Best known because it was banned by the BBC before it was supposed to be aired in 1977, Alan Clarke's Scum holds up well despite all the hype around this project, one which actually started life as a made for TV movie. In the lead, Ray Winstone plays Carlin, a thug imprisoned for his wrongdoings on the outside. He's recently been transferred to a borstel, a youth prison, from another facility. He's sent there along with two other inmates, Davis (Julian Firth) and Angel (Alrick Riley). The three of them learn the hard way that prison life sucks and that the system is full of corruption. Furthermore, rather than attempt to reform them, life behind bars seems to be working towards destroying them. The wardens and officers don't care what happens to them, giving Carlin the perfect opportunity to work his way up from new kid on the block to top dog, and that's what he does. He makes the most of his situation and decides to capitalize on it as best he can. To keep Carlin under control, the authorities bring in a gang leader named Pongo (John Blundell) but when Carlin comes out on top, they're going to have to find another way to break him.
Scum is pretty strong stuff, considering it was made for TV back in 1977, before being retooled for theatrical release. The film is bleak, uncompromising, and rather downbeat. It's quite critical of the ride of right wing Thatcher style prison policies that were in effect at the time and doesn't seem to offer a whole lot of hope for the prison community in general. The rape scene still plays quite harshly as does some of the language and violence, though all of this occurs to provide a point that obviously the prison system has a lot of problems and that things won't get better until the government takes a look at things and at least makes an attempt to rectify them.
A young Ray Winstone is great in the lead. He's frightening and even a little bit sympathetic in one or two spots. He shows great range and depth as an actor and is convincing in his role. Gritty and tough enough that we can buy him doing what he does, but able to make us sympathetic towards him when the storyline requires it. The rest of the supporting cast is also quite good making it easy to suspend your disbelief for an hour and a bit. Blundell as Pongo is notable too, his ominous presence helping to build some good tension in a few scenes. The movie is also well paced, nicely shot and makes great use of the prison locations that served as the sets for the picture. There's a consistently tense atmosphere throughout most of the film and you get the impression that anything can happen. This helps to pull us into the movie and makes it quite exciting.
After Scum was essentially buried by the BBC, Clarke and Winstone decided to remake the television version and release it theatrically (it's the strong theatrical cut that is included on this Blu-ray). The film follows pretty much the same plot as the TV version with most of the same characters (many of whom are even played by the same actors). The biggest difference between the theatrical version and the TV version is that there's a lot more foul language and considerably harsher violence in the theatrical version. Obviously you can get away with a lot more on the big screen than you can when working in the television market. At least you could in the late seventies before shows like The Sopranos, Dexter and Breaking Bad were around.
So we've got a rougher, rowdier and bloodier film here with Scum, does it work? Well, yes and no. The violence and language do sound and look more realistic here in the theatrical version. We're dealing with the criminal element under some extremely harsh conditions and it makes sense that they're going to use curse words in their day to day language. It also makes sense that when they get hit, they bleed. So choke up a few more points for realism in favor of the theatrical version of the film. It doesn't feel quite as bleak as its made for TV predecessor though. It's hard to say why, both films are very well directed and very well acted and you'd think the added realism would make this version the winner hands down, but it doesn't. It doesn't make it any worse though. The two films are pretty much on an even keel in terms of quality, both are excellent and the theatrical remake doesn't take anything away from the BBC TV version (which is sadly not included on this disc). Either way, this is one well worth seeing, a very realistic feeling movie that takes on issues that (at the time and still today) were quite controversial and which does so rather unflinchingly. It's as grim as they come and not for the faint of heart but it's an important and thought provoking picture that's well made, well-acted and contains an important message underneath all the assorted nastiness.
Scum looks about as gritty and grubby as it should in this AVC encoded 1.66.1 widescreen 1080p high definition presentation from Kino, taken from the original 35mm negative. As you could probably guess from the title and location, Scum is not a pretty looking film. It's grey, drab and gloomy looking and that's both intentional and effective given its subject matter. The Blu-ray transfer definitely offers up more depth and detail than was present in the previous DVD release from Blue Underground. This isn't reference quality material but it definitely feels like a proper presentation of an ugly looking film and it does take advantage of what Blu-ray can offer with a natural looking color palette and decent texture. The visuals seem to have always been a little murky with this picture and that's true of the Blu-ray release, but those familiar with the movie will certainly notice the upgrade.
Audio options are provided in English in DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio and in LPCM 2.0 Stereo. There are no alternate language options or subtitles provided here at all. The 5.1 track sounds okay, it opens things up a bit here and there, but the 2.0 track suits the movie a little more realistically and the 5.1 track doesn't offer a huge difference in terms of directional effects. Dialogue is clear on both tracks and levels are properly balanced throughout regardless of which option you choose. There isn't a whole lot going on here in terms of a score but the sound effects sound natural and there are no issues with hiss or distortion.
The main extras here is the audio commentary by Ray Winstone and Nigel Floyd. It starts off with a discussion of the BBC version and then talks about the differences between the two versions, and then he talks about his experiences working with his fellow cast and crew members as well as, more specifically, what it was like working with Alan Clarke. From there they discuss Clarke's influence and his work in television as well as his reputation as â€˜an actor's director.' It's an active track with some good information with Winstone talking about the reception that the film received, how some appreciated it for the fact that it dealt with â€˜the facts' and about the portrayal of the system in the movie. There's a lot of observational opinions offered here mixed in with the facts, making it a nice mix of Winstone telling stories and Floyd talking about the politics and importance of the picture.
From there we move on to the featurettes, the first of which is of an interview with producer Clive Parsons and writer Roy Minton (15:56) that starts as an appreciation of Clarke's ability to cut to the chase with a lot of his TV movies and his ability to get great performances out of his cast. Minton talks about some of the toils of writing this picture and about Clarke's take on it. Both men offer some interesting opinions and stories here. Up next is an interview with co-producers Davina Belling and Clive Parsons (8:11). They talk about how they read an article in The Observer detailing the TV version of Scum being banned by the BBC which lead to their getting in touch with a BBC producer which then lead to Roy Winton getting the rights back from the BBC when it wasn't shown within a certain period of time. Of course from there, the theatrical version was born after financing was secured through Don Boyd. There's also a solo interview here with writer Roy Minton (18:56) in which he talks about what inspired him to write this story and about the journey from TV to theatrical production, his relationship with Alan Clarke, how they'd get together and talk about work and how one of those conversations lead to a discussion of the Borstel system and then eventually to Scum. He also tells an interesting story about a Soho screening of the movie and the connection that they made in the pub across the road. Also worth checking out is the interview with executive producer Don Boyd (12:00) where he talks about how he became interested in making the film with Alan Clarke after the BBC banned the picture before talking about bonding with Clarke, his ability to deal with Roy Minton and his â€˜passion,' the decision to use the same cast (more or less) from the earlier version and the importance of Ray Winstone's work in the movie.
Rounding out the extras is a quick and very promotional in nature bit called Cast Memories (16:45) with David Threlfall, Mick Ford, and a few others who speak about their collaborative efforts on the picture, playing a character twice, and how impressed they were after working with Alan Clarke on the film. A few theatrical trailers for the feature, menus and chapter selection finish things off nicely, and all of the extras on the disc are in high definition.
Scum is a seriously grim movie but one that's well worth seeing thanks to the smart script, effective technique in filmmaking and very solid performances from all involved. It would have been nice to get both versions of the movie included here, but outside of that issue Kino have done a fine job bringing Alan Clarke's most notorious film to Blu-ray. The upgrade in audio and video quality may not be reference material but they are appreciable and there's quite a bit of supplemental material here that helps to not only document the history of the film but to put it in its proper historical context as well. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.