The British borstal system is a sort of last resort lock-up for what might be called in America ‘juvenile delinquents’, and in the 1970’s it was no holiday, often hardening misfit boys into dangerous men. It was also little understood by the general public. But writer Roy Minton knew quite a bit about it through his own experiences with boys, his screenplay forming the basis of a film for the BBC which Alan Clarke was no doubt interested in for its provocative content. Dealing head-on with issues as diverse as adolescent and generational violence, homosexuality, Christianity, bureaucracy and growing-up, Minton’s work was well suited to Clarke’s sensibilities. The finished film has since carved its brutal brand of revelation on popular notions of the punitive system in the United Kingdom and elsewhere.
Though originally produced for television in 1977, Scum was banned by the BBC for a time before the rights lapsed and returned to producer Clive Parsons. He and director Alan Clarke assumed bigger production costs to create a theatrical version. The two are based on the same screenplay and shot with a similarly gritty naturalism; the primary change was the subtraction of a scene where Carlin (Ray Winstone in both versions) takes a missus, a lad who will serve to emancipate his libido, a wifey to his daddy. Minton lamented the subtraction, as he felt it intimated a necessary vulnerability in Carlin’s character.
Carlin is introduced on a drive up the countryside, hands cuffed, with two other lads; one will inevitably be a target of racist derision, the other brutalized for his sheer delicateness (a trait later deemed “subnormal” by a screw). Carlin doesn’t seem any different, except we know a little bit more of his past which includes a scuff-up with a guard in a prior borstal. Here he seems content with scraping by unnoticed, but it’s precisely his reputation that will cause the guards to sic the resident daddy, Pongo, and his cronies on him. Cornered, Carlin has no choice but to retaliate. In a brilliant unbroken steadicam scene (one that anticipates Clarke’s extensive use of it in his later films), Carlin drops a pair of snooker balls into a sock, walks up to one of Pongo’s bullies and gives him a devastating knock to the temples before getting Pongo alone in the bathroom for a once-over.
While Carlin is the film’s ostensible protagonist, his rise to daddy, the borstal lingo for top dog, being the film’s only upward evolution of character, in fact the screenwriter’s real delegate is Archer (Mick Ford) who also happens to be the most flippant character, yet the most fervent. Archer’s wit, intelligence and equanimity disarms his captors while opening a universe for the spectator outside of the borstal. He’s long decided to agitate the establishment as much as possible during his sentence; declaring himself a vegetarian, refusing to wear leather on his feet, refusing Sunday chapel and using every trifle of the rule book against those who are to enforce it. He is a disruptive force and a clarifier for the audience, disentangling the myths the screws have come to believe about their station as he makes sage connections between them and his fellow scrubs, between the microcosm of their collective disenfranchisement and its import on the wider world.
Perhaps more than any other film in our spotlight, Scum narrows its gaze on alienation. Brutality is a given, and we’re subjected to plenty of it, but what is imparted more powerfully is the degradation, psychological and societal, experienced by such young boys: echoes of the oft-shouted phrase ‘name and number’ will persist long after the credits roll. And the filmmakers seek to elicit feelings such as dread through contrasts, marked contradictions between straight behavior and the society that these young men occupy. The inmates are constantly given paradoxical instructions, led to believe one minute that they will be rewarded for their conduct and the next being slapped with time in solitary confinement. They are permitted some penurious outlets such as their weekly meetings with the matron or appeals to the headmaster which are neither efficacious nor are they meant to be. It’s unsurprising then that two different boys opt for paroxysms of wrist-slashing to solve their problems.
When the boys fight one another, it’s the one on the receiving end of blows that goes on governor’s report, the lacerations on his face betraying his participation in a fight. This creates an incentive for retaliation among the inmates, a battle for who can get whom on report. It also nurtures an environment of deceit—along with vengeance being stridently un-Christian values—in spite of the governor’s insistence on the borstal being a Christian mission. These values extend to the screws who are part and parcel of the provocations that occur; the screws act as bale merchants, pitting one boy against another and profiting from the schemes of the most powerful among them.
In a memorable scene that encapsulates the film’s emphasis on ironic failures in communication, Archer’s diplomatic appeals to Mr. Duke (Bill Dean) are met with cynicism. Archer opines that “more criminal acts are imposed on prisoners than by criminals on society” which leads to a discussion of alternatives to the punitive system. Archer suggests dialogue while Mr. Duke would rather lock-up anyone convicted of a breach of civility. Archer uses those remarks as leverage to point out the parity between screw and scrub, how each is stripped of his dignity and how each would profit from that acknowledgment. Mr. Duke, appropriately mistaking this earnest statement for insolence, scorns Archer’s insinuation that he is in any way the equal of a captive adolescent.
Another contrast is made with Carlin. His path is a marker for the meaning of success in a world of deprivation; his triumphs depend upon assertions of authority among and over the inmates, while those same triumphs demand submission to the authorities. His progress is a vale between these two conceptual escarpments. Carlin’s navigation is successful, but success threatens to turn him into a lapdog for the gurads and create a schism between his preoccupations to power and his devotion to his fellow inmates. Enough is enough when Davis, an object of sexual assault earlier in the film, commits suicide. Carlin furnishes an insurrection that results in the annihilation of the cafeteria and untold physical damage to the institution.
We think this might be a turning point, we see all the lads of every wing circling a precipice of capsized tables and chairs to the mantric, choral shout of “Dead! Dead! Dead!”—then Clarke suddenly cuts to the ringleaders of the uprising being tossed like children into their cells, faces bloodied. Then we go outside, the boys standing prostrate in military lines, defeated looks on their faces, as the governor lectures them via megaphone for their insolence and asks for a moment of silence for their “departed friend”. Over silent credits we have an unsatisfactory, yet expectedly grim finale.