Whether or not you accept the media hype about our current cultural moment being a TV “Golden Age”, one thing is certain: what’s sorely lacking from British television schedules at the moment is the one-off drama, the single play that, in the 1970s and ‘80s, was a staple of BBC programming and that resulted in many bold and unusual visions. Closely connected to the theatre of the period, the one-off dramas featured in such regular strands as “Play For Today”, “The Wednesday Play” and “Play of the Month” benefited from the open-mindedness of producers in allowing writers and directors to push the boundaries of the medium, while the format of the shows (with limited budgets and running times that seldom exceeded two hours) led to lean, focused story-telling that’s a marked contrast to the bloated excesses and unwieldy narratives of most TV series today.
Among the very many things that the BFI’s stunning new box-set Dissent and Disruption: Alan Clarke at the BBC (available on Blu-ray and DVD) accomplishes is to remind us of a time when the one-off play was central to British cultural life, and, more specifically, of a time when a highly stylised David Bowie-starring Bertolt Brecht adaptation was considered fit fare for primetime viewing. Formidable in its thematic range, rigorous in its attention to form, Clarke’s body of work fully deserves the wider exposure that this lovingly assembled 12-disc box-set (which includes booklet essays on each film and a documentary featuring new interviews with a range of Clarke’s collaborators) will inevitably provide. It’s an expensive buy, to be sure. Yet the singular, strangely moving spectacle of Bowie as the rake-ish anti-hero poet in Baal (1982), grubby and barking bitter Brecht ballads in split-screen, is pretty much worth the purchase price alone.
Born in Wallasey, Merseyside in 1935, Clarke studied Radio and Television Arts at Ryerson in Toronto, before returning to England; he began his directing career in theatre, transitioning into television in the late 1960s, where he worked prolifically until his early death in 1990. The fact that Clarke has never become quite as widely known, or as internationally celebrated, as his contemporaries Mike Leigh and Ken Loach may be due precisely to the fact that his most essential work was made for television, and that a great deal of it has been out of circulation for many years. Despite this, though, Clarke’s influence remains wide: American indie mavericks including Gus van Sant and Harmony Korine have openly cited Clarke’s later work as an inspiration (van Sant’s 2003 Elephant borrows not only aspects of its aesthetic but even its title from Clarke’s 1989 film, in which an ever-roving Steadicam captures 18 anonymous murders in Belfast ), while Lizzie Franke detects echoes of Clarke in the work of contemporary British female filmmakers, from Andrea Arnold to Clio Barnard and Lynne Ramsay.
Less didactic than Loach, less prone to caricature than Leigh can be, Clarke’s work is especially notable for its extraordinary diversity, encompassing period adaptations (Solzhenitsyn’s The Love-Girl and the Innocent, Büchner’s Danton’s Death), intimate character studies (Diane) , poetic rhapsodies (Penda’s Fen) and hard-hitting experimenta (Contact, Elephant), alongside some indelible curios (Under the Age, Stars of the Roller State Disco). Though occasionally credited as co-writer, Clarke tended to work from others’ scripts (forging productive collaborations with Roy Minton and David Leland, amongst other scribes), which may explain the variety and range of his output.
Yet, cumulatively, some recurrent preoccupations do start to reveal themselves. For one, Clarke’s work is often drawn to explore group dynamics, the workings of “tribes” or institutions, and the fate of individuals therein. That’s true of a number of the finest plays here, including Sovereign’s Company (1970), which astutely explores the interactions of a bunch of new recruits at a British military academy, through to his most controversial work, Scum (1977), a portrait of the inculcated brutality of borstal life that got itself banned by the BBC for its violence and was remade by Clarke as a feature film in 1979. Though slightly undeveloped in its screenplay, Scum still hits hard, and features a career-making performance from Ray Winstone as the new boy determined to assert himself in the survival-of-the-fittest atmosphere of the youth prison system.
Works such as Scum make it tempting to lump Clarke in the “social realist” box, and it’s true that a number of the films here take the pulse and measure of their moment in provocative ways , whether it’s the portrait of under-pressure staff in a mental institution in Funny Farm (1975) or the radical trilogy of Northern Ireland-referencing projects, Psy-Warriors (1981), Contact (1985) and Elephant (1989). Yet the classification is a reductive one, as Clarke’s work often transcends or subverts social realism: witness, for example, the curious dystopia Stars of the Roller State Disco (1984), which unfolds in a bizarre job-centre-cum-skating-rink for unemployed teens : a fitting, if unsubtle, metaphor for the ever-decreasing circles of opportunity experienced by British working-class youth in the early ’80s.
|Penda's Fen (1974)|
Another characteristic of Clarke’s work, indeed, is the sympathetic, though decidedly unsentimental, affinity it demonstrates with teenage protagonists. Among the finest plays here are two unforgettable coming-of-age films. Penda’s Fen (1974), written by David Rudkin, is a visionary pagan pastoral about the intellectual, spiritual and sexual awakening of a conservative 17-year-old, Stephen (Spencer Banks). Sometimes suggesting Derek Jarman or Terence Davies in its hallucinatory imagery, the film is a rich and strange creation that’s as beautiful to look at as it is to listen to, its combination of the mundane and the mythic adding up to a celebration of hybridity (both national and personal) that still feels gloriously subversive.
Diane (1975), meanwhile, casts Janine Duvitski as a teenager challenged with making her life after the trauma of bearing a baby by her own father. Scrupulously avoiding sensationalism via an intelligently elliptical approach to its narrative revelations, Diane is a should-be classic that boasts a stunning performance from Duvitski, who honours every step of the protagonist’s journey from awkward, angry, inarticulate teen to sensitive young woman tentatively making her own way in the world.
What’s also notable about Clarke is the generous flexibility of his approach. As a director , you don’t feel him imposing a style on the material but rather finding the best way to tell the story in each case; thus, his aesthetic ranges from the vivid lushness of Penda’s Fen to the chilling clinical sparseness of Psy-Warriors. That sensitivity is somewhat less acute in a few of the later films, in which Clarke’s fondness for Steadicam arguably gets over-indulgent, rendering the likes of Elephant and 1987’s Christine (a studiedly affectless and monotonous portrait of an atypical drug-dealer making her rounds in the suburbs) more admirable experiments than fully developed dramas.
Yet Clarke was back on peak form with Road (1987), a rowdy, robust adaptation of Jim Cartwright’s play starring Jane Horrocks and Neil Dudgeon as inhabitants of a crumbling County Durham street, that includes a startling stream-of-consciousness monologue delivered by Lesley Sharp. Even better is Clarke’s final film, The Firm (1989), presented here alongside its previously unseen “Director’s Cut” version, a powerful account of toxic masculinity featuring a phenomenal performance from Gary Oldman as the volatile estate agent for whom professional success and family life don’t offer the thrills provided by brutal football hooliganism.
There’s no denying that much of Clarke’s work is challenging and demanding, and that a lot of it is grim. Even warmer, more innocuous works such as Horace (1972) and A Follower for Emily (1974) have a sting in the tale, an undertow of loss, distress or compromise. Yet the quality of Clarke’s work, the amount of thought and feeling it provokes, makes Dissent and Disruption a totally rewarding and strangely life-affirming experience overall. In that spirit, it seems apt to close with the halting, resonant words of Duvitski’s Diane, expressing her tentative sense of the opportunities still available for her after her traumatic experiences: “There are things … all sorts of things… I don’t know what they are yet but they’re there. I’ve got my life. I’ve gotta have my chance. Bound to make a terrible bleedin’ muck-up, knowing me. But it’s all I can do... It’s the only time I’ve got”.