Dissent & Disruption: Alan Clarke at the BBC (1969-1989): Bukovsky/Nina

The Alan Clarke boxset reaches a long-unseen documentary and a 1978 play starring Eleanor Bron.

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
Funny Farm/Scum
Danton’s Death/Beloved Enemy
Stars of the Roller State Disco/Contact
Elephant/The Firm

Alan Clarke’s documentary – never broadcast nor commercially available before now, and for many years thought lost – is paired with the BBC Play for Today which shares many of its concerns.

Bukovsky (50:01)

Vladimir Bukovsky (born 1942) was a Soviet dissident who spent twelve years in psychiatric units and prisons. David Markham (1913-1983), then better known as an actor (and father of actresses Kika and Petra Markham), led a campaign to have Bukovsky released, often involving petitions and demonstrations outside the Soviet Embassy in London. Clarke knew the Markhams through his relationship with David’s daughter Jehane. Finally, Bukovsky was released and extradited from the USSR, in a swap with a Western prisoner. Clarke and his friend, South African cameraman Grenville Middleton, independently financed and made the documentary, at roughly the same time as Clarke was making Scum.

Clarke clearly admired David Markham, who had been a conscientious objector in World War II and had undergone a one-year prison sentence as a result, with adverse consequences for his acting career. As well as filming Markham’s activities on Bukovsky’s behalf – which includes trying and failing to get the Embassy to receive a letter – the bulk of the documentary consists of an interview (by Clarke, whose voice you hear offscreen) with Bukovsky, sitting in an armchair that looks rather too big for him, speaking to camera in English. Also appearing in the documentary are Marina Voikhonskaya, a psychiatrist, who had fallen out of favour with the authorities when she refused to pronounce a dissident insane when he clearly wasn’t. She was the inspiration for Jehane Markham’s play Nina, of which more below. Viktor Fainberg, also appearing, was the head of the Campaign Against Psychiatric Abuse (CAPA), with which Markham was also involved, an organisation which protested the misuse of psychiatry for political ends. Another member was Tom Stoppard, himself born inside the Eastern Bloc (the present-day Czech Republic).

The documentary, for which Clarke has a production as well as a direction credit, was completed, but the BBC passed on it. Other than a few showings to small groups of people, Bukovsky remained unseen for many years and was thought lost until Clarke’s daughter Molly found a mute 16mm colour print in 2015. A partial soundtrack was assembled with the aid of material provided by Middleton (also the source of the outtakes included on this disc, see below). The missing parts of the soundtrack (which included Voikhonskaya’s interview) were sourced from a videotape copy held by Clarke’s assistant director on The Firm Corin Campbell-Hill. So, right at the last minute, after the commentary was recorded, a fully restored version of this documentary is now available.

Nina (75:50)

Russia, the mid 1970s. Nina (Eleanor Bron) is a doctor working in a psychiatric hospital. Yuri (Jack Shepherd) is a patient, confined to the hospital due to his dissident views and time on hunger strike. They fall in love. When Yuri obtains an exit visa, Nina follows him to England, having divorced her husband and marrying him in a ceremony conducted over the telephone. But once in England, it’s soon clear to Nina that their struggles are far from over…

Nina, broadcast on 17 October 1978 and never repeated, is Jehane Markham’s only credit as a writer. It was inspired by Marina Voikhonskaya’s story, and she helped Markham with her story. Markham wrote the script with Alan Clarke’s encouragement and he pitched the idea as a Play for Today to producer Margaret Matheson as a film shoot.

The play has an unusually starry name (for a Clarke production) in the lead role, namely Eleanor Bron, who stepped in when another actress left the production. Bron (born 1938 so around the right age for the part), had been a well-known face on both big screen and small for about fifteen years by this point, more often in comedy than in drama. She had appeared, along with Peter Cook, in the Cambridge Footlights in 1959, being one of the first women to do so. If you think of a typical Clarke castmember, given the subject matter of most of his plays and films, Bron wouldn’t be high on your list, being a middle-class Jewish Londoner. Yet she gives a compelling performance. She and Clarke worked very well together and indeed lived together for a while. Jack Shepherd was another well-known face, especially on British television in the 1970s. He was born in 1940 but other than an uncredited role in 1962 had been active since 1969 and is still working as I write this, most often as a character actor. His best-known role was the title part of Bill Brand, as a leftwing MP in a 1976 Thames Television serial written by Trevor Griffiths.

Both Yuri and Nina are flawed characters, brought together by a shared idealism. (Given that it was not likely to be an option to perform the opening part of the play in Russian with English subtitles, it’s a valid approach to have the dialogue in English throughout, with both Bron and Shepherd adopting strong accents when their characters speak English, but losing the accents when they speak English.) Nina’s main concern is for her son, as the Soviet authorities had gone back on their promise to extradite him, while Yuri remains devoted to his cause and her concerns are less important – not an unheard-of scenario between men and women in revolutionary circles. This leads to a harrowing confrontation scene at the end of the play – which became a little too real, as Bron cracked a rib as a result of it.

It’s easy to see both the films on this disc as products of another age, given that the Soviet Union as it was then no longer exists. But the themes remain valid. Bukovsky will no doubt be of most interest (outside Clarkeans) to students of the era, but Nina stands up very well as a drama in its own right.

The Disc

This is Disc One of the six-disc DVD boxset Disruption: Alan Clarke at the BBC Volume 2 (1978-1989) and Disc Seven 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. Nina bears a 12. Bukovsky, being a documentary containing nothing likely to earn higher than a PG, is exempt from BBFC certification.

Both films on this disc were shot on 16mm film. In the case of Nina that’s a little surprising, given that it’s a drama that almost entirely takes place indoors. Perhaps due to the need for lighting, with no possibility of shooting in natural light for most of it, grain, while still present, is much smoother than it is for some of the film-shot productions earlier in this boxset. Given the circumstances of its making and preservation, it’s less of a surprise that Bukovsky looks distinctly rougher in places – very grainy (and very much shot in natural light) and with some scratches here and there. Given that we’re lucky it survives at all, there are no grounds for complaint.

The soundtrack is mono, as per the original, rendered as LPCM 2.0. Nina is a product of BBC expertise, with dialogue and sound effects well balanced: as usual for Clarke, there’s no music score. The soundtrack on Bukovsky is understandably rougher, but is clear. Subtitles are available for the hard of hearing on both features but not the extras.

Bukovsky has an audio commentary, moderated by the BFI’s Sam Dunn and featuring Jehane Markham and Grenville Middleton. This was recorded in March 2016, before Corin Campbell-Hill’s VHS copy turned up, so the copy they are watching is mute in parts, as Dunn mentions more than once. Given that the film is only fifty minutes long, there’s not much space for dead spots, and Markham and Middleton both talk about Clarke’s place in their lives as well as the background to the documentary itself. Well worth listening to.

Also on the disc are outtakes from Bukovsky (50:55), slightly longer than the film itself. The first sixteen minutes, with more footage of the demonstration held at the foot of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square, is in black and white, with the rest in colour. Needless to say, much of this, shot on the run, is quite rough and audio synch noticeably wanders during an interview with Marina Voikhonskaya. But there are more interviews than appear in the final film – including one with David Markham after Bukovsky’s release – so plenty of interest. The director’s name is misspelled as “Alan Clake” in the end credits, or at least it is on this checkdisc.

Also included is an interview with David Markham by Alan Clarke (audio-only against a black screen, 19:23). Markham begins by defining political dissent and independent thought in a regime which requires its citizens to toe the party line and talks about the misuse of psychiatry to keep dissidents quiet. Next up are letters written by Clarke to the Markham family, read by Jehane (6:29). The letters are reproduced on screen as she reads, and show that Clarke’s handwriting was largely in upper case.

Finally, there is Part Seven of Alan Clarke: Out of His Own Light (18:12). Like some of the other parts of this four-hour documentary, the first seven minutes of this is about Clarke the man than specifically the films on this disc, with David Leland and Grenville Middleton talking from first-hand experience about his hellraiser side which came out when they went out for the evening. There are several legendary Clarke drunk stories, including one where he was banned from the BBC bar. Jehane Markham says that their relationship broke down as he was a man who saw longterm commitment as confinement and that was something he did not like. Perhaps his workrate was one way of keeping such commitment (or confinement) at bay – though David Hare points out that if he was unruly in his private life he was thoroughly disciplined at work. After this, Grenville Middleton and Jehane Markham talk about Bukovsky and Markham about Nina.

Sam Dunn provides the essay on Bukovsky in the BFI’s book (200 pages in the limited-edition boxset, 100 in the six-DVD set). This does inevitably overlap with the commentary, but does give an overview of the circumstances of the film’s making, and also includes a quote from one of Clarke’s letters. Lisa Kerrigan writes about Nina. She rightly says that as well as its political themes, Nina is a story about how people come to terms by being immigrants to a foreign country and the somewhat patronising attitudes displayed towards Nina and Yuri by English middle-class liberals. For a director often identified as being very “male”, Nina, by centering on a woman, is a powerful counter-example in his career. Also in the book are stills, full credits for the films and the extras, and transfer notes.


Updated: Jun 21, 2016

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