Dissent and Disruption: Alan Clarke at the BBC (1969-1989) - Limited Edition [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - British Film Institute
Review written by and copyright: James-Masaki Ryan (26th June 2016).
The Film

BFI is releasing the highly ambitious and anticipated Dissent and Disruption: Alan Clarke at the BBC. There is a choice of the following:

- Dissent and Disruption: Alan Clarke at the BBC (1969-1989) - a 13 disc set of 11 Blu-rays and 2 DVDs.
- Alan Clarke at the BBC Volume 1: Dissent (1969-1977) - a 6 DVD set.
- Alan Clarke at the BBC Volume 2: Disruption (1978-1989) - a 6 DVD set.

Due to the massive amount of the content, the set will be covered in 13 separate reviews, which later will be combined into a singular review after the completion of all 13 reviews.

This review covers DISC FOUR of the “Dissent and Disruption” set.

“The Love-Girl and the Innocent” (1973) (127:09)

Taking place in a prison camp post WWII 1945 in the Soviet Union, three truckloads of new prisoners are brought in. In the camp, prisoners are each assigned to various jobs for both men and women, in which most of the people are imprisoned under Article 58 of the Russian SFSR Penal Code - promoting anti-Soviet remarks or propaganda. Nemov (played by David Leland) is a prisoner working as the production chief. He is ordered very strictly and uncaringly by the prison guard superiors, but he does what he can to make sure the mistreated and malnourished prisoners are taken care of, even if it's just little that he can do. He is frequently visited by fellow prisoners who offer bribes or other advances for better placement, but he is a man of honesty and works to be fair to everyone, even if it means frustrating some of the prisoners and some of the superiors. He then meets Lyuba (played by Gabrielle Lloyd), a new female prisoner who slowly captures his heart. But circumstances of the prison start to change with the new arrival Khomich (played by Richard Durden), who is not kind hearted but is willing to take risks to make sure he gets trusted by the prison superiors, threatening Nemov’s position.

“The Love-Girl and the Innocent” was written by Russian author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn as a four-act play. Based on his real imprisonment in a labor camp due to derogatory comments about Josef Stalin written in a private letter, he was sentenced to serve 8 years from 1945. Following his sentence he was exiled to Kazakhstan in 1953 where he started to write poems, short stories, and plays freely but unpublished. With “Khrushchev's Secret Speech” in 1956, Solzhenitsyn was exonerated and was able to work as a teacher. His written works were published in the 1960s - with the play “The Love-Girl and the Innocent” in 1969. This was not an easy play to perform - a large cast of 50 performers, a three-story structure for one of the setpieces, and most dangerously, molten iron being poured in a foundry setpiece.

The BBC “Play of the Month” episode of “The Love-Girl and the Innocent” was adapted by Alan Clarke who had to work under the challenge of adapting the epic play into a television production with a limited budget. First to cut costs were the elimination of characters - the fifty speaking parts were significantly decreased to about twenty, cutting various subplots. The production was shot entirely on videotape with multiple cameras simultaneously, cutting film processing costs. Many exterior scenes were shot at night to hide what was supposed to be the massive prison camp. But there was attention to detail with the costuming, the set design, and the foundry with real molten iron used in the production. There are many familiar names to be mentioned in the casting of the production. David Leland plays the lead in his first of many productions with Clarke directing. Gabrielle Lloyd as the “Love-Girl”, the instantly recognizable Patrick Stewart as the boss of the foundry Gurvich, and John Kane playing Chegenyov - all appear in their one and only Alan Clarke directed production, but have gone on to have lengthy acting careers. Barry Johnson who played as the title character in Clarke’s previous production of “Horace” also makes an appearance as Gai. The production was first broadcast on September 16th, 1973.

With other prison dramas such as the male-dominated “The Great Escape” or “Stalag 17”, “The Love-Girl and the Innocent” sets itself apart by centralizing on a love story rather than male camaraderie. Even with the cutting down of the original play, it somehow still feels overlong with the two hour plus runtime. But then again some of the stories feel a little incomplete with the cuts. On a positive note the production has a great cast of characters and very well directed scenes which should not come as a surprise.

“Penda’s Fen” (1974) (88:32)

Stephen (played by Spencer Banks) is a teenager attending a military academy. Brought up in a Protestant household with his father (played by John Atkinson) being a pastor, Stephen is going through a time of awakening and questioning of everything he knows and believes. He loves his classical records and believes that composer Elgar’s 1900 composition “The Dream of Gerontius” is the greatest piece of music ever made, and tries to deconstruct the composition by studying the notes and the melodies. As a cadet, he is scrawny and not a sportsman, sitting out from PE. With his wimpiness in physical stature, he is made fun of not only by classmates but by the milkman Joel (played by Ron Smerczak) who jokes about the future of England to be made of weakling soldiers. Stephen also has confusion about his own sexuality - worrying whether he is homosexual or not, as he suddenly starts having fantasies of boys. His religion also comes into question in a series of bizarre events with nightmares of devils and Pagan rituals. His confusion leads toward his madness and self doubt…

“Penda’s Fen” was made for the BBC series “Play for Today” and broadcast on March 21st, 1974. Many consider it one of Clarke’s deepest and best works, but Clarke himself has stated that he was completely unsure with doubt as to understanding the story himself. Written by David Rudkin, Clarke asked Rudkin about the source materials - Penda, King of Mercia, Sir Edward Elgar, Manichaeism, etc. and how much research he would have to do to fully study before production. Rudkin replied that his own script is the only thing necessary and everything else would naturally follow. The story of the main character is truly filled with almost everything that comes along puberty - the sexual awakening, questioning about knowledge - from religion, family, science, history, and society. Shot on film in various locations of mostly outdoors, the production is has many incredibly unusual scenes - dream sequences, hallucinations and nightmares make significant portions of the story. The suggestive encounter with the Joel character, the throwing of dirt (or is it supposed to be feces?) against Stephen, the Pagan ritual with the hands of children being chopped off, the encounter with Elgar in the wheelchair, and the scenes with a devil following Stephen, like a precursor to "Donnie Darko" - another story dealing with a teen's sexual awakening, religious awakening, and the questioning of reality and society. “Penda’s Fen” may be the closest thing to the horror genre that Clarke had directed. Some have written that “Penda’s Fen” is a story dealing with homosexuality directly, but the story is much more than that and is a culmination of many life changing experiences stacked on top of each other - and to single out the other portions would be unfair. It is dense, deep, thought provoking, and altogether quite bizarre, showcasing how amazing creative talent could produce such works for television back in the 1970s.

For many years ”Penda’s Fen” was incredibly difficult to watch, being rebroadcast only a few times, and this Blu-ray and DVD editions being the first officially released editions of the production on home video.

Note this is a region B Blu-ray which can only be played on region B or region free Blu-ray players

Video

BFI presents the productions in 1080i 50hz in the original televised aspect ratio of 1.33:1 in the AVC MPEG-4 codec. As these were UK TV productions broadcast in the 25fps PAL format, the films are transferred in the 50hz signal to preserve the PAL runtime.

“The Love-Girl and the Innocent” was shot on PAL video and the transfer comes from the original 2” master PAL broadcast tape. With it being a video source, there are the usual problems of shimmering and color reproduction. With most of the colors being dull greys and browns of the prison camp, video is still able to reproduce the dull colors well. There are no problems of video tape errors or tracking errors in the transfer.

”Penda’s Fen” was shot on film. The transfer comes from the original 16mm A/B roll negatives, transferred in HD. There are no signs of film damage or errors while grain is still visible. The digital cleanup looks very good, but there are some portions in which digital tools were utilized to remove gate hairs - and unfortunately some of them were not removed very well. The hairs appear and disappear sporadically in the scene when Stephen goes off on the closed road. Though it is incredibly minor. More of a major point is in the 59 minute mark some major damage that affects the entire frame is visible - with digital cleanup applied, the damage to the frame seemed too big to have it completely removed. Compared to previous film sourced works in the Clarke set, the colors are very good on this production, with green grass looking beautifully green.

Audio

English LPCM 2.0 mono
The original mono tracks are presented in lossless mono sound. The audio sounds very good with no troubling instances of hisses or pops. Dialogue is always clean and clear, but considering the low budget sources, the audio sounds very good. For ”Penda’s Fen” the music and effects were transferred from the original tapes.

There are optional English HoH subtitles in a white font for the productions.

Extras

“Alan Clarke: Out of His Own Light” documentary (Part 4) (18:37)
The newly created 270-minute documentary on Alan Clarke has been divided into 12 parts with each part covering the productions reflected on the first 12 discs of the “Dissent and Disruption” boxset. Part 4 covers the two productions on DISC FOUR. ”The Love-Girl and the Innocent” is only talked about for an entire 2 minutes before the rest of the interviews are about “Penda’s Fen”. It doesn’t seem as evenly divided as it should be but there are fascinating remarks from the various contributors. The entire 270 minute documentary is comprised of interviews with 50 people who worked with Clarke, knew Clarke, and looked up to Clarke. The interviews come from wildly differing sources. Some are slighty old 1.33:1 standard def video, some are hi-def 1.78:1 video. Some are lit too brightly, some are a bit dark. Some have clear dialogue, some sound echoey. It’s very inconsistent in how it looks and sounds edited together, but presentation wise, it is top notch.
in 1080i 50hz AVC MPEG-4, in 1.78:1, in English LPCM 2.0 with no subtitles

Packaging

The ”Dissent and Disruption” 13 disc set includes a 200 page booklet with essays, photos, credits, and film information. For “The Love-Girl and the Innocent” there is an essay by film writer and producer Kaleem Aftab, ”Penda’s Fen” has an essay by Sukhdev Sandhu, director of the Colloquium for Unpopular Culture at New York University. Also listed are full film credits, extras credits, and restoration information.

Note the extras score of B- represents this disc only and not for the entire set.

Overall

BFI’s work on the thirteen disc “Dissent and Disruption” (1969-1989) set is nothing less than an amazing collection of works by one of the most controversial and influential directors who pushed the boundaries of broadcast television. Absolutely recommended.

The Film: A Video: A- Audio: A Extras: B- Overall: A+

 


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