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Scum Review

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by Casimir Harlow Jun 1, 2005

    Scum Review
    Ray Winstone is certainly one of Britain's best modern actors. Famous for the tough-guy image he has presented on both the big and small screen, I sometimes wonder why he never made the leap over to Hollywood, but at the same time I am happy that he continues to make solid British dramas. He first appeared on our screens in this film, Scum, over twenty-five years ago and even at an early age you can see the promise of more powerful performances to come.

    Set in a Seventies British borstal - essentially a prison for young offenders - Scum tells the tale of three new inmates who arrive only to find their worst nightmares have come true. The borstal is managed by vicious warders, 'Screws', who enlist the help of gamely inmates to enforce the rules. The lead enforcer, or 'Daddy', is Banks and he and his crew run the establishment and keep all the other kids in check mainly through liberal use of violence and abuse. Of the three new inmates one is weak and one is black, leading to no end of torment, but the third is a veteran borstal boy. His name is Carlin and he is desperate to keep his head down having taken out a screw back in his previous establishment. He knows how to play by the rules and stay out of trouble but trouble comes looking for him as Banks makes it his goal to see Carlin submit to his regime. It becomes clear that Carlin will have to establish himself as the new 'Daddy' if he wants to survive this stint inside.

    I still remember watching Scum when I was a kid myself. Brutal and violent, it was possibly best remembered for the fateful snooker-ball-in-a-sock scene where one of the kids takes a beating. Other things that stick in my mind are the horrific rape scene and the suicide. What I did not know at the time was that these scenes cost the production its original release. You see, it was first filmed as a TV movie which but was banned by the BBC. Two years later, most of the cast and crew reunited to produce an almost identical film that was passed for general release and that is the film that most of us are familiar with. In fact, this is the first time that the original BBC film version has been released. Having seen it now I can see why the BBC would feel pressure from the Government to ban it because whilst purportedly capturing the reality of British borstals, it was clearly guilty of sensationalising the worst case scenarios all into a limited time frame. But what has made it something of a cult classic today is not only the fact that is it about people fighting a corrupt system but also because it was outlawed by the very people who it was trying to tell the truth about. Borstals clearly were not working - the institutionalised violence made them often less preferable to real prisons - and a movie like Scum blew the whistle on the 'secret'.

    Scum is not only remarkable for such truth-telling but for its documentary-style approach to filmmaking, something which had not been seen before on the small or big screen. As if this weren't enough, you simply have to applaud the cast. Aside from the actors that you may or may not recognise in the adult positions, there are plenty very young stars who made their mark here and later went on to great things. (Something which the late Director Alan Clarke was famed for - having propelled a young Gary Oldman and a young Tim Roth both into the limelight with, respectively, The Firm and Made In Britain) Here there is the aforementioned Ray Winstone, playing the anti-hero Carlin, Phil Davies, who later went on to do Quadrophenia and recently starred in the TV series The Long Firm and also - at least in the TV version of Scum - David Threlfall, who is on UK screens in Shameless and previously enjoyed minor roles in films like Patriot Games. This was a big break for these young actors and a fantastic movie to make their mark with, one which is likely to be remembered by all who see it.