STEPHEN FREARS on ALAN CLARKE

Interviewed recorded 17th May 2000 (on the set of LIAM in a church in Liverpool)

Andy Kimpton-Nye: YOU’RE QUOTED AS SAYING ALAN WAS “THE BEST” AMONGST THE LIKES OF YOURSELF AND OTHERS WHO STARTED OUT IN TV IN THE 60S AND 70S, WHY DOES HE MERIT SUCH HIGH PRAISE?

Stephen Frears: Oh, I don’t know I was probably being sentimental because he died young. But he was very pure and very uncompromising and sort of became purer and more abstract as he got older. Whereas the rest of us grew fat and corrupt and headed for the money or whatever … he stayed very, very, very pure and in many ways his work got better and better I thought.

WHAT WERE HIS QUALITIES AS A DIRECTOR IN YOUR OPINION?

It’s quite hard for me to talk about because I don’t even know that I know all the films… But, you know, I knew him as a friend really and as a fellow director, I suppose you’d say, and he just had such integrity, and such passion, and such commitment to what he was doing that of course they were the real qualities that I admired… And so it’s easy for me to talk about the man than the work because I knew him… I didn’t know him that well, but I now seem to have been a close friend of his. But he had many qualities that I admired. I mean it was his independence of mind I suppose.

IN THAT CASE WHAT WERE HIS QUALITIES AS A PERSON?

Well, he was very, very funny and he had a sort of truth about him I suppose. You know, he was sort of like a worker-priest or something. He was a big handsome man, a big handsome working man… and inspiring. And committed to things. A poetic man.

IT’S GOING BACK A LONG WAY, BUT CAN YOU REMEMBER ANYTHING ABOUT YOUR FIRST ENCOUNTERS WITH ALAN IN THE CORRIDORS OF THE BBC?

Yes, they were sort of rather grubby and slightly squalid… it was mainly because the woman whom I had lived with for a long-time… perhaps I shouldn’t say this, perhaps it’s rather indiscreet. But I knew women that he was involved with, and he was involved with a lot of women, or he seems to have been, or maybe it was all talk, so I knew him in a rather odd sort of way and so we would approach one another looking out the corner of our eyes. And then we became very, very competitive. The great thing was… the BBC was very, very scrupulous and they would pay you for the number of weeks you worked… If you then started another project they would pay you twice for the weeks that overlapped. So the great thing was to get double-booked. That was really all you wanted. So, you were actually doing two jobs at the same time and you were getting two salaries a week. And at the time the BBC would pay… everybody… you’d be on a sort of weekly rate… and someone would always be… then someone would get another ten pounds for the week. So, there was a great competition going on, like, who could get the highest salary, and whether you could get double-booked. And he would always come up and say “actually I’m really triple-booked, cos I’m also doing a job for ITV.” I think those days have long gone.

YOU SAID YOU KNEW HIM BEST AS A FRIEND, WHAT WAS HE LIKE SOCIALISING?

Well, he wasn’t at all sociable. He wouldn’t go to parties or anything like that. He was much more a sort of solitary man…

I spent… I went to America. I was out of work and I went to America and I intended to drive across the country. And he went to America… In some rather odd… Sandy Lieberson became head of Fox and he wanted… you know, he’d got to know people like Alan and he took Alan, thinking he could teach Alan how to make an American film, because Alan was such a good director. I mean in retrospect it was a rather foolish idea but it was touching that Sandy admired… (background interruption as priest walks into the room unannounced and interview stops - Stephen Frears laughs) I’ve forgotten what I was saying…

I’LL ASK YOU ABOUT SANDY LIEBERSON TAKING ALAN TO AMERICA THEN…

(the priest exits} He did that in a shot the other day. I think he’s probably deaf…

Sandy Lieberson had been… I don’t know what company he was running here, but then he became head of Fox. And he took various people… I think he took Tony Garnett to America… And he took Alan, because he was very, very good at his job, Alan. So, I went to see Alan who was living in Hollywood. In fact, I think he’d moved out of Beverley Hills in to Hollywood – a move that already shocked people in California by being so eccentric. And… er… he never did get to make a film, but he… as some sort of alienation grew up in England, he would go to California, as people often do. I remember he said, “You don’t understand…” We were… I must have been about forty at the time… “You don’t understand how well we’ve been trained. We’re the best trained people in the world.” Because we’d both come out of the BBC and it turned out the BBC taught you very good values, which people don’t teach any longer.

HOW DID THOSE WHO WORKED WITH ALAN, HIS COLLEAGUES, VIEW HIM?

They seemed to be very, very passionate about him, don’t they? I mean he seems to have worked with a small group of writers, a comparatively small group of actors, I should think… People always adored Alan and it wasn’t to do with results, it wasn’t that he got these enormous ratings, or… He was just… it was just very easy to love him because he was so honest in some way.

HE WAS SUCH A REBEL AT THE BBC, HOW DID THE BOSSES THERE VIEW ALAN?

Well of course the good thing about the BBC in those days, and I don’t mean to be provocative, was that they employed people who bit the hand that fed them. I mean, you know, you weren’t a real man at the BBC unless you were attacking the BBC. I mean, of course, one can talk about it rather cynically like that, but actually it was a group… it was an organisation that seemed to encourage dissent. There’s a wonderful essay that Dave Hare wrote about Hugh Carlton Greene in which the word mischief comes up and Hugh Carlton Greene just said, “Ahhhh, mischief!” as though that was of course a source of tremendous creative vitality. And Alan was very mischievous. So, he was always doing things that were… that must have driven them mad, he would want to shoot in black and white, or he would want things to be very long, and would defend his position. And, I imagine they admired him as much as he drove them bananas. But that I’m sure could have been said of many of us and it’s to the credit of the people who were running the BBC at the time that they tolerated, you know, rebellious children.

ALAN’S FREQUENTLY REFERRED TO IN THE RICHARD KELLY BIOGRAPHY AS AN ANARCHIST AND A REBEL, WHAT WAS HE REBELLING AGAINST?

I don’t know, I’m not a working-class lad from Liverpool. So, I haven’t the first idea. It was just… that was… I suppose in the 60s it was a good time to be rebellious, you know, you were encouraged down that path, whereas now it’s much harder. So, he was rebellious, but not to the point of leaving the BBC, I mean that was always the anomaly, wasn’t it? That you… you rebelled against the institution that was supporting you.

SCUM, THE TV SCUM, WAS BANNED. HE’D COURTED CONTROVERSY A BIT WITH TO ENCOURAGE THE OTHERS (BASED ON THE HANGING OF DEREK BENTLEY) AND DIANE, THE ‘INCEST DRAMA, BEFORE THAT, BUT DO YOU THINK HIS WORKED CHANGED AFTER THE BAN. IT SEEMS TO, IT SEEMS TO HAVE GOT DARKER, DID IT?

Yes… or that’s what I’m told. I don’t know enough about the work. Other people would talk more intelligently about that. SCUM came at the time when the BBC was… the sort of hegemony of television was breaking up and a number of us around that time stopped working in television and sort of drifted in to the cinema and the line became blurred… this is the late 70s, isn’t it? Late 70s, early 80s. So, it became possible as it were when the row with the BBC… which I don’t know very much about… when the happened there was another place to go and work – in the cinema. And so… I don’t quite see what that’s got to do with him becoming darker, but er… maybe they were darker times, Mrs Thatcher came to power, that never helped…

DID ALAN EVER DISCUSSED THE IDEAS THAT INFLUENCED HIM…?

No! Good God! No, no, no. No, absolutely not. (he gives a little laugh) I mean, nobody does.

DID HE EVEN DISCUSS HIS CINEMA INFLUENCES OR PREFERENCES?

No… I made a film called Walter which was on the first night of Channel 4 and we shot it – Chris Menges shot it – and we shot it on the steadicam which in those days was a very… now of course it’s used all the time… but it those days it was a very innovative piece of equipment. And Alan was working in the room next to me and he used to come over to me and say, “How d’you do that shot… how d’you that…?” He just had no idea how you could do these shots. Well, eventually he made a very, very good film with Tim Roth (Made in Britain) and it’s all shot on the steadicam. And that came out of him watching what I was doing, “Oh, how d’you do that, how d’you do that…?” Like Yosser Hughes (he laughs).

AND THE STEADICAM THEN BECAME VERY IMPORTANT TO HIS WORK BECAUSE IT FEATURES IN OTHER DRAMAS AFTER THAT. WHY WAS THE STEADICAM SO IMPORTANT TO ALAN?

I couldn’t answer that. I mean, I wouldn’t know. Except that… You know, if you use… I mean I don’t use the steadicam a lot, so I’m guessing… but if you use the steadicam it sort of fills in the bits of life between the interesting bits. You go from there to there, so you actually follow a character from there to there. Now if you were to ask me I’d say that’s not an interesting bit, I’d rather cut that bit out than leave it in. He chose to leave it in and he found a piece of equipment that could deal with those bits and would design whole films around it. I don’t know why he did it. That’s what makes him an individual. But what the explanation for it is… I guess it’s buried in his unconscious… I guess he just liked it and, you know, he didn’t have much money, so it was a way of shooting things quite quickly and it was unorthodox. But, of course, it had it’s own aesthetic so… just always you invent a new aesthetic and then you become a prisoner to it. Or, you both liberated by it and become a prisoner to it.

HE USED A LOT OF UNKNOWN ACTORS WHO HE WORKED WITH ONCE OR TWICE, BUT NOT AGAIN. DID HE EVER DISCUSS WITH YOU WHY HE LIKED TO USE UNKNOWN, OR LESSER KNOWN ACTORS?

No, no, no. Except that he would have just been trying to cast the right person. I mean, the BBC in those days wasn’t driven by ratings, so you could cast whoever you liked. I mean, when I was casting I liked a particular kind of actor who was probably quite successful, because I like very, very skillful actors. Alan whose work was more sort of primitive would have liked less trained, less tutored actors. You often don’t cast an actor a second time, because you just think, “Well, he was that person”. And you identify with the character so stronly that the idea of him… You know, an actor would say, “Well, I can play that part or that part.” But often you think, “No, no, that’s that part, so how can he play that part because he’s that part…” So, you know… I’m sure he broke every rule he set up.

HE WAS RATED SO HIGHLY BY EVERYONE WHO WORKED WITH HIM AND YET HE ONLY MADE THREE MOVIES. WHY DID HE ONLY MAKE THREE MOVIES?

Because… because television in that period… it sort of gave you everything you ever wanted. I mean I don’t think… I can only speak for myself… I didn’t grow up wanting to make films. I loved the time when I was at the BBC working on television films. It was just a terrific time. And, there was no particular incentive to go in to the cinema. There was no expectation that you would. The cinema in Britain in the 70s wasn’t very good. And it certainly wasn’t full of people like us doing the kind of films like we were doing at the BBC. It seemed much more interesting working in television. Let alone having to deal with the pressures of budgets, you know, and all those other pressures one now accepts. So, if you got if you’ve a very interesting situation here, and an unknown situation over there, that you’re not even sure you want to work in… You know, television was regarded as very, very important back in the 60s. It seems to be much less important now. At the time, it was a tremendously new, sort of democratic, populist medium and you could do material that got you closer to people, give an account of life that relevant. To Alan, who as I understand it was a working lad, one of things that television told was the history of ordinary people in England, ordinary working class people in England. Well, the cinema just didn’t sort of deal with that. You know, it’s begun to deal with it in the sort of detail that television did, but television sort of embraced it as a subject. You know, if you were to look at the work that was done in the 60s, it was literally, “Oh, this is what it was like to walk down a street in England”. You know you look at those documentaries that Michael Apted makes, that what it was like to be 7 in 1963. It’s straight down the line. It was like that. It wasn’t like anything else. So, as a record of a Britain that most of us grew up in it was very accurate and quite satisfying enough… You know, why would you want to go and make films about… films that would entertain American audiences? It’s a completely different exercise. There’s no God-given law that says you to progress from this to that.

I HEARD STORIES THAT HE WAS A WORKAHOLIC. WAS HE OBSESSIVE ABOUT WORK?

Well, I imagine so, but I never quite… I’ve never met a director who wasn’t… I mean, I’m obsessive about my work in a rather boring, idiotic way. He was a very serious man. That’s why… that’s why… I’m always slightly embarrassed by these programmes… What he was really… If you said to me what is a man like? I would say, “Alan, you know, in some old fashion way”. Men in my world aren’t like John Wayne, but Alan did seem to be what a man was like. And he was hard-working and he was a serious man, thoughtful, funny… But he also drank a lot, and larked about a lot, and got put in jail… I remember when I started work there was this sort of myth that would go ahead of him. “Oh, you should have been here when Alan was here. Oh, the night they locked him up.” These terrible tales of wild behaviour – I don’t know anything about that. I knew him in the respectable years.

THERE’S A LOT OF ANGER IN HIS WORK. WAS HE AN ANGRY PERSON?

Yes, he was. Angered by injustice – all those kind of things.

WHAT DO YOU THINK IF HE WERE ALIVE ALAN WOULD HE BE DOING TODAY – TV, FILM?

Well, it’s always a rather worrying question, because it’s much tougher now. You know, it’s much harder to make those kind of films now. And the people who run the companies and the BBC are much less tolerant. But he was a tough bugger and I’m sure he would have found some way of keeping going. As people do, but er… I’ve no idea.. Whereas the rest of us have found a way of surviving in the world. I don’t know what he would have done.

WHAT’S YOUR ABIDING MEMORY OF ALAN CLARKE?

Just a bloke laughing. He just laughed a lot. And he was very, very funny. He was a very funny man. And full of life in a way that… often the cinema isn’t a very lively place and Alan was a very lively man, passionate and interested in things…

THANKS A LOT… CUT.

And now all they do is wait til he’s dead and make documentaries about him. They should’ve made a documentary about him when he was alive.

OF COURSE, YOU’RE RIGHT. I WOULDN’T HAVE BEEN AROUND THEN TO PERSONALLY MAKE IT… I STILL THINKS IT’S GOOD BECAUSE THERE SEEMS TO BE A KIND OF… THERE ARE YOUNG FILM-MAKERS WHO KIND OF QUOTE ALAN AS THEIR INFLUENCE…

What Richard (Kelly – Clarke biographer) said that was… It was the playgrounds, they used to watch, the kids at school used to watch, they were the ones who found his work. You know, we were just middle-class intellectuals and he was a friend of mine. But Richard used to say that the kids in the playground found out that he was the really wild one to watch.

WELL, HIS FILMS ARE INTERESTING, COS THERE’S A KIND OF ART-HOUSE FEEL IF YOU LOOK AT THE STYLISTICS OF THEM, THE REPETITION-DEVICE, OR THEY WAY THEY WERE FILMED, BUT THEN IN TERMS OF THE CONTENT, WHAT WITH SCUM AND MADE IN BRITAIN AND THE FIRM, THE ANGRY YOUTH FILMS, THEY CERTAINLY CROSS-OVER TO BEING EXTREMELY ACCESSIBLE FOR A LARGER AUDIENCE. DO YOU REMEMBER ELEPHANT, THE NORTHER IRELAND FILM, OR CONTACT…?

Is that the one about… there’s one in Northern Ireland I’ve seen about the men on patrol…

THAT’S CONTACT…

And there’s another one I’ve never seen about killing people…

YES, THERE’S SOMETHING LIKE EIGHTEEN KILLINGS…

(shakes head in disbelief at Clarke’s nerve and gives a little laugh): I never dared look at it.

IT’S AMAZING HOW IT GOT MADE FOR TV…

People did that… People did that in those days. You know, it was the good side of the BBC.

AND THAT’S THE FASCINATING SIDE OF HIS WORK FOR ME, THAT HE MADE STUFF LIKE THAT…

I know people write about the aesthetics of his tracking shots. I don’t take that all that seriously.

THANK YOU VERY MUCH. THANK YOU.

400Blows Productions, May 2000.


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