Dissent & Disruption: Alan Clarke at the BBC (1969-1989): Funny Farm/Scum

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
Bukovsky/Nina
Danton's Death/Beloved Enemy
Psy-Warriors/Baal
Stars of the Roller State Disco/Contact
Christine/Road
Elephant/The Firm

Some of the following is revised and updated from my 2005 review of Prism's two-disc release, which includes both the television and cinema versions of Scum.

Funny Farm (92:40)

Although the plays and films it broadcast were quite diverse, Play for Today often has a reputation for issues-based drama. Such plays were certainly made, and Funny Farm is one example. It's clearly intended to make a point, and ends with captions giving us then-current statistics: one person in nine will enter a mental hospital at some point in their lives, and while there are 112 nurses per hundred patients for non-psychiatric illness, for mental health there are thirty-six per hundred. (As of 1974/75, obviously). Funny Farm, broadcast on 27 February 1975 and never repeated, has very little plot in the conventional sense, following a night at the hospital and nurse Alan Welbeck (Tim Preece) whose idealism is being slowly ground down by the conditions he has to work in.

The play had an autobiographical basis for writer Roy Minton. In 1969 he had been himself sectioned due to his then severe alcoholism. However, for his script he did extensive research into the subject, as did Clarke and Tim Preece, who both helped out incognito in real-life psychiatric facilities. If the similarly video-shot A Follower for Emily almost seemed in places like a fly-on-the-wall documetary, this does even more so. New lightweight video cameras gave Clarke considerably more flexibility as to camera movement. There are several shots of characters (often Alan) walking down corridors, not followed with a Steadicam but often a single static shot as deeply-focussed as the medium allowed, with the character walking from back to front or front to back. This is another Clarke/Minton study of an institution and it's not an encouraging one, with Alan's drive to help his patients undermined by the long hours and low pay.

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Funny Farm was commissioned for a seventy-five-minute Play for Today slot, but the play Clarke delivered ran 105 minutes. The play couldn't be broadcast before 9.25pm due to the Nine o'Clock News and in 1975 BBC1 finished before midnight – especially so in times of electricity shortages and three-day working weeks. The latest the play could finish was 11pm, in time for the news magazine programme Midweek, which was followed by the weather forecast and regional news headlines and the closedown accompanied by the National Anthem. Funny Farm was edited down to an hour and a half (actually ninety-three minutes). The result does feel overlong, though whether the full version (which presumably no longer exists) would have improved the pacing is now impossible to say. Clarke protested the shortening of the play, to the extent of petitioning the BBC Plays Department, handing our leaflets at the entrance to the television centre and threatening to take his name off the play...though his credit still remains. There's a general trend in Clarke's work to pare things down, which you can see in Diane (broadcast four months later), despite a very similar length to that of Funny Farm. You can certainly see this in the later plays and films in this boxset, all of which (with the exception of Danton's Death) come in at an hour and a quarter or less, sometimes much less.

Clarke's next productions were for ITV (Thames Television). He was a rather unlikely choice to direct Love for Lydia, an adaptation from H.E. Bates for London Weekend Television. He clashed with producer Cyril Bennett over his approach – using mostly long shots at first, moving in closer with each episode – and he left the production, which was reshot and eventually broadcast as a thirteen-parter in 1977. After that, Clarke directed another Minton script, Fast Hands, broadcast on 4 May 1976 as part of a series called Plays for Britain, about a young boxer suffering brain damage.

Scum (74:37)

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This review contains plot spoilers for both TV and cinema 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…

While they were making Funny Farm, Roy Minton was staying at Alan Clarke's house. One evening, they came up with the idea of a trilogy of plays about young men: joining the police, joining the army, and in Borstal. They then pitched this idea to the BBC. Head of Plays Christopher Morahan advised there wasn't the money for all three but he would commission one of them, leaving it up to them which one. So Minton, after extensive research interviewing former Borstal boys, wrote the script. Originally it was to be produced by Mark Shivas, but following the conflict over the cutting of Funny Farm, he passed on it. Attempts to set the script up as a cinema feature came to nothing. But then Margaret Matheson, who as Margaret Hare (due to being married to David) had been the script editor for To Encourage the Others, had moved into production, at first in the cinema for the 1976 film based on the James Herriot book It Shouldn't Happen to a Vet. Then she was put in charge of Play for Today and given the brief to produce four of them on film and twelve to be made in the studio on multicamera video. She was sent the script for Scum and promptly commissioned it. Clarke shot the 75-minute film on 16mm in March and April 1977 at a disused old people's home with the aid of a cast of young actors, many of whom had not acted before. A transmission date in November 1977 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. Without the authorisation of her BBC bosses, Scum was shown to the press in a Wardour Street screening room. The BBC’s reason for the ban was that although they acknowledged that all the incidents in the film had 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 pointed out, 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 disc extras don’t go beyond the censorship of Scum itself.)

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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 27 July 1991, as part of the channel's tribute season following Clarke’s death.

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.

It’s noticeable how similar the two versions 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 was allowed to say “fuck”. (For more about this, see my review of To Encourage the Others.) 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 and, one suspects, no longer exist. 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”. (Winstone felt uncomfortable with this material, and now admits this was a mistake.) 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. Another big difference is that the boys are the right age in the television film and noticeably older in the cinema version, particularly so with the ones played by the same actor in both.

Mick Ford’s definitive and slightly sinister portrayal of Archer rather unfairly overshadows David Threlfall’s more hippyish take on the character. (Threlfall was under contract to the Royal Shakespeare Company so wasn't available to reprise his role.) 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 DVD

This is Disc Six 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 you may be surprised that the television version of Scum (unlike the not-included cinema version) is not one of the reasons for that. It is however a reason for the six-DVD set's 15 certificate. Funny Farm is rated 12.

Both features are in the original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. Funny Farm was shot on 625-line video and has been transferred from a digibeta copy of the two-inch PAL broadcast tape. Scum 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. The limitations of the source are evident with Funny Farm, which has the flat look that video-shot drama of the time often has. But, as I've said before, this is how it would have looked if you had watched it at the time on much more forgiving television sets than are available today. (And, in 1975, the majority of the public was still watching in black and white.) Scum is certainly grainy, no doubt due to being shot entirely on location in less than ideal weather (it was cold) but that's all to the best for a story like this. It certainly has always looked this way, on the two previous occasions I saw it (1991 broadcast, 2005 DVD).

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 clear and well-balanced. There's no non-diegetic music on either, except for a rather incongruous song called “Wide Boy” playing over the end credits of Scum.

Scum has an audio commentary, recorded in 2004 for Blue Underground's US Alan Clarke Collection DVD boxset and also used on the UK Prism release of 2005 (see review link above). Moderated by critic Nigel Floyd (who forgets to introduce himself), it features Phil Daniels, David Threlfall and Margaret Matheson. This is informative, with some rapport between Daniels and Threlfall and good contributions from Matheson.

The other extras begin with David Leland's introduction (2:53) to the 1991 broadcast. This begins with Leland deep in the BBC vaults handling Scum's film can with its legal restriction labels. He also encourages us to set our videos as we may never have another chance to see this...

Also on the disc are an extract from the edition of Tonight of 23 January 1978 (10:51) following the news of the play's banning. The BBC's Managing Director Alasdair Milne gives his reasons for banning the film, countered by the then television critic of The Guardian Peter Fiddick, with quotes from Roy Minton, Margaret Matheson and James Cellan Jones, who had become the BBC's Head of Plays, defending the production. This is transferred from materials supplied by the BBC, which here look like a homevideo copy with a permanent tracking error at the bottom of the screen. Scum itself is represented by a still, not an extract.

When is a Play Not a Play? (46:02) is an edition of Arena from 17 April 1978. This isn't so much about the Scum controversy, though it is mentioned and Clarke is interviewed briefly. This is more a discussion of drama which looks like it could be documentary (such as Scum) or drama which dramatises real people and events. Some of the extracts shown are from then-topical events less likely to be known nowadays, such as the 1975 kidnapping of Dutch businessman Tiede Herrema (which led to a 1978 dramatisation as part of a series called Life at Stake). Others are plays still remembered today, such as The Naked Civil Servant, with Quentin Crisp, John Hurt and director Jack Gold all on hand to talk about it. It's rather too large a theme to discuss in just three quarters of an hour, and no real conclusions are reached, but it's still interesting.

Finally on the disc is Part Six of Alan Clarke: Out of His Own Light (25:37). This is one of the longer parts of this documentary. Roy Minton is on hand to talk about Funny Farm, but as you might expect Scum dominates proceedings, with contributions from Minton again, Margaret Matheson, Ray Winstone (who lets out some unbleeped F-words in this BBFC-exempt item). Sean Chapman and Clarke's friend Grenville Middleton. David Hare makes the claim that the cnntroversy was a turning point, with directors like Clarke who had worked mainly for the BBC going elsewhere as they failed to see why they should feel any loyalty to the Corporation if the BBC didn't have their back. (This was of course around the time when Channel 4 was just starting to invest in British film production.) Clive Parsons (archive interview, as he died in 2009) and Davina Belling talk about the feature film version, which they produced. This part of Out of His Own Light also features a clip of the Tonight discussion shown at greater length elsewhere on the disc.

The BFI's book features an essay on Funny Farm by David Rolinson, author of a critical study of Clarke's work. This covers the background to the play and also the conflict over its editing, and draws on an interview Clarke did with the late Shiva Naipaul in that week's Radio Times, and Dennis Potter's favourable review in New Statesman. The article on Scum is by Ashley Clark. About half of it is a plot synopsis (and Clark is in error by saying that it was Ray Winstone's screen debut), but the rest is attentive to Clarke's filmmaking style and is acute on the play's (or more likely the more-often-seen big-screen version) on other plays and films, including the recent feature film Starred Up. Also in the book ate stills, full credits and transfer notes.

Overall

9

out of 10

Last updated: 06/08/2018 14:03:02

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