DVD Review: Alan Clarke at the BBC

4 minutes




During David Leland’s introduction to Alan Clarke’s Road, originally aired as part a retrospective of the director’s work in 1991 he argues that Clarke’s distinct form of social realism is “a fine example of the uniqueness of British television…part of a vanishing species under threat from government policy of abandoning public service broadcasting to market forces”. 25 years later, in what an increasing number of cultural commentators keep insisting is a ‘golden age’ of television, you’d be hard pressed to find a director as dedicated to providing a platform for marginalised voices. Television remains an integral part of society’s cultural consumption, yet working-class characters are noticeably absent from the discourse.

At a time of mounting cuts to public services and a growing number of family’s becoming reliant on food banks, television is crying out for this kind of socially engaged filmmaking. This long-overdue collection of Clarke’s televised plays brings together the twenty-three surviving TV dramas he directed for the BBC. His work has been split into two collections. The first, Dissent features newly remastered versions of the dramas Clarke produced between 1969 and 1977 including Scum, Penda’s Fen and Funny Farm. Volume two, Disruption is like a time-capsule of life in Thatcher’s Britain and focuses on Clarke’s later, more formally daring work. Fans of Clarke’s films will also be excited to learn that as well as previously unreleased dramas like Stars of the Roller Skate Disco, Nina and Baal the Disruption boxset also boasts a newly discovered director’s cut of Clarke’s football-hooligan drama The Firm.

There’s a political bent to all of Clarke’s work, yet sadly he’s best remembered for the graphic violence of his films like Scum and Made in Britain. Thankfully this boxset provides an opportunity to study Clarke’s work in its totality. Each of these films comprises of characters with little to no ability to self-actualise, caught in a longstanding and futile struggle with various institutions. Clarke’s nuanced approach to violence is best observed in Elephant a film that explores the conflict in Northern Ireland through a series of 18 wordless murders. The film’s title is taken from a quote by Irish writer Bernard MacLaverty, who described the heavily sanitized television reporting of the Troubles as an elephant in the living room. Clarke wanted to engage the viewer with the reality of this conflict and depicts each of these assassination without divulging motive or attributing blame to either side. The Troubles also form the backdrop to Contact and Psy-Warriors (both available here), yet Elephant endures as one of the most shocking and thought provoking depictions of the spiraling violence which engulfed Northern Ireland during this period.

Clarke’s televisual work was formally innovative, and his use of Brecht’s alienation technique and long searching close-ups were a major influence on modern British directors like Paul Greengrass, Clio Barnard and Shane Meadows. However, its Clarke’s innovative use of Steadicam that gives his work such an alluring quality. Used to show patterns of behavior and the relationship between characters and place, Clarke’s lengthy tracking shots capture the futile efforts of his working-class characters to escape the constraints of their class. This sense of hopelessness is best observed in Road, a scorching indictment of Thatcher’s Britain, where the inhabitants of a rundown Lancashire town roam the deserted streets sharing their stories with the audience. They’re constantly on the move, yet they’re literally (and figuratively) going nowhere. Repetition and circularity is another technique used by Clarke to illustrate his characters denial of progress. It’s best observed in Christine, a insidiously disturbing film in which Clarke’s camera calmly and coolly observes the daily routine of a young heroin addict. We follow her as she calls on her friends and fellow users, with heroin consumed and shared around like cups of tea and its this eschewing of the sensationalism that drug usage normally evokes that makes these events all the more dismaying. Like an irresistible force faced with an immoveable object, these characters all march tirelessly forward, yet Clarke manifestly rejects the myth of social mobility, and the sad truth is each and everyone one of them is purely going round in circles.

It’s a great irony that a filmmaker widely celebrated for giving a voice to the overlooked and under-served members of society has been overlooked for so long. Clarke died of lung cancer in 1990, and it could be argued that the television play died with him, yet this box-set is undeniable proof that television can be more than mere escapism; it can be a powerful medium to confront the innumerable issues that plague society. Lesley Sharp’s character, Valerie sums it up best in her heartbreaking monologue at the end of Road, ”There’s nothing left but profit and loss and who shot who. I want magic again.”

Patrick Gamble | @PatrickJGamble

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