Scum Review

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Being the adventures of young trouble-makers in borstal. Carlin (Winstone) tries to take over the joint, Archer (Ford) retreats into vegetarianism and religion, whilst Davis (Blundell), understandably, fails to cope under the appalling pressures.


First commissioned as a BBC play in 1978, Roy Minton’s story of life in a British borstal was considered unsuitable for broadcast by the Corporation and was never shown. Minton and director Alan Clarke remade it as a feature film—a cause celebre on its theatrical release—and when Channel Four came to screen it in 1984, Mary Whitehouse took them to court, an unsuccessful and bloody battle which dragged on for two years.

Set in a borstal (now renamed a Young Offenders’ Institution), it attempts to examine the coping mechanisms of several “trainees”, and in the process exposes the appalling brutality of such places with merciless clarity.

Carlin (Winstone, in a terrifying performance, overflowing with anger and violence) is a hard man, fingered by staff and inmates alike as someone to knock into place. At first he keeps his nose clean and accepts beatings and humiliations from the officers and from Banks, the ruling “Daddy” of the place, with mute and quaking rage. But inevitably Carlin snaps and, in one of modern British cinema’s most powerful and unforgettable scenes, he strides into the games room, calmly fills a sock with snooker balls and fells one of Banks’ side-kicks (Phil Daniels) with a single blow to the head. Within no time, Carlin is the “Daddy”, coping with the degradation of incarceration in the only way he knows how-through violence.

Archer (Mick Ford) is different. Older and brighter than most trainees, he cocoons himself within spurious vegetarianism, Buddhism and Islam to cause as much grief to his captors as possible. He is the film’s articulation, asking at one point, “How can anyone build a character in a regime based on deprivation?”, and survives through holding on to a belief in his own intellectual and emotional superiority over the regime that imprisons him. For Davis (Blundell), ill-equipped to fight or fit in, it is all too much. After being gang-raped, he crumples, incapable of turning to either the powerful Carlin or to the borstal’s officers for help.

Scum’s brutality makes it a genuinely harrowing film. The bleak, snow-dusted locations, the featureless interiors of the institution, the perfect casting and magnificent acting of the indifferent and brutal staff make borstal appear to be what can only be described as a living hell. Whether Scum defeats its own object by falling on the wrong side of the exploitation divide is a moot point and open to debate. What is surely not open to debate is that good films should provoke some sort of emotional response and, even after all these years, Scum still hits hard and deep.

It has lost none of its power: Scum is, in the final analysis, horrific.