Dissent & Disruption: Alan Clarke at the BBC (1969-1989): Stars of the Roller State Disco/Contact
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)
A Follower for Emily/Diane
Danton's Death/Beloved Enemy
After Baal, Clarke made one of his finest works, Made in Britain, from a script by David Leland, made for Central Television and broadcast on ITV. Made in Britain was one of Tales Out of School a quartet of plays by Leland depicting aspects of the British educational system at the time. The series was released in 2011 on Blu-ray and DVD by Network and is reviewed by Anthony Nield here, though Made in Britain had previous solo VHS and DVD releases before it.
Of the Tales Out of School quartet, Made in Britain has by far overshadowed the rest. The play centres on the intelligent, highly articulate, alienated skinhead Trevor, a screen debut by Tim Roth. The fact that the play's protagonist had such far-right views and expressed them in a television drama caused considerable controversy, as did the play's violence and strong language, broadcast well after the watershed – in fact, after News at Ten. (Channel 4, which started broadcasting in November 1982, had caused a stir by not deleting expletives from films and leaving them in their television programmes, and slowly other channels were liberalising the language they could use, if broadcast suitably late at night.) But Made in Britain had another effect on Alan Clarke's work. As he was developing Made in Britain, he saw some footage of Walter, directed by Stephen Frears and photographed by Chris Menges, which was eventually broadcast on Channel 4's opening night. In Walter, Menges made much use of a Steadicam, a camera harness strapped to an operator's body which allows for entirely smooth mobile shots whatever the terrain. Clarke saw the possibilities straight away, and hired Menges to photograph Made in Britain. Clarke's earlier work had often featured lengthy takes and long walk-and-talks – at least as far back as The Hallelujah Handshake - but they had been achieved by means of a handheld camera or a dolly. The Steadicam liberated him and he made extensive use of it in his later work, in Road and Elephant in particular.
Stars of the Roller State Disco (71:56)
Stars of the Roller State Disco was written by Michael Hastings (a writer active in television since the late 1950s and best known for his play Tom and Viv, filmed in 1994) and had its first broadcast on BBC1 on 4 December 1984. It has not been repeated to date. Video-shot on studio sets, it borders on science fiction of the dystopian variety. Unemployed youngsters spend their days at the roller disco of the title, circling round and round, before being called to take up low-paid jobs as they become available. They leave the building in a wash of light, though we do not go through that door with them. For others it's a subsistence existence of vending machine food, video games, with sex and drug freely available as distractions. As a metaphor, it's clear if more than a little obvious: a timely one in early 1980s Britain with unemployment going through the roof. It's one that's still relevant now, in a time of workfare schemes and zero-hours contracts. It's just that as drama it's underpowered. Stars is an ensemble piece, though centring on Carly (Perry Benson) and his girlfriend Paulette (Cathy Murphy).
While you can see how this story might have engaged Clarke, you sense he's pretty much a director for hire here. As science fiction it's a little old-hat and tying its storyline to the short-lived roller-disco phase dates it further. In his best work, Clarke never patronises his younger characters (or indeed his older ones) but there's here a sense of older filmmakers aiming to be down with the kids and not quite pulling it off – which to be fair may be due to Hastings's script proving intractable. Stars competes with A Follower for Emily as being the least-sung of Clarke's BBC work (it gets no more than a passing reference in Richard Kelly's book). It's certainly minor Clarke.
Contact, by contrast, is another of Alan Clarke's major works. A.F.N. Clarke (no relation, known as Tony) had been a soldier and wrote about his experiences as a captain in the parachute regiment, as a result of which he had been invalided out with stress. The book deals with several periods of A.F.N. Clarke's army life, but the film deals solely with his time in a patrol in Northern Ireland . Tony Clarke retains sole script credit but he and Alan Clarke spent a lot of time on it, paring down the story to essentials. Unlike the later Elephant say, there are named characters and dialogue, and a plot as such, but gone is any expository dialogue. You pick up necessary details, including such basic ones as where we are (Crossmaglen) from brief references. Characterisation, in its usual sense, is all but non-existent. Instead we watch the characters on screen and listen to what they say, and from that we infer what we can about the men we watch on screen for just over an hour as they patrol “bandit country”, the area of Northern Ireland close to the border with the South.
Although Contact was billed as a drama – it was broadcast on BBC2 as the first-ever Screen Two, on 6 January 1985 – quite a few people mistook it for a fly-on-the-wall documentary. You can see why. Alan Clarke leaves in material which in most dramas would be cut as “redundant”, holding shots longer than normal. At at least one point you can see the picture going out of focus briefly. At other times Clarke makes much use of night-vision photography. If we can't make out what's happening, neither can the men whose story we are following. But this is most definitely a drama, with a tour de force of a sequence featuring a parked car, captured in a lengthy, almost static take with a long lens. And every so often we cut to the captain (Sean Chapman) and a lingering shot shows us his unable-to-be-expressed despair, one he has to hide from his men who are looking to him for leadership.
Although most of Clarke's earlier works did get repeat showings, that's not the case with his later ones. Contact had a second showing in short order, on 4 September 1985, following its win at the Locarno of the Golden Leopard's Eye for the best film made for television. It was shown again in 1991 as part of the BBC's retrospective Clarke season following his death.
Contact was Alan Clarke's last television production for two years. During that time, he made two feature films for the cinema, both released in 1987: Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire, a fantasy musical, and Rita, Sue and Bob Too, a raucous sex comedy set in Bradford and based on a play by Andrea Dunbar. Neither played for long in cinemas. I saw the latter on Channel 4 on its first television showing.
This is Disc Four of the six-disc DVD boxset Disruption: Alan Clarke at the BBC Volume 2 (1978-1989) and Disc Ten 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. Both boxsets carry 18 certificates, but the two features here are both rated 15.
Both features are presented in the original aspect ratio of 1.33:1 as you would expect for television productions of the time. Stars of the Roller State Disco was shot on 625-line video. By this time, the BBC had discontinued the two-inch Quad format in favour of the one-inch Type C format, and this Blu-ray transfer is derived from a Digibeta copy. The new tape format had advantages over the earlier one and this transfer is noticeably sharper than some of the earlier video-shot films in this set. It's still 625-line PAL, but it's as good as it's ever looked – better, in fact, given the advances in television technology since 1984. Contact was shot on 16mm film and has been transferred to Blu-ray from the transmission print. This looks very good: grain is definitely present, but that's as it should be, but it's less soft than some of the earlier 16mm-shot films here. The night-vision sequences are appropriately lo-fi. As Contact was shot at twenty-five frames per second instead of the cinema standard of twenty-four, the Blu-ray resolution is 1080i50.
The soundtracks are the original mono, rendered at LPCM 2.0. Both are clear and well-balanced. Neither has any non-diegetic music, though Stars has plenty of it on its soundtrack due to the roller-disco setting. English subtitles are available for the hard-of-hearing.
The extras begin with a newly-recorded audio commentary on Contact, with Allan Bairstow interviewing lead actor Sean Chapman. This is a very detailed commentary, with Chapman talking about Alan Clarke's filming methods and the demands on him as an actor. He also talks about the advice Tony Clarke gave him and the other actors to give the film its authenticity.
“A.F.N. Clarke on Contact” (22:16) is an interview with the writer, now resident in Australia. It's conducted by his wife Krystyna, cutting back and forth between her questions and his answers. It might have been preferable to edit this into a monologue with parts of her questions as necessary, as at present it could certainly be tighter with much of it surplus to requirements. Also on the disc is David Leland's introduction to the 1991 repeat screening (1:32).
Alan Clarke: Out of His Own Light reaches Part Ten (12:34). Stars of the Roller State Disco doesn't get a look in: this is all about Contact. Inevitably Sean Chapman's contribution does overlap with the commentary, but contributions from Paul Greengrass, David Hare and others are certainly worth listening to.
The book essays are by Alex Davidson on Stars of the Roller State Disco and Allan Bairstow on Contact. Davidson has a little difficulty in discussing what is ultimately one of Clarke's minor works but does find points of interest in it and finds it “a valuable time capsule from one of the cruellest eras for Britain's youth”. Bairstow's piece begins with a quote from Sam Fuller and goes into detail about Clarke's methods and techniques in this film, which he considers one of the finest war films ever made. The book also contains stills, full credits and transfer notes.