Dissent & Disruption: Alan Clarke at the BBC (1969-1989): Half Hour Story
This is one of a series of reviews of the BFI's box set. For the other reviews, in chronological order, go to:
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
Stars of the Roller State Disco/Contact
Alan Clarke had a prolific career directing for television, and you have to wonder how more prolific he would have been if he had not died at the young age of fifty-four. There's a case that the British film industry survived in part on the small screen, with directors who had made cinema features, such as Ken Loach, Stephen Frears and Mike Leigh, continuing to work on television while opportunities on the big screen were scarce. Quite often making their films on film (usually but not always 16mm) as opposed to multi-camera video in the studio, their work was shown once, sometimes twice, in slots such as the BBC's Wednesday Play and Play for Today. All three of the ones I've named returned to the cinema in the 1980s and their reputations are secure. Clarke, while his talent was noticed from the outset, has tended not to be spoken of in the same breath outside the industry. Partly this is because while he was far more prolific than any of the others (shooting either on video or on film, often two or more productions a year) he hadn't made a cinema film before his television career and in the end he made just three before his death. The best known of those is no doubt the 1979 Scum, and that only exists because the BBC banned the original 1977 play. No one is likely to rate Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire and Rita, Sue and Bob Too among Clarke's best work. The BFI have now mounted a strong case for Clarke as one of the finest directors active in the 1970s and 1980s, in the form of two six-DVD boxsets or one limited-edition thirteen-disc set (eleven Blu-rays, two DVDs) containing all of Clarke's surviving work for the BBC. Due to the size of these sets, I will be reviewing them a disc at a time. There are also standalone Blu-ray and DVD releases of Penda's Fen and The Firm. The former is different to Disc Four of the box set, though the latter is identical to Disc Twelve.)
Clarke was born in 1935 in Wallasey, Merseyside, making him eight months older than Loach. He spent his National Service in Hong Kong. On returning to the UK, he saved up and soon afterwards relocated to Canada. While in hospital due to a hand injury, he applied to the Ryerson Institute of Technology in Toronto and enrolled on a course on radio and television arts. He started directing at Ryerson, at first for the stage. Returning to London in 1962, he found work as an assistant floor manager at ATV (the company which then had the ITV network's franchise for weekends in the London area). He also started directing at the Questor's Theatre in Ealing, a well-regarded amateur repertory theatre, with short runs of a variety of plays, new and old. He soon gained a reputation and when he applied for directing work at Rediffusion (the weekday London ITV franchisee at the time, formerly Associated-Rediffusion) he was accepted.
Stella Richman had recently become Head of Scripted Series at Rediffusion and soon Clarke came to her attention. She went to see his latest production at the Questors, which was Macbeth. Duly impressed, she hired him. Clarke's first directing assignments were Epilogues, brief talks to camera, often by priests or vicars, broadcast at the end of each day before closedown. Then a half-hour slot became free in Rediffusion's schedule. Richman's idea to fill it was Half Hour Story, a single play of around twenty-five minutes with a commercial break in the middle. She rightly assumed that many of the established television writers of the day were likely to have ideas for a half-hour, and she was keen to engage new directors to make them.
Half Hour Story ran for three series in 1967 and 1968, with a total of thirty-eight episodes, of which Clarke directed ten. As ever, the scourge of vintage television struck and exactly half of the run is now lost. No doubt the powers that be saw no further use in them once they had been broadcast, especially as they were black and white when colour television was clearly on its way. (BBC2 had started broadcasting in colour in 1967 and BBC1 and ITV followed suit in 1969.) Of Clarke's ten, none survive from original 405-line videotapes and three are lost completely. These are: A Man Inside (written by Pauline Macaulay and broadcast on 23 May 1967) and two written by Edna O'Brien, who specifically requested Clarke to direct the second after liking what he had done with the first: Which of These Two Ladies is He Married To? (12 July 1967) and Nothing's Ever Over (17 July 1968). George's Room, which was made twice, first in black and white (the version broadcast, now lost) and again in colour, is on the first Blu-ray and DVD of the boxset and I will talk about it there. The remaining six comprise a bonus DVD exclusive to the thirteen-disc set: see below for a list.
Given such short running times, these half-hour plays make a virtue of the Greek unities of time and place. They take place over a short period of time in one location (usually a studio set, though in the case of Shelter it was the Orangery in Holland Park) and is a more or less overt confrontation between two people, usually a man and a woman – though in the case of The Gentleman Caller, it's three men. That said, it would be misleading to make too much of a pattern of this. The plays Clarke directed from female writers are the ones which are missing, and judging by the IMDB entries they had larger casts: four women and one man in the case of Which of These Two Ladies is He Married To?. But from what we have available, some of which were lost in their time but have been found, Clarke's typical strategy is to, once an establishing shot is out of the way, cut quickly back and forth between tight close-ups, making a virtue of the small size of the television screen, often much smaller than those available today. Often these are character-led stories, with the changes made at the end internal ones. Threat is sometimes overt, more often lurking just below the surface, so a story which might seem quite simple can take on depths. Clarke's direction gives proceedings an often pressure-cooker intensity, and his ability with actors is clear from the outset. Of the six episodes on this disc, three (Shelter, Stella and Thief|) were written by Alun Owen, a leading name in realistic television drama of the day. The Fifty-Seventh Saturday was the work of William Trevor, a distinguished short story writer who regarded his work in other media as adaptation of his true life's work: in fact, this play adapts one of his own stories, “The Forty-Seventh Saturday”, which he had previously adapted for radio. The Gentleman Caller and Goodnight Albert were Clarke's first collaborations with Nottingham writer Roy Minton, who would work with Clarke several times afterwards.
Also for Rediffusion, Clarke directed one episode of the series The Informer and three episodes of A Man of Our Times, of which just one of the latter survives. In 1968, Rediffusion and ATV lost their franchises to respectively, Thames and London Weekend Television. Company of Five was a series of six single plays for LWT in 1968, so called because the same five principal actors appeared in each. It's best known now for a play that Clarke didn't direct: Dennis Potter's once lost, later found Shaggy Dog. Clarke directed two of them, and all six survive. Also for LWT in 1969, he directed one episode of the thirteen-part The Gold Robbers, which you can see on Network's DVD release. By then, Clarke had an agent who secured him an interview with the BBC, and that year he began to direct for the Corporation.
Half Hour Story is currently solely available as the bonus disc of the thirteen-disc boxset Dissent & Disruption: Alan Clarke at the BBC (1969-1989). The disc is dual-layered and encoded for Region 2. The six plays contained on it are:
Shelter (broadcast 19 May 1967) (26:49)
The Gentleman Caller (16 June 1967) (24:56)
Goodnight Albert (6 February 1968) (25:58)
Stella (19 June 1968) (25:11)
The Fifty-Seventh Saturday (3 July 1968) (25:59)
Thief (24 July 1968) (26:12)
The boxset as a whole carries an 18 certificate. Goodnight Albert, The Fifty-Seventh Saturday are Thief are rated PG, Shelter and The Gentleman Caller are 12, while verbal references to rape give Stella a 15.
All of these plays were shot on 405-line video, ITV's broadcasting standard at the time. None of the original videotapes survive, and each play bar one is transferred from a 16mm telerecording, negatives for Goodnight Albert and The Fifty-Seventh Saturday, prints for the others.. Given the less-than-HD-resolution source, the results are soft with line structure sometimes visible. The exception is Thief, which is a generation further removed: a homevideo recording, with noticeable noise and tracking issues, and even softer resolution. Given that domestic video recording was very much a rich man's toy in 1968, it's a miracle this survives at all. The aspect ratio in all cases is 1.33:1, which is what you would expect of television from the time. Some of the plays preserve the End of Part One/Part Two captions on either side of the commercial break, though they are missing from others: for example, in Shelter there's a noticeable splice where it would be.
The soundtracks are the original mono, and a clear and well-balanced. English hard-of-hearing subtitles are available. I did spot one spelling mistake: “impune” for “impugn” in Thief. There's noticeable hiss and crackle on the soundtrack of that episode, no doubt due to its source as a video recording.
There are no extras on the disc itself, but the boxset as a whole has a very significant extra in the shape of a 200-page book. Each item on the discs gets a newly-commissioned essay. For the six plays on this disc, they are the work of David Rolinson, except for Goodnight Albert which is by Lisa Kerrigan. They discuss the making of each of the plays, and their particular camera style, while chipping away at deeper themes: gender politics in the case of Stella, for example. Although this was written by a man, there are several women at the centre of Clarke's later work, belying his reputation as a very male director. At the start of this section of the book, there are extracts from Rediffusion's sales brochure for Half Hour Story and there are stills for each one, plus full credits (which consistently misspell producer Stella Richman's surname as “Richmond”, at least in the PDF copy received for review) and transfer notes.