Making Contact with Contact: From AFN Clarke to Alan Clarke

DAVID ROLINSON

Screen Two; Writer: AFN Clarke; Director: Alan Clarke; Producer: Terry Coles

The first production to be shown in the Screen Two strand, Contact was broadcast on BBC2 at 10.10pm on Sunday 6 January 1985.1 An account of British Army patrols around the border in South Armagh, Contact was an appropriate start for Screen Two given its contemporary concerns, politically sensitive subject matter and distinctive style. Filmed between 6 and 29 August 1984, Contact was directed by Alan Clarke.2 It is one of the highlights of Clarke’s astonishing body of work. Jim Naughton’s review of Contact is largely characteristic of the critical acclaim that it received: “a crisp, tight, elegant piece of work, wonderfully shot […] by Philip Bonham Carter and making brilliant use of sound”, the film “found a new angle on Northern Ireland, which is more than can be said for most programmes about that […] province”.3 Typically for a Clarke piece it achieved more acclaim abroad, winning the Golden Leopard’s Eye at the Locarno International Film Festival, where the jury praised the “intelligence and precision with which the camera describes the story of a British patrol in Northern Ireland while leaving the spectator free to judge”.4 Clarke described the win as a “high spot” of his career, “absolutely great”.5 However, there was another Clarke at work on Contact whose own contribution has been underexplored: its writer, AFN Clarke…

Tales Out of School (1983)

FRANK COLLINS

Writer: David Leland; Producer: Margaret Matheson; Directors: Mike Newell, Edward Bennett, Jane Howell, Alan Clarke

Because this site’s editor, Dave Rolinson, was involved with the Tales Out of School DVD (writing its 12,000-word booklet), it seemed fairer to ask a guest writer to review it: so here’s a review by Frank Collins, who writes the excellent, highly-recommended film & TV review blog Cathode Ray Tube. Many thanks to Frank for letting us reproduce this review.

David Leland’s quartet of dramas from 1983, under their original umbrella title of Tales Out of School, gets a very welcome release from Network this month. All four films, Birth of a Nation, Flying into the Wind, RHINO and Made in Britain, were commissioned by Central Independent Television, the ITV franchise that emerged from the restructuring of the original ATV, and were produced by Margaret Matheson, who had become Controller of Drama after a successful if controversial time at the BBC where she had produced Alan Clarke’s banned television play, Scum. After a steady career as an actor during the 1960s and 1970s, Leland’s reputation as a writer willing to tackle socially sensitive subject matters grew through his work in 1981 on Play For Today, on Psy Warriors and Beloved Enemy.

From The Blue Lamp to The Black and Blue Lamp: The Police in TV Drama

DAVID ROLINSON

Screenplay Writer: Arthur Ellis, Producer: Brenda Reid, Director: Guy Slater


Transporting a character from one era of policing to another, and asking us to consider how both policing and its television representation had changed: these are some of the reasons why Life on Mars (2006-7) and Ashes to Ashes (2008-2010) were rightly acclaimed, but these tactics had previously been attempted in a more ideological way in 1988 by The Black and Blue Lamp. This Screenplay production transported characters from the world of Ealing film The Blue Lamp (1949) to the corrupt, violent world of 1980s policing, here fictionalised as a drama-within-a-drama, The Filth. Whilst Gene Hunt became a popular cultural figure referenced by politicians and media, this play’s view of the police, and of police drama, was so controversial that it has never been repeated or commercially released. Recapped at the start of the play, The Blue Lamp introduces P. C. George Dixon (Jack Warner), the archetypal British policeman, the kind of “bobby on the beat” idealised by successive Home Secretaries. Dixon outlived the film by 26 years (some feat given that the character is killed in the film), appearing in his own series, Dixon of Dock Green (1955-1976), during which time there were marked changes in television drama’s attitudes to the police. The Black and Blue Lamp juxtaposes the world of Dixon with more cynical modern depictions of the police, producing an Ortonesque darkly comic farce in which there isn’t simply a comedy of culture-clash but a deconstruction of the Dixon icon and a witty, political questioning of the relationship between fictional treatments of the police and their role in society.

The Hallelujah Handshake (1970)

DAVID ROLINSON

Play for Today Writer: Colin Welland; Director: Alan Clarke; Producer: Graeme McDonald

“It’s as if he’s in constant chaos, reaching out for outstretched hands that just crumble in his grasp…”

BTVD_titleNot until the end of The Hallelujah Handshake do we discover the real identity of its central character, David Williams (played by Tony Calvin).1 A petty criminal and small-time thief on a repetitive cycle of police warnings and short prison sentences, Williams is an inveterate liar. A lonely storeman (or, perhaps, storyman), he passes himself off as Henry Tobias Jones (a touring writer who has visited the Bahamas and once had a football trial), John Rhys Davies (Welsh BBC Orchestra) and others. I have given away the ending here not to “explain” David, but to draw attention to the play’s refusal to do so. This is one of the reasons that Colin Welland’s play is so fascinating and so deceptively complex.

Tony Parker: Play for Today Biography

DAVID ROLINSON

Tony Parker’s (25 June 1923-3 October 1996) work for Play for Today fulfils two of its central aims: to reflect contemporary society (as its title implied) and to give a hearing to otherwise neglected voices. Working in a similar manner to Jeremy Sandford, but developing his techniques even further, Parker’s dramas employed journalistic research and meticulous observation to give a voice to society’s most marginalised figures. Although the writer of a handful of superb plays, Parker was primarily a hugely respected oral historian (his ears were once described as a ‘national treasure’). His published studies and television drama were underpinned by a selfless desire to act as a witness, and to resist imposing editorial devices or contrived narratives, as he sought to ‘record without comment or judgement’ the stories he was told1. Though his work was wide-ranging – he moved between unmarried mothers in No Man’s Land (1972) and lighthouse keepers in Lighthouse (1975) – he was most associated with studies of convicted criminals, both in and out of prison. Anthony Storr described him in 1970 as ‘Britain’s most expert interviewer, mouthpiece of the inarticulate and counsel for the defence of those whom society has shunned and abandoned’2.