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Scum (film)

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Theatrical release poster
Directed byAlan Clarke
Written byRoy Minton
Produced by
CinematographyPhil Meheux
Edited byMichael Bradsell
Kendon Films
Berwick Street Films "A"
Distributed byGTO
Release dates
Running time
97 minutes[1]
CountryUnited Kingdom

Scum is a 1979 British prison drama film directed by Alan Clarke and starring Ray Winstone, Mick Ford, Julian Firth and John Blundell. The film portrays the brutality of life inside a British borstal. The script was originally filmed as a television play for the BBC's Play for Today series in 1977. However, due to the violence depicted, it was withdrawn from broadcast.[3] Two years later, director Alan Clarke and scriptwriter Roy Minton remade it as a film, first shown on Channel 4 in 1983.[3] By this time the borstal system had been reformed. The original TV version was eventually allowed to be aired eight years later in 1991.

The film tells the story of a young offender named Carlin as he arrives at the institution and his rise through violence and self-protection to the top of the inmates' pecking order, purely as a tool to survive. Beyond Carlin's individual storyline, the film also serves as an indictment of the borstal system's flaws, with no attempt at rehabilitation. The warders and convicts alike are brutalised by the system. The film's controversy arose over its graphic depiction of racism, extreme violence, rape, suicide, many fights and very strong language.[4]


Three young men arrive at a borstal by prison van: Carlin, who has taken the blame for his brother's theft of scrap metal; Angel for stealing a car and Davis for escaping from an open institution. Each is allocated a room; Angel and Davis get private rooms while Carlin is sent to a dormitory.

Carlin, having been transferred for assaulting a warden, wants to keep a low profile. He meets and befriends Archer, an eccentric and intellectual inmate serving two years for workplace fraud who is intent upon peacefully inconveniencing the staff as much as possible. Archer tells Carlin how his reputation is already known: Banks, the current "Daddy" (the inmate who controls the wing), is seeking Carlin for a fight to maintain his dominance over the wing. Banks' status appears to have been achieved by petty bullying and intimidation with the aid of his henchmen Richards and Eckersley and the passive assent of the staff.

Carlin struggles to settle into the dormitory and, after witnessing the timid and vulnerable Davis victimised and attacked by Banks, is himself viciously beaten and headbutted by Banks in an unprovoked attack. Realising there is no hope of being allowed to serve his sentence in peace, Carlin exacts revenge and establishes dominance. Walking through the association (rec) room he picks up two snooker balls and puts them in a sock. Using this improvised cosh on Richards, Carlin orders Eckersley to desist from informing, then goes to find Banks. Surprising him in a washroom he gives Banks a severe beating and then tells him who the "Daddy" of the wing now is: one who will 'kill him' if Banks ever interferes with his or his friends' wellbeing. This ambush required cooperation and information from other inmates, showing how Carlin has soon won both respect and amity.

Several days later, Carlin is challenged by an adjacent wing's Daddy whom he viciously beats but allows to continue to manage his wing under Carlin's overall control. Things improve for the inmates under Carlin, with victimisation of younger, weaker prisoners prevented, along with racially-motivated violence. He keeps to the same seat at table in the dining hall, to where information and requests are directed, and with his associates such as Archer and Meakin - a contrast to Banks and his bullies. Carlin's status is recognised by the warders: he requests and gets a single cell in return for agreeing to be a responsible "natural leader" to the housemaster Mr. Goodyear.

Meanwhile, Meakin's friend Toyne, learns through a letter from his in-laws that his wife has died. He becomes severely depressed, his despair being noticed by the warders who scold him for "moping". Toyne slashes the arteries in his arms. He is transferred to an adult prison where, Meakin later learns, he died after a second suicide attempt. Davis, meanwhile, is framed for theft by Eckersley and placed on report. Carlin advises him to be careful to avoid Eckersley and his cronies but while working alone in a greenhouse, Davis is gang-raped by three youths who had requested a break after seeing him there. Their supervising warder Sands sees what happens but reacts with a grin and then ignores the dishevelled state of the semi-undressed trio as they return. That night a distraught Davis kills himself with a razor blade. While bleeding to death, he presses the button in his cell for help, but is ignored by warder Greaves.

Davis's suicide is the last straw for the Borstal inmates. In the dining hall, having collected their food, the inmates sit silently, refusing to eat. Carlin initiates a full-scale riot in the dinner hall. Carlin, Archer and Meakin are later shown being dragged, bleeding and unconscious, into solitary confinement after having been beaten by the wardens. The Borstal's Governor later informs them the damage to the dinner hall will be repaid through lost earnings. The Governor then declares a minute's silent prayer for Davis and Toyne.



Borstal staff[edit]

Deviations from original BBC production[edit]

The film differs from the original BBC production in many respects. The film contains strong language and is much more violent and graphic than the milder BBC version. Ray Winstone, John Blundell, Phil Daniels, John Judd, Ray Burdis and Patrick Murray all reprise their respective roles as Carlin, Banks, Richards, Sands, Eckersley and Dougan from the BBC version, while all other roles are recast. David Threlfall had been intended to reprise his role as Archer from the BBC version, but he was working with the Royal Shakespeare Company at the time and was subsequently replaced by Mick Ford. The story was also changed. The BBC version features a homosexual relationship between Carlin and another inmate, which was dropped from the film. Minton later said that this was a pity as it would have expanded Carlin's character and made him vulnerable in an area where he could not afford to be vulnerable.

The television play version of the film also features less graphic rape and suicide scenes. An additional scene shows Davis trying to talk to Carlin about the incident. Carlin dismisses him when he is reluctant to talk in front of Carlin's 'missus' (partner). In the remake, the relationship between Carlin and his 'missus' does not feature. Instead, during the mess, Davis looks up at Carlin from the dining table as if about to confide in him, but Carlin unwittingly chooses that moment to get up and leave.

Also in the television play, it is made clear at the end of the film that Banks is in hospital – resulting from the beating administered by Carlin when ousting him as the "daddy"; in the theatrical version he is present at the end moment of silence.


The film had its UK premiere at the Prince Charles Cinema in London.[5] It opened on 20 September 1979 at the Prince Charles Cinema and finished fifth at the London box office with a gross of £18,074 in its first week.[6][7]

2017 re-release[edit]

In 2017, Kino Lorber re-released the film in selected theatres for a limited time. In the United States, the film grossed $5,405.[8]

Critical reception[edit]

In a High Court case against Channel 4 for showing the film, British morality campaigner Mary Whitehouse initially won her private prosecution,[9] but the decision was later reversed on appeal. The Independent Broadcasting Authority had approved on its transmission. However, the film was well-received by critics, and today enjoys a reputation of a classic cult movie.

Philip Thomas of Empire said of the film, "Scum's brutality makes it a genuinely harrowing film. The bleak, snow-dusted locations, the featureless interiors of the institution, the perfect casting and magnificent acting of the indifferent and brutal staff make borstal appear to be what can only be described as a living hell."[10]

On review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 89% based on reviews from 9 critics.[11] Metacritic gives the film a score of 78 out of 100, based on reviews by 11 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".


In 2010, a Canadian film heavily based on Scum, titled Dog Pound, was released.[12]

Home media[edit]

The film was first released on VHS video in the UK in 1983, where it was immediately caught up in the UK video nasty controversy of the early 1980s.

It was later released on DVD in the UK by Odyssey and Prism Leisure. It was the digitally remastered uncut version but in fullscreen, with only a trailer and an interview as bonus features. In the US an Alan Clarke boxset was issued that included several films, among them both the BBC original and cinema version of the film plus audio commentaries. Prism Leisure released a limited edition 2 disc set in the UK on 13 June 2005. Disc One featured the BBC version with an audio commentary and two interviews. Disc Two instead featured the theatrical remake with an audio commentary, several interviews and featurettes and two trailers. It was digitally remastered from a widescreen print. This special edition DVD was sold in amaray slipcase packaging and also in a limited edition tin case. A Region 0 DVD boxset featuring both the theatrical version and the 1977 BBC-banned television version on separate discs followed in the US, released by Blue Underground.[13] In 2015, Australian company Shock Entertainment released Scum on DVD and Blu-ray as part of their Cinema Cult line.[14][15]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Scum (X)". 4 June 1979. Retrieved 10 March 2018.
  2. ^ Alexander Walker, National Heroes: British Cinema in the Seventies and Eighties, Harrap, 1985 p 155
  3. ^ a b "Scum". BBC Radio 4. 2009. Retrieved 15 March 2019.
  4. ^ "Scum (1979) – Film Review". Film4. Archived from the original on 12 March 2014.
  5. ^ "SCUM celebrates a premiere occasion". Screen International. 26 September 1979. p. 26.
  6. ^ "West End openings". Screen International. 15 September 1979. p. 2.
  7. ^ "London's Top Ten". Screen International. 29 September 1979. p. 1.
  8. ^ "Scum (1979)". The Numbers. Retrieved 8 July 2018.
  9. ^ John Mark Ministries | Mary Whitehouse
  10. ^ "Scum Review". Empire. January 2000. Retrieved 29 January 2018.
  11. ^ "Scum (1979)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 25 January 2018.
  12. ^ Philip French (29 August 2010). "Dog Pound". The Observer. Retrieved 14 September 2012.
  13. ^ Scum: 2 Disc Collector's Special Edition, 2007 Quest Media
  14. ^ "Scum - Shock Entertainment". Retrieved 28 January 2018.
  15. ^ "Scum Blu-ray (Australia)". Blu-ray.com. Retrieved 14 March 2018.

External links[edit]