Actor’s Films

I’ve just been watching Scum, both the cinema and TV versions. If you’re not familiar with the film(s), I recommend it strongly. It’s a ferocious indictment of the “borstal” system then (late 1970s) used to punish youth crime: the “short sharp shock” which brutalises rather than reforms. It’s violent and grim, but the intelligence and unflinching quality of the film make it one of the great didactic message films. (It’s directed by Alan Clarke, probably the best and most important British director of the late 7os and 80s). Watching it is often a pleasure, indeed, because of the quality of the acting. Many of the roles are ones any good actor must have loved to sink their teeth into. With no special effects, no music whatsoever, and a flat, affectless direction, it’s a real actor’s film. So let’s look at it in more detail, and also savour other prime examples of the thespian’s art.


The story behind Scum is itself fascinating. Filmed as a 1977 TV “play for today” (the kind of postwar paternalist cultural option that died out with the spread of Rupert Murdoch’s malign influence from newspapers to TV) for the BBC, it was never shown after representations from the prison system. (Absurdly, they complained that while the events shown in the film did happen in borstals, they didn’t happen at the pace shown. I hope someone retorted that murders and suicide rarely occurred in sixteenth century Verona as frequently as seen in Romeo and Juliet). The BBC has long been subject to pressure from the powers that be, of course. Fortunately director Alan Clarke and writer Roy Minton weren’t to be deterred, and made a theatrical version which was released in 1979. (The TV version was not shown until 1991, and on Channel 4 rather than the Beeb). There’s a line in Cain’s Book which says that you can judge a country by how it treats its criminals and the lowest elements of a society: what this says about the welfare state Britain of the time I can’t begin to tell. To my eyes it speaks of the arrogance of unreformed institutions, the post-war belief in the righteousness of British state. There’s a sweeping, total sense of its failure throughout Scum, one highly suited to its late-1970s context. (Compare with the similar feeling in Pink Floyd: The Wall).

The film features numerous absolutely memorable characters. Everyone knows the starring role played by Ray Winstone as Carlin, but there are many good turns to savour. The governor, memorably played by Peter Howell (who also voiced Saruman in the BBC radio version of Lord Of The Rings), is an archetypal Oxbridge graduate with a withered sense of humanity. Archer, the intellectual voicing writer Minton’s opinions on crime and punishment, is wonderfully played by Mick Ford: his insolence, intellectual superiority, and compassion stand out amidst the institutional violence and boredom. Mr Duke is a gruffly decent northern warden, with a belief in “public service” and the welfare state. While the first daddy, Pongo Banks, is merely a belligerent thug, his sidekicks are painted more subtly: Richards (played by Phil Daniels) is a bully who has learned nothing from his time inside, while Eckersley is the sneak and grass who sucks up to those stronger than him. Mr Greaves is a working-class Tory-voting Yorkshireman. The housemaster who proclaims “I run this house” (just as Mr Banks, the senior officer, and Pongo Banks have done) and tries to co-opt Carlin is a pretentious intellectual wanker, while the sports master is a hilarious ex-army type with a sailor’s mouth (“C’MON YOU BASTARDS! MOVE! MOVE!”), the descendent of the over-competitive football teacher so memorably played by Brian Glover in Kes.

All terrific. There are numerous scenes, too, which demonstrate the cast’s skills. The dialogue between Archer and Mr Duke is magnificent: it somehow reminds me of the Xmas dinner scene in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, where they start out with a family revelry and end up in a fury of bitterness and rage. The scene from Scum is as compelling, where Archer elaborates his views on how the penal system does not work, and how it brutalises the wardens as well as the boys. The expression of Mr Duke’s face is priceless; he looks as though the skin is being torn from his flesh.


It’s all the better as he is a relatively kindly man; humiliated, he turns on Archer with fury in his eyes, clearly wanting to tear him a new one.

But my absolute favourite scene is Archer’s intellectual jousting/world-class trolling with the governor.

Governor (with tight-lipped contempt) – Have you read the Life of St Francis of Assisi?

Archer – No, though I’m sure it’s an engrossing epistle.

Governor – It is. The son of a wealthy man, he converted to Christianity in 640AD and turned aside from his life of pleasure to a life of poverty doing the work of the Gospel. You should read it.

Archer – As a matter of fact, sir, I wanted to mention access to literature to you, sir. You see, I’m finding myself… strongly drawn towards Mecca… very strongly indeed.

Governor (enraged) – MECCA, Archer?!

Archer (deadpan) – Yes, sir… something’s stirring within me… I’m sure you understand…

Governor – Archer you will see the Chaplain tomorrow morning –

Archer (smirking) – I‘m an atheist, sir – it’s on my record: “atheist and vegetarian”.

Governor – You told them you were Christ in Dover so you will see the Chaplain and we’ll have no more talk of MECCA! in this establishment!

The film has been overshadowed by the violence and the infamy of the “I’m the daddy!” meme, but taken as a piece, it is a supremely good example of the actors craft. Just watch and see how many faces you recognise.

Glengarry Glen Ross

I only heard of this film recently – a link to Alec Baldwin’s immportal “Always be closing!” speech. Watching it was a great pleasure – what a stellar cast! Jack Lemmon is the best of them, but there’s also Al Pacino, Ed Harris, Kevin Spacey and Jonathan Price (and that Baldwin chap). Real heavyweights. The film is essentially “Death of a Salesman” for the 1990s – the agony and bitterness of capitalism, the unforgiving nature of sales, its fraudulence and masks. Adapted from the Tony-winning play, the film wisely keeps to the basic theatrical nature of the script, keeping it in mostly in two rooms. This focuses attention of the actors: their exchanges, the feelings, needs and fears of their characters, are just magnificent. Lemmon in particular practically steals the show with his gradual unmasking of the desperate old sales pro. Here he is, trying to keep the desperation away:

Withnail & I

While this is no doubt the companion to many foolish student antics, my god the dialogue is so good! The wit is rapier-sharp, with Withnail’s helpless bathetic rage, Marwood’s stoic innocence and Monty’s desperate longing marvellously realised. You can view the film as a lament for the 60s or for mourning the passing of youth (as Monty does so articulately, and as Withnail, stranded the wrong side of thirty with a sole flapping out his shoe, so exemplifies), or as a British Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, and these are all there, but the character interaction is the thing to savour. There are so many scenes which are just utter gems. Consider the “break in” scene, when Withnail and Marwood think a local poacher they argued with has broken into the cottage in which they are staying:

Or when Monty wants to commit burglary:

Or when Withnail starts to get withdrawal from alcohol (and unfortunately launched a thousand wankers proclaiming THAT LINE to bar staff):

Or Marwood’s encounter with the bull, and Withnail’s sagacious advice...

The dialogue is a joy but the delivery is pitch-perfect. There’s something utterly British in our fondness in exploring failure, loss and fuckuperry: and Withnail and I is a class one British film.


What is it with film directors (or perhaps more to the point, the person in charge of casting) and young actors? It is always ridiculous to have someone around forty AND LOOKING IT playing someone in high school. Rizzo from Grease? THIRTY THREE! The worst one though is the school thug in Christine (Stephen King novel, John Carpenter directed) – motherfucker looks like he’s been held back for about twenty years.

if… on the other hand really does feature boys of the right age, and gets good performances out of them. Malcolm MacDowell rather steals the show, but there are many strong showings, from the acerbic, hypocritical, tight-lipped head whip Rowentree:

to the rather adorable Bobby Philips, watching an older boy on the parallel bars (from about 1.00), doing nothing but emoting so much:

to “the girl”, an amazonian tiger:


2 thoughts on “Actor’s Films

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  2. Although the late Richard Griffiths was always a delight, I don’t buy your argument for Withnail. Robinson’s writing, and the acting of McGann and Grant, are very winning in a lot of ways – but it’s not subtle.

    The GREAT acting film of recent years for me was In Bruges. It is certainly flawed (gets awkwardly melodramatic in the last third), but it must be far and away Colin Farrell’s best film (and he’s done some good stuff), and the support from Brendan Gleeson and Ralph Fiennes is also extraordinary. I could watch much of this (have done!) with the sound off, just to enjoy the facial and physical elements of the performances.

    For me, it may beat Glengarry, Glenross into second place – although that’s probably going to hold the honours for a larger ensemble cast for a very long time.

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