Dissent & Disruption: Alan Clarke at the BBC (1969-1989): Danton’s Death/Beloved Enemy

The Alan Clarke box reaches a pair of political dramas, one historic, one present-day.

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
Stars of the Roller State Disco/Contact
Elephant/The Firm

Danton’s Death (94:41)

Alan Clarke directed two productions for BBC2’s Play of the Month slot, the first being The Love-Girl and the Innocentback in 1973. He was approached by Stuart Griffiths, who had been appointed in 1977 as script editor for BBC Classic Plays, while he was in the middle of making Bukovsky, to make another. At first Clarke was interested in making Georg Büchner’s 1837 play Woyzeck but then saw Werner Herzog’s 1979 film and felt that Herzog had more or less made his film the same way he would have made his own. So he turned to Büchner’s earlier play from 1835, Danton’s Death.

The French Revolution has inspired much art in the two centuries since, and inevitably Georges Danton (1759-1994) has figured highly, in particular his clashes with Maximilien Robespierre (1758-1794), which led to his arrest, trial and execution by guillotine. Büchner’s play was first filmed in 1921, starring Emil Jannings. In his French-made 1983 film Danton, Andrzej Wajda drew parallels between the French Reign of Terror and the situation in Poland, under martial law as the film was being made, emphasised by the casting of French actors as Danton’s supporters and Polish ones as Robespierre and his supporters. Danton, Robespierre and Camille Desmoulins are the three central characters of Hilary Mantel’s 1993 novel A Place of Greater Safety.

Danton’s Death was Büchner’s first play, a four-acter, written when he was twenty. It concentrates on the clash of personalities between Danton (Norman Rodway), hedonistic, given to wine, gambling and womanising, and Robespierre (Ian Richardson) the “incorruptible”, quite possibly asexual, and in Danton’s eyes most likely repressed and no lover of life. Danton’s Death is thought of as one of the first “documentary” plays, given that a significant amount of the dialogue is verbatim from the historical record. Heavily censored on its original publication, the play was not performed until 1902, long after the playwright’s death in 1837, aged just twenty-three, from typhus.

Griffiths and Clarke are credited for “freely” adapting the play, having found as many as twelve different versions and translations not to their liking. Some scenes are reordered, and speeches from Woyzeck and from contemporary accounts are inserted. Griffiths and Clarke’s script is rather more colloquial than you might expect from a production of a nineteenth-century play. Clarke directed the play on video in the BBC Television Centre’s largest studio. He shot on long lenses throughout, which meant that the cameras were almost always up against the studio walls and never closer than forty-five feet. This emphasises close-ups more, with faces standing out from a softer background, a look inspired by paintings of the period. In the rare scenes where we move outside, Clarke and his production designer, Stuart Walker, make no attempt to hide the theatricality of the sets.

As this was a prestigious production, Danton’s Death attracted a high-powered cast, with the two leads giving strong performances and Zoë Wanamaker having a striking final scene as Lucille Desmoulins. Danton’s Death was broadcast on a Sunday night, 23 April 1978, and as yet has not been repeated.

Beloved Enemy (68:53)

There’s a jump of three years in this boxset, from Danton’s Death and Nina, both brooadcast in 1978, to Beloved Enemy in 1981. This gap is explained by Clarke’s work on the feature film of Scum, which was released in 1979 and by Clarke’s spending time in America. Sanford Lieberson was then running 20th Century Fox and he began a programme of bringing non-US directors (mainly Europeans and Australians) to the USA for six months to give them a taste of working under the Hollywood system. By the end of their six months, they had to have several ideas for films and at least one treatment which could be developed. Clarke was one of the directors invited and so he went. His suggested project was Assassination on Embassy Row, about the killing of Orlando Letelier, the one-time Chilean ambassador to the USA and opponent to the Pinochet regime. Unfortunately this was too political a subject for a major-studio film, especially if it had been made with no stars as Clarke had wanted. So he returned to the UK.

Meanwhile, David Leland, who had acted for Clarke in The Love-Girl and the Innocent, was working as an actor and director at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, while continuing to write. His first play was Psy-Warriors, put on at the Royal Court in London. He invited Clarke to see the play, which he wasn’t able to, but he did read it instead. As a result, Clarke approached Leland to write a Play for Today, for which he had a slot lined up, one for a production to be shot on film. The result was Beloved Enemy, based on Charles Levinson’s book Vodka-Cola. (Leland gets sole writing credit at the start, but Levinson gets an “in collaboration with” credit at the end, as well as a “based on” credit for his book.) Pepsi-Cola had funded Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign, and once he was in the White House he made overtures to the Soviet Union, including several meetings with Nikita Krushchev. Nixon’s backers’ motive was to make it possible for the company to market Russian vodka in the USA in return for Pepsi to be able to trade in the USSR. Levinson’s book details how the real power, in both West and East, was transferring from national governments to multinational corporations which no loyalty to any particular country. Clarke had produced a documentary, Vodka-Cola, broadcast on ITV in 1980, but thought a drama on the subject would have more impact.

Beloved Enemy is fiction. It deals with UKM, a British tyre company seeking to collaborate with the Soviets. They want access to the laser process the UK have developed as part of the vulcanising process, while for the British the incentive is the opening of a factory in Ukraine with considerably cheaper labour – and with less interference and strike action from unions, as the UK had experienced through much of the 1970s. The BBC objected to a script which was mostly men in meeting rooms debating and making deals and Leland wrote a new script with a more “personal” subplot, a company director in conflict with his more liberal daughter. But Clarke went ahead and filmed the original script. Following its first and only broadcast on 10 February 1981, Clive James’s review in The Observer thought that the idea of laser cannons in space was too far-fetched and too much like science fiction…and President Reagan within a few years began to develop just such a system, the Strategic Defense Initiative, less formally called Star Wars.

It’s significant that Beloved Enemy went out as a Play for Today. Today’s today is tomorrow’s yesterday and what can seem urgent, ripped from the headlines, can date rapidly. Clarke’s other Play for Today dealing with Soviet Russia, as it was then, Nina, should be one such an example, but it stands up as a human story which will remain valid while totalitarian regimes exist on the planet, even if this one in particular no longer exists. Unfortunately that isn’t the case with Beloved Enemy. While it’s undoubtedly of considerable interest to students of the period, it doesn’t hold up quite so well as drama. There are some well-aimed satirical barbs in Leland’s script and some excellent ensemble acting. But it’s a very dry film, with Clarke’s use of long lenses adding to a sense of detachment. While not without interest, Beloved Enemy is the least of Leland and Clarke’s collaborations.

The Disc

This is Disc Two of the six-disc DVD boxset Disruption: Alan Clarke at the BBC Volume 2 (1978-1989) and Disc Eight 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 Danton’s Death bears a 12 and Beloved Enemy a PG.

Both features are in their original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. As with other discs in this set, a studio-based video production is paired with one shot on 16mm film. Danton’s Death was transferred from a Digibeta copy of the original two-inch Quad broadcast tape. Beloved Enemy was mastered from the 16mm transmission print. Both show the characteristics of their originating formats, even more so on this high-definition disc. With the former, the limitations of 625-line PAL video, when viewed on much larger and less forgiving devices than the television sets of time of broadcast. There are trails on lights and ghosting, and a rather flat look overall. On the other hand, Beloved Enemy, shot on 16mm film, is soft and quite grainy. The colours in both seem true, and ultimately this is what both have always looked like. As Beloved Enemy was shot at twenty-five frames a second instead of the cinema standard of twenty-four, as it was intended for broadcast on a PAL television service, the Blu-ray transfer is 1080i50.

The soundtracks are the original mono, and are clear and well-balanced as you might expect from BBC productions. Neither has any diegetic music. Hard-of-hearing subtitles are available for both features but not the extra.

That extra is Part Eight of Alan Clarke: Out of His Own Light (19:46). This has fewer interviewees than normal – just two with a brief contribution from a third – but both are able to talk at greater depth about the production concerned. Stuart Walker talks about his role as production designer in Danton’s Death and the effect that Clarke’s shooting style had. As for Beloved Enemy, we hear from the editor, Tariq Anwar, but mostly it’s David Leland, talking through the background of the play and ending by mentioning Clive James’s overtaken-by-history review with a knowing smirk.

The book with these boxsets (200 pages for the limited edition, its second half for the DVD set) has an essay on Danton’s Death by Kaleem Aftab, which, after giving a brief background to the production, concentrates on Clarke’s use of framing and his long lenses: favouring closeups for Danton and long shots with the men small figures in large sets when dealing with Robespierre and his cohorts. By contrast, the piece on Beloved Enemy, by Mark Duguid, spends much of its nearly four pages teasing out the political aspects of the play, the fictional ones in the drama itself and the real-life ones which inspired it. As well as these essays, the books contain full credits, notes on extras and on the transfers. At least in the PDF copy I’m reviewing from, the credits for Beloved Enemy erroneously list David Leland as the author of the book Vodka-Cola.


Updated: Jul 04, 2016

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