Made in Britain, and bleak as hell

He made 'Scum', 'The Firm', 'Christine'. His vision was raw and hard. His name was Alan Clarke. By David Thomson
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The Independent Culture
I had been spending half the day trying to find a way of writing about Alan Clarke. Clarke, it seems to me, was not just a film-maker or play-maker of a high order, and someone who personified this country's unique and radical use of television, but a kind of natural, rough genius - a bloke, "one of the oddest sods of all" (Mike Leigh), a guy, a rogue, a ladies' man, a joker and someone who touched everyone he met. He's dead, of course; he died in 1990 at the age of 54; and plenty say that the television system he raided and ranted at is gone, too. But there's reason to write now, not just because of a tribute to him at the Edinburgh Festival, or because of a quite remarkable, heartbreaking book on Clarke, but because you could add this inscription or graffito to every edition of every newspaper - "Don't forget bloody Alan Clarke."

It's always hard to write about an artist who moves you. Something in modern newspapers urges you to be smart and brisk about everything, so in the end, all you really want to do is sit down the people you're talking to, put on Road or Elephant or The Firm or Contact, and just say, "There, watch that!" It's television so startling, so overwhelming, you need to turn the set off when it is over - and I never heard a better description of good TV. Except, maybe, if you had kicked the bloody box in, too.

Then I saw in last week's television listings, scheduled for Thursday night on BBC2, at 11.15pm, A Tribute to John Hopkins. "A short programme," the blurb said, "in honour of the writer of Z Cars ..." Short! Five minutes! Well, maybe that's enough, if it's good - and with an episode of Z Cars after it. John Hopkins died, this past July, in Los Angeles. He was 67, the New York Times obituary said, and still married to the actress Shirley Knight. But he didn't seem to have done anything for years: the last credit in the obit was the screenplay adaptation of John Le Carre's Smiley's People in 1980.

But John Hopkins, as I remember it, was the first proof that you had to be bloody careful about television in Britain (of course, in the long run, that's what the BBC and people like Thatcher and Tebbit decided, too. Hopkins wrote a lot of this new cop series, Z Cars. That was getting on for 40 years ago now: there must be readers who've hardly heard of it, let alone seen the series. To appreciate it, you'd have to know that Z Cars was a contemporary of Dixon of Dock Green, which is like noting that over the course of the 20th century, the lives of Barbara Cartland and Louis-Ferdinand Celine overlapped. I don't mean to say that all of Z Cars was great. In time, it became a personality show for Stratford Johns, maybe. But it was extraordinary in its time, because it stripped away the flim-flam gentility of Dixon and said, look, this is what our country is like. This is how wicked and disturbed some people are, and why it's so hard to be a cop - so don't forget, or try to fool yourself.

Hopkins wrote a play for television, Talking to a Stranger (1966) which was the same implacable domestic tangle seen from four points of view. Sometimes, that same anguish over the shortcomings of human communication marked his 50-minute episodes of Z Cars. His work had a novel philosophy: that cops and crooks were tethered together in a shared bondage; that cops might break down in their work. Very little else on TV then allowed for such insoluble problems, or for such inner violence beneath the smooth flow of life. As such, Hopkins was a pioneer figure for a kind of urgent, confessional TV - personal but social and political, too - that was carried on by Ken Loach and Tony Garnett (Loach had directed on Z Cars), Mike Leigh, Stephen Frears, Alan Bennett, Alan Plater (a Z Cars writer), David Hare, David Leland, many others. And Alan Clarke. This is a tradition founded in the writer's initiative, fidelity to place and social situation, raw acting, and stirring up the audience. And since the BBC was paying for it, it was like a kind of official subversion, often in trouble with all the agents of respectability.

There's no need to sentimentalise the quality of British television in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Much of it was awful: pathetically polite and clinging to a world that never was. But the viewer's life became that much more of a gamble if some bold insurrection could suddenly leap out of the set and grab the Home Counties crowd by their short and curlies. It was as if - as in Fawlty Towers - the measured service of the hotel dining room might be invaded by cannibalism.

Alan Clarke was never the most likely person to be let loose on the airwaves; which made him exactly the right person to take over the living room. Alan Clarke, a new biographical compilation edited by Richard Kelly, goes back over his origins - born in Wallasey, football- mad (an Everton supporter), National Service, some of it in Hong Kong; emigrated to Canada in 1957, studied radio and television in Toronto, started to direct plays; came back to England in 1961, worked with the Questors Theatre in Ealing, and then joined Rediffusion in 1963.

Kelly's book is only 233 pages, with a fond foreword from Stephen Frears, but it is one of those rare movie books that makes you sit up and start reading. So many books on the film shelf are predictable adulations of artistic celebrity, meandering interviews with self-importance, or grindingly researched biographies that have no flavour of the real compromise in film. Kelly has had the excellent idea of letting Clarke's mates tell the story, and he has interviewed everyone he could find, from the women in and out of Clarke's life to co-workers - like David Yallop and Roy Minton, producer Mark Shivas, cameraman John Ward, actors Tim Roth, Gary Oldman, Ray Winstone and Eleanor Bron.

There are more than 60 of them in all, and they're cut together to make up a bewitching portrait of Clarke as the gang-leader, the outsider yet also the life and soul of the party, the inward stylist as well as the man who put it all down to acting and writing, the visionary of bleak lives who was a chronic laugher, an artist whose search for truth involved a lot of hiding from himself.

People, even now, stand in awe of Clarke and his uncompromising zest for harshness and hopelessness - especially when he was writing about the planned dismantling of society that he saw in the 1970s and 1980s. Here is Stephen Frears talking about Christine, and gently defining the difference between Clarke's need to warn the audience and his own taste for entertainment.

"I used to get depressed watching them, it was so awful, the view of life was so terrible that I often didn't watch them, I'm ashamed to say - just so bleak. Christine - the drug addicts on the housing estate, I couldn't watch that. It was just awful, especially the fucking Steadicam, which made it more bleak - because then he could film them walking from one house to another. So it became, oh - just inescapable. Fantastic, clearly. But it made me not watch - is that a good thing or a bad thing? I'm not sure how to conduct that argument."

There's no need for overt critical comment in a book in which friends' recollections and anecdotes take us so directly into the heart of Clarke's lyrical way with the banal and the desperate. The reference to Steadicam is to the lightweight hand-held camera invented in the late 1970s that allowed prolonged, rapid, intimate and bump-free tracking shots. Clarke did seize on it for extended shots in which he followed or hounded his haunted people - sometimes, as in Road, they are talking to themselves. He had gone past the scathing social criticism of Scum and Made in Britain to dwell in hateful situations: a military patrol in Northern Ireland in Contact; life on a desolate housing estate in Road; the life of killing in Ireland in Elephant; and football thuggery in The Firm.

David Hare, for one, thinks that The Firm is the masterpiece, in no small part because the central role was taken by Gary Oldman and his absolute refusal to be liked. As Oldman recalls: "Alan was the guy who had the real balls. He used to say to people at the BBC, 'Do you come with no balls or did you have to have them removed to get the job?' And he was always fuelled by what was going on - they're very political films, Alan's. He was a great football fanatic. And, partly, The Firm was a response to that moment when Thatcher wanted to make it harder for the so-called hooligan to get into football matches - there was talk at one time of making football hideously expensive, season-ticket holders only. And she'd really got hold of the wrong end of the stick, because she imagined that it was 15- and 16-year-old kids on the dole who had nothing better to do and thumped one another at the weekend. Whereas, of course, it was 30-plus so-called respectable people who were holding down good jobs, with homes and cars and gold American Express cards."

Alan Clarke the book is a model of how to write film history, for the testimony is often tough, as only friends can be. Clarke was a wild man, somewhere between dead and passionate, always getting under people's skin; belligerent, manipulative, a little devious when he had to be, an agent provocateur, and someone obsessed with unwinding turbulence and tension - in short, a film director, or a television man. Some regret that he is not here to take advantage of the improved chances for English film- making in the 1990s. I'm not so sure. He did make theatrical films, but his nature was in television - shocking the BBC, offending the Come Dancing crowd, and turning the TV set into a cross between a wild animal threatening escape and the burning enactment of some moral tale. When a Clarke play was over you staggered to the set to turn the damned thing off. The hell with "And now for something completely different." You just had to sit there shaking - bloody Alan Clarke!

Alan Clarke, edited by Richard Kelly with a foreword by Stephen Frears (Faber, pounds 12.99), is out now. Five of Clarke's films, and a documentary about the man himself, feature in a retrospective at the Edinburgh International Film Festival (0131 229 2550), which continues until Fri.