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ON DVD & BLU-RAY

Scum (1979) starring Ray Winstone Blu Ray (Indicator)

The dog-eat-dog world of the borstal

This disturbing drama, depicting life inside a British borstal (a harsh variety of young offender’s institution which existed in the country until the early 1980s), is a big-screen adaptation of a then-banned BBC television play of the same name.

The film presents a world that is at once severely regimented and truly dog-eat-dog. The storyline flits between a variety of characters who have been thrown together amid this unforgiving environment. Carlin (Ray Winstone) is an embittered tough guy who vies for the position of “the Daddy” with the sadistic and bullying Pongo Banks (John Blundell) and his similarly unpleasant lieutenants Richards (Phil Daniels) and Eckersley (Ray Burdis). Archer (Mick Ford) is a hirsute young man who is frankly too charming and intelligent to be in such a place but still manages to find his own creative ways to be defiant. Davis (Julian Firth) is a gentle soul who struggles to take the repeated unpleasantness meted out by the bullying inmates and the “screws” (wardens) alike. Angel (Alrick Riley) is an Afro-Caribbean who becomes a victim of racial prejudice.

Watch a trailer:

Scum is as tough a movie as it was back in the day

Alan Clarke’s nightmarish vision of institutionalised violence has been called many things: controversial, hard-hitting, brutal, uncompromising and so on. Not without good reason either; Scum’s depictions of cruelty, racism, beatings, suicides and even anal rape still retain their visceral impact nowadays. Moreover, while the UK’s borstal system was abolished in 1982, the film’s microcosmic look at what basically amounts to a fascist dictatorship gives it an entirely different form of relevance today. The fact that the “screws” here are entirely complicit in the violence which is routinely meted out by the Daddy and his accomplices is just one step beyond Donald Trump’s semi-acceptance of neo-Nazism in today’s America.

Scum’s resolutely sparse and non-flashy style is also worthy of note and somewhat precedes the more recent Dogme 95 ethic. By sticking rigidly to on-location shooting and avoiding artificial cinematic devices such as a music score or coloured gels, the film deliberately gives the viewer the feeling that the events are happening for real in front of their eyes. The shot setups are also, in the main, rather static - at least until a lengthy handheld tracking sequence depicting a pair of blood-splattered beatings adds an intense and frankly cathartic burst of energy to the proceedings.

Scum (1979) directed by Alan Clarke

While the performances are convincing across the board, there are two that really stand out here. Firstly, there’s Ray Winstone in one of his earliest major roles as the iconic anti-hero Carlin. On screen, he’s a pure ball of uncontainable pent-up rage who is utterly riveting throughout. Right from the start, we just know that he’s going to explode at some point - and explode in a way which will put him right up against those who hold sway within the joint. However, Mick Ford is equally impressive as his more talkative and witty on-screen buddy Archer. While Carlin is a pure emotional time bomb waiting to go off, Archer is his more cunning and articulate counterpart: an anti-establishment intelligentsia mouthpiece who operates by taking advantage of the rulebook to cause as much grief as possible to his oppressors.

Scum occasionally stumbles over its own polemical shortcomings, the classic example being the depiction of the wardens as a bunch of one-note callous brutes. Nonetheless, it is hard to deny that it is anything less than a forceful cinematic punch in the gut. To paraphrase Carlin’s oft-quoted signature assertion, it’s the Daddy now.

Runtime: 97 mins

Dir: Alan Clarke

Script: Roy Minton

Starring: Ray Winstone, Mick Ford, Julian Firth, John Blundell, Phil Daniels, Ray Burdis, Alrick Riley

Blu Ray Audio-Visual

This looks and sounds about as good as it is possible to get with a spartan, low-budget film like this. The images are sharp and contrast is spot-on throughout.

Extras

While it would have been ideal if the TV incarnation of Scum were included as an extra here, this was a licensing impossibility for Indicator due to the fact that BFI holds the exclusive rights to it. Nonetheless, there is a wealth of other material available on this disc, including some particularly enjoyable brand new interviews.

Commentary with Ray Winstone and Nigel Floyd

Time Out film critic Nigel Floyd interviews the film’s lead actor. Unfortunately, their commentary isn’t as good as you might have wished for mainly because the film’s original soundtrack isn’t muted out when they speak, resulting in some jarring audio clashes. Nonetheless, there are moments of interest here. Winstone reveals that he heard from various friends who themselves fell afoul of the law that they would rather have spent three years in an adult prison than one in a borstal due to all of the bullying between children in the latter. Sobering stuff.

Mick Ford: No Luxuries

The actor who played Archer in the film talks about his memories of working on it. He reveals that the experience was unusual for him in a number of ways. Firstly, he was well into his 20s (and too old to be sent to borstal in real life) during production and was actually friends with some of the actors who played the “screws”. Secondly, he was required to walk barefoot in real snow; he tells us that the experience itself wasn’t so bad until his feet warmed up again and he was suddenly in agonising pain. The film’s shooting script was entitled The Boys in Black because the hospital where they filmed was an NHS facility and the filmmakers didn’t want the government to find out that they were shooting a film version of a teleplay which had already attracted so much controversy.

Ray Burdis: An Outbreak of Acting

An interview with the actor who played Eckersley in both TV and big screen versions of Scum. He reveals that there was a lot of real-life tension on set between the main cast of 20 or so professional actors and the 200 or so “oiks off the street” who were hired as extras. The result was that genuine punches were thrown and injuries received during the brawl scenes! He also owns up to taking both the transportation coach and a crew member’s car for joyrides.

Perry Benson: Smashing Windows

Perry was too young to be cast in the TV version but ended up in the film playing the role of Formby. While his character doesn’t appear to do much in the released cut, there were a number of details and scenes which were removed because they were deemed to be too disturbing even in context with the rest of the film. Apparently, Formby was a child who committed murder. There was also a sequence filmed where he gets severely beaten up after an escape attempt and is thrown into a rubber room.

Phil Meheux: Continuous Tension

Cinematographer Phil Meheux talks about how he got the script for the original TV version. However, while he had a feeling that it was going to be something special, he had already committed to leaving the BBC at the time to take a step into making feature films. Luckily, when it transpired that it would be remade as a cinema version, the producers called him up again and he accepted. He also discusses his techniques for shooting a low budget production without any proper film lighting.

Martin Campbell: Criminal Record

Did you realise that the man now better known for the directing the Bond films Goldeneye and Casino Royale was Scum’s line producer? Well - now you know! He reveals that it was shot in six weeks with an allocated budget of just £250,000. However, they overran by about £5,000. He fondly recalls Alan Clarke, describing him as being funny, rebellious and a notorious drinker. He also mentions an incident involving Clarke baring his arse in a pub in front of a BBC producer whom he disliked - an incident which got him banned from the station for two years!

Don Boyd: Back to Borstal

A lengthy (31-minute) but very worthy interview with the film’s executive producer. He talks about how he pulled it together, his working relationship with Alan Clarke and its post-release popularity and cultural impact. He reveals that there were tensions between Clarke and the other producers, particularly over the graphic nature of the film’s suicide scene plus the director’s insistence that it be completed without any musical score.

Of more interest, however, are his comments about its subsequent notoriety. For one thing, during a screening that Boyd and Clarke attended, some audience members were cheering on Carlin (Ray Winstone) beating up a black rival. Clarke initially wanted it pulled from release because he feared that it was appealing to racist views. The film also ran afoul of the notorious moral crusader Mary Whitehouse, who filed a private prosecution against it so that it would be banned from television. Although she initially succeeded, the ban was lifted on appeal. Ironically, it was screened on British TV on the night when Margaret Thatcher got re-elected!

Michael Bradsell: Concealing the Art

It’s another lengthy one: a 29-minute interview with the editor. He discusses his working relationship with Alan Clarke and also dissects a number of the film’s key scenes.

Esta Charkham: That Kind of Casting

The film’s casting director has a real “gift of the gab”! She talks with great affection about Alan Clarke and their casting choices for Scum. She closes by discussing why she ultimately gave up casting and moved into producer roles.

Archive Interviews

Roy Minton and Clive Parsons

Both the screenplay writer and the film version’s co-producer are interviewed here. Parsons describes Clarke as “an actor’s director” and takes a look at the controversy surrounding both the BBC and film versions as well as the story’s underlying themes. Minton discusses his real-life research of ex-borstal inmates which went into writing the script.

Roy Minton

Minton, who wrote the original screenplay, discusses the challenges that Clarke and himself faced in getting the original TV version made. He then goes on to talk about its banning and its subsequent remake as a big screen venture. It was at this point that Minton fell out with Clarke after some alterations the latter made to the screenplay for the later version - the most notable being the removal of a subplot involving Carlin taking a male lover.

Davina Belling and Clive Parsons

The film’s producers discuss the contemporary critical and censorial reactions to it. Ironically, some reviewers accused it of inciting violence despite the fact that it didn’t exactly paint a rosy picture of the potential legal consequences of partaking in illegal activity!

Don Boyd

An earlier interview with the film’s executive producer which, by and large, covers the same ground as the more recent one available on the disc.

Cast Memories

Phil Daniels, David Threlfall, Mick Ford and Julian Firth discuss the banning of the original TV version, the character of Archer and a number of key scenes. According to Daniels, Alan Clarke’s approach to actors was pretty much “Get in there, my son!”.

The extras are rounded out by two versions of the trailer (one “U” rated and the other “X” rated), an image gallery and a collector’s booklet.

Overall:

Scum is one of the most brutal British films ever made and is well worth the effort of psyching yourself up to watch. While it’s a shame that the original TV incarnation couldn’t have been included here, the numerous interviews offer plenty of meat.

Movie: ☆☆☆☆☆

Video: ☆☆☆☆

Audio: ☆☆☆☆

Extras: ☆☆☆☆

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