Blu-Ray Review – Scum (1979)

Scum is the motion picture remake of Alan Clarke’s banned Play for Today for the BBC. That old cunt, sorry I mean “morality campaigner,” Mary Whitehouse got it banned, and then tried her best to get the film banned on the big screen and to scupper its eventual TV airing. Clarke returns as the director here, as does much of the cast from the original television version, including Ray Winstone as the protagonist, Carlin.

The film starts with a group of boys arriving at borstal, and you mostly follow Carlin as you descend into the violent world of borstal—and it’s not just the young men who are the violent ones. It’s probably safe to say that the success of the film helped along the public outcry over borstals that got them shut down only three years later (although “youth custody centres” are not much different in many regards.) Carlin is an awful person, and soon starts to climb the hierarchy of borstal after a shocking act of violence with a makeshift cosh. You can see, however, why it’s the role that made Ray Winstone’s career, because he is fantastic. You can also spot a young Phil Daniels, who played the uber-mod Jimmy in Quadrophenia the same year.

It’s an important piece of British filmmaking from one of the more interesting directors to come out of the British TV world of the ’70s. Clarke was able to get away with more violence and the very disturbing gang rape of a young man (which was only implied in the TV version) due to the feature-length format, although it faced much controversy and even got caught up in the whole “Video Nasties” scandal of the early ’80s for a period. Clarke is incredibly hit and miss due to the amount of work he did in the ’70s and ’80s till his early demise from Lung cancer. I’ve only seen around half a dozen of his films, and so far my favourite is Elephant, which served as the inspiration for Gus Van Sant’s incredibly overrated film on the Columbine killers. There is just something about those long takes of pure savagery in Clarke’s film about the Troubles in Northern Ireland which is hypnotic—but avoid Rita, Sue and Bob Too like the plague.

The release from Indicator, which is at least the 4th release in the UK, seems pretty definitive. The 1977 TV version is not included (that’s on the mammoth BFI Alan Clarke TV set.) The disc includes over two hours with cast and crew. Winstone and Daniels are not newly interviewed, but Winstone’s commentary with Nigel Floyd is carried over, and Daniels appears in some archival featurettes. The ‘U’ and ‘X’ trailers are included, which should be fun to compare. The booklet is mammoth, coming in at a grand total of 80 pages, including archival material, new essays, and even a look at Whitehouse’s high court case.

★★★★

Ian Schultz

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