Borstal, the final frontier. For any schoolkid growing up in the 1970’s, the very word was enough to instil abject terror. Borstal was the ultimate deterrent, an imagined hell spoken of in hushed tones, and a place where the glue-sniffing psychos from the remedial class would mysteriously disappear to. Nowadays, they’re probably called Young Offenders Units, replete with Sky TV, PlayStations and foreign holidays. Back in the day though, borstal was the only language they understood, a dangerous combination of juvenile delinquents, petty crooks and genuine hardcases thrown together under a brutal regime. Not the most obvious setting for a piece of entertainment, but then director Alan Clarke was never renowned for fluffy romantic comedies.
The Sex Pistols and Star Wars may have firmly cemented 1977 into the annals of popular culture, but in March of that year Clarke gathered together a mainly inexperienced group of actors for the initial incarnation of a film that would also resonate down the years, spawning catchphrases that are still in regular use today.
Commissioned by the BBC to direct a ‘Play For Today,’ Clarke came up with Scum, a damning indictment of the vicious, hierarchical and racist system into which young criminals were thrown. However, two weeks before it was due to be shown, the BBC pulled it, with Director General Alasdair Milne concerned that such a naturalistic piece could be mistaken for a documentary. Presumably, it was deemed inappropriate for a government-owned broadcaster to show such a candid insight into the flaws of a government-run institution.
FACT: In the original TV version, Carlin had a “missus” in the form of a young homosexual partner.
The BBC ban could have spelt the end, but after a couple of years the rights reverted back to scriptwriter Roy Minton, and the decision was made to film it as a fully-fledged feature. With the exception of David Threlfall as Archer – replaced by the superior Mick Ford – the original cast was reassembled in 1979, and with some tweaks to the story, the whole thing was re-shot.
Central to that cast was of course the young Ray Winstone, whose first on-screen utterance – “4737, Carlin, Sir” – tersely announces his character’s name and number. Transferred from another borstal for assaulting an officer - “I retaliated, there was two of them kicking the shit out of me” – Scum is essentially the story of Carlin’s rise to power through judicious use of extreme violence.
It’s a part that Winstone plays immaculately, although his initial involvement in the project was an unlikely fluke. As he recalls in Alan Clarke’s biography: “By the time Scum came up I'd made up my mind not to be an actor, I was leaving drama school. I'd lasted twelve months, no remission. They tried to get me out a couple of times and they were probably right, to be perfectly honest; I was a bit of a toe-rag. I was told I was a bit of a danger to the other kids 'cos of my accent. So I sabotaged the headmistress's car - I got a lolly stick and put all these tacks through it, put it under her front tyre and when she drove off, bang. But some straight kid turned grass - he lollied me up, as they say - and I was asked to leave the premises. And it was probably the best thing that ever happened to me.
“They were having a casting and I was only supposed to be there saying goodbye to my mates. I got talking to the receptionist and she said, 'You wanna go in and meet the director?' I said, 'Nah, not really, I'm off for a drink with the boys,' I was flirting with her really, showing off, but I went in and met Clarkey. And I got the job! I didn't have a clue what it was, hadn't seen the script, and I didn't really care. I thought, 'Yeah I'll do it, bit of a laugh'. It was written for a Scotsman originally, he was a Glaswegian in the script, Carlin. But apparently Al gave me the part because he like the way I walked down a corridor.”
It’s a swagger that Winstone brings to the role. Following introductory beatings from both the screws and the resident top boy, Pongo Banks, Winstone’s Carlin endeavours to assume power and become The Daddy, with all the privileges that the position entails, from both the inmates and the guards. Carlin’s dethroning of Banks represents one of the most powerful scenes in the film, featuring the infamous snooker balls in the sock (often wrongly described as pool balls or billiard balls). Sauntering past the recreation room’s quarter-sized snooker table, on which a game is in progress, Carlin takes two reds from near the left-hand middle pocket and slips them into a sock.
FACT: There are early roles for PC Quinnan out of The Bill, Cat from Red Dwarf, and Mickey Pearce from Only Fools and Horses.
Biding his time, he singles out Banks’s sidekick Richards (Phil Daniels) and fells him with a single blow to the temple, barking to a potential informant: “Back grass! I said get back shithead!” Replacing the snooker balls with slightly less than Len Ganley-esque precision, Carlin seeks out Banks in the toilets, thrusts his face repeatedly into the sink, then administers a brutal kicking followed by the immortal line: “Right Banks, you bastard! I’m The Daddy now! Next time I’ll fuckin’ kill you!”
Another vicious beating soon follows, as does another classic line - “Where’s your tool? What fucking tool? This fucking tool!” – Carlin delivering the riposte as he brings a lead pipe to bear on a rival Daddy, reminding him that, “You run B-wing, alright, but for me. You’ll get your perks, but I’m the Daddy!” before advising, “You get some coaldust rubbed on those marks, you fuckin’ black bastard!”
It’s shocking stuff, with Winstone meting out the violence with terrifying conviction. Much was made of Vinnie Jones’ feral performance in Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels, but Winstone’s brutality is at least its equal, the violence more effective due to its instigators being desperate young men as opposed to cartoon villains. Not even the stylised ultra-violence of recent late night prison drama Oz comes close to the gritty savagery of Scum.
Much of this can be attributed to Alan Clarke’s highly personal approach to directing. As producer Clive Parsons explains on the DVD: “It was fascinating to watch Alan direct because a lot of the time he was directing untrained actors, I mean they were not people that had been through the drama schools in the conventional way. And he just had the ability almost to threaten a performance out of them. He would get up really close to an actor, and the way he did it was fascinating, drawing a performance out of these actors.”
Winstone’s lead is ably augmented by some tremendous supporting roles, not least from Mick Ford as the eccentric Archer, providing an intelligent antidote to Carlin’s organised thuggery. In many ways the true anti-hero of the film, Archer’s personal remit is to cause the screws as much grief as possible while resolutely keeping his spirit intact. As he says, “I’ll walk out of here on crutches but they won’t have me.” To this end he claims atheism and vegetarianism (refusing to wear leather boots), requests Dostoyevsky novels, and wilfully informs the governor, a religious zealot, that “I’m finding myself strongly drawn to Mecca,” one of the film’s sporadic moments of comedic relief.
Archer’s one-man war against the system includes daubing “I AM HAPPY” on a wall, and culminates in his keynote address to Mr Duke (Bill Dean aka Brookside’s cantankerous Harry Cross), in which he points out that the screws are as much victims of the system as the inmates. Duke’s response is typical: “Stand up Archer and wipe that fucking grin off your face before I knock it off. Name and number!”
FACT: The snooker ball scene was filmed in one continuous take. An assistant, lying on his back, exchanged socks with Winstone off-screen, the replacement stocking containing something less painful.
Throughout Scum, you’re never far away from a beating – all explained away by the obligatory “I slipped, Sir” – but further horrors await, notably the notorious greenhouse scene, in which naïve youngster Davies is forcibly sodomised by three older boys, the latter throes looked upon with barely concealed glee by one of the screws. It’s an horrific encounter, but Davies admirably maintains the code of honour. Despite being caked in that romantic mixture of blood, semen and compost, he manages to sob to the complicit screw, “I fell, Sir,” at which point he is instructed to “Fall back onto your feet, this isn’t Kew Gardens laddy,” a frankly staggering piece of insensitivity.
Davies receives equally short shrift from the nightshift guard that he informs of his deep unhappiness, and is warned “You touch that bell again for no fucking reason, I’ll have you down the block before your feet touch the ground. Now get your subnormal head down. Move!” It is the last voice he ever hears, and the suicide scene that follows is amongst cinema’s most horrific, providing the catalyst to the film’s sudden and violent climax.
To the uninitiated, Scum may sound like a wholly unsavoury experience. It features sickening violence, racist language that would make Jim Bowen blush, and offers no music, no exploding helicopters, and no sex (barring anal rape). In fact the only female character is a frumpy matron.
Admittedly, it’s not a film you’d take a first date to (a la De Niro in Taxi Driver), but it is nevertheless one of the most powerful and thought-provoking pieces of British cinema, and has firmly fixed itself in the national psyche. As producer Parsons says: “It’s an age old story about a man – the Ray Winstone character - coming into a corrupt institution and deciding eventually after a lot of provocation to take over control and to establish his authority. And that is a story I think that is one of the classic cinema plots. Now of course Scum on other levels is about lots of other things, brutalisation and the effect of being in an institution, all of those things. But I think the story really appeals to all of us, it appeals to an audience on that basic story level.”
A bonafide classic, in a well-ordered society, Scum would follow the Queen’s Speech every Christmas. But until that happens, it just remains to say: “Up your fuckin’ borstal!”
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