The innovative British filmmaker, Alan Clarke, was a game changer. James Oliver sheds light on The Firm, a notorious film about football hooliganism Clarke made for the BBC in 1989.

What's The Firm about?

Clive Bissel—dubbed “Bex” by everyone but his mum—has things pretty good. He's an estate agent taking home a decent wage to provide for his wife and their child, both of whom he's devoted to. True, he's a bit flash, but if you've got it, why not flaunt it?

Oh, and he's also one of the most vicious football hooligans in the country, top-dog in the notorious Inter City Crew: welcome to The Firm.

 

 

Football hooliganism was one of the defining problems of the 1980s. If it sounds inexplicable now, it was not much more understandable then. What was it that drove a tiny minority to spoil it for everyone else? What made them want to beat, slash and even kill other men simply because they supported a different football team?

Of all the attempts to understand this phenomenon, The Firm, made in 1989, is undoubtedly the best, and the most disturbing. Carefully researched—writer Al Hunter based his script on the notorious Inter-City Firm that followed West Ham—it showed hooligans not as the tattooed skinheads of popular imagining but as prosperous, even respectable, men who were well integrated into society.

These were people who'd done ‘very-nicely-thank-you’ out of Mrs Thatcher's government and in less subtle hands, Hunter's script might have become yet another commentary on 'Fatcher's Britain'. Bex could have been portrayed as both beneficiary and embodiment of the aggressive new culture of success and status.

 

 

“What made them want to beat, slash and even kill
other men simply because they
supported a different football team?”

 

 

Alan Clarke's dark direction

As a director, Clarke's an interesting figure. He worked mainly in television (The Firm was made for the BBC) so he's still not quite as well known as he might be, but he is regarded by many as one of the most important British filmmakers of all time. Although drawn to social issues, he was allergic to easy answers and always liked to dig deeper into his material.

As his earlier work (including Scum and Made in Britain) had shown, Clarke was aware of some of the darker impulses within the male psyche and The Firm is one of the great studies of men and violence. “I need the buzz!” Bex insists and Clarke dares us to acknowledge there might be some kind of primitive thrill here, and maybe even a sort of glamour.

It's this that makes it so disturbing. Clarke's film exposes just how callow and immature most films that try to talk about violence really are. The slogans and sixth-form psychology of Fight Club can only seem laughable when set against The Firm. A better comparison might be Raging Bull, Martin Scorsese's study of a self-destructive boxer, although Clarke's film is tighter, more concentrated and consequently more potent.

Read more: Exclusive interview with Robert De Niro

 

the firm
Image via Film 4

 

 

What makes The Firm so great?

Like Raging Bull, The Firm is powered by a performance of genius. In fact, I'd argue that Gary Oldman puts in a better performance as Bex than Robert De Niro's celebrated turn in Raging Bull. Oldman is more mercurial, more dangerous. His Bex is smart and charismatic—you understand why his foot soldiers follow him so willingly—but he’s also psychotic in horribly plausible ways.

It's a measure of Clarke's brilliance as a director that he allowed Oldman to go so far, and to make the character so horribly real and even seductive. It would have been easy to make him more obviously evil but Clarke always trusted his audiences and resisted cheap manipulations. It must have been tempting not to, as he was a life-long Everton fan and despised the hooligans who were destroying the game.

In the years since The Firm hooliganism has been controlled, but as events at the 2016 UEFA European Championship showed, it hasn't died out completely. As long as violence remains seductive, Alan Clarke's film will remain only too relevant.

Buy Alan Clarke’s collectable box sets:
Alan Clarke at the BBC: Volume 1 – Dissent 1969-1977
Alan Clarke at the BBC: Volume 2 – Disruption 1978-1989
Dissent and Disruption – Alan Clarke at the BBC 1969-1989

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