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Dissent & Disruption: Alan Clarke at the BBC (18) | Home Ents Review


Dir. Alan Clarke, UK, 1969-1989, 1830 mins plus extras

Cast: various

The chances are that you cannot name a single director of tv dramas from what are often called the golden years of British tv. If you can, the name on your lips is probaby Alan Clarke – whose astonishing body of work from 20 years at the BBC has now been released in two formats: a sumptuous 13 disc Blu-ray box set and two 6 discs DVD sets.

Clarke is best remembered for three controversial and groundbreaking dramas – the notorious Scum, Made in Britain (not included here) and The Firm, which saw him working with young actors like Gary Oldman, Philip Davis, Ray Winstone, Phil Daniels and Tim Roth. But there is much more to Alan Clarke, as this release shows.

It makes sense to look at Clarke’s work as existing in two different phases – as this re-issue does, with one DVD set allocated to each decade. But this phasing isn’t just temporal: the first decade showcases some jaw-droppingly good writing by some of the brightest stars of the first generation of tv dramatists; the second decade sees Clarke’s own celebrated stylistic developments come to the fore.

Most of you will not remember the BBC’s prestigious programme strand Play for Today, which ran throughout the 70s until the mid-80s. As you can tell from the title, it was the kind of showcase that has gone the way of almost everything critical, issue-laden, gritty, leftist and reasonably cheap to make on terrestrial tv. The inspiration was kitchen sink dramas of the post-war period; the scripts were usually slightly detached observations of British institutions and lifestyles.

This was the format Alan Clarke worked within for much of his career. He brings the works of high-calibre writers like David Leland, David Rudkin, Roy Minton, Alun Owen and Edna O’Brien to the small screen – an orgy of Play for Today brilliance from the golden years of Brit tv, dramas often politically critical but always dramatic, always well written. The absolute must sees from this period are Horace (1972), Penda’s Fen (1974), A Follower for Emily (1974), Funny Farm (1975), Beloved Enemy (1981) and Psy-Warriors (1981). There are also classic BBC versions of Buchner’s Danton’s Death and Bertolt Brecht’s Baal, starring David Bowie.

One thing is for sure. Alan Clarke didn’t do cosy – even the more sentimental plays here have a gritty precision to them. The lack of cosiness, the immersive yet weirdly detached approach is highlighted in the later work, when things also got more formally interesting. You can trace his approach here – what my partner called “a bit depressing” – back to Scum (1977), which features a very young Ray Winstone. Scum is filmed in a documentary way with the grimy characters fitting right into the grimy surroundings. By the time you get to Contact (1985) this objective approach persists but its value has flipped – it is also feels like the expressive, nightmarish, world view of the characters.

In the influential work of the mid to late 80s (Shane Meadows, Clio Barnard, Paul Greengrass, Gus van Sant and Harmony Korine have all expressed admiration for it) something utterly unnerving is going on: Clarke uses long steadicam sequences to chart the frenetic but deadzone movements of his almost-wordless characters though ruinous urban and suburban spaces (Christine (1987), Road (1987) Elephant (1989). These films are so profound in their durational representation of lives subtracted from reality that they come to have the gravitas of Tarkovsky’s film Stalker. It is a vision so compelling and devastating in its truth that the violent yob antics of The Firm (1989) come as light relief. Scum, Contact, Christine, Road, Elephant and The Firm are all must sees too, in my opinion.

Review by Colin Dibben


The 23 tv films included in all versions of the set are:

The Last Train Through Harecastle Tunnel (1969) / Sovereign’s Company (1970) / The Hallelujah Handshake (1970) / To Encourage the Others (1972) / Under the Age (1972) / Horace (1972) / The Love-Girl and the Innocent (1973) / Penda’s Fen (1974) / A Follower for Emily (1974) / Diane (1975) / Funny Farm (1975) / Scum (1977) / Nina (1978) / Danton’s Death (1978) / Beloved Enemy (1981) / Psy-Warriors (1981) / Baal (1982) / Stars of the Roller State Disco (1984) / Contact (1985) / Christine (1987) / Road (1987) / The Firm: Director’s Cut (1989, previously unreleased) / The Firm: Broadcast version (1989) / Elephant (1989)

All titles have been restored, and all filmed productions have been remastered to High Definition. In addition, the collections contains an extensive array of extra features, including a new 12-part documentary, nine audio commentaries – including newly-recorded tracks with Gary Oldman, Janine Duvistski and Sean Chapman – David Leland’s 1991 introductions, archival BBC TV programmes, an interview with Clarke, and the first ever presentation of Clarke’s alternative cut of The Firm, assembled from his personal workprint, which was discovered in 2015.

There are over 25 special features in the Blu-ray box set, including a 200-page book containing new essays and full credits and a bonus DVD of six long-unseen episodes from Rediffusion’s Half Hour Story strand from the late 1960s.

Dissent & Disruption: Alan Clarke at the BBC (1969–1989) is released on 20 June in a 13-disc Blu-ray box set. Two 6-disc DVD box sets are also available on that date.