In 1977, having been commissioned by the BBC, leading television director Alan Clarke took Roy Minton’s merciless and tirelessly researched script about survival in a youth offenders’ institution, and a cast comprised mainly of unknown adolescents, and delivered Scum, a stark and often terrifying drama that remains one of Britain’s most effective pieces of TV. Realising they had been presented with a minor masterpiece that was sure to prove socially incendiary – by exposing the brutalities of the borstal system and spotlighting a criminalised underclass that was all but ignored on TV – the powers-that-were at the BBC decided not to screen it. And, to make sure it couldn’t be screened in the future, they also decided to ban it.
In 1979, the rights to Scum’s script had reverted its author, and Minton and Clarke were able – because of the quality of the un-broadcast original and a guarantee that Ray Winstone would reprise the central role – to secure funding to re-film it for cinematic release. The result was just as powerful, but far more polished, than the television version and, though often eye-wateringly uncomfortable to watch, was one of the few British films of the 1970s and 80s to achieve any kind of greatness.
With the exception of Mike Tyson and Norman Whiteside, Ray Winstone was the most intimidating teenager in the history of humankind – and so he is ideally cast as Carlin, a ‘light-fingered guttersnipe’ transferred to one borstal because he assaulted an officer at another. Alongside him in his new nick is Mick Ford’s Archer, an eccentric intellectual keen ‘to get through [his] time in his own little way, causing as much… trouble to the screws as possible’, by pretending to be vegetarian and refusing to wear standard issue leather boots; telling the fanatically Christian governor he is considering converting to Islam; and cheerfully undermining authority in any peaceful way he can devise. (He is, for example, punished for painting ‘I AM HAPPY’ on a wall.)
Around them are John Blundell’s Pongo, ‘the daddy’; Julian Firth’s Davis, a pathetic erstwhile escapee who is, by comparison with Carlin and co., underdeveloped and oversensitive, and therefore destined for disaster; and a hoard of other ‘trainees’, sane and disturbed, weak and barbaric, most of whom are abusers and all of whom are abused. Though only youths, they exist inside a de-humanising system imported from adult prisons and follow the clichéd criminals’ code under which no one informs on anyone else. Subsequently, ABH, GBH and eventually even a brutal gang rape are all explained by the victims with the darkly comic refrain, ‘Nothing [happened], sir. I fell, sir’. Meanwhile, the guards, in an attempt to preserve order, condone and even orchestrate the vicious exploitation of the vulnerable.
Much of the plot concerns Carlin’s efforts to become the dominant inmate, and the centrepiece sequence – in which, with the assistance of two snooker balls in a sock, he makes the savage and irrefutable statement, ‘I’m the daddy now!’ – is one of the best in British films. Its quality is such that it recalls two sequences in the first two Godfather films: the moments when Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone decides to move from civilian to mafioso by murdering the men who ordered an attempt on his father’s life; and those when Robert De Niro’s Vito Corleone decides to supplant Don Fanucci as kingpin of local crime, and stalks him over the rooftops of Little Italy. Of course, it is a very British version of those scenes: utterly unromantic, prominently featuring a communal toilet, and with repeated boots in the bollocks in place of ingeniously concealed handguns.
While Carlin drives the action, Archer voices its implications – and his quiet, dialogue-rich scenes are the perfect counterpoint to Carlin’s eye-catching explosions of aggression. Mick Ford (and Roy Minton)’s biggest moment comes when, calmly and cleverly, Archer explains to a guard the debasing effect the punitive system has had on both of them – and is reported to the governor for insolence. Nothing like the incessant stream of unnecessary violence its detractors imagined, Scum is often as verbally persuasive as it is visually arresting.
In the early 1990s, long after the first television broadcast of the theatrical release of Scum, the BBC finally allowed the premiere of the TV movie. It’s largely unnecessary to weigh the merits of the two versions – those interested enough to watch one are likely to be interested enough to watch the other, and both are available in the same DVD set – but some comparisons have to be made. Because of the cuts the BBC demanded before they would allow the first film to be shown (before, that is, they decided not to show it all), it lacks the escalating sense of anger and desperation among the inmates that gives the plot its impetus. Without being exposed to the first suicide (which was completely removed from the TV film) and to the horrific realities of the second (which was heavily censored), it is difficult for an audience to accept that the inmates – and, in particular, as avowed a survivor as Carlin or as non-violent a person as Archer – would abandon themselves to the (self-)destructive chaos of the climatic riot.
Just as notable is the absence from the cinematic release of a subplot that is vital to the TV movie: Carlin’s homosexual relationship with a gentle and immature trainee. The scene in which the hyper-macho Carlin – fuelled by a need for intimacy and sexual release that he can barely allow himself to express – asks the boy to become his ‘missus’, is the most beautifully acted in either film, and reveals a helplessness and humanity without which Winstone's character is drastically diminished. Had an equivalent scene, and storyline, been included in the remake, it would have greatly improved an already fine film.
But even without the additional depths that sub-plot would have supplied, the cinema release is still immensely powerful, primarily because it is lightened by a glittering vein of gallows humour, and so never becomes too bleak to bear, and yet manages to maintain the unremitting air of menace that many otherwise excellent prison dramas – and horror movies and gangster films and thrillers – aim for but never achieve. Always violent but never artless, Scum is like a great boxing match: involving and revolting in equal measure.