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The late Alan Clarke never really hit it off with the big screen. You'll find proof of that in his snooker-cum-vampire-musical (yes, really) Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire. But his television work revealed him as one of Britain's fiercest and most uncompromising directors. There was bile and violence in his views of a nation in the death throes, but also a coolness which convinced you that he understood what made his thuggish characters - soccer hooligans, skinheads, borstal boys - tick like timebombs.

The actors he hired needed to understand too: they had to be raw, afraid of nothing. He could certainly spot them: Phil Daniels, Tim Roth, Gary Oldman, all with faces that might have been bashed into shape on an anvil. It's hard to believe that those actors don't look back on Clarke and wonder how he got them to dredge up those demons. They gave him everything, a generosity which has left some of them seeming emaciated for the rest of their careers. The cast of Scum looked like they'd been spat out of a U-bend, aptly enough given that the borstal inmates they played had been coughed up and gobbed out by society.

That film, which Clarke had re-made for cinema after the BBC banned it, earned him considerable notoriety. The trend continued: Made in Britain starred Tim Roth as a skinhead who represents pure nihilism; Elephant, a comment on the Troubles, was minimalist to the point of surrealism; and The Firm stared hooliganism in the face.

With this film Clarke examined soccer violence through Bex (Gary Oldman), an estate agent who balances his suburban family life with a sideline in thuggery. It's a terrifying performance, like having a blowtorch shoved in your face (compare this to Oldman's recent rent-a-psycho turn in Leon). There's Clarke's visceral Steadicam work, weaving in and out of saloon bars, punch-ups and across a football match disrupted by a joyriding rival gang. But The Firm is most exceptional because it eschews pat conclusions. Bex isn't a stereotypical mindless thug, or a stereotypical estate agent: he's articulate and funny. And he understands his own motivation - he's chasing the buzz.

In a telling moment, Bex and his pals jeer at a TV documentary which purports to comprehend the psychology behind violent behaviour. While Clarke wasn't arrogant enough to suggest answers, he had the guts of Sam Peckinpah coupled with the gritty outlook of Ken Loach. As such, The Firm and Made in Britain figure among a handful of films - Stephen Frears's Bloody Kids, Mike Leigh's Meantime - which capture the grubby essence of Conservative Britain so acutely you can taste the fags and Special Brew on the back of your tongue. The Firm certainly shames the most recent portrait of soccer thugs, I.D. (rental, PolyGram). Directed by Phil Davis (who, having acted in The Firm, should have known better), the picture is built of tabloid headlines and amateur psychology. The landlords and bullyboys are cartoons; the film lacks only a smattering of "biffs" and "kerpows". And the Alan Clarke touch, of course.

n `The Firm', `Made in Britain' and `Meantime': pounds 12.99 each, Imagine. `Scum' is on Channel 4 this Saturday at 11.10pm

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