Dissent & Disruption: Alan Clarke at the BBC (1969-1989): Christine/Road

Our reviews of the BFI’s Alan Clarke boxset culminate with Christine and Road.

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

Christine (51:18)

Christine (Vicky Murdock) is an ordinary teenage girl on an ordinary West London housing estate. We follow her during the day as she goes from one house to another, calling in on friends and schoolmates around the same age as her. Their conversation is naturalistic, small talk, nothing especially important, conversation to make conversation, as Vicky supplies them with heroin, helps them prepare, shoot up. She does the same to herself. Repeat. Life goes on.

Written by Arthur Ellis and Clarke (an unusual writing credit for him), Christine was broadcast just once to date (23 September 1987) in BBC2’s ScreenPlay strand. Like Contact, two years earlier, it continues Clarke’s process of paring things down to essentials, atomising some elements often thought of as essential to drama. Like many of Clarke’s other plays and films, it’s of an odd length, too long to be called a short, but notably shorter than what normally passes for feature-length. Like Contact, but unlike Elephant, there are characters, in the sense that there are people with names, but we find out almost nothing about them. Dialogue is, as mentioned, almost entirely unexpository. We simply watch and observe as Christine walks from house to house. And she walks. And walks. And walks, the camera often just behind her shoulder. Clarke first used the Steadicam on Made in Britain but wouldn’t use it on a BBC production until Road later, so the lengthy takes in Christine are achieved with a handheld camera. The film is lit for three hundred and sixty degrees, allowing the camera to follow anyone, anywhere it needs to.

This is a world like almost any other in mid-Eighties Britain. It’s also one without parents (at work? Down the pub?) but Christine is devoid of tabloid-style sensationalism. Nor is there any “redemption” – unlike for example the then-recent German film Christiane F., which Clarke showed to his young cast. It’s a film that observes but does not editorialise, does not comment, though in its way that’s commentary in itself. On the surface, these couldn’t be more normal children, and they’re intravenous drug users.

The origin of the project was Clarke and producer Brenda Reid’s (both then parents of teenagers) realisation that drug use in young people cut across class lines, and was as likely to be endemic in an estate like the one in the film (with roads named after poets) than it would be in any other further down the social scale. Vicky Murdock was a graduate of Anna Scher’s celebrated children’s theatre, and had had two previous television roles. She’s a remarkable find, holding the drama together with the minutiae of facial expressions and body language.

Road (62:30)

Jim Cartwright’s play Road, an ensemble piece about the natives of a run-down former mining town in Lancashire, premiered at the Royal Court in London in 1986, It won several awards and in short order the BBC bought the rights to it so as to make their own version. Producer David M. Thompson said the BBC was hesitant to approach Clarke because they didn’t think he would do it, though in retrospect it’s hard to think of anything more Clarkean.

Needless to say, while Cartwright retains sole writing credit, the play is inevitably adapted from the stage original. In the theatre, a smaller cast played several roles between them. Clarke dispensed with the stage narrator – played by Ian Dury in the theatre, to his disappointment as he’d been looking forward to working with Clarke – and cut and reordered several scenes. Most of the cast had appeared in the stage production. At first, Road was going to be a video-shot production made in the studio, but an electricians’ strike gave Clarke the impetus to make the film on 16mm and on location. It was shot in Easington Colliery, County Durham, a mining town long in decline. (Thirteen years later, Billy Elliot was shot in the same town.)

By now, Steadicam operator John Ward had become a key Clarke collaborator. Except for the final shot (a handheld overhead) the entirety of Road was shot on Steadicam with very wide-angle lenses. A particular tour de force is Lesley Sharp’s monologue as Valerie, just before the halfway point of the film, an unbroken four-and-a-half-minute take. Sharp had been in the stage production and had been very keen to take part in this television production, but her schedules only allowed her to be free for a few days. Her scene and monologue was shot some eighteen times, sometimes with the camera walking backwards as in the final version, sometimes from the other side of the road, and so on. If I had a nitpick, it would be that the film would have had much more use of strong language than there is in the final version. (At the time, the BBC allowed occasional F-words if they were authorised by management, and there are a few examples late on in Road, taking them beyond not only the 9pm watershed (start time was 9.25pm on first broadcast) but beyond the informal “super-watershed” of 10pm. I don’t know how much profanity was in the original play.

Road had its television premiere on 7 October 1987, and was repeated on 17 August 1988 after winning the Best Television Drama prize at the Monte Carlo Festival. It was shown again on 3 August 1991 as part of a short retrospective season following Clarke’s death.

By now, eighteen years into his television directing career, it was clear that while the general public might know Clarke from his violent pieces about young men (such as Scum and The Firm) Yet, as we’ve seen, there were many other sides to him, and many of them appear in Road. We have the clear-eyed, non-judgemental look at characters and situations other filmmakers would be far less sympathetic to. His obvious empathy prevents his films from wallowing in other people’s miserable lives, something which, for example, Mike Leigh is often erroneously accused to doing. We have the intense naturalism, with pitch-perfect performances from often-unknown actors. But he was also capable of stylisation. He had been influenced by Brecht as a stage director, and had tackled that great twentieth-century playwright directly in Baal. But that influence is there in Road, though how much is due to Cartwright, I couldn’t say: the monologues which break the fourth-wall, the poetic-demotic language, the use of music – including, unusually for Clarke, non-diegetic music – all take us away from being in danger of being taken as fly-on-the-wall. For a “male” director, he could be a very sensitive director of women – especially here with Mossie Smith, Jane Horrocks and the previously-mentioned Lesley Sharp. And there’s also the paring-down to essentials, with Clarke fitting in to sixty-two minutes what most other filmmakers would need at least an extra half-hour for. So, while this wasn’t the last film he made and this isn’t the final disc of this boxset (Disc Twelve is identical to the standalone release of The Firm, which I reviewed at the beginning of this project) it is one of his great films and seems as good a place as any to end this series of reviews.

In these reviews I have made particular use of Richard Kelly’s book Alan Clarke.

The Disc

This is Disc Five of the six-disc DVD boxset Disruption: Alan Clarke at the BBC Volume 2 (1978-1989) and Disc Eleven 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, and the drugtaking in Christine is one of the reasons for that. Road is rated 15.

Both productions were shot on 16mm film, with Christine transferred in HD from the transmission print and Road from the A- and B-roll negatives. Grain is certainly present, inevitable given the film shoot in either natural light or naturally-justified light, but the colours are true and, to state the obvious, it looks better than it ever could at the time.

The soundtracks are the original mono, rendered as LPCM 2.0. Both tracks are testaments to BBC expertise, with dialogue, sound effects and (especially with Road) music, well balanced. English subtitles are available for the hard-of-hearing (features only) and these may be of use for non-native speakers, given the strong regional accents in Road.

Both features have newly-recorded commentaries Both are moderated by the BFI’s Sam Dunn and feature Corin Campbell-Hill, who was Clarke’s production manager on Contact, Christine, Road and The Firm. Both films are relatively short, so there’s a lot of pack in, but these are details chars well worth listening to. On Road they are joined by production designer Stuart Walker, who has less to say than the other two.

As you might expect, Road caused something of a reaction. As would be the case with Elephant a year and a half later, the weekday viewer-access programme Open Air devoted an edition to viewer feedback (26:28). This is more mixed than it would be for Elephant, with several positive comments. The negative ones accuse the film of pointlessness and one caller criticises the characters for not doing anything to better their lives. Lead actress Mossie Smith is in the studio to answer the calls, with Alan Clarke and producer Andrée Molyneux in London to say their part. Also on the disc are David Leland’s introduction (2:31) to the 1991 repeat, a deleted scene (2:11) and an extensive stills gallery of on-location shots taken during the making of Contact, Road and The Firm.

Alan Clarke: Out of His Own Light reaches Part Eleven (22:15). For Christine Vicky Murdock takes up much of the space, though editor Tariq Anwar talks about the editing of the film. For Road, Lesley Sharp talks about her one scene and John Ward discusses his and Clarke’s use of the Steadicam.

The book supplied with the boxsets has an essay on Christine by Lizzie Francke and on Road by Richard T. Kelly. Francke’s piece is possibly the shortest in the book, shorter still as kit includes an extract from the script, However, some useful points are made, and Francke brings in Harmony Korine as another filmmaker directly influenced by Clarke. Kelly’s piece on Road is longer and goes into some detail on the film’s making and its political outlook, which doesn’t go along party lines: “No matter what government gets in, these people get fucked”. Also in the book are stills, some publicity material from Road, full credits and transfer notes.


Updated: Jul 20, 2016

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