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Scrubbers (1982)

Courtesy of HandMade PLC

Main image of Scrubbers (1982)
35mm, colour, 93 mins
DirectorMai Zetterling
Production CompanyHandmade Films
ProducerDon Boyd
ScreenplayRoy Minton, Jeremy Watt, Mai Zetterling
PhotographyErnest Vincze
MusicMichael Hurd

Cast: Amanda York (Carol Howden); Chrissie Cotterill (Annetta Brady); Elizabeth Edmonds (Kathleen); Kate Ingram (Eddie); Amanda Symonds (Mac); Kathy Burke (Glennis)

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The experience of the female inmates of an institution for young offenders.

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As a female Borstal partner-piece to Scum (d. Alan Clarke, 1979), Roy Minton's earlier screenplay, Scrubbers (1982) had a hard act to follow. Scum was infamously brutal (and generated a cult following. Despite winning the prize of the Press Jury at the Festival of Women's Films, Scrubbers was only moderately successful. It is an interesting female counterpoint to Scum, reflecting the trials of life in a woman's prison. However, some critics have labelled it melodramatic by comparison with Scum's Borstal realism.

Producer Don Boyd described Scrubbers as "a compassionate, warm, sometimes vicious, often funny, always controversial study of immature young women trying to sort out their tangled life behind bars." Director Mai Zetterling does create moments of real poignancy and emotional engagement, such as Carol's (Amanda York) heartbreaking despair at her victimisation, and the well-staged separation of Annetta (Chrissie Cotterill) from Alice (Gemma Murphy).

The film's claim to realism is not always convincing, however. Representations of violence sometimes work in opposition. It seems strange, for example, that Zetterling should choose to show Mary's (Dawn Archibald) wrist-cutting episode in such a brutal, blood-spurting fashion, then revert to a rather wooden slow-motion fight scene between Annetta and Carol. The awful reality of Annetta's spell in solitary is also tempered by her constant hallucinations of daughter Alice.

Zetterling's attempt to present female experience from a woman's perspective is more successful. She sensitively captures the interplay between comradeship and power within female relationships. Repeatedly, Zetterling returns to the image of the girls conversing through the iron bars of their cells at bedtime, passing cigarette ends in home-made catapults and singing songs to each other. Some characters are little more than stereotypes: lesbian Eddie (Kate Ingram) is typically butch, as is Pat St Clement in her cameo as a prison warden. However, other performers shine: the young Kathy Burke (Glennis) is excellent, despite her minimal, chain-smoking role.

While Scum prompted demands in Parliament for Borstal reform, Scrubbers seems less convincing as a catalyst for social change. Despite its realist intent, the film is perhaps a not so distant ancestor of the contemporary prison soap Bad Girls (ITV, 1999-).

Rebeckah Clarke

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Video Clips
1. Interrupted reunion (4:35)
2. Workshop riot (4:02)
3. Summary justice (3:11)
Boyd, Don (1948-)
Burke, Kathy (1964-)
Coltrane, Robbie (1950-)
Margolyes, Miriam (1941-)
Zetterling, Mai (1925-1994)
HandMade Films