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Scum (1977)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Scum (1977)
DirectorAlan Clarke
Production companyBBC
ProducerMargaret Matheson
ScriptRoy Minton
CinematographyJohn Wyatt

Cast: Raymond Winstone (Carlin); David Threlfall (Archer); Martin Phillips (Davis); Davidson Knight (Angel); John Blundell (Banks); Phil Daniels (Richards)

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A brutal depiction of life in the borstal system where order is maintained through violence and intimidation. Carlin's journey up the pecking order from new boy to 'Daddy' earns him the respect of inmates and officers alike.

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Scum was originally made for the BBC's Play for Today series in 1977. Deemed too controversial by BBC management, it was effectively banned from broadcast until 1991, a year after director Alan Clarke's death, when it was finally screened on Channel Four as part of a season on the theme of censorship.

The film focuses on two borstal 'trainees' - a euphemistic term for inmates - with differing approaches to beating the system. Carlin, who has a reputation for violence from a previous borstal, fights his way to the top of the boys' pecking order, earning him the title of 'Daddy'. The non-violent Archer makes it his mission to be as awkward as possible while serving his sentence in an attempt to prevent the system from "having" him. The oppressive borstal officers encourage the Daddy system as a way of maintaining order among the trainees, whereas Archer's defiance merely fuels their resentment.

The brutality that shocked the BBC and prevented Scum from being broadcast is precisely what makes it such an important work. In what was to become Clarke's trademark approach to tackling contentious social issues, he and writer Roy Minton decided the best way to critique the violence inherent in the borstal system was simply to show it. While few would doubt that the bullying, rioting and rape depicted in the play does take place within such institutions, the oft repeated criticism of Scum is that it depicts these events happening within a relatively short space of time, leaving the play open to accusations of melodrama.

Remade for the cinema in 1979, Scum was to be a turning point in Clarke's career. Not only did it spark the first of many tabloid outrages surrounding his work, but it also began his cycle of dramas - including Made in Britain (ITV, tx. 10/7/1983), Contact (BBC, tx. 6/1/1985) and The Firm (BBC, tx. 26/2/1989) - brilliantly chronicling the dark underbelly of Thatcher's Britain.

Justin Hobday

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Video Clips
1. Governor's report (4:05)
2. The new Daddy (3:01)
3. Carlin's missus (2:10)
4. Archer the rebel (2:43)
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Clarke, Alan (1935-1990)
Daniels, Phil (1958-)
Winstone, Ray (1957-)
Drama Documentary
Play for Today (1970-84)