This screening was presented as part of a series dedicated to the visual spaces of television, alongside a shorter work called “The Saliva Milkshake” (reviewed below). The image is a screen capture of the film’s title card. Both were originally shown on the BBC, with the feature originally aired on 12 May 1981 as part of the “Play for Today” series, and the shorter work on 6 January 1975 in the “Centre Play” series.
I feel as though I preface a lot of my reviews by claiming I’m no expert on what I’m about to write about, but I must at least be honest. This is going to occur fairly frequently when one dips into areas of filmmaking that are strange or unusual or otherwise outside the mainstream, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. In this case, the format of the standalone television drama (whether a half-hour segment or a feature-length presentation) is one that has been particularly ill-served by advances in distribution over the last few decades. There are still huge numbers of TV shows languishing in archives (or entirely wiped from them) that get very little airing nowadays. They may have garnered larger viewerships than many cinema-distributed films at the time, but for only one or two airings many decades ago. It’s this context in which I come to this film I’m reviewing now, a fascinating document of a past era (albeit tackling themes still very much relevant now), which I saw in a one-off archival screening at the British Film Institute.
In Britain, many of our most well-regarded directors came from a background in TV drama, and specifically the television play, a rather more cerebral and stagy sub-genre of the format which flourished from the late-1950s through to the 1980s, and which reserved their most prominent credits for the writer (whose name would often be seen on the title card or immediately following it, like David Leland’s here) rather than the director. Nevertheless, many of these works showed a strong directorial hand, and trying to see many of those early films of, say, Ken Loach or Stephen Frears or Mike Leigh can be particularly difficult. Perhaps my favourite British director — and one who stayed true to the TV play format, making relatively few films which gained cinematic distribution — is Alan Clarke. Even now, there are extensive swathes of his TV output which are very difficult to see in any form, and Psy-Warriors is one such work. It deals with military psychological operations, or brainwashing and psychological torture to put it rather more crudely. One can trace a very direct line from what we see on screen here to what continues to be done as a matter of course in such environments as Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.
There are certain thematic ideas which run throughout many of the films which Clarke chose to direct. Generally, his films would deal with marginalised communities (the poor and the working classes, soldiers and criminals), and the way in which their lives are shaped by the State and its forces of oppression, often expressed via violence. Psy-Warriors is no different, though the twist is that the three jailed captives — whom we at first assume are terrorists — turn out to be volunteers from within the ranks of the military, looking to advance their careers as well as patriotically help out their government with perfecting its methods of interrogation and deprogramming. Despite this, the way they are treated removes their humanity and pushes them to the edge of their tolerance. The methods are presented unflinchingly, with the male suspects (John Duttine’s Stone and Derrick O’Connor’s Richards) seen stripped naked, with bags placed over their heads, and strung up in uncomfortable positions for long periods of time. They are shown detained in cages (the third prisoner is a woman, Rosalind Ayres’s Turner), sleeping under bright lights or with grating white noise constantly playing, woken up by random intrusions from unremittingly brutal guards (the most prominent here played by the stalwart Warren Clarke), and fed a poor diet and even then only habitually. All these, of course, being techniques increasingly familiar to outraged readers of journalistic accounts of human rights abuses in modern detention facilities, and which must have been even more confrontational to television viewers of over 30 years ago.
The film’s style is striking, even if like many other films in this genre, it is necessarily curtailed by its stage-bound origins and limited budget. One expects in the television play to see a frontal staging on black cube sets resembling a theatre space, as well as long stretches of dialogue in place of action, and this is all here. However, Clarke and his collaborators are resourceful in using the bars of the cages as a recurring visual motif, filming many scenes through them, which have the effect of sometimes concealing the characters’ eyes or mouths and further impairing any easy identification. (It was in many respects unsurprising that Clarke went on to direct a Bertolt Brecht adaptation with Baal the following year, and his films throughout the 1980s increasingly become stripped down, notably Contact and Christine.) The camera also moves around the space, avoiding a slavish adherence to a fixed frontal view that would be all too easy given the film’s basis in a stage play, though the stage-bound form is appropriate to a story about people set apart from society and experimented upon.
If ultimately this isn’t either director Clarke’s or writer Leland’s strongest work, it’s still fascinating in its play on ideas that haven’t much diminished in importance in the intervening time. The acting, especially from the authority figures (Clarke and Colin Blakely’s psychologist), is imposing and the staging is striking. At times the expository talkiness of the dialogue can overwhelm the dramatic movement, but the line between authorities and terrorists is blurred, and the state’s culpability is questioned, in ways that remain somewhat unsettling even today.
Director Alan Clarke; Writer David Leland; Cinematographer Ken Westbury [as film cameraman]; Starring Rosalind Ayres, John Duttine, Derrick O’Connor, Warren Clarke, Colin Blakely; Length 73 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Monday 24 February 2014.
The Saliva Milkshake (1975)
This half-hour work also aired as a television play and also dealt with issues surrounding terrorist activity, in the specific context of the Irish Republican Army and their attacks on British soil. Rosalind Ayres again stars, this time as Joan, a former student revolutionary who has shot and killed the Home Secretary. She shows up in the flat of her student compatriot Martin (Michael Harbour), now a civil servant, and confesses to the crime, exhorting him to go and retrieve a fake passport so that she can get out of the country. The play breaks the fourth wall by having Martin address the camera directly, often in disorienting close-up, with his concerns and doubts about Joan’s story, and the way her violence affects him and his relationship to the State and its power. The setting is again deliberately stagy, on a darkened studio set ostensibly standing in for Martin’s apartment, with a square area of floor space and minimal furnishings. The rather odd title is taken from a monologue of Martin’s to camera relating his disconnect from what Joan was saying and how all he could do was focus on her mouth rather than the words coming from it. He’s a conflicted character, angry at Joan on the one hand but also with a feeling of impotence at the course of his post-student life, and the authorities he eventually goes to do nothing to particularly assuage his conscience. Like many plays this stays firmly rooted inside one person’s mind, and all the significant events happen off-screen, but it still retains a fascination for the viewer and there’s little in the modernist staging that dates it especially.
Director Robert Knights; Writer Howard Brenton (based on the novel Under Western Eyes by Joseph Conrad); Starring Michael Harbour, Rosalind Ayres; Length 30 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Monday 24 February 2014.