Clive Parsons: Producer who worked with Alan Clarke, Bill Forsyth, Lindsay Anderson and Franco Zeffirelli
Saturday 29 August 2009
The producer Clive Parsons was one of the first to bring to cinemas a gritty, unflinching take on British life in the last quarter of the 20th century when he spotted the opportunity to remake the banned television play Scum for the big screen. This brutal exposé of life inside borstal, written by Roy Minton and depicting violence by both young offenders and warders – including a suicide and a male rape – was dropped from the BBC's "Play for Today" slot in 1977.
At a time when television censorship was not unusual, although more common among documentaries, BBC1's controller, Bill Cotton, and the Corporation's director of programmes, Alasdair Milne, decided that Scum was too controversial. This followed Milne's decision a year earlier to ban Dennis Potter's Brimstone and Treacle because of its devil rape scene, which he later described as "repugnant".
Parsons and his producer partner, Davina Belling, hired the original director, Alan Clarke, to remake Scum as a 1979 feature film. Mick Ford took over from David Threlfall the role of Archer, a highly intelligent offender who is non-violent and, through pleading vegetarianism and other beliefs, makes life as awkward as possible to feel that he is not bending to the system. However, many of the television cast reprised their performances, including Ray Winstone in the lead role of Carlin, the tough nut who becomes the "Daddy" in the inmates' pecking order – a system tolerated by the warders as a means of maintaining order.
"It's an age-old story about a man coming into a corrupt institution and deciding eventually, after a lot of provocation, to take over control and to establish his authority," said Parsons of his attraction to the script. "It's one of the classic cinema plots. Of course, Scum on other levels is about lots of other things. It's about the brutalisation and the effects of being in an institution, but I think it really appeals to an audience on that basic story level."
No doubt helped by its notoriety, Scum became a box-office hit for Parsons and Belling at the dawn of an era when British cinema was presented with new chances to flourish, including the start of Channel Four, which co-funded films.
When that channel screened Scum in 1983, by which time borstals had been replaced by youth custody centres, the "clean up television" campaigner Mary Whitehouse took the Independent Broadcasting Authority – then the regulator for commercial television – to a judicial review for approving the film's transmission without referral to the whole Authority. However, the IBA won on appeal.
By then, Parsons and Belling had teamed up with the Scottish director Bill Forsyth to produce two films with a lighter touch – the comedies Gregory's Girl (1981), featuring John Gordon Sinclair as a schoolboy footballer who finds a love interest and on-pitch rival in a girl played by Dee Hepburn, and the Glasgow ice-cream-wars comedy Comfort and Joy (1984). Scottish Television invested in both pictures, reflecting the new trend for producers to strike film deals that included money from the small screen.
The success of Gregory's Girl and Forsyth's 1983 film Local Hero made the producers' job of finding finance for Comfort and Joy very easy. But Parsons was a hands-on producer, turning up daily for filming, not content with simply organising finance and distribution.
After working with Forsyth, Parsons produced pictures for Lindsay Anderson and Franco Zeffirelli. "All three of those directors, because they have confidence in their talent and ability, are collaborative, not just with a producer, but with anybody on the set," he reflected. "Making a film, Lindsay would pick up an idea from a runner if he felt it was a good idea."
Born in Woking, Surrey, in 1942, Parsons was educated at the King's School, Canterbury, and – as a gifted Latin scholar – wrote the textbook A Basic Latin Vocabulary (1960) at the age of 17. Following a brief spell working for the publisher Macmillan in Canada, he read law at Balliol College, Oxford, and qualified as a barrister at the Inner Temple. He then joined the legal department of Paramount Pictures' London office (1966-9), before moving to Warner Brothers as head of business affairs for Europe (1969-71).
"After five years' experience of seeing how movies got put together and developed and made and distributed, I was able to set up my own company and, soon after that, started producing," he said.
In 1971, Parsons and Davina Belling – who also worked at Warner – formed Film and General Productions. During a fallow time for British cinema, they helped with development finance for the Confessions series of sex comedies (1974-7), starring Robin Askwith.
Their first film as producers was Inserts (1974), starring Richard Dreyfuss as a once-promising director reduced to making porn in 1930s Hollywood. Then came Rosie Dixon Night Nurse (1978), another sex comedy.
Before their remake of Scum, Parsons and Belling produced That Summer! (1979), a romantic drama also starring Ray Winstone. The success of Scum gave much welcome publicity to the producers' next film, Breaking Glass (1980), starring Hazel O'Connor as a singer and Phil Daniels (from Scum) as her manager. Although derided by punk rockers as being inauthentic, it actually reflected the post-punk era and, like Scum, tackled serious issues such as police harassment and clashes between the National Front and Anti-Nazi League – as well as launching O'Connor's recording career.
Parsons' and Belling's backing for films featuring social issues, in the early years of Thatcherism, continued with the black comedy Britannia Hospital (1982), the director Lindsay Anderson's searing indictment of private healthcare, policing and trade unionism in modern Britain, and Party Party (1983), another picture about youth, with a soundtrack of music by Elvis Costello, Madness and other stars of the time.
The two producers also worked with the American company Kings Road Productions, where Parsons was president for three years. Its films included the comedy-fantasy All of Me (1984, starring Steve Martin) and the crime yarn The Big Easy (1986, featuring Dennis Quaid as a homicide detective).
Sometimes working without Belling, Parsons' later work for Film and General Productions included producing two pictures for Franco Zeffirelli, the director's semi-autobiographical Tea with Mussolini (1999) and the Maria Callas biopic Callas Forever (2002).
Parsons and Belling switched to television as executive producers of the mini-series Seesaw (1998, starring David Suchet and Geraldine James in an adaptation of Deborah Moggach's novel about a kidnap), the Christmas television film The Greatest Store in the World (1999, with Dervla Kirwan and Ricky Tomlinson), and the children's series Harry's Mad (1993-6) and Sunny's Ears (1997, winner of the Royal Television Society's 1998 Best Children's Drama award). For young viewers, they also produced The Queen's Nose (1995-2003) and The Giblet Boys (2005, which won a 2006 Bafta Award as Best Children's Drama).
The long-running business partners turned down the chance to make a television series of the Harry Potter books, feeling there had been similar small-screen programmes. Parsons' final film, without Belling, was the thriller Splintered (2008), of which he was executive producer.
Anthony Simon Clive Parsons, film and television producer: born Woking, Surrey 15 August 1942; married (two daughters); died 12 August 2009.
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