By Michael McNulty
Alan Clarke is a name not heard often enough. Perhaps this is due to the fact that of his filmic output only two were theatrical releases. Clarke instead made a name for himself producing teleplays for the British small screen. But, whilst the screen may have been small, Clarke’s films certainly were not. They are some of the most radical, ferociously intense and scathingly honest ever to be broadcast on television. From Scum to The Firm, so powerful was his style that many of today’s great directors, Paul Greengrass and Gus Van Sant to name just two, credit him as being a major influence on them. Van Sant’s 2003 Columbine inspired film, Elephant, not only makes use of Clarke’s 1989 film title, but also pays homage to its style in its extensive use of the walking shot.
Made in Britain, the third and final film written by David Leland that Alan Clarke directed, was first broadcast on ITV in 1983. It is a searing portrayal of 16 year old skinhead, Trevor, who after being done for chucking a brick through a Pakistani man’s window is sent to a juvenile residential assessment centre. His outright refusal to cooperate with the courts and his social workers sees him faced with the reality of a life trapped in the vicious cycle of the penal system.
Tim Roth, in his first on screen appearance (Clarke also launched Ray Winstone’s career and gave Gary Oldman’s a boost) is electrifying in the role of Trevor. He is terrifying, his mouth always twisted into a smirk meets smile, the sharp of his teeth almost dripping with saliva. He is a self-destructive, antisocial maniac that elicits out of you both an anger and a pity for him.
Clarke affords the character some dimension, never reducing Trevor to the stereotypes that he so easily could. He is a smart boy and articulate, quick with intelligent, if often aggressive, responses to the pleas of his social workers. But, little insight is given into Trevor’s actual background. The origins of Trevor’s burning anti-authoritarianism and his established white supremacy beliefs are never explained and in doing so Clarke confronts us with the immediate, the situation Trevor is in and the actions surrounding it.
The second act of Made in Britain is a gruellingly intense 20 minute scene in which a cynical Superintendent maps, out on a dusty chalkboard at the assessment centre, the trap Trevor is falling into. From no job, to the dole, to prison and round again, he scratches the words onto the board as Trevor, in a rare moment of quiet, watches. The scene is brimming with a frustrating impatience that eventually spills over and Trevor launches into an angry tirade. It is a powerful demonstration of how little can be done for him, even less without a marked change in attitude.
Chris Menges cinematography is a tour de force; its gritty low light and drab colour palette create a stuffy institutional world. Alan Clarke was introduced to Steadicam by Stephen Frears prior to making this film and it marked the beginning of a feature that would come to be the trademark of his distinct visual style, the walking shot. The camera moves fluidly throughout Made in Britain, following characters down narrow hallways and lingering on them. It creates a palpable, exhausting sense of claustrophobia that allows for the performances to extend beyond simple performances and gives them a powerful, realistic authenticity.
Made in Britain is a striking film, vicious and uncompromising in its brutal honesty. It’ll leave you shaking in quiet awe.