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Alan Clarke Retrospective: The Firm (director’s cut)

Let’s begin, at the end of the 1980s and the world of The Firm.

The beautiful game is being defiled by the English disease, pumped around the body politic by Football Specials and Intercity trains, dispensing gleaming Stanley knives and noxious substances into the faces of casuals the length and breadth of the country. The Dr Marten Boots and braces have been replaced by snazzy European sportswear and business suits. There is no social media coordination, just the analogue dial tones and the snip-snap of Zip-zap machine skating gleefully over American Express Cards. That’ll do nicely.

Television wasn’t a time-shifted floozy dallying with all and sundry but a pulsating juggernaut that rolled on relentless and regardless of your own hectic schedule. Television didn’t give a fuck about you; you had to give a fuck about television. Watching a one off-drama like The Firm had to be earned the hard way through close attention to listings or stumbled upon by blind luck. If you blinked you missed it, if you were smart you taped it, if you saw it you never forgot it.

Alan Clarke’s seminal film about football violence staring Gary Oldman in his signature role is a steadicam masterpiece emblazoned onto your corneas; figures walk into shot and keep walking with a bragging, bruising, bravado. We shift and dance and bob and weave with them, complicit always pursuing, observing, retreating, sidestepping as his camera swirls a complete 360 degrees ready to sucker punch us into submission.

We hate to love The Firm’s main character Bex Bissel, an ophidian bovver boy, and a warrior poet from West Ham United’s infamous Chicken Run. He aspires to middle class material wealth and may well supersede it in time. He understands their values and beliefs, he can internalise them, but ultimately he will reject them because he can only defer his gratification to Saturdays and mid-week games. Bex is the logical conclusion of Thatcherism in the 80s, the affluent working class.

Bex is the raw, unrelenting product of the comprehensive school, the Falklands conflict, Lady Di and the Hand of God. He is Reggie Kray, Stephen Berkoff, Mike Reid and Michael Caine all rolled into one. He is an East End legend that might frequent your local boozer, the unhinged psychopath, and the occupational hazard that must be negotiated with care if you happen to be a working class lad in certain areas. If you are very unlucky you may know more than one. He’ll love you one minute with his dazzling linguistic gymnastics and stick a glass in your neck the next.

He is educated but stopped short of joining a University, maybe his parents couldn’t afford it, maybe Bex preferred the lure of a quick pound note, or more likely he didn’t relish leaving his mates behind to face the unknown by himself. Even though his reputation has national status from the itinerant nature of the football fan, it is a limited fame, restricted to a few faces in pubs up and down the country lit from the glare of a one-armed bandit. By ducking further education Bex can still carry out his childish dreams of violent conquest. Even though he feels superior to his friends and foes alike he secretly needs to drink in their adulation and inhale their hatred to make sense of his very being.

Unlike the absent fathers of Fight Club, the fathers of The Firm are very much in evidence; a Greek tragedy in waiting for Bex and Sammy, his infant son. Bex’s own father, Bill, may look like an affable granddad offering Sunday lunch advice on car maintenance, but he was once as thuggish as his offspring. Bill has handed down his weekend pursuit of football violence to his son as casually as if he had taught him how to fish. He still encourages Bex in his hobby by taking team photographs and storing weapons like they were old trophies in a bedroom that has become frozen in time like a shrine to a dead child.

Fatherhood has instilled a quasi sense of responsibility into Bex. Those quiet moments he spends with Sammy suggest a love and affection that can never be doubted. By placing the magnifying class closer to these intimate scenes Bex could be lamenting his own childhood or even that of his own son. Bex has the power to make Sammy in his own image and maybe, just maybe, that scares the shit out of him. One way or another Bex will ruin Sammy, powerless to stop himself carrying out that savage rite of passage from cradle to terrace.

We can already see it happening, that slow torture by socialization. Sammy guided by Bex tells his mum Sue to, “piss off.” Bex finds it funny and Sue doesn’t really try to stop him. The moment Sammy teethes on a Stanley knife left carelessly by his father is revealed by simple, quiet close ups of the toddler and the Stanley with Bex oblivious, deep in phone conversation with his South London rival Yeti. The outcome is horrendous and only then Sue tries to break her contract with her handsome devil, halfhearted and raucous because she enjoys their early morning sexual role-play more than he does. Her capacity for violence is on a par with his but her first real test as a mother, not as Bex’s wife or partner whispering sweet machismo in his ear, will drive her to adulthood.

And finally, after 30 years, the tragedy of Bex comes to light after the wounding of his son. Rather than accept the fact that in the words of Sue he is a, “normal” estate agent and not, “top boy” he descends into a cycle of violence that will terminate when he is neither. The problem with Bex is that he has been indulged all of his life, first by his parents, then by his friends, and finally by Sue. No doubt beguiled by his intelligence and success, his parents have created a 30-year-old man-child, where the apron strings are never cut and threaten to strangle his marriage. When Sue, undoubtedly as guilty as everyone else in the hero worship, suddenly becomes an adult and questions his status, Bex throws a tantrum on a biblical scale.

After the first blow is struck Bex finds himself assailed by those closest to him. When Simon his trusted lieutenant, “bottles it” from a fight with a rival firm-he does so not out of fear to his person, but due to his fear of losing his material wealth in the form of his BMW, smashed to pieces in a fearsome display of sound and montage editing. Simon like Banquo can see the limit of his own ambition and the potential danger of following Bex in his. Yet Bex cannot harm him through word or deed as Simon has out grown him. If anything Bex was always in awe of Simon. He has the better car, lives in a better area, and is his intellectual equal. Bex may ride about in the back of a taxi-but it’s a taxi nonetheless.

The one thing Bex can cling to, his fearsome reputation, is beginning to ring somewhat hollow. He dismisses a sociologist’s explanation of his violence as a search for meaning as, “crap” but Bex studied sociology at school, he will not accept that particular terminology-but he knows it’s damn close. In fact Bex is dumbing down for the other members of the Firm, one of his Machiavellian tricks to hold onto his ever-diminishing power.

As Bex tries to reassert his dark authority over his shrinking Firm, he is reduced to ever increasing playground tactics. Beef is humiliated in the toilet by having his ear flicked, Dominic is subjected to abusive peer pressure when he tries to talk reason, and Wesley is, “annihilated” in the comfort of his own home for standing up for his mutilated younger brother Yusef. Bex is the kind of person who can suck the noise out of a crowded room and return it as if nothing has happened. On the surface the room may look the same but fundamentally it has changed to his nefarious advantage. In his mind Yusef has already been avenged when Bex and Snowy gouged out a rival’s eyes, a restored scene that makes us reexamine our long-term love affair with Bex.

Like Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, Bex is in a movie of his own creation, a steadicam horror show for which he is always performing-even when there is no audience. His swagger through a dilapidated high-rise is part Kray twin, part Travolta in Saturday Night Fever; he practically forces the camera ahead of himself such is the ferocity of his stride.

In the climatic fight Bex has recruited a cast of not so entirely supportive players to act out his ultimate fantasy. The camera after cutting on each of the remaining Firm pursues them with a ruthless certainty as Bex has them march in wedge formation (probably remembered from a history lesson) gradually gathering a frightening momentum, an arrowhead of masculinity about to be blunted by the New Men of the 1990s cuddling babies in black and white Athena posters. They are the Wild Bunch closing in on Mapache, the Reservoir Dogs worship them two years later, and they are going after the Holy Grail of football hooligan lore. Take the other firm’s pub by force.

The majority of people involved in fights, fight like they are going to be hurt, and as a consequence fight half-hearted. In a world of this nature the man who disregards his own safety and sacrifices the safety of others will be king. Bex is triumphant, a Guderian figure leading from the front, goading his troops into an anti-Hollywood fight scene, which is more violent, more comical and more chilling than anything Tinsel Town can throw at us.

Yet his triumphant last stand is short lived. Bex when faced with a revolver realises that even he has reached the limit of his violent games and laughs at his nemesis, the near extinct Yeti. “Oh come on,” he grins. Too little too late-Bex failed to comprehend that there was someone even more homicidally committed to his strange insular world than he ever was.

With Bex freed from the material world of dimmer switches and microwave ovens the thin veneer of respectability is peeled way from the football firms to reveal the lager lout hooligan underneath. Bex and his unwilling sacrifice have led to his dream of a national firm but it is a perverted version of that dream, a dream without finesse, without drive, without leadership, nationalization when Britain sped hell for leather to sell off its nationalized assets. Football hooliganism become visible for what it is-a national embarrassment and for that we should shake Bex by his cold, dead hand.

How ironic that so close to the Brexit vote the English disease has mutated into a European pandemic fought across the narrow streets of Marseille. The Firm is as blisteringly relevant as it was back in 1989. Perhaps Sammy is making his dad proud.

Alan Clarke’s entire body of work for the BBC is currently available from The BFI in the Dissent & Disruption box sets.

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Mark Farnsworth

Senior Film Writer Mark Farnsworth teaches Film in East London and is currently working on two screenplays, The Mysteries and Fair Access. He also writes the Oh/Cult section for Brokenshark.co.uk.