Scum (1979)

Dir: Alan Clarke, 1979



Just desserts or gross abuse of a position of power?

Alan Clarke’s big screen adaption of Roy Minton’s banned BBC play is a raw, angry, provoking tale of young lads behind bars in a Borstal.

Carlin, inmate number 4737, has just been transferred for assaulting a guard.

Along with him are several newcomers to the Borstal scene.

Davis is a meek, mild and frightened first timer, thrown into the lion’s den.

Carlin, on the other hand, is no stranger to Borstal and has a reputation for violence that precedes him.

The prison guards, or “screws”, are just as violent and the abusive as the young wards they are there to rehabilitate.

Carlin strikes up a friendship with fellow inmate, Archer; an intelligent and educated youth older than most of the other convicts.

Archer doesn’t believe that he should be in Borstal but in an adult prison and should be allowed access to books.

He has committed himself to doing his time and getting out, all the while causing as much trouble for the system as he can.

Banks is “the daddy” of the Borstal and knows of Carlin’s arrival and liberty for violence.

He and his lags beat Carlin to assert their dominance.

The screws see Carlin’s face and slap him around, demanding that he tell them what happened.

He lies and tells them that he slipped.

But Carlin gets his revenge using a sockful of snooker balls and doling out a kicking.

Reigning supreme over Banks and his lackeys, and the Borstal in total, Carlin becomes the new daddy.

Davis is beaten, bullied and raped, first by the system and then by the other inmates.

At his wit’s end, he slits his wrists after his cries of distress are ignored by the screws.

Pushed too far, the inmates crack and show the authorities what they are made of.

Scum is a superb film. It’s a true reflection about young offenders and the system that is supposed to help.

 Corrupt and violent, the institution is dirt to the open wound.

Heartless, brutal and callous how are young people supposed to be rehabilitated when the rehabilitators are just as bad?

We’re talking about young lads making mistakes and thrown on the scrap heap for it.

Although Scum is heavily critical of the penal system and lends a sympathetic ear to its occupants, it isn’t biased to one particular cause.

It leans slightly more to the prisoners plight but doesn’t condone them or their behaviour.

We are invited to sympathise with the prisoners, but NOT to forgive or forget their crimes.

At the end of the day, they have committed crimes and should be punished for it.

Winstone, in his breakout role, delivers the performance of his lifetime.

Reprising his role from the unseen television film, Winstone is mean, angry and emotionally hard. Carlin is just trying to get through, using the only way he knows how.

Compared to the banned BBC version, some of Carlin’s characteristics is scaled back, omitting his vulnerabilities which were pivotal in showing his human side which, in turn, exhibit his weaknesses.

Along with Winstone is Mick Ford as the articulate and intellectual Archer.

Originally played by David Threlfall (Nightingales, Shameless) as laid back, dull and unexciting, Ford’s Archer is clever and cunning. He is wise to the ways of the system and fighting back, in a logical way. Where the inmates resort to using their fists, Archer uses his brain, causing the wardens more trouble and grief, both financial and physical, then a punch ever could.

Finally, we’ve got Julian Firth as the petrified Davis.

He is superb in conveying the sheer terror and fear that courses through Davis’ veins.

Firth’s horror and pain with his gangrape and eventual suicide is poured out in buckets.

We feel for Davis and are saddened by his, entirely avoidable, death.

The film features a stalwart of cast of soon to be famous faces.

Phil Daniels (Quadrophenia) is here as a lackey of Banks.

Spitting threats and throwing fists, Daniels is aggravating and overdue a dressing down, richly delivered by the aforementioned use of a sock and some snooker balls.

John Blundell is disappointingly weak as the daddy, Banks.

Writer, director and actor Ray Burdis appears as Bank’s pathetic and tell-taleing friend.

Scum is full of quotable lines that have entered popular culture, the best of which aims up the feeling of the film with Alan Igbon’s perfect “up your fucking Borstal!”, accompanied with a two fingered salute.

Commissioned and made as part of the Play for Today strand for the BBC in 1977, the 78 minute film was banned from being shown because of its content and the thought that it wasn’t believable.

Securing a higher budget, the production remade the film for the cinema bringing back most of the original cast and its director, Alan Clarke.

Roy Minton adapted his own screenplay to fit the cinema, adding a few expletives and short scenes.

The biggest difference between the two, however, is the removal of a homosexual relationship between Carlin and another inmate.

This element of Carlin’s character makes him more real and shows him letting his guard down, briefly, in a place where he can’t afford to.

The cinema version was released to great acclaim and shown on Channel 4 in 1983.

Perennial pain in the arse Mary Whitehouse, of The National Viewers and Listeners Association (formerly The Festival of Light and, later, Mediawatch), brought a private prosecution against Channel 4 for obscenity. The channel had already made a few brief cuts to the rape of Davis and his suicide.

The Independent Television Committee (ITC) had cleared the film for showing but Whitehouse won the case. Thankfully, it was overturned on appeal.

A few years later, the full uncut version was shown

The original television film remained banned until it was shown in a retrospective of Clarke’s work after his death in 1990.

In the 37 years since it was made, Scum has lost none of its power to shock and appal.

It’s still got that raw, razor sharp edge that punches you in the stomach.

It’s a truthful film with the moral of the story being that you can’t beat the system.

So infamous is the film that America remade it, scene for scene, as the very good and well made Dog Pound. 

Unforgivably, though, is that, aside from a minute reference in the end credits to Alan Clarke, there is no mention of it being a remake or a “based upon” tag. Not even the writer, Roy Minton, gets a nod.

But, the 1979 version is still the best.

Get it! Watch it, and don’t forget your fucking tool!


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