Director Alan Clarke spent the majority of his career working within the medium of television, where he was known for applying the authenticity of the documentary aesthetic to socially conscious material, effectively bringing all the angst and grit of the “angry young man” films of the 1960s like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning into Britain’s living rooms. Although not as widely known abroad, Clarke’s work stands comparison with his contemporaries Mike Leigh and Ken Loach. Scum was originally commissioned for the BBC’s long-running Play for Today series in 1977, but the work’s uncompromising depiction of life inside an English borstal (juvenile detention center) was judged by network brass to be too violent for broadcast. In the wake of this prohibition, Clarke eventually managed to work up enough financing to remake Scum as a feature film two years later.
The film stars a fresh-faced Ray Winstone, looking like a beefier, Cockney-spouting Don Johnson, as Carlin. One of a trio of newly arrived “trainees” (because rehabilitation was at least nominally the goal of the borstal system, the boys are never referred to as inmates), Carlin tries at first to keep his head down. But his reputation as a troublemaker precedes him, and he soon finds himself the target of vicious bullying from both warders and other trainees, especially Banks (John Blundell), the current “daddy” or gang leader of the borstal. It’s not long before Carlin retaliates in an intense sequence involving a sock stuffed with billiard balls that Clarke films in one unbroken tracking shot. Up till and including such retaliatory violence, Scum seems not altogether unlike a wide swath of other prison films, with the principal novelty being its emphasis on youthful offenders. But Clarke and writer Roy Minton aren’t interested in simply following a prototypical rise-and-fall character arc—though admittedly that’s in here too. Instead, they want to deepen and widen their critique of institutional dehumanization and random brutality until it blankets all of England.
A key scene between fellow trainee Archer (Mick Ford), a conscientious objector who delights in rankling the administration with his vegetarianism and refusal to wear leather shoes, and a career “screw” with 30 years’ service under his belt goes further than its “we’re all prisoners of the system in here” overtones to bring home the ways that mutual imprisonment springs from an inability to find a common ground for communication. It’s one of several memorable low-key moments in the film, framed in static long shots that let dialogue and body language do all the work, and it’s every bit as devastating in its quiet desperation as any of the more ostensibly violent scenes involving assault, rape, and attempted suicide. In fact, one of the most brutal moments in the film isn’t even an action depicted; rather it’s a series of actions elided in one abrupt cut between the anarchic mayhem of the mess hall riot and the image of Archer and Carlin—battered and bloody almost beyond recognition—being dragged away by the warders and heaved into solitary confinement cells. Disaffected malcontents can rage against the machine all they like, the film seems to say, but whenever they come up against it, it’s still going to grind them down to dust amid its cogs and pistons. Clarke and Minton don’t pretend to offer any easy answers. Then again, no clear-eyed diagnostician ever does: Correctly stating the problem seems more than sufficient. Like one of the downtrodden serfs in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Scum invites you to come and see the violence inherent in the system.
Scum benefits considerably from recent restoration work done by Pinewood Studios in collaboration with the BFI. Kino’s 1080p/AVC-encoded Blu-ray transfer is nearly pristine, barring a few errant specks. At the same time, the restoration team hasn’t gone overboard, as there’s little indication of DNR or edge enhancement and the healthy grain levels feel integral to the image. Color saturation and density are solid, while clarity and fine details are markedly improved over previous DVD editions. Kino provides two audio tracks: one in uncompressed PCM mono and a spruced-up Master Audio surround mix. Not surprisingly, the surround track fills in ambient noises and effects, especially in the crowded mess-hall scenes, but never gets too intrusive. Both mixes maintain adequate dialogue discernibility, despite some egregious ADR looping; nevertheless, subtitles would have helped with the broad, thick accents and copious slang usage.
Ray Winstone provides a garrulous and often colorful (read: epithet-laced) commentary track moderated by Time Out critic Nigel Boyd. Winstone is most informative when discussing Alan Clarke’s directorial process as well as the staging of certain key scenes, while he’s at his most colorful when laying out some self-professedly cynical theories concerning the film’s social and political undertones. Interviews assemble producers Davina Belling and Clive Parsons, executive producer Don Boyd, actors Mick Ford, Julian Firth, David Threlfall (Archer in the original version), and Phil Daniels, as well as scriptwriter Roy Minton, and cover every aspect of Scum’s journey from banned BBC teleplay to its current status as a cult film. Probably the most illuminating interview is with Roy Minton, who discusses at some length the differences between the TV version and the feature film, including a subplot in which Carlin takes a "missus" or gay lover, which Minton believes showed a vulnerable side to the character otherwise absent in the film. Minton says he wasn’t particularly pleased with the final version, claiming he was almost entirely shut out of the process. The bitterness he felt about the experience effectively put an end to a decade-long period of collaboration with Clarke.
One of director Alan Clarke’s most uncompromising docudramas, Scum rises to the top with a sterling new Blu-ray transfer that’s been freshly struck from original elements, as well as an impressive array of supplemental materials, from Kino Lorber.