead of a drama – a line it crossed for some, according to some of the critical comment and audience response of the time. Clarke made use of new lightweight video cameras, allowing him to follow characters through the corridors and into the rooms of this home.
A Follower for Emily is as well acted as you would expect from a Clarke production, but I'm not about to claim it as an underappreciated masterpiece, though if you've reached this point in the boxset and Clarke's career it's certainly worth seeing to watch the evolution of some of his techniques and concerns. But by Clarke's standards, it is just a little ordinary.
This review contains some plot spoilers.
Diane, on the other hand, is anything but ordinary. Given the higher profile of Scum and The Firm and the continuing cult following for Penda's Fen, it's easy to typecast Clarke as a director of films centring on men and the often violent interactions between them. Yet he had many female collaborators – producers Stella Richman, Irene Shubik and later Margaret Matheson were both very important in his career – and many women friends (some of whom became lovers). Yet you'd have to see some of his less often shown works to see that he could be a very sensitive director of women, and often in plays named after them: previously Stella (one of the Half Hour Stories) and later in this boxset we have Nina (written by a woman, Jehane Markham) and Christine. Diane also centres on one of the finest performances Clarke ever directed.
Diane Weaver, in her early teens, lives on a London council estate with her father (Frank Mills), her mother long since departed. She attracts the eye of local lad Jim (Paul Copley) but she has a secret which soon comes out...
Diane began as a two-hour, two-part film, written by Jonathan Hales, but it was condensed into a single work of just over an hour and a half. Hales (born 1937) began in the theatre at the Royal Court and was working for television from 1970 and the cinema from 1980, including work in the USA – he most recently cowrote the script for Star Wars Episode II. Whether unhappy due to the cuts in his script or with Clarke's treatment of his script or both, Hales took his name off Diane. So it was credited to “David Agnew”, a BBC house name used in situations like this, a writing equivalent to the Hollywood director Alan Smithee. (Agnew's other credits include a couple of Doctor Whos, The Invasion of Time and City of Death.)
In Clarke's hands, Diane is low-key to a fault, with several key events happening offscreen and what people don't say is as important as what they do. Diane and Jim have a conversation and you could miss the fact that they're talking about her being pregnant and his offering to marry her to look after her – which she angrily rebuffs. Diane hides her pregnancy from more or less the whole estate and all we see is her disposing of the stillborn baby in a dustbin. We never see her be found out, and it's only when she's being interviewed by the local priest (Tim Preece) that we find out that Diane was made pregnant by her own father. With her mother long since “buggered off” (as Diane puts it), at only thirteen or so she's become a substitute for her, which includes taking her mother's place in her father's bed. Yet her father isn't a monster, and Diane doesn't see him as one, though he's done a monstrous thing...and her reactions and emotions are irrevocably marked by what he did. This is true in the earlier part of the film, before we do know what is going on. That's one reason why Diane gains on a second viewing which, with just one broadcast (9 July 1975 as part of the BBC2 Playhouse strand) before the days of widespread home video recording, has not been possible up to now without a visit to the archives. (This marks a slight break of chronology in this boxset, with Funny Farm, broadcast in February 1975, on Disc Six, paired with Scum.)
Janine Duvitski (born 1952) had gone to East 15 drama school and had attracted Clarke's attention despite the fact that, unlike Diane, she wasn't a Londoner (she came from Nottingham) and was twenty-one when Diane aged on screen from thirteen to sixteen or seventeen. She had had a few earlier television roles, including a now-lost episode of Z Cars in 1972. Diane was the last time she used her surname's original spelling of Drzewicki, from a Polish father: her agent insisted on anglicising the spelling as no one would be able to pronounce the original and she would only have been offered parts as foreigners. Onscreen almost throughout, Duvitski gives a tremendous performance, ageing convincingly from early to later teens while in her early twenties and, so elliptical is Clarke's approach, much being conveyed by subtle shifts of body language. Diane is a survivor, but a stoic one: other directors and writers may have resorted to scenes of tearful breakdowns, but not Hales/Agnew and Clarke. When Diane does lose her temper, it has a real impact. Duvitski is much better known for comedy – especially for Abigail's Party for Mike Leigh, for which she originated the role of Angela, and in fact at times the accent she uses for Diane is almost Leighian – but this is her best dramatic role in a career mostly of character parts rather than leads. She never worked for Clarke again, though certainly held him in high regard and considers herself “spoiled” given that she had him for a director so early in her career and may well not have had a continuing career if not for him. However, her young son Albert Bentall plays Gary Oldman and Lesley Manville's son in The Firm.
There's something pared down about Clarke's direction too. A simple cut spans three years (presumably at the point where the original Part One ended). Moving away from cutting back and forth between closeups, he often lets scenes unfold in a single take. There's one of Diane and Jim early on which runs for six minutes and a later one with Diane and her father which is almost as long, both with a static or almost-static camera. Robert Bresson has been cited as an influence on Clarke, and this is one of the reasons why.
This is Disc Five of the six-disc DVD boxset Dissent: Alan Clarke at the BBC Volume 1 (1969-1977) and of the limited-edition thirteen-disc (eleven Blu-rays and two DVDs) set Dissent & Disruption: Alan Clarke at the BBC (1969-1989). A Blu-ray checkdisc was provided for review. The Blu-ray and DVD are encoded for Regions B and 2 respectively. The limited-edition set carries an 18 certificate but Diane is one of the reasons why the six-DVD boxset carries a 15. A Follower for Emily is rated PG.
Both plays are in the original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. A Follower for Emily was shot on 625-line video and has been transferred from a digibeta copy of the two-inch PAL broadcast tape. Diane was made on 16mm film and has been transferred in HD from the transmission print. As both were intended for broadcast on a PAL television service, they were shot at twenty-five frames per second instead of the cinema standard of twenty-four, and the Blu-ray transfer is at a resolution of 1080i50. Possibly due to changes in filmstock used for BBC productions at the time, Diane doesn't look as soft and the earlier 16mm-shot films in this set and the grain, while certainly present and filmlike, is smoother. The lower resolution of SD video for A Follower for Emily is noticeable, with the results less sharp, but to be fair this is how it would have looked on its broadcast in 1974, or better than that, given that our television sets are larger and more unforgiving than those available then. (And, as I've said before, in 1974 many would still be watching in black and white.)
The soundtracks are the original mono, rendered in LPCM 2.0, with subtitles available for the hard of hearing on the two features but not the extras. Both are testaments to BBC expertise, clear and with dialogue and sound effects (no non-diegetic music on either) well-balanced – especially as they were designed to be listened to via distinctly lo-fi television speakers.
Five new commentaries have been recorded for this boxset and another two pre-existing ones reused. By order of chronology, the first of the former is on Diane and it is between Janine Duvitski and Richard Kelly. Recorded in February 2016, Duvitski clearly still holds Clarke in very high regard, and not just for his effect on her career. She also describes him as sexy more than once, and says that many women found him so. Kelly talks about Clarke's use of long takes and insistence on not “giving a performance”. They also wonder how Clarke (who would by now be eighty) would have fared in a very different environment for television and cinema. You have to wonder what he would have done with another ten or twenty years. It's not the most in-depth commentary but it is a very worthwhile one.
The other extra on the disc is Part Five of Alan Clarke: Out of His Own Light (8:13). This is a shorter segment than some, and other than a short clip, A Follower for Emily is passed over. David Hare talks about how films are less good because filmmakers have fewer opportunities to make them, spending more time on advocacy (speaking to financiers before making the film in order to raise the money, and talking to critics afterwards) than their actual job. Clarke clearly saw a virtue in working quickly and often, often in genres people didn't expect of him, and the results speak for themselves, given that we now have a thirteen-disc boxset covering just his television work and (apart from the Half Hour Stories) his surviving work for just one broadcaster. David Leland disputes that there is no audience any more for single dramas (with many younger writers now cutting their teeth on continuing series before moving on to serials, with Jimmy McGovern an honourable exception) and, not for the first time, blames Thatcher and Murdoch for their increased choice promised by the growth of many different channels resulting in actually much less choice and little you'd actually want to see.
As for Diane, Janine Duvitski and Richard Kelly are on hand to talk about it, though inevitably what they say here is said at greater length in their commentary.
The BFI's book, which runs to 200 pages in the limited-edition set (the first 100 pages included in the six-disc DVD set), has an essay on each, Lisa Kerrigan on A Follower for Emily and Diane by Lizzie Francke. Kerrigan talks about the naturalism of the piece she is writing about, and its links to Clarke's (and Clark's) other, better-known work, and discusses Clarke's camerawork and use of framing, in particular the last shot, in a study of an institution that kills not by cruelty but this time by kindness. Francke hails Duvitski's performance in Diane as being on the same level as Renée Falconetti's in The Passion of Joan of Arc and Nadine Nortier's in – that Bresson comparison again – Nadine Nortier's in Mouchette. The book also contains stills, full credits and transfer notes.