BFI Alan Clarke Season – Made In Britain (1983)
Although competing priorities are conspiring against me I did manage to program a second visit to the BFI’s Alan Clarke season, primarily driven by the rumoured appearance of a certain special, gutshot guest. Whilst I would have liked to devote more time to this specific British brutalist other priorities have smacked me in the head like a sock filled with snooker balls, although if I’m honest whilst I would have liked to have seen the ruthless Elephant again Clarke only other notorious film Scum didn’t particularly appeal on the big screen, especially considering its harrowing scenes and darkly depressing infrastructure – I guess I’m getting soft in my advancing years. So that left Made In Britain on the agenda, another one of Clarke’s most controversial TV pieces, initially airing to an inevitably hostile tabloid response way back in those grim, Thatcherite reigned early 1980’s. In his very first screen acting role Tim Roth is the snarling yet undeniably intelligent skinhead Trevor, estranged from every institution of civil society, hovering on the brink of an inevitable tumble into serious crime with no recourse to reverse his self-inflicted imprisonment and isolation from his teachers, his family and community – and he’s only fifteen years old. Exiled from the parental home Trevor drifts through a bureaucratic limbo, the only authority figure showing him a modicum of interest being his song suffering case worker (Eric Richard, whom UK viewers may recognise from The Bill), shuffled from one Council shelter to assessment centre as he rages against life like a belligerent bulldog. Even those with the patience of saints have a breaking point however, so when Trevor’s attitude and behaviour results in another spate of racist spewed violence he risks being completely exiled from the care system, a semiotic symptom of a wider indifference toward an entire class and strata of society in the dawning of the neo-liberalist era.
I think then That We Need To Talk About Trevor? Scathing performances and grim social purpose aside you have to admire of Made In Britain for the utter rejection of providing any answers , of suggesting any ‘solution’ to Trevor and his ugly idiot ideology, his demeanour arising more from frustration and ignorance than any genuine streak of vicious psychopathy. The piece was commissioned for the then terrestrial post-watershed schedule, back when there were only three channels in the UK, an ancient broadcasting landscape when any vague controversy concerning sex, violence or political subterfuge would get the establishment and its right-wing media lackeys salivating with self-righteous outrage. It’s a symbolic state of the nation constructed work as we follow Trevor’s descent through the tired and disinterested care and social service system, not without its genuinely committed and skilled officers but still representative of a unyielding and cold, suffocating state. Whilst it is obvious to loathe Trevor, recoil at the pathetic racial epithets he barks and the thuggish destructive he wields you also feel his impotent, seething rage, no matter how self-inflected and repugnant his actions and juvenile attitudes. This is one of the key points of the film, of somehow trapping that sense of misdirected and ethereal rage, channelled through a contemporary bogeyman – the skinhead. Unsurprisingly, the shock and outrage of the gutter press after transmission was another example of hypocritical double standards, bleating complaints of igniting copy-cat behaviour which of course their misleading editorials and manufactured stories never do, with accusations of celebrating not slamming the dispossessed and feral youth of the 1980’s which seems to re-emerge on a cyclical cycle every few years – Trevor is clearly a prototype to the Chavs, to rampaging inner city multi-racial gangs, to being ‘swamped’ with immigrants and other middle-class directed hysteria.
Roth is malignantly magnetic as the explosive central character, arguably one of the most incendiary screen debuts of the past few decades, but it’s not entirely his show. The prowling, anxious steadicam work, piloted by the great DP Chris Menge’s became Clarke’s trademark in its seething Made In Britain debut, shadowing his characters restless intensity as it arcs through space and civic spaces, character and craft meeting in symbolic symbiosis. Clarke explained to Roth during shooting that he should ‘treat the camera as his eye to the world’, the mechanism to pull them into Trevor ugly reality, confronting an audience rather than comforting them. During one incredible scene led by one of Trevor’s senior welfare case workers (Geoffrey Hutchings) we witness what I can only describe as a social worker soliloquy, an unbroken speech talking Trevor and by osmosis the audience through his inevitable descent to prison after his school has referenced him to the LEA officer, the Lea officer has referred him to a care officer, the care officer referred him to an assessment centre, the assessment centre, a dark inevitable whirlpool down to prison and a life of opportunity terminally wasted. That may sound like Clarke is conjuring some sympathy for Trevor and his mindless violence, but on the contrary the piece is never patronizing, it never suggest any empathy for Trevor as a person or a character, instead it inverts the world back through that magic lantern lens and murmurs ‘this is a problem, what do you want to do about it?’ Location wise it’s the grimly sour, near dystopian vision hellscape of cluttered Council estates and concrete jungles, with the searing image of Trevor striding purposely through the Rotherhithe tunnel being one of the iconic images of 1980’s broadcasting.
Hosted by Clarke cultist Danny Leigh the Q&A featured writer David Leland, producer Margaret Matheson and the coup of Tim Roth mediated through a stable Skype reception as he was currently shooting in Scotland, so it was nice of him to find the time to pay due respect to the man who launched his career unlike some personalities who never bothered to attend this season *coughsraywinstonecoughs*. Alas the emphasis meant that there was no time to discuss Mr. Orange in Reservoir Dogs, no honey-bunny in Pulp Fiction, no Archibald in Rob Roy (an underrated villain), nor Prince Rainer in the spectacularly terrible Grace Of Monaco, but it’s probably best to ignore the last one. Still, Roth was terrific fun, relaxed and gregarious, talking through the almost miraculous luck of being spotted and cast in his first professional role, embarking on a career with a class of director of Clarke’s pedigree which has spoiled much of his subsequent experiences. The producers delved into the controversial history with the profligate swearing and questions about the play being asked in the House Of Commons – it seems that 1983 was a more placid time when it came to such moral transgressions – while soberly remarking that despite the explosion of delivery options, companies and corporations the likes of Channel 4 and the BBC just don’t commission pieces like this anymore, and that Made In Britain was actually an ITV commission. Questions were asked, as they always are at these events, of the potential of a sequel updating us to where Trevor would be now, You’re probably on the same wavelength so it won’t surprise you to hear the panel muse that he’d probably be a hedge fund analyst quaffing oysters and crashing Ferrari’s in the city, a smart individual with undeniable talents, raised in an utterly selfish and self obsessed ideology that firmly emphasises the individual ahead of the collective and cohesive good. It’s scathing, severe stuff which hasn’t dated in the last thirty years, with another arrogant and elite obsessed government in power whose leaders and families scorn and sneer at those outside of their privileged experience, proof again that the more things change, the more they stay the same;