It follows Carlin (played to the hilt by a young Ray Winstone), an inmate being transferred to a borstal for assaulting a screw at his last reformatory. After settling in and adjusting to the punishing military-style regime, Carlin quickly sets about securing the position of “Daddy”. This involves a couple of well-placed snooker balls and a sock.
As Daddy, Carlin runs shit and the screws turn a blind eye. During his reign he encounters various characters such as Archer, the facility’s elder intellectual oddball who uses minor acts of civil disobedience to fuck with the wardens (and himself simultaneously), such as refusing to wear shoes. And Davis, the institutional victim who commits suicide after being nastily gang-raped, which triggers the riotous finale.
Scum has a long history of controversy and notoriety. Its VHS artwork and poster campaigns sell it as a shocking exposé uncovering the harsh conditions inside a British borstal. Yet, graphic story aside, it also works to present an unflinching condemnation of the penal system and its complete lack of rehabilitation. Brutality breeds brutality in here.
The gritty documentary style used by Alan Clarke fits the subject matter perfectly. A colourless, grim environment is captured via slow tracking shots and long uncomfortable takes, refusing to turn away when things get too real. This is Clarke’s protest against the inhumanity of the borstal system at the time, as he forces others to look.
The performances here are impressive in their realism – the young cast exude a naturalistic and raw adolescent rage that boils over in stages, while Winstone commands with an unstable intensity.
Despite perhaps originally being viewed as an exploitative video nasty, Scum has now earned its name as a classic of British kitchen sink cinema. Can’t recommend it enough, along with the rest of Alan Clarke’s oeuvre.