Scum (1979): The angriest indictment of a broken system

I’ve always been a huge fan of Ray Winstone. There’s arguably a familial component to it as I hail from a working-class background in the suburbs of London, my parents have been watching him in films and on television since he started showing his face in his late teens and all of their friends and their kids/my peers are familiar with his notable works. I think it’s something of a cultural staple, Winstone being a dyed-in-the-wool East Londoner who has been around the block and who approaches his roles with an undeniable authenticity that betrays his familiarity with the subject matter at hand.

Whether it’s his angry and volatile alcoholic namesake in Nil By Mouth, against-type teddy bear ex-con Gal in Sexy Beast, the deluded, narcissistic troublemaker from Births, Marriages & Deaths or the surreptitiously evil father in The War Zone, Winstone rings true as a plain-speaking, gregarious sort who you probably wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of and, similarly to Michael Caine, is a success story who serves as a role model for those born without a silver spoon who want to make it.

At the tender age of 22, Winstone landed his most iconic role in Alan Clarke’s Scum, the theatrical version of a BBC Play For Today intended for broadcast two years earlier in 1977 (it received a speedy ban). Once again written by Roy Minton with some revisions to the earlier content, Scum is an uncompromising look at pathologies in the British prison system and their wider ramifications upon society, its power to provoke thoughts and deeply disturb remaining resolutely undiminished.

As the film opens, three young men sit next to each other in the back of a van, all of them handcuffed and in silence. Forlornly staring out of the window are Davis (Julian Firth), a boy who ran away from an open prison where he was incarcerated for an undisclosed offence, and Angel (Alrick Riley), a Brixton lad who got too light-fingered with motor vehicles. In between them, and looking straight ahead stone-faced, is Carlin (Winstone). A hard-nosed young criminal with a reputation for violence, Carlin got the full blame for him and his brother’s theft of some scrap metal. The van is taking these hooligans to a borstal, a defunct type of young offenders institution in the UK that were notorious for endemic corruption and abysmal efficacy in rehabilitation.

Carlin’s reputation has preceded him in this new facility due to physical retaliation against cruel warders at his previous borstal. Instantly attracting the ire of the officers (or ‘screws’), particularly the callous and sadistic Mr Sands (John Judd), Carlin has also caught the attention of ‘Pongo’ Banks (John Blundell), a vicious bully who retains the title of ‘Daddy’ (an inmate who runs the wing while the screws look the other way). With Banks and his lackeys Richards (Phil Daniels) and Eckersley (Ray Burdis) looking to make an example out of Carlin, our hero struggles to keep his head down as he befriends Archer (Mick Ford), a relatively gentle intellectual inmate who regularly engages in peaceful obstruction against the borstal’s authority for his own amusement.

Carlin’s endeavour to quietly serve his time proves fruitless in the face of the domineering antagonism of rival inmates and the heartless indifference of prison officers, realising that only his guile combined with his fists will make his duration tolerable. Carlin’s narrative strand unfolds against an ensemble examination of broken lives, all of them in a captive milieu teeming with wanton violence, racial hatred, official corruption and sexual abuse.

Right off the bat, Phil Meheux’s cold and grainy cinematography and the complete lack of musical score cement Scum as a matter-of-fact, harsh study of an environment that breeds antisocial behaviour where it should quell it. Filmed on location at Shenley Hospital in Hertfordshire, the production’s winter schedule seamlessly captures the oppressive sensation of hopelessness, something that only the steelier and most hard-bitten denizens of the borstal are impervious to. With it’s large, drably coloured and soulless rooms and corridors, the institution is tailor-made for clinically waiting out one’s time in antipathy and despair. Even the borstal’s kindly Matron (Jo Kendall) can only offer cliched and perfunctory sentiments to the young men as they drift from day to day in a world of cold uniformity that is counterintuitively unpredictable given the strict regimen. Inmate Meakin’s (Alan Igbon) request that she address the boys by their forenames is rebuffed with mindless bureaucracy.

Carlin’s arc here would typically play out as a thrilling rise to the top in the context of a gangland picture, but the violence and subterfuge in Scum merely serve to reinforce the stark truism that these boys, who have their whole lives ahead of them, will likely spend their existence trying to be better thugs and criminals and land right back inside in due time. Carlin is neither a sadist nor a bullying coward but he’s most certainly a bad guy amongst worse people. He circumstantially perpetuates the racial tension within the borstal (I remember schoolmates raving about the ‘Where’s ya tool?’ sequence as something vicariously thrilling and funny as opposed to the truly disturbing moment that it is), and his sociopathic aptitude for dominance and manipulation point to a long, not-so-bright future of using force and coercion to meet his objectives. It would be a falsehood to state that I literally feel no satisfaction seeing the truly predatory individuals get taken down a peg but, in the grand scheme of things, it’s a vicious circle where there are no winners and gold, only losers and misery.

Featuring constant coarse language and graphic scenes of violence, rape and suicide, Scum is easily the cinematic equivalent of being thrown into an ice bath after having one’s teeth pulled with no anaesthetic. It put Winstone on the map and is a key example of his gritty, down-to-earth talent, his lynchpin turn as Carlin being the axiomatic choice for the piece as, though it may be a retroactive analysis, this film wouldn’t have worked without his powerhouse performance. Putting it as bluntly as possible, it will make you feel like shit but, if you’re curious to lay your eyes on one of the greatest works to have emerged from the UK and one of the best prison dramas in existence, this is the gold standard.

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