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Firm, The (1989)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Firm, The (1989)
DirectorAlan Clarke
Production CompanyBBC
ProducerDavid M.Thompson
WriterAl Hunter
CinematographyJohn Ward

Cast: Gary Oldman (Bex Bissell), Lesley Manville (Sue), Philip Davis (Yeti), Andrew Wilde (Oboe), Charles Lawson (Trigg), William Vanderpuye (Aitch)

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Married Bex has a young son and a career as an estate agent. He is also the leader of a notorious gang - or firm - of football hooligans.

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The Firm was Alan Clarke's last film and in many ways it is one of his most personal: a vicious attack on both Thatcher's Britain - a regular target for Clarke's ire - and the hooligan minority who were destroying the reputation of football, a sport he had loved since his childhood.

Al Hunter's script focuses on Bexy, the leader of a notorious hooligan 'firm'. Although a nasty and violent individual, Bexy is also charismatic, thanks in no small part to a career-defining performance by Gary Oldman. And it is the ambiguity with which the film treats its protagonists that caused the predictable newspaper panic after its first screening in 1989. Released at a time when Thatcher's government - openly dismissive of football fans in general - was pushing for a nationwide football supporters' ID card scheme, The Firm succinctly demonstrates the futility of this idea, when, in a discussion of the proposed scheme, one of Bexy's gang says "if they stop us at football, we'll just go to boxing or snooker".

The Firm also ruffled the feathers of the football establishment. The Football Association, desperately trying to restore the image of English football in the wake of the 1985 Heysel Stadium disaster (which left 39 people dead and led to a blanket ban on English clubs competing in European competition) accused the film of providing "poor role models" to young fans. Ron Noades, then the chairman of Crystal Palace football club threatened the BBC with legal action. He was furious that some of the hooligans in The Firm were identified as Crystal Palace fans and, although he had given Clarke permission to film inside the club's Selhurst Park stadium, he claimed it was on the condition that the film had nothing to do with hooliganism.

With justification, some critics have argued that The Firm's failure to acknowledge the overt racism of football hooligans and their well-documented links with far-right organisations is problematic. The multi-racial make-up of Bexy's firm does seem unlikely and the climactic shooting of Bexy by a rival gang leader provides a less than satisfactory ending. However, the film successfully demonstrates that football is not the cause of hooliganism but the victim, and undermines the myth that hooligans are mindless working-class thugs by showing the appeal that violence has to some men, regardless of age, wealth or social standing.

Justin Hobday

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Video Clips
1. A national firm (4:37)
2. Talking business (2:28)
3. I need the buzz! (3:53)
4. Bexy's memorial (1:08)
Clarke, Alan (1935-1990)
Davis, Philip (1953-)
Oldman, Gary (1958-)
'One of Thatcher's Children'