The director of Scum, Made in Britain and The Firm made films that were brilliant, disconcerting and radical – and set the template for others to follow. A working-class director making films about working-class people … Alan Clarke directing Gary Oldman.
I’ve been thinking about Alan Clarke recently. That’s not unusual: he’s a director I admire, and his glorious, gritty films mean a lot to me. But more so for his relevance to Britain, in these troubled post-Brexit, terrorist shaken times we’re facing.
The bitterness and resentment we’re feeling collectively as a nation as a result of class division, and corruption is nothing new. In fact we have solidly done a U-turn back to the Clarke’s depicted Thatcher days of old.
When he was making films in the 80s, his anger was a beacon in bad times. Now, in more of them, it feels right to look back at the film which sums up this movement’s sentiment: Made in Britian.
A funny thing about doing this project for the BBC was that Clarke had his own film Scum banned by the corporation in 1977. (He wasn’t alone there: Watkins saw The War Game go unbroadcast for 20 years.) Although his output was wildly diverse, Clarke’s best films often ended up snared in controversy. Scum, like many of them, was violent and foul-mouthed, but what petrified executives throughout his career were the people Clarke made films about. In the disunited 1980s, just to tell stories about the feral skinhead Trevor in Made in Britain or The Firm’s upwardly mobile hooligan Bex was a radical two fingers.
If they think of him at all, people think of Clarke as a maker of brute social realism. But God, his films are sophisticated: Made in Britain is a masterclass of Steadicam and 360-degree lighting; The Firm an adrenal melee. And these are worlds you know Clarke knew, rather than having had them introduced to him by someone at dinner who had read a piece in one of the Sundays.
Molly Windsor as Lucy in The Unloved. Photograph: Channel 4
As with everything British, all roads lead to class. Clarke started working in TV during what now looks the brief British experiment with social mobility in the 1950s and 60s. The result was something truly outlandish by today’s standards: a working-class director making films about working-class people honest enough to admit they were often a mess, but also, to clarify that they were, in fact, people. Now, we have Benefits Street.
Maybe the closet thing to Clarke in 2015 is Samantha Morton. As a director she has only made one film, The Unloved, the story of a girl in a Nottingham children’s home, but its high-wire energy and her obvious bond with her actors all felt very Clarke to me. She even insisted it went out on TV so that kids themselves could see it.
Let’s be honest: if it seems inconceivable that Alan Clarke would be making films now, it felt fairly inconceivable then, too. The writer of Made in Britain, David Leland, said that while it was on air, “People wanted to go round the back of the TV to see if it was plugged in properly”. We should also be careful of over-egging the nostalgia for an era that commissioned his films, only to end up banning them. And yet that was the era that made them, and they’re still astonishing now.
Personally, I refuse to believe no one out there has anything Clarke-ian to say about the descendants of Trevor, Bex and the rest of them, now strutting around the offices, gyms, nightclubs and police stations of modern Britain. It’s just that in modern Britain, I have no idea where they might be saying it, or who might be listening. It’s always a pleasure to think about Alan Clarke, and it was an even greater one to make a tribute to him – even if, like most celebrations, it has ended up melancholy.