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Clarke, Alan (1935-1990)

Director, Writer, Producer

Main image of Clarke, Alan (1935-1990)

Alan Clarke was born in Birkenhead, Cheshire, on 28 October 1935, the son of an insurance salesman. He directed only three films specifically for cinematic release, the bulk of his prolific output being made for television. A radical, uncompromising and innovative director, his best work concerned the exposure of injustice towards the most despised and neglected groups in society.

After leaving grammar school and completing National Service, he turned his back on a steady job as an insurance clerk, and emigrated to Canada, working as a gold miner before enrolling in a course in Radio and Television Arts in Toronto between 1958-1961. He returned to England after graduating to work in television, moving to the BBC in 1969, where he began to develop his directorial style in The Wednesday Play and Play for Today.

Clarke's three best-regarded works dealt with the violence of young males. He achieved notoriety with Scum (1977), a brutal exposé of conditions in Borstal starring Phil Daniels and Ray Winstone. A timorous BBC banned the film before it could be shown, but it was remade as a feature, released in 1979. Made in Britain (ITV, tx. 10/7/1983), scripted by David Leland, starred Tim Roth as Trevor, an incandescently violent, racist skinhead. For the first time Clarke used the Steadicam to shoot the characters in long, continuous takes to give the impression of ceaseless motion and neurotic energy, a technique he used extensively in later films. The final film of this 'trilogy', The Firm (1988) starred Gary Oldman as 'Bex' Bissell, a wisecracking estate agent, addicted to football violence. Clarke's nihilism emerges powerfully in these films; no solution is offered to the problems of their protagonists, and their violence is not explained by social deprivation, but is atavistic, given its opportunity by a Thatcherite morality which emphasised individuality at the expense of society.

Clarke's 1980s films made for the cinema are very different. Billy The Kid and The Green Baize Vampire (1985) was a Brechtian musical about snooker which, though it contains some lively songs, was conceptually flawed and a failure at the box office. Rita, Sue and Bob Too (1986) was more successful, demonstrating Clarke's talent for comedy. A raunchy tale about a ménage a trois between two working-class teenagers and a married middle-aged man, set around a run-down Bradford council estate, its humour does not dilute the bleakness of the girls' lives.

Before Clarke's premature death from cancer on 24 July 1990 in London he was experimenting with a minimalist style. Elephant (1988) is the most extreme example, a 16mm colour film of eighteen killings in Northern Ireland. Critical appreciation of his work remains muted, considering him unjustly to be an ultra-realist, lacking in art and artifice.

Kelly, Richard (ed), Alan Clarke (London: Faber and Faber, 1998)
Thomson, David, 'Walkers in the World: Alan Clarke' in Film Comment, May-June 1993, pp. 78-83
'Director Alan Clarke', BBC 2 (Corin Campbell-Hill), tx. 12/7/1991

Andrew Spicer, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire (1985)Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire (1985)

The world's first (and for some reason only) vampire snooker musical

Thumbnail image of Rita, Sue and Bob Too (1986)Rita, Sue and Bob Too (1986)

Raucous Northern comedy about a man's affairs with his babysitters

Thumbnail image of Contact (1985)Contact (1985)

Alan Clarke drama about a platoon on patrol in Northern Ireland

Thumbnail image of Elephant (1989)Elephant (1989)

Eighteen people are randomly murdered in Northern Ireland.

Thumbnail image of Firm, The (1989)Firm, The (1989)

Gary Oldman in Alan Clarke's searing indictment of football hooliganism

Thumbnail image of George's Room (1967)George's Room (1967)

A young widow has a revealing conversation with a prospective lodger

Thumbnail image of Last Train Through the Harecastle Tunnel, The (1969)Last Train Through the Harecastle Tunnel, The (1969)

A trainspotter's day trip becomes a voyage of discovery

Thumbnail image of Made in Britain (1983)Made in Britain (1983)

Tim Roth's incendiary debut as an intelligent but nihilistic skinhead

Thumbnail image of Penda's Fen (1974)Penda's Fen (1974)

David Rudkin's complex drama explores English pagan myths

Thumbnail image of Scum (1977)Scum (1977)

The original banned BBC version of Alan Clarke's Borstal drama

Thumbnail image of To Encourage the Others (1972)To Encourage the Others (1972)

Drama about the notorious 1952 Craig and Bentley murder case

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Thumbnail image of Teen Terrors On FilmTeen Terrors On Film

Juvenile delinquency: the myths, the legends and the reality

Thumbnail image of 'One of Thatcher's Children''One of Thatcher's Children'

Alan Clarke's vivid images of 1980s Britain

Thumbnail image of Alan Clarke and Northern IrelandAlan Clarke and Northern Ireland

Alan Clarke's two controversial snapshots of the Troubles.

Thumbnail image of Play for Today (1970-84)Play for Today (1970-84)

Single drama slot known for its provocative political work

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