Dissent & Disruption: Alan Clarke at the BBC (1969-1989) Blu-ray review

The BFI celebrates the career of a true maverick spirit with this astonishing boxset

The 1970s saw the British film industry at its lowest ebb, with the biggest domestic box office hits of the decade coming from TV sitcom spin-offs (1971's On the Buses actually beat out Diamonds Are Forever at UK cinemas) and flaccid sex comedies. But cinema's loss was television's gain, and filmmakers interested in dealing with more challenging and experimental concepts found an outlet for their work on the small screen instead.

Liverpudlian director Alan Clarke is a typical example. While he got his start directing episodes of A Man of Our Times and Half Hour Stories for ITV contractor Rediffusion, he found an unlikely home for his (frequently controversial) style of social-realist drama within the BBC.

The BFI's 13-disc boxset (made up of 11 BDs and two DVDs) is the first attempt at bringing together all of Clarke's surviving work from this period. In doing so, it gives those unfamiliar with the director outside of his best-known works (Scum, Made in Britain, The Firm) a chance to see why his TV dramas proved so hugely influential on filmmakers such as Shane Meadows, Danny Boyle and Peter Greengrass, who grew up watching them.

Kicking off with an HD presentation of the Half Hour Stories episode George's Room (1967), the full list of plays included in the set is as follows: The Last Train Through Hardcastle Tunnel (1969); Sovereign's Company (1970); The Hallelujah Handshake (1970); To Encourage the Others (1972); Under the Age (1972); Horace (1972); The Love-Girl and the Innocent (1973); Penda's Fen (1974); A Follower for Emily (1974); Diane (1975); Funny Farm (1975); the original TV version of Scum (1977); the never-before-seen documentary Bukovsky (1977); Nina (1978); Danton's Death (1978); Beloved Enemy (1981); Psy-Warriors (1981); Baal (1982); Stars of the Roller State Disco (1984); Contact (1984); Christine (1987); Road (1987); the original TV edit and the first ever presentation of Clarke's original cut of The Firm (1989); and Elephant (1989). And breathe.

Remembered today primarily as a master of bleak, violent and heavily politicised documentary-like dramas (none of which is in any way inaccurate), the opportunity to view so much of his work together reveals other sides to Clarke. Perhaps the biggest surprise, given the machismo inherent in the subject of so much of his work, is his knack with believable female characters. Okay, so several may only exist at the margins of the stories they inhabit, but they're more fully fleshed-out than most of the leading ladies of other TV dramas of the era.

The BFI's set also highlights Clarke's directorial skills. Naturally, his films aren't particularly flashy, often favouring unobtrusive and detached cameras, giving the material a sense of documentary realism. And yet few filmmakers have ever made such effective or iconic use of Steadicam cameras as Clarke did, especially in his 'walking films'.

Not everything here hits the mark (the alternate reality sci-fi of Stars of the Roller State Disco fails to gel), but the few plays that falter are minor blips in an otherwise astonishing career. We hope this boxset convinces the rights-holders of Clarke's other works (including his 1983 ITV drama Made in Britain and 1987 movies Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire and Rita, Sue and Bob Too!) to release them on BD.

Picture: Due to the decision to present all of the contents in chronological order, of the 13 discs in the boxset, all but two are Blu-rays that offer 1080i50 presentations of dramas shot on 16mm film, and the same for others that were shot in studio on video and have been transferred from original PAL transmission tapes. The other two discs are Disc Nine (containing Psy-Warriors and Baal, both of which were shot on video) and a bonus disc (see 'Extras', below), which are understandably presented as standard-definition DVDs.

Coming up with a single rating for the image quality is quite difficult. While the video-based titles are handled as well as could be hoped for, the relative lack of resolution in the source material means there's only so much that can be done with them. However, those sourced from 16mm prints look sensational, capturing the grain, colour and detail of the original footage perfectly (with the exception of the additional footage in the alternate cut of The Firm, which was sourced from an ungraded workprint of noticeably poorer quality).
Picture rating: 4/5

Audio: The discs all offer LPCM dual-mono tracks, with the exception of the DVDs, which opt for Dolby Digital dual-mono instead. As you'd hope, they've all been cleaned up, with the all-important dialogue sounding natural and well-balanced in the mixes.
Audio rating: 3.5/5

Extras: The centrepiece of an extensive and exhausting array of bonus features is a superb new 12-part documentary about Clarke's career. Other highlights include a bonus DVD containing six more Half Hour Stories directed by Clarke and a 200-page book of essays about the titles included in the set.
Extras rating: 5/5

We say: If there's a better (or more comprehensive) Blu-ray boxset this year we'll eat our hats. Magnificent.

Dissent & Disruption: Alan Clarke at the BBC (1969-1989), BFI, Region B BD & R2 DVD, £150