The invisible films of Alan Clarke

23rd January 2013

Why is the work of one of our greatest filmmakers – the director Alan Clarke – all but invisible?

This is not a new question. Nor do I have anything original by way of an answer. But the issue is much on my mind. I wrote a post for the Screen Plays blog about an extraordinary television production of a play – Bertolt Brecht’s Baal, starring David Bowie (above) – that Alan Clarke directed for the BBC in 1982. Then I read Billy Smart’s excellent piece about the same production, which only underlined my sense of how remarkable and astonishing it is. And I realised that I was angry that none of us can legally see this play aside from very occasional BFI Southbank screenings. (An off-air recording of the full production is on YouTube, but I said legally.) Similarly unavailable in this country is one of the most challenging and powerful British films ever made, Elephant (1989; released only in the USA as a R1 DVD). The astounding Contact (1984) is also denied to us. Ditto Danton’s Death(1978) and Penda’s Fen (1974) and Road (1987) and… –the list goes on and on. Whatever the reasons, this is simply and straightforwardly NOT RIGHT.

The issue is, of course, a much broader one than simply the near invisibility of the films of Alan Clarke. This is all about how we are still denied access to the bulk of the infinitely rich and remarkable archives of British television. But for today let’s just concentrate on the work of the late Alan Clarke.

Alan Clarke (1935-1990) was a brilliant and bold director who worked at the BBC during the 1970s and 1980s. He was, by the accounts even of his friends, a demanding and sometimes difficult man – Richard Kelly’s oral biography Alan Clarke, published by Faber in 1998 is the most extensive account of his life and work. He also made a number of feature films, including Scum (1979) a remake of the banned 1977 BBC film, and Rita, Sue and Bob Too (1986), adapted by the late Andrea Dunbar from two of her stage plays.

Much of Clarke’s work is distinguished by its formal inventiveness and daring use of the camera, but all of his films are addressed to urgent social and political questions. The films are never ‘polite’, but always questioning and probing, and sometimes driven by a ferocious passion, but they are also icily controlled and they have no trace of the didacticism that is found, say, in the television films of Ken Loach and Tony Garnett.

Like almost all television drama made during the twentieth century, Alan Clarke’s plays and films were made with the idea that they would be screened once, perhaps secure a repeat or even two, and then disappear into the archives. This was just the way things were, in part I firmly believe because of the legacy of live drama.

All drama was live until the late 1950s and until 1953 there was no possibility of recording it for future use, and so agreements with the unions like Equity and the Musicians’ Union were modelled on this basis. So too were other aspects of the industrial production process, along with the attitudes of many of those involved. Often, indeed, the unions explicitly prevented further uses of a film because they wished to see new productions being made with new opportunities for their members.

There was also a strong sense of the low cultural prestige of television. In simple terms, television drama was simply not regarded as having the same value as the cinema, and it was seen as disposable, forgettable. (I realise I am collapsing a complex nexus of values and attitudes that changed over time, but the basic point is valid.)

Then there was the absence of alternative forms of distribution. Until the 1980s, broadcast television could only be shown on broadcast television (or very rarely in cinemas). But with first VHS and then DVD and the VOD and DTO and all the rest, there are obviously now all kinds of distribution possibilities – as art cinema demonstrates with the likes of The Criterion Collection, Masters of Cinema, Curzon On Demand, and many other services.

So why have the plays and films of Alan Clarke – and those of many other significant creatives – not benefitted from this growth in new forms of distribution? One answer is the simple complexity of negotiating the clearances and rights necessitated by contracts made thirty and more years ago when DVD and DTO were unknown.

These issues have, however, been successfully tackled for television believed to have mass appeal – and so, for example, Dad’s Army and Hancock are available on DVD. But the market for distinctive and demanding single plays is perceived to be more specialist and thus significantly smaller than the massed ranks of fans of Captain Mainwaring. BBC Worldwide has little interest in taking niche products to market and – as a lengthy negotiation in which I am currently involved demonstrates to me – smaller companies face significant issues (and costs) when they endeavour to do this.

Then there is also ignorance – or let’s say, lack of awareness. Alan Clarke’s films may be admired and cherished by those who know about them, but currently there are not that many of us. And that is precisely because it has been exceptionally hard to see these films over the years since they were first shown.

I recognise that the BBC as an institution has been working hard to respond to these problems but for many of us on the outside who are interested in archival access real progress on these questions has sometimes felt glacially slow. In relation to the ITV archives, Network has done a great job of issuing many titles, although they have also been more committed to popular series than to distinctive one-off films and plays.

It feels, however, as if there is so much more to be done – and the lack of access to Clarke’s films is one one of the more egregious examples of the problem. So to give you a sense of what you’re missing, here is an illegitimate upload to YouTube of the extraordinary (and extraordinarily disturbing) Elephant, produced for BBC Northern Ireland by Danny Boyle no less…


  1. […] someday I somehow get the strangest notion they’re trying to break my spirit.” John Wyver reminds us that most works by one of Britain’s best directors, Alan Clarke, are unavailable for viewing, held up in the […]

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