Looking Back At SCUM - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

Home Top Ad

Post Top Ad

Looking Back At SCUM

Tony, when all is said and done, is probably not the Daddy.
Scum, the film written by Roy Minton in 1983 which first made Ray Winston a big name is not, and should never be confused with, fun.

Sometimes, you need things not to be fun. And if you’re going to write an even vaguely realistic portrayal of life inside a British borstal, fun is never going to be high on the agenda.

While the story begins with the transport of three new inmates to the borstal – Carlin, Angel, and Davis (Ray Winstone, Alrick Riley, and Julian Firth) – it runs several storylines at once, all coalescing into a blistering, horrifying picture of life in a young offenders’ institution in the late Seventies/early Eighties.

There’s only confusion over the dating because Scum was originally written as a Play For Today on the BBC in 1977, but the violence, racism and language in the script was deemed unbroadcastable, so it was shelved – to be revied in 1983 as a full-on film for the two-year-old Channel 4, which was keen to take risks and establish itself on the back of more edgy programming and films. It’s also worth noting that by the time Scum was first broadcast, the borstal system had been at least partly reformed, giving the film a get-out in terms of its verisimilitude.

Carlin, having taken the rap for his elder brother’s crimes, has been sent from one borstal to another. He arrives fully formed in Scum having punched an officer at his last borstal. He maintains this was an act of retaliation, rather than incitement, and there’s some justification for that view throughout the film.

Rather than being the embittered hard man, he is initially terrorized by both warders and “the Daddy” of the wing, “Pongo” Banks (John Blundell). Pongo has heard of the warder-punching trouble-maker before his arrival, and has a point to prove – that no-one is going to challenge him for dominance.

After a few beatings from Pongo and his gang though, Carlin decides that his head-down strategy is not the way in which he personally will survive his borstal experience. Instead, he sets out to rise to the top of the tree, using some snooker balls in a sock as a makeshift cosh to establish his position as “the new Daddy.”

He reduces the rates of protection from Pongo’s level and becomes an acceptable leader both among the inmates and for the warders – and when there’s a potential challenge from “Baldy” (Peter Francis), the Daddy of another wing, he takes a cosh to what is supposed to be a fist fight, beats him senseless and sets him up, to maintain his dignity, as a puppet king of the wing, so everyone who previously held allegiance to Baldy still holds it – but now under Carlin’s direction.

That’s one of the strings of storytelling in Scum – the way in which someone who’s not inherently violent turns to brutal measures simply to avoid becoming the victim of a system that encourages violence at every turn.

The alternative to Carlin’s path is given a face by another inmate, Archer (Mick Ford, also famous from Jack Rosenthal’s The Knowledge). In contrast to Carlin’s ‘in it to win it’ strategy, Archer is an intellectual, a philosopher, and a world-class smirking wind-up merchant.

He bucks the system every chance he gets as a way of keeping his personality free, even while his body is incarcerated. He asks for books, spins elegant (not to mention highly vexing) philosophical arguments about the brutalising nature of the system, both on its inmates and its warders, and by the end of the film, he’s seen to have suffered no more or less than anyone who actively takes part in the violence of the environment.

While Carlin takes the route to the top of the problem as a way of surviving it, Archer steps outside the routine of the grinding violence and ugliness, and tries (and seemingly succeeds) to maintain his individuality.

But there are worse things in borstal – and worse things in Scum – than the fascinating appraisal of two ways through a hellish environment.

What Scum shows extremely clearly is the nature of a system that has already given up on its inmates before they arrive, where any difference from a norm is punished by violent inmates who need to establish their superiority over the different, and either indolent or actively vicious warders for whom the kill-or-be-killed system works to their advantage.

We can certainly see that in the cases of Carlin and Archer. When Carlin chooses the path of violence and gains inmate respect, he is essentially rewarded and co-opted by the governor and the warders – he’s given a single cell in return for keeping a lid on potential incidents. Meanwhile, when Archer advances his campaign of bloody-minded individuality from vegetarianism to a flirtation with Islam, the governor – a strict believer in the Church of England (in several senses of the phrase) – throws him into solitary confinement and strips his earnings from him for a month.

But the horror of the system is much more effectively shown through examples where the “difference” between the majority and the outlier is not a thing that can be changed by adopting a different attitude.

The racial slurs used throughout the film by both staff and inmates make it clear very early on that to be black in borstal is automatically to be thought of as an entirely lower class of life by the majority of people in the environment. So for instance, when Carlin takes on Baldy, who is black, even though Carlin himself seems to hold no inherently racist views, the beating he administers to establish his dominance comes with some easily-spat racial slurs to underline the pecking order in this microcosm of a world of white privilege.

People who can’t read, too, are thought of largely as “stupid,” and are frequently infantilized as a result. One such inmate, for whom Archer reads letters, is relatively well-meaning, but is continually pushed down the pecking order because the system determines that he’s “not pulling his weight” in the ludicrously greased uphill climb towards “rehabilitation.”

Another, Toyne (Herbert Norville), is both black and seems not to be able to read. He is infantilized by the Matron (Jo Kendall), who reads out a letter to him in patronizing (matronizing?) tones. She automatically assumes the letter is about the death of a pet (because her automatic assumption is that Toyne cares about the pet, but wouldn’t in any circumstances be grown-up enough to have a more adult relationship).

When the truth of that letter is revealed, and the death of his wife is borne in on him, Toyne falls into despair, self-harms, and eventually commits suicide off-screen.

Davis is regularly persecuted for the assumption that he’s gay – though this is never in any sense confirmed. The suspicion of this difference is enough to earn him beating after beating. In fact, it’s actually in response to Davis being bullied that Carlin takes up his snooker ball cosh in the first place.

When beatings grow tedious, he is framed for the theft of a radio by fellow inmate, Eckersley (Ray Burdis), throwing him instead to the wolves on the staff. But his well-meaning and compliant nature means he still manages to land a shift in the borstal gardens.

There are all sorts of trigger warnings for what comes next. It goes beyond violence, and is seen by the perpetrators as a “fitting” punishment for what they assume is Davis’ kind of difference.

It’s horrifying to watch, and it doesn’t get any better, as Davis, fearing he will have to endure the same on a regular basis, takes his own way out.

And why should he fear repeated violation? Is there not a system for reporting such things in borstal?

That’s ultimately the big lesson that Scum teaches. On the one hand, whatever anyone does to you, you never name names. Carlin, early on, having taken a head-butting beating, explains calmly and convincingly that he fell down the stairs, being unused to the concrete steps. Angel, after his room is invaded for some three-on-one racial violence, manages to sputter to the officer who happens along that he too “just fell.” Banks, after being attacked by a sockful of snooker balls, “fell, sir,” even when the officer is yelling into his face to try to make him name Carlin as his attacker.

Even Davis, after his “punishment” by three fellow inmates, that leaves him writhing, crying on the floor and unable to stand, holds to the line that he “fell, sir.”

So there is no mechanism to show “weakness,” or any emotion that isn’t violent rage, within the system. No-one would stand for it.

But more than that, what Scum shows most effectively is the complicity of the staff in the ongoing situation and its casualised brutality.

When one beating is due to take place, Mr Greaves (Philip Jackson – Chief Inspector Japp from Agatha Christie’s Poirot) gets a nod and walks away, specifically to allow it to happen. Matron is a great spouter of the doctrine of rehabilitation, but makes it impossible for any of the inmates to trust her with their personal growth – a point explicitly made to her by the intellectual Archer.

Housemaster Mr Goodyear (John Grillo) is responsible for the co-opting of Carlin once he’s shown himself to be a better “Daddy” than Pongo Bates was. The governor (Peter Howell) talks the game of rehabilitation too, but, as shown with Archer, he’s only open to one path of rehabilitation – the Church of England path. He regularly asks the inmates if everything’s alright, but he does it in a way that precludes any answer but “Yes, sir.”

Mr Sands (John Judd) is Carlin’s most relentless persecutor, taking on the responsibility of avenging the warder Carlin punched at his last borstal. And it’s Sands who commits the film’s most heinous act of institutionalised grimness. While Davis is being shockingly violated, Sands sees what’s happening, and instead of interfering, he simply watches through a window… and smiles.

Mr Greaves too has one more devastating act of callousness up his sleeve – when Davis is in the last despair of his life, he presses the emergency bell to summon assistance. Greaves arrives, puts him on report, tells him to get over his “nightmare” – and then ignores the alarm when it subsequently goes off again. Davis dies alone, unheard and ignored.

There is, admittedly, a riot after this last piece of institutional horror, but it’s mostly a matter of Carlin, Archer and others deciding which side they’re on, and whether their different paths through their time in borstal can actually sustain them any further. Longer term, no action of the inmates stands a chance of affecting the system even slightly.

By the end, both have been beaten insensible and dragged to solitary confinement, while the governor imposes fines on all the inmates, and ultimately perpetuates the horrifying lie on which the whole place is based – that people have “accidents” from time to time, like Toyne and Davis. But that’s all they are – accidents that happen to absent friends. It’s a blank-eyed assertion that there is no culpability on the part of either the system or the officers. Where there is blame, it absolutely is seen and said to belong to the inmates – the scum – who will not see that the system is trying to reform them for their own good.

Scum is not, as we mentioned, in any sense fun. But with a script by Roy Minton and sparse direction from Alan Clarke that always makes you wonder when the next casual moment will erupt into violence, it’s an important film about a system that, much like the prison system with which it co-existed, treated its inmates as disposable, responsible always for their own degradation, decline, and even demise.

It's a film worth catching up with in a world where being a “hostile environment” as a whole nation is somehow seen as a good thing, and the “unlike” who seek shelter in Britain can find themselves shipped to Rwanda at the whim of an uncaring, traumatizing bureaucratic system. It’s a film that asked in 1983 the question that perhaps still feels appropriate today – there may be scum in the system somewhere, but on which side of the fence?

Watch Scum today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony Fyler lives in a concrete cave, somewhere on the edge of the sea, with his wife, who exists, and the Fictional People In His Head, who don't as yet. A journalist and editor by day, he has written Some Books, and is more or less always writing another. One day, he may even get around to showing them to people. In the meantime, he's Script Editor and occasional Executive Producer at Third Time Lucky Productions, and a proud watcher of things no-one remembers they remember until they remember.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Post Top Ad