Film studies: They don't make 'em like him anymore

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It's a grand and proper thing to have Alan Clarke, in "the most complete retrospective ever mounted", tucked under Waterloo Bridge at the NFT during February and March. In the years since his horribly early death in 1990 (he was only 55), a small army of supporters has proclaimed Clarke far and wide. This paper, and this column, have supported him. Stephen Frears has called Clarke "the best of us" – meaning that generation of directors raised in British television. And 1998 saw the publication of Richard Kelly's excellent, and moving, critical biography, Alan Clarke, timed to coincide with a select retrospective at the Edinburgh Festival. Now comes the chance to seek out all the work. But if only the season was playing where it ought to be, and where it is most needed – on the television screen. For the grimmest truth of all, spelled out by Mark Shivas in the 1998 book, is that Clarke could hardly function now on what was once his home field.

There is, plainly, a late Clarke style: immensely driven, obsessive, and likely always his best work (and I'll come to it). But the NFT season allows one to see how lucky Clarke was to be a director in a writers' medium.

Every film school in the world would benefit from seeing how a directorial personality can be sharpened and matured by keeping company with adventurous producers and good writing. Far better, that training, than asking young directors to explode into hollow special effects – to show off long before they've had a chance to discover what content may be.

At the start of his career, I think, Clarke's aim was to serve the material, or "the play" presented to him; to acquire versatility with the camera and sure speed with the actors. His own style and preoccupations came later, and they were all the stronger in their solid grounding.

So the newcomer to Clarke, or the viewer who knows the later works, would be well advised to sample the early years: from 1968, Stand by Your Screen, written by Roy Minton, with John Neville as a grown man resisting the lifestyle of his parents; or The Last Train Through the Harecastle Tunnel, a "Wednesday Play", by Peter Terson, with Richard O'Callaghan as the trainspotter. From 1972, there is Horace, another Minton play, about a mentally impaired man who works in a Halifax joke shop; or To Encourage the Others, a play by David Yallop about the Craig-Bentley case from 1952, in which Derek Bentley was hanged for the shooting of a policeman by teenager Christopher Craig.

There's so much more to choose from: Julian Bond's script, Bottomley, with Timothy West as the swindler; The Love Girl and the Innocent, a play by David Leland, adapted from Solzhenitsyn; David Rudkin's Penda's Fen, an astonishing evocation of the darker spirits within the legend of Olde England; a version of Danton's Death, adapted by Stuart Griffiths, with Norman Rodway and Ian Richardson; Nina, with Jack Shepherd and Eleanor Bron as Russian lovers exiled in London; or even Baal, from Brecht, with David Bowie in the lead.

Where was Alan Clarke headed? There were three fully-fledged feature films: Scum (1979), Roy Minton's borstal play, with Ray Winstone in the lead – but that movie was largely prompted by the BBC's decision not to show the original television version. That would be followed by Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire (1985), Clarke's clearest excursion into fantasy; and Rita Sue and Bob Too (1986), Andrea Dunbar's play, but a serious attempt to transpose Clarke's caustic late style to the big screen.

There might have been much more – or maybe television was the most testing venue for a man increasingly beset by illness and pain, and more than ever appalled at the damage being done in Thatcher's Britain. It seems to me that no one in Britain in recent times has put together a body of "films" or "plays" to match these: Contact (1985), the account of a military patrol in Armagh; Elephant (1989), made in Belfast with Danny Boyle, and the most lucid, diagrammatic and detached anthology of unspoken murders; Made in Britain (1983), a David Leland script, with Tim Roth as a skinhead; Road (1987), about life on a wretched, northern housing estate; and The Firm (1989), a portrait of soccer hooliganism, with Gary Oldman as the lethal ring-leader.

Those works are essential, but not just for their social anger and philosophical bleakness. In their very long takes, their hauntingly endless Steadicam tracking shots, in their barbed dialogue (or private rantings) and, above all, in their stress on people forever walking, walking, walking, they build up a fearsome picture of a kind of self-imprisoned society. That's why television is where they still belong, because television is the bland prison we share.

d.thomson@independent.co.uk

'The Independent on Sunday' is the official media partner of the Alan Clarke Season at the NFT, London SE1 (020 7928 3232), to 3 April

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