Keeping The Light On For Alan Clarke

When discussing filmmaking, whenever the word realism is used it generally refers to that deeply humanistic storytelling… cinema that manages to strike a nerve with it’s audience from characters we often relate to- or sympathise with, at ground level…

From the Neorealism of post-war Italy to the Poetic Realism in France that preceded Film Noir and the French New Wave, these tales of drifters, factory workers, petty crooks, brothers and mothers have time and again unequivocally stirred the sentiment inside and whisked us into nostalgia along the way.

Alan Clarke
Gary Oldman and Alan Clarke on the set of The Firm (1989)

But what can be said about the cinema produced by those a little more closer to home? About those from the next generation, who released films in more recent memory?

Here in Britain if you were to discuss realism with the next generation of filmmakers, it’s highly likely the name Alan Clarke would pop up somewhere into the discussion.

A gritty director who liked to get his hands dirty, his work in the 70’s and 80’s for television and cinema is unrivalled for it’s raw character analysis and ambitious camera technique. Candidly stark and controversial at times; poignant and always moving, his is a legacy that lives on through the works of new artists that try to emulate him.

Rita, Sue and Bob Too (1987)

This Spring, London BFI and Privilege Of Legends are celebrating the illustrious career of one of it’s more promising sons. From newly discovered director’s cuts, unseen footage and retrieved television episodes once thought lost, the work of Alan Clarke is being presented again in it’s entirety. This includes the new documentary Alan Clarke: Out Of His Own Light.

Upon the feverish commencement of a successful post production, we were lucky enough to sit down with the documentary director Andy Kelleher and ask him to share some of his thoughts.

Billy The Kid And The Green Baize Vampire (1985)

Why do you think Alan Clarke’s work is still as relevant as ever among today’s audience?

All good films and filmmaker’s work seem to be timeless and Alan is no exception to that. The subjects that Alan took on and more importantly his sensibilities towards the stories were second to none. This is what makes his films still relevant and universal today. I think that he must have been a very empathetic man who had an extraordinary gift for observing human nature and then translating this into his filmmaking. He became a master of his craft and left a distinctive body of work still worthy of appraisal. 

Why is it that his work resonates so much with other filmmakers? 

I would imagine that this is because people seem to have an inherent respect for the stories he told and how he told them. Its probably the fact that he always pursued and portrayed a truth and honesty in his work that other people only strive for. He was a consummate director and was admired by many. He was always pushing the envelope. Who knows what would have been next if he didn’t pass away at the age of 54.

All the people that worked with Alan testify to him ‘still living on in their memories’. Its more than just fond sentiment, he seemed to have truly inspired them.

Made in Britain
A young and troubled Tim Roth in Made In Britain (1983)

Do you think that Alan Clarke’s work transcends it’s sometimes controversial subject matter because it is so socially relevant?

Absolutely. Again this goes back to the portrayal of truth and honesty in every aspect of his work for the screen. That approach makes the material transcend the subject matter. He had an unbelievable attention to detail and it’s the sum of all the details that makes the impact so much more memorable and powerful.

Is there an underlying message or reoccurring theme present in his work? 

There is no doubt that Alan would always be attracted to the story of the underdog; to those that don’t have a voice. I believe his natural inclinations brought him to the subjects he chose. The work isn’t overtly political but profoundly humanist, and this is what makes his films more than they seem on the surface. The writer of Penda’s Fen, David Rudkin said that he was ‘a film director who gave television meaning’. His work is very layered.

Alan Clarke’s 1987 adaptation of Jim Cartwright’s play Road

What would you advise as recommended viewing for someone who has yet to be introduced to Alan Clarke’s work?

In my opinion Alan’s finest films are Made in Britain, Diane and Elephant; so I would recommend those titles to anybody. Rita, Sue and Bob Too is incredibly funny and entertaining, and both Scum- about life in 70’s borstal (check out both versions, the first incarnation for the BBC was banned and not aired publicly until 1991) and The Firm, about violence in men, are terrific.

The characters are always memorable in an Alan Clarke film. He would go to great lengths to get his actors to portray their roles as honestly as they could.

Elephant (1989)

What can today’s audience take away from the new documentary? Have you any stories to share in regards to the production? 

I’ll start backwards with this. The documentary we made started it’s life in 2008. We’d made an arts film for a broadcaster who planned to screen Elephant and they asked me to make a film to go with that. Molly (Alan Clarke’s daughter) happened to live around the corner from me and gave me the go-ahead to make the film.

I was aware of the book by Richard Kelly and a couple of other fine documentaries, but we thought we could go more in depth with regards to the work and explore the earlier years in television.

There was talk at one stage of a BBC season, but I think that there were rights issues plus all the films would need to be remastered. A costly minefield that nobody was willing to cross. It did feel at one point that Alan’s work might drift into obscurity and that the interviews would never see the light of day.

About a year ago however, Sam Dunn, head of BFI publishing stepped in and salvaged the entire production. Clearly a labour of love for him; not only would he be organising the remastering of the complete BBC work, but the extra material now on the release would be comprehensive. He asked us to include the documentary on there. We went through over 100 hours of interviews and submitted a 4 hour film that Sam and his team have finished.

As a bonus we got to make the version that I wanted; a feature length version that is screening at BFI Southbank as part of the Alan Clarke season. I am very grateful to Sam and the BFI for the opportunity and in awe at how he pulled it all off.

Its simply a film about Alan told in the words of his peers, a survey of his work and I hope that anyone who sees this film will want to see more of Alan’s films.

Submit a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s