The BFI has released a mammoth 13-disc box set chronicling the life and work of Alan Clarke, the hell-raiser director/writer/producer of Scum, The Firm, Made in Britain and many TV films for the BBC.
The collection comprises two sections: Dissent, which covers 1969 – 1977, andDisruption, which covers 1978 – 1989. They can be bought as a single Blu-ray collection, which will set one back about £110, or in separate DVD box sets for £49.99 each. It’s a pity that the separate collections are only available on DVD, but the transfer of Disruption – which is the focus of this review – still looked good on my Blu-ray player.
Besides, high definition would not do much to improve the 4:3 framed grittiness of Alan Clarke’s realism. The real selling point of this collection is the remarkable scope of the material; indeed, the BFI says it is the most comprehensive package they’ve ever produced for a single filmmaker. There are 11 BBC films: Nina, Danton’s Death, Beloved Enemy, Psy-Warriors, Baal, Stars of the Roller State Disco, Contact, Christine, Road, two versions of The Firm and Elephant.
Supporting these films is a veritable wealth of introductions, commentaries, Open Air discussions and documentaries that are too numerous to be fully listed here. The special feature most worth mentioning is Alan Clarke: Out of His Own Light, a brand-new 12-part documentary that’s spread out across the six discs, providing contexts and insights that are bound to illuminate even the most venerable of Clarke’s fans.
As something of a newcomer (I’d seen only Scum and The Firm), it was the diversity of Clarke’s canon that surprised me. Like many others, I had associated him with bleak kitchen-sink fare and little else. However, Clarke has dealt with corporate drama in Beloved Enemy, revolutionary France in Danton’s Death, the Troubles in Contact and Elephant, communist defection in Nina, and governmental torture in Psy-Warriors, to name just a few.
This body of work represents a largely bygone era of creativity over commercialism among BBC commissioners, who now believe that the British public wants the likes of ‘will.i.am’ and his monstrous sartorial inelegance headlining yet another loud, flashy talent show.
Stuart Cooper’s Overlord is a seldom-seen docudrama that deftly blends fictional narrative with archival footage from the Imperial War Museum’s vast collection. It premiered in 1975 at the Berlin Film Festival and won the Jury Grand Prix. However, it did not win an audience or even a theatrical release, sending the film into obscurity for over 30 years. It received a DVD release and limited theatrical run in 2006, and has been featured on Netflix and Amazon Prime, but Overlord remains on the fringes of cinema with just 1700 user ratings on IMDb.
Despite this, a quick read of responses from critics and viewers alike suggest that it is a compelling and affecting piece of work. It’s this small yet enthusiastic support that is seeing the Criterion Collection upgrade Overlord to Blu-ray on 6 June, which will be the 72nd anniversary of D-Day.
The film begins in May 1940 with footage of victorious German troops marching through a recently evacuated Dunkirk. We are then presented with an unfocused shot of a British soldier who charges toward us only to fall under a hail of gunfire. This blurred sequence – which was inspired by Robert Capa’s famous photograph Falling Soldier – is the premonition of Tom Beddoes (Brian Stirmer), the subject of Overlord’s fictional narrative.
The Sound Barrier, one of David Lean’s lesser-known entries into his proud catalogue, is coming to Blu-ray on 11 April thanks to a joint effort from the BFI National Archive, STUDIOCANAL and the David Lean Foundation.
The transfer looks great, old fans of the film will be very pleased with its high-definition sheen. However, those who enter this film after seeing Bridge on the River Kwai or Lawrence of Arabia will probably be disappointed because of its poor characterisation and reliance on aerial spectacle, which has inevitably aged after 64 years.
Set in mid-to-late 1940s, the film follows John Ridgefield (Ralph Richardson), a wealthy pioneer of aviation who believes the sound barrier can and should be broken. His pursuit is egotistical and uncompassionate, for he considers the project’s fatal danger to be par for the course and justifies the endeavour by comparing himself to Prometheus, the Titan of Greek mythology who ‘came to a sticky end… but gave the world fire.’ The problem with that it won’t be John who comes to a sticky end, but the brave pilots who are willing to become his guinea pigs.
Caught up in the grand experiment is Tony (Nigel Patrick), John’s son-in-law who eventually serves as his chief test pilot; Susan (Ann Todd), Tony’s concerned wife and John’s somewhat estranged daughter; and Christopher (Denholm Elliot), John’s son, apprehensive heir and doomed first test pilot.
When Princess Diana’s life was suddenly cut short in 1997, Britain experienced its first nationwide emotional outburst of pornographic proportions. Long known for its ‘stiff upper lip’, the British seemingly fell to their knees with hysterically maudlin grief over a woman who was nothing more than a socialite – Kim Kardashian or Paris Hilton with a bit of class.
Her death was clearly tragic, she was a 36-year-old mother of two, but the media attention she received both before and after her death was entirely undeserved and downright aberrant in its obsessiveness. What was there to admire? She was unintelligent (by her own admission), uncharismatic, enormously privileged and manipulative on occasion. Despite this, she was not hateful or even particularly dislikable, so the bulk of one’s exasperation should not lie with Diana, but with the media, who, on the morning of 1st September 1997, insisted that Britons across the nation had to mourn a multi-millionaire celebutante they had never met.
The toxic seeds of the international media’s relationship with Diana were planted around 1980, when Prince Charles began courting her. The incessant coverage she subsequently received is rather curious because, like many socialites, the depth of her personality left much to be desired. That didn’t matter of course as she was blonde, blue-blooded and the potential partner of the heir to the throne. The tabloids treated Diana as a sex object, a pretty doll whose coy expressions could tame the Prince in time for his kingship.
It is clear to those with even a modicum of emotional intelligence that Diana and Charles simply weren’t compatible. She was nineteen, naïve and neurotic and Charles had neither the time nor the inclination to spend enough time with her – it was a union orchestrated by each other’s families that neither was ready for. Frankly, their doomed marriage was a 15-year hiatus in the relationship between Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles, which was and now is a far more appropriate partnership.
The media and the public are often keen to glorify an individual when they die prematurely, but with Diana it verged on canonisation. The scores of people who laid flowers and openly wallowed defended their cheap, morbid bereavement by harking on about the virtues of Diana’s charity work, but how virtuous was it?
The images of Diana walking near land mines and prodding terminally ill people are familiar, but what else was she supposed to do when she wasn’t strolling the grounds of Balmoral or building a new gilded existence with the disagreeable Fayed family? Charities have become a fashion accessory amongst A-list celebrities; they’re paraded around much like those ridiculous bug-eyed handbag dogs. It’s somewhat cynical to think this way, and not all celebrity charities are self-serving endeavours (Spielberg’s Shoah foundation, for example), but it’s quite obvious that sanctimony and ‘fitting in’ are primary incentives for many philanthropic celebrities.
It’s often claimed that Diana was a victim of the paparazzi, but she used these free PR agents to create her personality cult. As the frenetic chatter of paparazzos’ cameras started to follow Diana wherever she went, she learned how to present herself and manipulate these desperate parasites.From the battlegrounds of Bosnia to the minefields of Angola, her every precious step was captured and broadcast for the whole world to fawn over. I’d shake the hand of every leper in town if I was adored and almost beatified by swathes of people from the world over!
Unfortunately, it seems many people cherish the image rather than the long, hard graft of real innovation and achievement. Take Norman Borlaug for example, he was an American biologist whose high-yield, disease-resistant wheat vastly improved the food supply in Asia and Africa, causing him to be nicknamed ‘The Man Who Saved A Billion Lives’. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his contributions to world peace, but despite his profound betterment of humanity, Borlaug’s mainstream fame is minimal because he was an old bald man from Iowa.
A more direct comparison is Jody Williams, whose extensive work in anti-landmine campaigning and other political activism was also rewarded with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997. Williams was active at the same time as Diana, but heartfelt political principles are of minimal interest to those who enjoy crying, so her committed political career went largely unnoticed by the general public, who found the glamour and fantasy of Diana to be infinitely more watchable.
Diana’s saintly reputation was (and still is) the creation of a mawkishly money-minded press and a disconcertingly large part of the population who willingly indulged it with teary-eyed relish. The other key influence on the event was Prime Minister Tony Blair. Diana’s death occurred at a very opportune time for the newly elected leader; after winning a landslide victory with the New Labour campaign in 1997, he was swiftly handed a chance to connect with ‘the people’ on an emotional level with an intensity perhaps unseen since VE day 52 years prior.
It was Blair who popularised the laughable moniker ‘the People’s Princess’. This is a woman who was bought a £100,000 house for her eighteenth birthday, wore a £9000 wedding dress, and was somehow worth an estimated $40 million at the time of her death – how on earth can she be considered a figure that represented the people?
The footage of myriad plebs flocking to Buckingham Palace and even camping around it so they could mourn an aristocratic celebutante they had never met is pathetic in the true sense of the word. They were shamelessly caught up in Diana’s cult of personality, exposing much of humanity’s need to worship someone or something, whether it’s Jesus Christ or Kim Kardashian’s arse.
Blair wasn’t the only public figure to endorse and exacerbate the media’s campaign of crying, Elton John and Bernie Taupin rewrote Candle in the Wind to fit the occasion. Of course, all proceeds went to charity, but it is clear that the song’s purpose was to vastly inflate John’s ego, not his $450 million bank balance.
Candle in the Wind 1997 is the anthem for the infantile, protracted emotional outbursts that have become so commonplace, whether it’s Jade Goody’s made-for-TV cancer battle or the never-ending Hillsborough disaster. The lyricism of Candle in the Wind is very much to the taste of those who thought it was appropriate to give a kitsch teddy bear to a dead stranger, highlights include: ‘For our nation’s golden child’, ‘All our words cannot express / The joy you brought us through the years’, ‘From a country lost without your soul’.
Where does one begin with these stupid lyrics? I’m sure Elton felt much joy when he rubbed his sycophantic shoulders with Diana at glitzy, gaudy high society functions, but what joy did she bring to the rest of us lowly serfs? The most offensive of the song’s claims is that Britain – the first industrialised nation who conquered much of the world, contributed significantly to science and the arts and defeated some of history’s greatest tyrants – was ‘lost’ without the soul of some posh totty. Elton and Taupin were right about the ‘nation’s golden child’ bit though – she had a 20 million pound jewellery collection.
The solemn dignity of Henry Purcell’s March once flooded Westminster Abbey for the funeral of Queen Mary II in 1695; I wonder what Purcell would have made of Taupin’s claptrap and the melodrama of John’s pianism? I shouldn’t think anyone else gives a toss though, because a 2002 poll revealed that the British public considered Diana to be the third greatest Briton of all time, putting her ahead of Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, Charles Babbage and Tim Berners-Lee. I know, it is just a list, but it’s still a disconcerting measure of the public’s preference for vapid celebrity over true understated genius.
The whole Diana issue is wrapped in another layer of stupidity when one considers the monarchy and the population’s relationship with it. Britain’s former draconian rigidity and pomp and circumstance was largely eroded by two World Wars and cultural revolution, causing the Royal Family to look terribly archaic and useless. The perpetually sour-faced Queen and her clan have devolved into little more than a tinselly tourist attraction for American and Commonwealth tourists to gawp at.
The cultural bastardisation of the Diana debacle stressed just how absurd the notion of royalty is. With their divorces, syrupy concerts (more of that in a minute) and Nazi themed fancy dress, the Royals have dumbed down along with the rest of mainstream culture, reminding us more than ever that they too are homo-sapiens, African apes with tiaras and fascinators. The French realised this in the 18th century, and even though I understand and enjoy the allure of tradition, it’s about time we did, too.
I may disagree with their unearned adoration, but that doesn’t mean I dislike the Royals as people. William and Harry appear perfectly affable, so it was particularly disappointing when they organised and hosted the Concert for Diana in 2007. The show commemorated what would have been her 46th birthday, which was almost 2 months before the 10th anniversary of her death and the subsequent destruction of British values.
Elton John returned, opening and closing the ceremony with a selection of naff ballads. The rest of the concert comprised 26 acts, ranging from Duran Duran (Diana’s favourite band) and Tom Jones to Kanye West and ‘P. Diddy’, or ‘Puff Daddy’ or ‘Diddy’ or whatever juvenile pseudonym he was using at time. Musically, P. Diddy’s performance was very lacklustre, he instead channeled his efforts into what he called ‘Diana’s rebirth’, which saw him walking to the front of the stage and asking the audience to join in with him shouting ‘We love you! We miss you!’ Diddy’s self-serving display left me utterly incredulous.
Using a format similar to Red Nose Day, the concert was punctuated with short films of charity workers and other interviewees relentlessly praising Diana as if she was the Earth’s first faultless human being. The last film that championed a real-life figure so spectacularly was Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph des Willens (1935).
Whether it is the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, the sob stories in the weekly pabulum that is The X-Factor, or the death of Jade Goody (don’t get me started), an unhealthy appetite for vicarious bereavement and the 24hr media circuses that satiate it continue to rage on. The masses may eventually get a grip, but the damage has already been done. There will always be two categories of people: those who cried when Diana died and those who rightfully did not.
‘My visit to Auschwitz was more uncanny than overwhelming’
‘I had read that it was an ‘overwhelming’ experience, and I suppose that is an accurate description, however my reaction to this overwhelment wasn’t an emotional breakdown but rather a numb detachment that was punctuated by an occasional portent feeling and this nervous unease that put the hairs on the back of my neck on end. I’d get this latter sensation when I peeked into the windows of locked barracks; in most instances the rooms were dark, dusty and dilapidated, yet having some knowledge of what happened in these nondescript old wrecks made me feel somewhat spooked as if some tortured soul’s face was suddenly going to appear in the shadows.’
Albert Finney drives this film with his brilliant performance as Arthur Seaton, an angry young factory worker from Nottingham who lives for the weekend.
His infectious appetite for trouble has developed a reputation for being a rogue in the terraces and ginnels of his neighbourhood. He likes the ladies, and although there are plenty of single women out there for him, he chooses to sleep with Brenda (Rachel Roberts), the wife of his workmate Jack (Bryan Pringle). A scene early in the film shows Arthur gleefully finishing breakfast at Brenda’s house when Jack is moments away from walking through the door. Arthur deliberately takes his time in escaping, relishing the close shave.
Opinionated and disaffected, Arthur enjoys regular rants with his close friend Bert (Norman Rossington) about the banality of the quiet life and how he has ‘fight’ in him. Although he dislikes authority figures and the local old bag who pokes her nose in everyone’s business, the enemy that he’s fighting isn’t a human, his enemy is conformity; the prospect of settling down and facing the daily grind makes him very anxious and fiery indeed.
This leads to an awful lot of troublemaking, which can be very funny. In one moment he loads his rudimentary pellet gun, quietly opens a window and shoots Mrs. Bull (Edna Morris), the aforementioned nosey cow, in her fat backside while she gossips. I laughed excitedly like a naughty adolescent as if I was really with Arthur, frightened of what the petty old hag was going to do. Inevitably, Arthur treads on some toes and he doesn’t always get away scot free, the gravest example of this being a fight scene that, unsurprisingly, is very dated. However, Arthur isn’t bothered by a tough fight, ‘It’s not the first time I’ve been in a losing fight, won’t be the last either I don’t spose… I’m a fighting pit prop who wants a pint of bitter, that’s me.’ During a fishing trip, his friend Bert asks the ranting Arthur ‘Where does all this fighting get you?’ It’s an important question and I don’t think Arthur is sure of the answer.
Arthur knows that he’s following the same well-trodden path as all the old farts around him and it seems he has an existential crisis every time he considers it, but he’ll probably soon mellow and learn to, in the words of Bert, ‘go on working and hope something good’ll turn up.’ Either that or move away and do something completely different, something that breaks away from his area’s cyclical nature that he detests so much.
Unlike so many romantic dramas and especially comedies, the film has a romance that you genuinely care about. Arthur meets the lovely Doreen (Shirley Anne Field), a beautiful, measured and reserved woman who keeps Arthur’s charm at bay, which entices him even further. You hope that the angsty, impetuous Arthur won’t squander his chances of a good relationship with a good woman.
Saturday Night, Sunday Morning is a epochal piece of realist British cinema that remains resonant and largely undated.
It is most certainly flawed, but The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is likely to make this harrowing chapter of history more accessible for some children.
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas serves as an introduction for children to Nazism and the Holocaust. It covers a broad range of elements integral to Nazi Germany such as institutional racism, nationalism and indoctrination, albeit in a juvenile, contrived and ultimately implausible manner.
The film charts the relationship between Bruno (Asa Butterfield), a German 8-year-old and Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), a young Jewish boy. Bruno is the son of Ralf (David Thewlis), the SS Commandant of a nearby concentration camp in which Shmuel lives, and Elsa (Vera Farmiga), who is largely ignorant of the Jewish persecution her husband is responsible for.
The inquisitive Bruno first meets the titular boy in striped pyjamas when he stumbles across the camp perimeter next to the woods that surround his house. The innocent Bruno is puzzled by Shmuel’s predicament, he doesn’t understand why soldiers are ‘taking their clothes away for no reason’ or why another inmate Pavel works in the camp after a career as a doctor. As he repeatedly visits Shmuel and develops a friendship with him, his confusion soon turns to indignation.
Clearly, their relationship is unrealistic. The abhorrent reality is that most children were killed immediately upon arrival at the camps, and even as a child who either somehow slipped through the net or was deemed useful, it is very unlikely that Shmuel could escape his oppressors’ eyeshot so many times to speak with Bruno.
The boys’ exchanges are contrived and awkward, they are not natural conversations but a vehicle for the screenwriters to teach their young viewers the basics of the Holocaust. Considering his age, Asa Butterfield is a decent young actor – he has the potential to be a star. Scanlon, however, was quite stilted.
One of my problems with the two boys’ relationship and indeed the whole cast are the English accents, it seriously affected the credibility of the characters. Even Vera Farmiga, an American woman, gives her German character an English accent, which she does very well, incidentally. I’m sure the film’s adult cast members were more than capable of at least hints of German or Eastern European, but attempts to do so by Butterfield or Scanlon would have probably been risible.
The most villainous and unlikable character of the film is probably Kurt Kotler (Rupert Friend), but he is also something of a caricature. With his chiselled jaw, blond hair, blue eyes and immaculate uniform, Kotler is the personification of the somewhat homoerotic Nazi dream of Aryan supremacy. The problem is that instead of him being a compelling example of a Nazi propaganda poster-boy, Friend’s character is an example of the cliched ‘Ve have vays ov making you talk’ Nazi stock-character. And of course, Friend makes no attempt to Germanise his English accent, which meant I just couldn’t believe in him.
With implausible characters and relationships, some viewers may begin to lose hope as the The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas descends into a sophomoric history lesson. However, the climax completely batters you with its shocking, powerful twist. Despite all of the preceding problems, the fittingly horrendous denouement will leave an impression on child and parent alike. Seldom have I seen a film picked up so greatly by its final minutes.
Even to those who know of Threads‘ reputation, the film still packs a punch that leaves you winded and miserable. It is a comprehensive and compelling insight into nuclear warfare that brutally highlighting the abject foolishness of MAD – the apt acronym for Mutually Assured Destruction.
The film focuses on young couple Jimmy (Reece Dinsdale) and Ruth (Karen Meagher) and their respective families. Ruth’s pregnant, so they’ve decided to do the proper thing by marrying and moving in together. Of course, their plans are never realised. The cast consists of unknown actors, which is a smart move because any household names may have detracted from the reality of it.
Although it is a drama, much of the film adopts a documentary format. Informative captions are typed across the screen by what sounds like a teletyper, producing that loud, mechanical sound as it ominously details the strategic and economic importance of Sheffield and the rapidly worsening international relations. It is this documentary realism that gives Threads a disturbing authenticity that further adds to the tension preceding the inevitable attack.
When the bomb finally strikes, the preamble that has led to it ensures that it remains powerful even if the special effects aren’t spectacular. I was actually pleasantly surprised by the special effects, the image of the mushroom cloud rising above the screams and hysteria of Sheffield is haunting, albeit lacking in scope compared to that infamous sequence in Terminator 2. It certainly blows ‘The Day After’, a similar American production, out of the water.
‘In an urban society, everything connects. Each person’s needs are fed by the skills of many others. Our lives are woven together in a fabric, but the connections that make society strong, also make it vulnerable.’
‘Threads’ opens with this profound piece of narration from Paul Vaughan, explaining its title and foreshadowing the abject horror that’s to come. It is after the bomb strikes that the viewer really begins to understand what it looks like when this vulnerable fabric of society is absolutely shattered. Once humanity has their veneer of civilisation destroyed, they become desperate and animalistic. Money becomes worthless, the new currency is food, food such as stale bread and raw meat, and people work frantically for it. Crops are scarce and the diminishing fuel reserves lead to the use of hoes rather than combine harvesters. Within a few years of the attack, the British population reaches medieval numbers of 4 – 11 million.
These damning facts and figures either appear in the aforementioned captions or are narrated by Vaughan, whose diction is comparable to Laurence Olivier’s in the brilliant Thames Television series The World at War.
Threads is a trenchant argument for nuclear disarmament. What an obnoxiously reckless species we’d be if we allowed nuclear warfare to destroy our planet. Imagine if some extra-terrestrial tourist with knowledge of Earth’s abundance of natural beauty, culture and technology landed on our planet only to find themselves amidst a nuclear winter, what a shameful task explaining ourselves to them would be.
We’ve all seen depressing, harrowing films, but the utter nihilism that is explored in such grinding detail here will make the idea of merely existing in a functioning, productive society seem positively Utopian.
Rise of the Footsoldier is a true-crime British gangster film that is both appalling and funny in equal measure. The film charts the criminal career of Carlton Leach, an Essex hardnut who was conditioned by the massive violence of the football terraces before he made his bones in the criminal underworld. Playing Leach is Ricci Harnett, who gives an appropriately obnoxious performance. His face regularly has this fixed expression of arrogance and bad attitude, and as Leach gets older and something of a veteran of the Essex underworld, he becomes so tough and smug that he can barely smile or even speak.
The initial phases of the film concentrate on Leach, but the focus later shifts to ‘The Essex Boys’, a moniker referring to Tony Tucker, Pat Tate and Craig Rolfe. Whilst Rolfe was largely just a minion, Tucker and Tate were successful and feared drug dealers, Tucker being some sort of kingpin of South East England.
They were all very profane individuals, firing a medley of Anglo-Saxon at each other every sentence. For people like this, ‘Cunt’ is a staple word even in innocuous small talk, where it appears to simply mean ‘person’ rather than anything derogatory. I don’t object to the film’s language, I can imagine the vernacular is depicted quite accurately. Indeed, the sheer vulgarity of the film’s horrendous characters is actually rather amusing.
After a brief exploration of the 1990s ecstasy scene and a routine plot of a drug deal gone awry in which there’s a lot of torture and cruelty, the film covers the most interesting element of the story – the Rettendon murders in which Tucker, Tate and Rolfe were shot to death in a Land Rover.
It’s a comprehensive account, depicting the three different accounts that have been speculated by followers of the controversial event. The director Julian Gilbey also ensured that we understand just how much blood sprayed everywhere on that fateful December evening. Indeed, the camera seems to relish the violence throughout, zooming right in on people being tortured with various instruments and headbuttings that spatter ludicrous amounts of corn syrup everywhere. While some of it is appropriately grisly and stark, like violence should be in a crime film that takes itself seriously, a lot of it borders on being comically gratuitous.
Rise of the Footsoldier made me laugh, I even bought it on Blu-ray, but it nevertheless falls into the Pooey category. There’s some competent acting, but the film fails because the whole thing is largely bereft of pathos or insight, it’s just a load of cockneys with dodgy wigs swearing and leering with frequent outbursts of syrupy violence. Ultimately, the main problem may be that the subject matter just isn’t worth adapting for the screen. However, judging by the seemingly endless stream of films based around the blasted ‘Essex Boys’, it appears that the lower echelons of the British film industry still hasn’t considered such an idea.