BFI Alan Clarke Season – The Firm (1988)
How many great directors has this perpetually miserable and wind swept isle produced? Well, there are two genius grafters who intrinsically transformed the form, and I’d wager that Hitchcock and Chaplin will remain in the pantheon as long as there are movies. Scouring the next tier down we chance upon those whose critical status ebbs and flows with the passing of the years, both David Lean and Michael Powell have veered from discordant dismissal, both them the great mid-century directors whose epic visions also harbour a certain ‘Britishness’ in their social class, character centered stories. Further down the firmament we get to the outliers, the ‘cult’ filmmakers like Nicholas Roeg, Derek Jarman or Peter Greenaway, the mavericks whose polyamorous mosaics draw in core influences from other art forms like literary form, graphical and classical art and theatre into their padded cinematic cells. In this sacred sector I’d also include Alan Clarke, the great screen chronicler of the Thatcher years, who is currently being blessed with an exhaustive retrospective of his TV and screen work at the BFI. When you lie back and think of England in the cinemascape of the 1980’s the initial images that surface are of the so-called heritage pictures of Merchant Ivory, pushing the so-called ‘museum aesthetic’ which is an amusing new phrase my research has discovered. These production cartels mined Blighty’s rich literary history across diverse regency periods to build suffocating period dramas featuring stately homes, lavish production design, suppressed sexuality and courtly intrigue, all nested within a peculiar fascination with social aspiration and cultural mobility. Depending on your upbringing however your life experience might be less attuned to seeing Emma Thompson or Anthony Hopkins emote between a heavy padding of Bronte birthed witticisms, than it is to witnessing some deranged member of the underclass kick a tramp around a rain-sodden Lewisham Council estate. Clarke’s grim, socially vicious work runs in the same vein of British radicalism as the post-war ‘Kitchen Sink’ New Wave, a strand of socially conscious cinema that bleeds through to the agitations of Ken Loach and to a lesser extent the Mike Leigh, a man whose films and formalism I’ve never particularly embraced. Clarke was a social anarchist who ironically worked within the confines of the state sanctioned BBC, and displayed a rare talent in shepherding a new generation of British actors to the screen – Tim Roth, Gary Oldman and Ray Winstone all got major breaks under socially snarling tutelage. That’s quite a different roster from the current crop of Eton and Oxbridge educated thespians like Hiddleston, Cumberbatch and Redmayne isn’t it? I’ll just park any further thoughts on the growing void between privilege and equality of opportunity here…..
I grew up with Alan Clarke’s films I distinctly remember watching some of the transmission as they originally went to air, and its impossible to have been raised in a largely working class comprehensive school system and not be privy to many of the notorious scenes and dialogue exchanges of the still shocking and BBC banned Scum. This season starts at the end with The Firm, Clarke’s final completed project before he was cruelly cut down with a heart attack at the age of 54, a mean, vicious film which on the surface concerns itself with a particular British invention which thankfully seems to have been eradicated – football hooliganism. Featuring an absolutely blistering performance from a pre-Hollywood Gary Oldman The Firm is less about male machismo and posturing than the ‘me’ generation finally embedding itself in post Big-Bang Britain, as we follow Bex, a successful London Estate Agent leading his crew of football hooligans into battle with two vicious rival, each cell jostling for superiority in order to lead a combined crew into Europe for a major international tournament. Bex is married to (Lesley Manville, Oldman’s wife at the time) and a inquisitive toddler in tow, but rather than being a more mature alumni of the skinhead youth culture or a protégé of National Front politics some of his crew are black and some are white, an immediate provocative clash with the board chattering classes consensus of these hooligans social standing and economic breeding.
If you’re of a certain age then just the supporting cast is fun to spot, Benny from Grange Hill tickled the nostalgia node, even Phil bloody Mitchell makes an early appearance as one of the knuckle dragging Neanderthals. Oldman anchors the piece with his gimlet eyed ferocity, he’s a total psychopath who is dangerously charming in the vein of Alex Delarge, indeed one scene where he goes to visit his childhood bedroom is reminiscent of an early scene in A Clockwork Orange, with both subjects plastering the walls with objects of his youthful obsession and an array of lethal weapons and illicit booty sequestered away from prying parental sight. It’s fascinating to see London of a certain period as the backdrop to the tale, a historical artefact as well as a social document of the transition of the new, upwardly mobile working class, as the ruling politicians proudly proclaimed that ‘there is no such thing as society’ then acted all shocked when their ideology incubated an entire generational tribe of selfish fucks who have eagerly pulled the aspirational ladder up with them. On a personal level Clarke’s work is just so intrinsically British, down to the pitch perfect argot and the ways in which we mock and joke with each other, all leaping from the carefully crafted page – although you’d assume the material is improvised given the immediate intimacy of the films he was very precise with the dialogue, all the way down to the professional ability to take the piss out of each other. The social commentary hums with the revelation that the main players aren’t ‘chavs’ although they spring from a working class pedigree, a new breed of ruthless Thatcherite aspiration who wade into combat in chinos and herringbone shirts, not garish gold chains, reebok tracksuits and Mulberry hats. The overall feel is grim and relentless, almost oppressively so, leavened with particularly British flourishes of black humour, insults and unflinching vérité violence. It’s impossible to watch Clarke’s work and see the impact on the likes of Shane Meadows, a near lone working class voice in British cinema who also has an ear for the genuine lives and tribulations of his subjects – I just wish he’d move on from repeatedly returning to severe sexual abuse as a plot and character mechanic in just about everything he’s done for the past ten years.
Starting a season with a directors final film may seem like a strange choice, but there was a method to the BFI’s chronological madness. The version of The Firm we saw was a recently excavated answer print of the film which has only recently been identified and liberated from Clarke’s archives, complete with film-stock quality changes signaling the fragments that the BBC excised from the transmission due to language or violence concerns. This made the screening experience quite unusual, as whenever the stock degenerated the smirks lengthened as you knew someone was gonna say ‘fuck’ or inflict a rival with a loving and adorable Glasgow smile. The post screening panel discussion was with Phil Davis (memorable as Yeti, the albino leader of the rival crew), Clarke’s screenwriter David Leland, his producer and daughter as well as some of the The Firm’s supporting actors who turned up in the screening crowd, chiming in with their amusing and illuminating reminiscences and recollections. The debate was a little stilted but it provided an insight into Clarke’s exacting style, his slavering over a groaning Steinbeck for hours on end until he got the tempo of scenes exactly right, and demanding numerous takes of his carthorse Steadicam operators to craft his stylized and brilliant tracking shots – extremely unusual for TV in the 1980’s. If I wasn’t working so damn hard at the moment and preoccupied as Jules said with some other transitional activities I would have made more of an effort with this season, I do have another screening programmed but in an ideal world I’d be seeing as much as possible as Clarke is one of my favourite home-grown talents. At least we have a box-set to look forward which includes stuff unseen by me, including a David Bowie piece which sounds…..interesting;