Daily Archives: Thursday, February 15, 2024

  • Scum       Alan Clarke – writer, Roy Minton (UK; 1979; 15)

    Scum       Alan Clarke writer – Roy Minton (UK; 1979; 15) Ray Winston, Mick Ford, Julian Firth, John Blundell

    viewed Star and Shadow Cinema 8th Feb 2024; ticket £7.00

    raw porridge

    Alan Clarke’s ‘Scum’ feels like the result of a close collaboration with writer Roy Minton. It’s a situational drama that was one of the last in a line of social realist plays commissioned by the BBC. These productions such as Loach’s ‘Cathy Come Home’ were produced periodically through the ‘60s and 70’s and undercut the comforting messages usually projected about British Society and its institutions. Viewers were presented different perspectives of the forces at work in our culture so that the vacuous policy rationales of the governing bureaucracies were exposed through the scarifying experiences of the people who were the objects of state intervention.

    Of course ‘Scum’ as commissioned by the BBC was banned from transmission and not aired by them until some 8 years later. As an act of defiance and protest the Clarke/ Minton team proceeded to garner finance and make a feature film with a script that was slightly different from the BBC play but encoded with the same working premise: the corruption of prison institutions where relations based on force engender not just the abuse of power but the cynical abuse of power. Interestingly the successors to the British social realist movement were in some ways satirical TV shows such as ‘Spitting Image’ in which the actions words and intentions of ruling elites were exposed for their hypocracy and seen by the audience through puppetry’s magnifying glass, these distorted images of the politicians seemed to signal the diseased nature of their souls.

    ‘Scum’ has a core singularity of logic. The script is a mathematical equation expressing the whole of the Borstal regime as the sum of its relations of violence. The disturbing intra-trainee relations of dominance as first suffered by Carlin and then correspondingly exploited by him as the new ‘Daddy’; the taxing of the small vulnerable, the vicious racism and the rape are recorded by Clarke’s unblinking camera and linked by Minton’s script to the ethos of fear and intimidation governing the behaviour of the staff towards the inmates. Each new arrival greeted with a vicious slap to the face accompanied by the warning that there is more where that came from if there is any stepping out of line. And of course the whole system of fear is underpinned by the implementation of the ‘rule book’ by the Borstal governor so that it reinforces and abets the savagery of the system by imposing arbitrary punishment for any alleged infraction. The Governor’s overarching objective is to use the objectification of force to contain the institution so that to an outside observer the prison looks like it is running along on the smooth wheels of rectified justice: those compliant with their sentences learn useful lessons; the non compliant are made to learn. All anyone learns is that in a closed system based on sadism and brutality there is no justice: only survival for the stronger, disaster for the weaker.

    Minton’s script is founded in research of Borstal experience. Some might argue that the film is to some extent a parody, meaning that it takes the extreme end of the Borstal experience spectrum as its exclusive material. But of course since the making of ‘Scum’ which coincided with the abolition of the Borstal system, more sinister and disturbing accounts have emerged about the running and management of these institutions which the more deeply implicate the staff not just in running and maintaining regimes of terror but in direct sexual exploitation of ‘the boys’. “Who’s the daddy?” The use of the inmates by the staff for their own sexual gratification was a place that even the condensation of Minton’s script didn’t visit.

    In a sense more disturbing than the depiction of violence as the medium of control was the cynicism that was the psychic handmaiden of the Borstal regime. The gap that existed between the idealised expressed order of the rules and objectives of the the regime, and the actual manner in which the place was run, was filled by cynicism.

    And like the violence the cynicism was top down filtration, the well spring being the Governor. The justification of the terrible transgressions by the staff: punishing victims, their sanctioning rape theft vicious beatings, was accompanied by claims that these were character building, chances for lessons to be learnt etc. rather than admittance that this was the system. The lead player in the gratuitous use of officialese is the helmsman, the Borstal Governor whose recourse to cynical justification for his ‘punishment’ of trainees put on report, was an exercise in plausible deniabilty and practiced political manipulation that set the example for staff and trainees alike.

    The centrality of cynicism depicted in ‘Scum’ to the psychic structure of Borstal puts the script at the forefront of exposing the political response systems as they have developed during the later years of the last century and the subsequent the arrival of social media. Of course cynicism has always been at the expressive core of political institutions and bureaucracy. It lay at the heart of the colonial mentality in particular in the 1920’s and 30’s. But it was often hidden: newspapers and other news outlets, radio and TV normally drew a veil over the underlying duplicity of statements by principal state actors. But first satirical programmes opened up this mainline artery leading to the dishonest heart of governance and today with the scepticism induced by social media dialogue, suspicion of cynicism is a rife element in political debate. A feeling reinforced by interviews with today’s politicians who on TV and radio, defending their particular policies sound ever more familiar, ever more kin to the Minton’s Governor in ‘Scum’.

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