Harrowingly compelling and extremely graphic for the time, there’s a reason that ‘Scum’ was initially banned from broadcast by the BBC in it’s Teleplay form. Undeterred however, they remade the story for film in 1979 tweaking some elements of the plot, but DRASTICALLY overhauling what was said and shown vs the TV version.
In a vibe not *too* dissimilar to ‘Threads’, ‘Scum’ is a dramatization of the awful conditions of the UK Borstal institutions. Initially formed in the 1930s as a means to seperate young offenders and first time criminals from more habitual criminals. Borstals were created with the eye of rehabilitating early offenders with the aim to educate them and eventually re-release them back into society with the skills they’d learned.
Instead; Borstals became a prime breeding ground for aspiring criminals and a direct recruitment link to bring novice offenders more into the big time criminal leagues. They were massively underfunded, incredibly restrictive on what *kind* of education inmates could study, and (if this film is to be believed, and I have no reason to doubt it) was largely supplied with inexperienced and underpaid staff members who used violence and aggression first, and solitary as an after thought. If you want an idea of how bad they truely were, 3 years after this film came out, the borstal system was decomissioned entirely due to just how endemic the corruption and violence truely was.
In ‘Scum’ we follow Carling, a first time offender on a lean sentence who’s been transferred to borstal for assaulting an officer (he repeatedly claims it was in self defense) while in there, he meets a small squad of prisoners who just want a quiet life, and Archer, who’s a bit more educated than the other inmates and has decided to dedicate his time to testing the patience of any of the ‘Screws’ who care to take him on.
Each wing of the borstal is run by a ‘Daddy’ who has something of a direct link to the goveners of the borstal, and they largely rule by beating the crap out of anyone they want, doing whatever they want and causing whatever trouble they care to want to do.
Carling isnt too impressed with all of this and after a few violent encounters with his wings ‘Daddy’ he decides to take matters into his own hands, resulting in him becoming the new ‘Daddy’ of the wing.
and what follows is a grizzly and brutal look at how the prisoners and guards work within the borstal system, it’s almost pseudo ‘documentary’ framed at times, but it does keep a firm hand on the dramatization elements at play (again, I have NO reason to doubt that this is how Borstal’s actually were)
And whats on show here is pretty fantastic honestly, the scripts a speedy hour and 36 minutes, incredibly paced, with seamless act structuring that flowed incredibly naturalistically, we had solid characters who have really firm backgrounds and are given more than enough space and time to individually grow, to the point that you really feel for them as and when misfortune finds them.
It’s a strong work from start to finish, it’s predominently character driven and the film leaves enough vagueness around the ending that you can make up your own minds as to what happend to the cast past the credits. it stunned me to the point that I spent most of the end credits in fairly deep thought about the scenario I just saw play out.
The character dialogue is frankly a masterclass in terms of both presenting a naturalistic sounded work for people behind bars in the late 70s and in giving them plenty of memorable moments that are engaging and enjoyable (if not unflinching) to watch. In fact, the only minor criticism I had with this thing is the sheer VOLUME of swearing, racism and homophobia present in this thing.
Dont get me wrong, im no prude, I appreciate that…it’s a prison-esq system in the late 1970’s, theres going to be a LOT of swearing, racism and homophobia abounding. and I was absolutley prepared and open for there to be a fair bit of it. But it got to the point where it felt like the film was bordering on parody for just HOW MUCH swearing, racism and homophobia was happening on a scene by scene basis. Like, I dont think a 2 minute window went by without one of those 3 things happening and it’s said SO repetatively, by SO many people at once, with no pause. That by the end i’d felt it’d lost all meaning.
The direction and cine are gorgeous, not in the sense that this is a pretty film (it’s cold and grey looking for about 95% of the runtime.) But rather, that it’s gorgeous on a technical level. Alan Clarke clearly understood what he wanted to make, and meticulously planned a work that feels boundary pushing for 1979 in ways that I havent seen from cinema of this era previously, grand sweeping tracking shots, long unbroken takes, really solid attempts at using depth of field to derive emphasis, its non stop experimentation for the time and something I very much was in total awe of. edited with razor precision. This film, technically is gorgeous and the muted colour palette provides a perfectly fitting (though, somewhat inevitably depressing) backdrop for this grim carnage to unfold.
The performances are equally rock solid, and WAY ahead of their time for this era. Ray Winstone and Mick Ford were clear champions here with their performances of ‘Carlin’ and ‘Archer’ respectively, they both manage the, not at all easy, feat of being able to make deeply unlikeable characters, edearing, nuanced and much more than just a 2d ‘heros and villains’ type affair. they’re incredibly well rounded, are given more than enough room to bring their own physicality to the role and I thought they were perfectly cast.
Same goes for pretty much all of the supporting cast too, there wasnt a single player here who let the side down, everyone comes across as believable, complex and brings with them their own problems, situations and narratives that we dip in and out of across the runtime.
In fact, barring the WAY overuse and overeliance of swearing, racism and homophobia to set the mood and the total bleakness of this thing making it one that I dont think I personally would be able to just ‘pop on’ on a whim. I really REALLY liked this. I thought it was a stark look at a system that has now mercifully been decomissioned for just over 40 years. A reminder of a system we must never revisit and is arguably one of the greatest british films ever made. A Powerful work that would probably play as one of the most depressing double features ever with something like ‘Threads’, ‘Scum’ is simply fantastic, and definitely worth your time.