Scum (1979) and Made In Britain (1982) are both gritty dramatizations of the juvenile penal system in England and are terrifying indictments of life under Thatcher. The director of these two films, Alan Clarke, is one of many British filmmakers who took his cue from the Punk culture and made films that railroaded the establishment. Mike Leigh produced a string of quiet cerebral dramas that dealt with the lower working classes, focusing his narratives onto the extent British politics had corrupted or informed the dilemmas of his characters (Grown Ups, Home Sweet Home, and Meantime). Derek Jarman produced two lyrical experimental films that were heavily reliant upon visual allegory to create his unique vision of Thatcher’s England (Jubilee and The Last Of England). But it is Scum and Made In Britain whose subversive style and aggressive story telling that have become the films most associated with that era of British history.
Scum is a sparse film, with very few music cues, and a darkly realistic style. Unlike Made In Britain, Scum features an ensemble cast, following the lives of several boys as they navigate their way through life in a Juvenile Prison. Carlin (Ray Winstone) is the boy whose story connects all the narrative threads of the film. Carlin’s concerns are not those of most of the boys, who merely wish to get by with as few scrapes as possible, he endeavors to rise the ranks and become the Daddy (British slang, being the equivalent of gang leader or boss).
Scum has everything one doesn’t like to see in a film about juvenile prison, especially when the norm of such films is to tell an uplifting story of self-discovery and triumph. With it’s graphic violence, gang rape, and sadistic prison guards, Scum is unflinching in its commitment to unsettling the audience, exposing a truth long denied, and negating all expectations. The film’s screenwriter Roy Minton had first hand experience and knowledge of his subject matter and has always maintained that the film was an accurate portrayal from the blatant racism of all the characters down to the short conversations inmates had in their therapy sessions. There are then few illusions in the film, and the realism goes beyond being a simple style choice and becomes a necessity to the film itself.
Made In Britain differs slightly from Scum. Tim Roth was cast in the lead role of Trevor (a violent skin head). The film’s focus is on one character, Trevor, who refuses all the help and guidance that the British Judicial System thrusts his way after every conviction. Trevor prefers the vandalism and racially motivated assaults which got him arrested in the first place. He is one conviction away from becoming a character in Scum, but doesn’t seem to mind in the least. Trevor’s unapologetic behavior and penchant for violence contrasts with the compassion certain characters in Scum exhibit. Where the characters in Scum have learned compassion from the constant victimization of their guards, Trevor has only ever been an independent operative in the world of hate crime.
Neither film moralizes or romanticizes any character’s choices or actions. Clarke successfully remains objective, focusing on scrutinizing the circumstances of his narratives as opposed to sympathizing with them. This sets Clarke apart from his contemporaries. Where Leigh’s melodramas require a degree of sympathy, and Jarman’s imagery can’t help but conjure sympathetic reactions given the nature of his compositions, Clarke goes headlong into the cold, harsh reality of the day. This does not mean Clarke’s films are better than Leigh’s or Jarman’s; just a variation in approaching the same issues.
What Alan Clarke wants from his audience is participation. He offers no easy answers or resolutions to the questions his work poses. He is reliant upon the intelligence of his audience to do that for themselves.