Realist Film and Television After Alan Clarke: One-Day Symposium

University of York · 11 June 2014
Alan Clarke
'It's a Dishonest Con!': 
Realist Film and Television After Alan Clarke: A One-Day Symposium
Speakers: Dr. David Rolinson (Stirling), Dr. David Tucker (Chester)

The films of Alan Clarke remain among the most controversial and important examples of British ‘cinematic realism’. Those for which he remains best known, such as Scum (1979), Made in Britain (1982) and The Firm (1988), depict a complex vision of the working classes under Conservative rule in the 1980s. Portraying borstals, neo-Nazism and football hooliganism, the films would come to be at once maligned and censored by the same kind of moral authorities represented in many of Clarke’s works as violent and ineffective power structures.

This year will mark a quarter century since Clarke’s landmark Elephant (1989), a depiction of the ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland that speaks across the borders of testimony, journalism and political narrative. Clarke’s uncompromising concern with social violence, however, has led to a neglect of his cinema. This neglect has played out primarily in assessments of his importance to British cinema, which have mostly delimited the director’s work firmly within the boundaries of social realism. His work demands to be reconsidered beyond this easy narrative.

Notably, Clarke proved the most significant populariser of the dramatist Bertolt Brecht on British television, adapting Brecht’s play Baal (1982), in which he would cast David Bowie in the lead role. Clarke’s work more generally formed close ties with the theatre, as well as with the BBC. Throughout the 1960s, he was responsible for directing both stage and television adaptations of classical and avant-garde theatrical productions, often at odds with the emerging taste for cinematic realism he remains associated with, epitomised by works such as Ken Loach’s BBC television play Cathy Come Home (1966) and feature film Kes (1969), as well as Alan Bleasdale’s BBC television series Boys from the Blackstuff (1980-1982).

Furthermore, many of today’s most important and popular film-makers have acknowledged their debt to Clarke, from Danny Boyle and Paul Greengrass to Gus van Sandt. How, we should ask, does this violent, politicised body of work produce such diverse responses? Would a reassessment of Clarke’s place within British and American film move him from the margins to the centre, or does the value of his film lie in its marginal, resistant status?

We would welcome proposals for papers related, but not limited, to the following:
  • The growth and the role of drama at the BBC.
  • The role of journalism and testimony in dramatic productions.
  • Clarke’s importance to socially-conscious filmmaking.
  • Clarke’s film as an intersection between avant-garde and realist forms.
  • Observations of affinities with, and re-readings of, Brechtian and Marxist theatre.
  • Technological innovations (eg. the use of a steady-cam).
  • The response of British media to the Northern Irish troubles.
  • The penal code, law and power as articulated in Clarke’s films.
  • Assertions of institutional power against Clarke’s film, in particular through censorship.
  • The legacy of Clarke’s film in contemporary British cinema and beyond.
  • Responses to Thatcherism.
  • What does “realism” mean in the wake of Clarke’s challenge to the acceptability and range of the medium?
Proposals should be no more than 300 words in length, for presentations of up to 30 minutes. We encourage papers that will make use of audiovisual material, and presentations from practice-based as well as academic viewpoints. The deadline for submissions is Friday, 7 March 2014. Please submit to clarkeconference2014@gmail.com.

Conference organisers: Tim Lawrence, Jay James May and Andy Munzer.

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