It’s amazing when a TV programme or a film conveys a message that is so powerful that it faces strong and vicious opposition from the higher echelons of the day who seek to suppress it.
Play For Today was a BBC1 drama anthology series that ran from 1970 until 1984. Alan Clarke directed an episode about life in a borstal- now known as young offenders centres. The programme was the first time the general public had seen inside one such institution and the disturbing events therein that unfolded in this episode. The programme fully depicted the brutality, racism and dehumanisation of its charges not to mention its warders. This was hardly a glowing commendation for the borstal system. However, the programme-makers shot this drama with no interference whatsoever from the powers that be in the Beeb.
That was until just before the programme was due to be shown. There were suddenly rumblings from up above and a diktat received by the programme-makers that cuts needed to be made to the drama prior to it being televised. Producer Margaret Matheson states the appropriate cuts were made and whilst they weren’t happy doing this, they were still proud of the programme in its trimmed state. It was still powerful and still hit its mark artistically.
But then the programme was pulled from broadcast. Matheson said that Scum was even listed in The Radio Times which shows how close to broadcast it was when it was pulled. Matheson also said that there was a change in personnel with Bryan Cowgill, the controller of BBC1 being replaced by Bill Cotton. Scum’s writer Roy Minton would later refer to the TV play version of Scum as The Billy Cotton Banned Show (Cotton’s father used to host The Billy Cotton Band Show years before).
A screening of the TV play had been organised in Soho for the day after it was due to be televised but this was before the BBC had pulled the plug. However, this viewing still went ahead. In fact, because the work had been banned by the BBC the screening was extremely well attended and seen as an opportunity to see something forbidden and risque. Afterwards, various members of the audience had approached the programme-makers to express how great it was and that such an important work should be seen by as many people as possible. There was a clause in force that if the BBC didn’t show a piece of work within a certain amount of time the rights lapsed out of the BBC’s control and so when this happened it was decided that a film of Scum would be made instead. The film would be almost the same as the TV play including many of the cast and crew except that the scenes that were cut would be now left intact. More importantly, one person who was at this screening would end up producing the film version of this TV drama, Clive Parsons.
So, what had frightened the executives at the Beeb so much that they decided to shelve the play from being shown?
The plot of both the TV play and the film Scum concerns a young prisoner, Carlin being transferred to the borstal that the programme is based in. The ‘Daddy’ (the toughest prisoner who is in charge of the other prisoners) of the borstal is named Pongo Banks and is shown to be in cahoots with the screws (wardens) of the borstal. He is also depicted to be a bully as he actively terrorises and intimidates anyone who he sees as weaker or different. The Daddy, working in tandem with the system, makes the Borstal experience an even more dehumanising one for the majority of the inmates and also the few decent screws working at the institution.
Carlin was the Daddy at his previous borstal and has been transferred because he beat up two officers in retaliation. Thus he arrives at this borstal already with a reputation with both the screws and Pongo and his gang both desperate to prove that they are in control on their turf and to prove that they are more powerful than he is and that he should know his place. Carlin is forced to share a dorm with Pongo and his acolytes and is given a beating by all three after lights out.
However, Carlin then takes over. This scene of Carlin taking control from both Pongo and pals and the bent screws who they were working with has now gone down in cinema history. It’s almost operatic in its power. The line ‘I’m The Daddy!’ has now entered the popular vernacular in the same way ‘You talkin’ to me?’ has.
The power has now been taken away from the bent officers- and they’re not happy about it. With a prison or borstal in which the bent screws and bent Daddy work in tandem, brutality can prosper unchallenged so much easier. With a fairer head inmate in control who also has a healthy disregard for authority, the officers and system, in general, will get a much harder time with a ‘them vs us’ mentality now replacing the old regime.
Another challenger to authority and the system is the character of Archer. He decided early on that he was to learn the rules and regulations inside out and give the officers and prison department as hard a time as possible- even if it means he serves his full sentence. He becomes vegetarian, refuses to wear leather boots and converts to Islam to rile the Christian Governor. One particular scene involves him trying to illustrate to an officer that some of them are just as institutionalised as some of the inmates. Unfortunately, this goes badly wrong.
Archer is a thorn in the side of the authorities. He becomes a close friend and supporter of Carlin from Day 1. Carlin is courted by the housemaster (the borstal system seems to be run along the lines of a public school- which is ironic) as they see that he has taken control of the inmates. To reap the rewards of his new status, Carlin seems to go along with this to get the best for himself. He asks for a single cell and gets it only because of his Daddy status. But there’s a feeling that Carlin is not only going along with this to make his stay much easier but also to make sure that the other inmates have a more humane stay rather than him running the borstal in conjunction with the screws as Pongo and his goons did.
There’s a feeling that if the authorities step out of line with Carlin he will intervene and give them what for. And indeed this happens- in brutal style. A prisoner named Davis is raped in the borstal greenhouse and then commits suicide by slitting his wrists in his cell. These two events were also willfully ignored by the guards on duty- one officer even watched the rape with sadistic glee and only intervened when the borstal gardener is seen to be approaching.
He then lets the rapists go free and admonishes the victim. When the victim is in his cell he rings the bell and complains of nightmares to the officer who responds. This officer then ignores any more calls for help from Davis who then ends his life.
This sees the prisoners take part in a riot instigated by Carlin over the treatment of Davis. Carlin and the inmates have taken away the reins of power from the officers and prison authorities over this tragic event and are letting it be known that they have gone too far. They take over the dining room and destroy everything inside it.
The next scene is one of Carlin, Archer and another inmate, Meakin being dragged bleeding and barely conscious into solitary confinement. The prisoners exerted their power and now it’s been reasserted by the authorities in the way it knows best- through violence and brutality.
This power struggle is a staple of the prison genre but in this case, life seems to imitate art. Just as Carlin and crew are intent on engaging in a power struggle for control with their captors and superiors, the programme-makers seem to have had to endure the same. Authority in the guise of the BBC and Billy Cotton had spoken and expected that to be the final word on the matter.
Whilst the film version was almost identical to the Play For Today version there was one scene that was omitted. This scene saw Carlin ask a fellow prisoner to be ‘his missus’– a practice in which inmates would have a male sexual partner but only for the duration of their stay in detention. These inmates are also known as ‘gate gays’ in prison/borstal circles. This scene was left out of the film version of Scum as it could be argued that Carlin would be less of a role model to certain sections of the audience because of it. Writer Roy Minton says that he felt it was a massive flaw of the film that the scene was left out as it shows a vulnerability to Carlin’s character. He also states that it was the actor depicting Carlin, Ray Winstone who persuaded Alan Clarke to omit the scene from the film.
However, as the film was a runaway success at the box office its power to upset members of the establishment was never diminished. The film was televised for the first time on the 10th June 1983 on the new ‘radical’ TV channel Channel 4. Its transmission upset no one except for one person: Mary Whitehouse.
Whitehouse was a campaigner who detested what she saw as the increasing wave of sex and violence within the media. She wanted a promotion of traditional Christian values in the arts, especially within film, video and television. As you can tell she didn’t exactly like social change.
She found out that when Channel 4 televised the film version of Scum, a copy of the film hadn’t been sent to every member of the IBA (Independent Broadcasting Authority- a regulatory board) to see if it was suitable for broadcast. The decision regarding Scum’s transmission was solely handed to the board’s Director General who was also one of the founders of a prisoner’s trust. He stated that he thought Scum was ‘a serious dramatic work based on tensions and violence that are a feature of a closed prison society’. He also thought Scum needed to be seen by a wider audience. Whitehouse won the first private case against Channel 4 but lost on appeal when the case reached The House of Lords.
The previous year in 1982, The Criminal Justice Act eradicated borstals and replaced them with youth custody centres. This new system was hoped to be less brutal and inhumane than the borstals it replaced. Was this because of Scum? It may well have been.
Both the TV play and film versions of Scum are examples of gritty and uncompromising art that certainly pull no punches. They are now available uncut on DVD/Blu-ray and serve as a reminder to the audiences of today that the not-too-distant past was tough on many levels and that serious lessons could be learnt from those times. Scum was such an important piece of work that social reform of the system it portrayed followed not long after its release. And all this from a TV play/film that the powers that be didn’t want audiences to see.
There are still many people who would love to see the brutal borstal system brought back and that a ‘short sharp shock’ is what the youth of today deserve. There was even a reality TV show centred around this idea. There are also members of the public whose first impulse on seeing something they don’t understand or approve of is to say ‘this should be banned’. The spirit of Mary Whitehouse certainly lives on. Be careful what you wish for.