Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Scrubbers (1983)

Do you ever find yourself giving a film you've previously watched and disliked another chance - only to find said film starts to grow on you?

It's something that I've found occasionally happens, which is why I always believe in a rewatch. I thought I'd use this blog post to compare and contrast my feelings towards the 1983 film Scrubbers, using a review I wrote after first watching the film in January of 2015, and then a review I've just written after watching it again earlier this week, almost two years to the day.

No matter how much it wants to be, Scrubbers is less a sister piece to Alan Clarke and Roy Minton's Scum and more a shrill and hollow antecedent to the soap Bad Girls, it's all the more amazing to consider that Minton himself had a hand in Scrubbers.

In his defence however, he was one of four credited writers for the film (along with the director Mai Zetterling, Susannah Buxton and Jeremy Watt) and is on record as claiming his original screenplay was 'savaged' whilst he was away overseas to the extent that he disassociated himself from the final product totally, calling it also "arguably the worst film ever made.”

Yes, it's pretty bad. 

Scrubbers desperately wants to be Scum. It wants to be cutting edge controversial and grimly realistic but its so unnaturalistic, amateur and hollow that its earnest manner and blatant desire to shock comes across like a poem written by Rik from The Young Ones and, like such an attention seeker, it's all so bloody loud as to be totally intolerable. Dialogue sounds like the kind of thing they'd even think twice about in the 1950s (they even have exchanges that go along the lines of "Bloody men. They only fink about one fing, right?" and "Work? No chance. You get more money from pinchin'") performed by some truly diabolical actresses does little to improve Scrubbers credentials, nor do the poorly staged, stilted fight scenes that would shame play acting children let alone a feeble am-dram group.

Totally unconvincing and incredibly irritating, it's clear Zetterling's weak direction intended to gain audience sympathy, but such manipulation backfires from the off. The only interest in this dross is spotting actors like Kathy Burke, Robbie Coltrane and EastEnders' Pat Butcher in small supporting roles.

Avoid. Doing time with Scrubbers is really hard.

1 out of 5 stars.

(Review first published on Letterboxd on 22nd Jan, 2015)

To be honest, I'd wanted to rewatch this ever since rereading Very Naughty Boys last summer, the biography of Handmade Films by Robert Sellers. When I last watched Scrubbers, the experiences of one of its scriptwriters Roy Minton (of Scum fame) was at the forefront of my mind. He was mistreated something terribly when getting this script together and ultimately walked away from the project due to too much tinkering from its director Mai Zetterling and the other writers. Very Naughty Boys recounts the making of Scrubbers, but solely from the perspective of producer Don Boyd (who executive produced the film version of Scum) who doesn't dwell at all on Minton, but sings the praises of Zetterling and criticises Handmade's involvement and mismanagement, laying the blame solely at the notorious Denis O'Brien's door. Given that O'Brien sank Handmade and interfered with every single film they were responsible for (often with disastrous consequences) it's no surprise to hear that he did the same thing here. Look at the scene in the borstal's TV room and the shoehorning in of a clip from that other Handmade film The Long Good Friday (its the bit where Bob Hoskins attacks and kills Derek Thompson) up there on the screen as the girls viciously lash out for themselves, off screen. Bond said O'Brien's edit had the aim of sanitising and softening the piece; it's hardly surprising then that he chose to illustrate violence with a clip of two men (in a spot of product placement for their back catalogue) rather than show two women engage in the same level of physical brutality. 

Another reason I wanted to rewatch this was the fact that I'm currently watching an obscure girl flatmate sitcom from 1984 entitled Dream Stuffing. This show stars Amanda Symonds and Rachael (also known as Rachel) Weaver, both of whom had previously appeared together in this. Unfortunately, Symonds plays one of the characters who irritated me the most the last time I saw this; Mac, the girl forever with a song on her lips. Or rather a bawdy ditty sung to the same tune at full belt. Believe me, you will despair every time a character says "'ere gis a song, Mac I'm a bit fed up" Unfortunately, in a film like Scrubbers, that request happens quite a lot.  Weaver has a much smaller role as Gwen, a self-harmer who views her scars as something to earn respect among her peers. Both of them are great fun in Dream Stuffing. They're not much fun here.

Even given a second chance, Scrubbers doesn't really work. For a former actress herself, Zetterling is not what you would call an actor's director; there's too much overplaying or wooden performances for that. Fortunately she's saved by some truly good little turns from some of the cast, most notably a young Kathy Burke as slovenly inmate Glennis. The riot scene, which sees Glennis busy herself sniffing solvents in the corner like a kid whose found a bag of sweets, is a particularly funny highpoint and it's little wonder Burke went from strength to strength. Unfortunately, Burke's a minor character and the playing of some of those who figure more predominantly isn't really in the same league.

It's clear Zetterling was hoping for an almost documentarian polemic to condemn the Victorian incarceration of young women, but all too often she and her script veer towards sloppy melodrama. Swinging between these two poles, it's hardly surprising to see the film fall flat on its face in scenes that actually verge on near-parody with its 'Gor blimey' antics. One particular scene featuring the girls dancing to the most banal of early 70s stock library music stands out like a sore thumb. In reality, the real hardened girls of the early 80s would have pissed themselves laughing at that music, and that scene, and I can't imagine that being anyone's intention.

On the whole I wish this would be remade. There's not only something really good here that just gets a little lost in translation from page to screen, but there's also a pressing issue that is still topical to this very day. BBC3 have made quite a few documentaries about women's prisons and female offenders, so there's definitely scope there for a dramatisation. Imagine a remake of this starring the likes of Chanel Cresswell, Natalie Gavin, Bel Powley, Kerrie Hayes, Finn Atkins,  Erin Kellyman, Ami Metcalf and Rosamund Hanson...with maybe Vicky McClure, Lorraine Cheshire and Neil Maskell as some of the screws? You have to admit, that's be great!

2 out of 5 stars.

(Review first published on Letterboxd on 30th Jan, 2015)

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