The film caused much controversy when first shown. Some felt it should be banned, while others felt that it should be required viewing. The film is violent, with a vicious male rape scene (the victim is a minor) that leads to the suicide of the victim. It features two suicides in total, many fights which are not short on realism and a large amount of racism and strong language. The warders and convicts alike are brutalised by the system. There is no attempt at rehabilitation; the inmates are simply left to their own devices.
The story was originally made for the BBC's Play for Today strand in 1977 but was not shown at the time, although the BBC version has been broadcast since. Two years later director Alan Clarke and scriptwriter Roy Minton remade it as a film, which was then shown on Channel 4 in 1983, by which time the borstal system had been abolished (the British public morality campaigner Mary Whitehouse initially won her court case against Channel 4 for showing the film, but Channel 4 later won on appeal). The original BBC production differed slightly from the remade one. Aside from one or two differences in the cast (Mick Ford and Julian Firth did not play their major supporting roles in the 1977 play, for example - these parts were played by David Threlfall and Martin Philips), the main difference was in a homosexual relationship between Carlin and another inmate, which was in the BBC version but dropped from the later film. Minton later said that this was a pity because it would have expanded Carlin's character and made him vulnerable in an area where he could not afford to be vulnerable.
Fortunately, when a special DVD re-release of the film was made in 2005, the BBC original version was added onto the disc as a bonus, allowing viewers to compare the two versions in terms of content, cast and production.
Ray Winstone subsequently became one of the UK's most in-demand actors, even though he had been kicked out of drama school at the time of the Scum auditions and had only gone along to accompany a friend. When Clarke saw Winstone, he cast him as Carlin on the spot because he liked the way he walked. The original intention had been to characterise Carlin as a Glaswegian. The likes of Mick Ford, Julian Firth, Phil Daniels, Ray Burdis, Patrick Murray, Alan Igbon and Andrew Paul all became familiar faces in British television and film after their youthful appearances in Scum.
The film begins with three young men in a vehicle, being driven to a borstal. The three men are Carlin, Angel and Davis. All are hand-cuffed.
When they arrive at the institution, they are subjected to physical and verbal abuse before being allocated their beds. While Angel and Davis are in single rooms (Angel for his race, as many of the inmates are prejudiced), Carlin is sent to a dormitory where he is ordered by Mr Sands to unpack his possessions and make the bed.
Carlin struggles to settle into the dormitory, having been warned by the senior officer and by highbrow inmate Archer that Banks is in the same room and has already got an eye on him, owing to Carlin's past form as a 'daddy' in institutions. Banks has already victimised the petrified Davis in front of Carlin, and eventually attacks Carlin at night with his stooges. Carlin's black eye earns him a reprimand and solitary punishment for fighting. They also get at Angel by attacking him and trashing his cell, and Davis is tricked into borrowing a radio which is then reported stolen.
Carlin eventually settles down, choosing not to react to the provocation of Banks and his stooges until he can find the right moment. Eventually, he takes over from Banks thanks to a vicious assault on him in the bathroom, leaving him badly cut and dazed, having already smacked Richards, the main batman to Banks, with a sock containing snooker balls. The other inmates accept his new status, as do the staff - reluctantly - especially after Carlin then responds to a challenge from 'Baldy', the 'daddy' of another wing by beating him up in the boilerhouse, yet allowing him to maintain his 'daddy' status, although under his command.
Life improves for the inmates under Carlin, with the victimisation of younger, weaker prisoners coming to a halt. Carlin does, however, reduce the amount of money prisoners can keep from the notes brought in from outside, to establish his credentials. The rest of the time he is content to do his time under less pressure and enjoy Archer's company.
The atmosphere declines when Toyne receives a letter telling him his wife had died, which leads to his attempted suicide when he slashes his wrists. He dies later after a second attempt, away from the borstal, succeeds. That, and the gang rape of Davis in the greenhouse followed by the broken youngster's own suicide (and ignored pleas for help from the officers), leads to a huge riot in the dining room under Carlin and Archer's direction.
The film ends with the governor informing the prisoners of their forfeiture of privileges until the damage is paid for, and ordering a silent prayer for the two dead inmates. Nobody, at any point, is released from the institution during the film, and no ending for any inmate - aside from the two deaths - is hinted at.
A strong character; intelligent, resourceful and dominant, Carlin is incarcerated after taking the rap for his brother (who had numerous convictions) for stealing scrap metal. He arrives at the borstal intent on keeping his head down, having been transferred from another institution for assaulting a warder (he insists that this was in self-defence - "I didn't bang no screw, I retaliated. There was two of them kicking the shit out of me!"). For this reason, the warders are intent on making life as hard for him as possible. He befriends Archer quickly, however, after Archer helpfully informs Carlin on first meeting that his reputation had arrived long before Carlin himself did and that Banks, the 'daddy', would be seeking him out, giving Carlin time to prepare. That said, the warders' deliberate decision to put Carlin in a dormitory with Banks and his honchos, rather than a single cell enables the bullies to give Carlin a thorough late-night beating, and Carlin is shortly afterwards put in solitary confinement for fighting. Cleverly, he endears himself to the highly-religious governor by referring to his "comfort" in being Church of England, being polite and courteous - while denying a fight - and never querying punishments.
After a fair amount of abuse and provocation from Banks and his toadies that gets him into even more trouble with the warders, he decides to take over. He does this through a mixture of violence and force of character. In a graphically violent sequence, he proceeds first to beat Richards, one of the daddy's toadies, with a cosh consisting of a long sock with two snooker balls inside taken without question from a game going on in the recreation room. The scene is shocking because it is realistic. It was filmed in one continuous take (an assistant to the director had to lie on the floor, out of shot and hand Winstone another sock, containing papier mache balls.). This scene is more telling to the relationship between Carlin and Archer as Richards is threatening Archer when Carlin arrives. The impact of Carlin's actions scares Eckersley, the other toady in the room. He obeys when Carlin tells him to 'get back' as he tries to escape to warn Banks. Carlin then replaces the balls on the table ("Yeah, well carry on!") before going up to find Banks in the bathroom. Carlin administers a frenetic beating and kicking to the 'daddy' ("Right Banks you bastard, I'm the daddy now - next time I'll fucking kill you!"). He leaves Banks in a bloody mess on the floor of the bathroom. Mr Sands finds him and further assaults him for succumbing to Carlin. The badly-injured Banks is not seen again.
Although Carlin duly becomes the 'daddy' and intends to maintain his position at all costs, he is rather more fair than the boy he usurped. For example, he is never seen abusing the weaker or younger boys to any extent or administering racially-motivated beatings on the black inmates (Banks has done both). He also continues to use Archer's brain and good company to keep him occupied, especially as the two have been assigned to work together in the laundry room. Carlin also gains some better status with the warders, who had previously given him punishments and beatings. He persuades the housemaster to move him from the dormitory to a single cell in return for an agreement to be responsible in his status as a "natural leader".
Another scene has Carlin discussing 'exchange rates' with Dougan, a numerately-intelligent inmate who, as the tea-trolley boy during visiting hours, had been deployed by Banks previously to collect the money brought in for inmates by their relatives. Only loose change is permitted in the borstal. Relatives don't appreciate this and Dougan often finds pound notes hidden under ashtrays. The notes can be exchanged for coins. Banks had given fifty pence in the pound. Carlin explains that he has to give less, in order to assert himself. "It's psychology". He is eventually persuaded into a compromise by Dougan to go up from 40p to 45p ("Make it clear I'm doing as a favor: you had to fucking beg me!!").
Carlin tries to advise Davis on better ways to keep his head down after Davis is fitted up by Eckersley and placed on report, but ultimately cannot save the youngster from committing suicide. He is, however, subsequently unafraid to show leadership to every inmate by starting the dining room riot in protest at the lack of care and protection from the system shown to Davis.
Archer is a fish out of water character. Not only is he far more intelligent than the rest of the inmates, he is also vastly more intelligent than any of the screws. Even the governor appreciates this, and therefore often asks Archer about books he may have read during otherwise functional summonses to his office. Incarcerated for stealing money from his employer, Archer has no intention of being a good boy and playing the system. He does not care about getting time off for good behaviour and he tells the newly-arrived Carlin that he wants to serve his time "in my own little way". This way means "causing as much trouble for the screws as possible". For this, he immediately gains Carlin's respect.
Archer is not insolent or violent, just awkward and articulate, and therefore the screws - who are used to applying punishments through violence - have no idea how to deal with him. The dominant inmates, including Banks and his honchos, just assume he is a "weirdo" and leave him alone, although Richards threatens Archer briefly when he tries to stop him victimising the vulnerable youngster Woods. Carlin's arrival with the sock of snooker balls puts a stop to that.
To create stirs and inconvenience, Archer becomes a vegetarian and is put on a special diet ("I get extra potatoes as a substitute for meat and I am allowed fish when on the menu") and refuses to wear leather boots. This means he walks barefoot at all times, including on outdoor exercise marches, until the governor (who, as a religious man, has a policy of respecting individual beliefs) gets some plastic boots for him. Archer's beliefs are entirely self-sacrificial, borne entirely out of creating work for the screws; he has read the rule book and knows that the system has to comply with what he does.
In the borstal system, a Christian religious service on a Sunday morning to further the inmates' rehabilitation was part of the regime and attendance was compulsory unless the inmate had a valid reason for excusing himself. Archer refuses to attend and registers himself as an atheist and later a Muslim to exploit this loophole, so a prison officer has to be assigned to watch him on his own. Archer manages to wind up this prison officer as he talks about the "daily humiliation" that the system imposes on both the boys and the men who lock them up. His argument goes completely over the screw's head who sees it as simply an insult ("I give you my fucking coffee and you take the piss out of me!")
Archer and Carlin are not remotely alike except in a desire to survive and stay strong, and the two become kindred spirits from the first day of Carlin's stay. Assigned to work together in the laundry, they learn more about each other and become solid friends, despite their obvious different outlooks on the system. Archer's relationship with Carlin doesn't change after Carlin's self-elevation to the status of 'daddy', and their camaraderie is summed up when Carlin generously gives him a sausage ("Get it down ya, sharpish!") at dinner time while the screws aren't looking. Archer devours it.
Archer is unafraid to protest about the treatment he or others receive; during the cocoa round before lights out, he requests to see the governor when exercise was cancelled because "it looked like rain" - it ultimately didn't rain, which was the crux of Archer's protest (again a tool to cause needless strife for the warders), and he was pushed strongly back into his cell by the screw as a consequence of this remark, hot cocoa spilling all over his clothes and bed. During a group meeting with the matron (the movie's only female presence), Archer protests about the perpetually petrified Formby's presence at the borstal as he was just 14 years old, and then asks to have a discussion based on the nature of trust, as the inmates were constantly being told to take the trust of the warders and the system on rehabilitating them, while yet being "told at the same time we are totally untrustworthy". Nobody had anything to say.
After the rape and suicide of Davis, the normally peaceable Archer sits next to Carlin as Mr Sands tries to force the inmates to eat their dinner. Archer joins in the riot after Carlin stands up with his tray and begins it. Afterwards, Archer is seen being dragged, bruised and bleeding, into a cell. This is the only time he gets beaten up - crucially not ever by one of the other inmates.
Davis is one of the three new inmates at the borstal (the other two being Carlin and Angel). He has been sent to the higher security institute because he escaped from a lower maintenance, which he obviously regrets. He is shy, quiet and introverted, keeping to himself. Immediately, he is targeted by the bullies; Banks demands he pays his fee and slaps him in front of Carlin and the other inmates to assure them he is the 'daddy' of the ward; Eckersley then fits him up by lending him his radio and then reporting it stolen.
Davis constantly looks disheartened and scared of his surroundings and is noticeably weaker than the others and his misery grows to its limit when he is raped in a graphic scene by three older and stronger boys whilst on greenhouse duty. Mr. Sands notices the rape from afar, and takes no action; highlighting the utter immorality and corruption of the system. That evening in the mess, Davis appears shell-shocked although no one mentions it. The newly-married Betts muses that greenhouse duty is almost like a holiday, mentioning to Davis that he will be back in the same place where he was raped, thinking this will cheer him up. In the middle of the night, Davis uses his cell's alert buzzer to call the night duty warder Mr Greaves who dismisses him as a time waster and orders him to bed, despite Davis' obvious distressed state. Davis then cuts his wrists with a razor blade while in bed, but seems to change his mind, perhaps due to the unexpected pain. The warder ignores his repeated presses on the alarm bell. In the morning he is inevitably found dead.
Davis' suicide (which had followed that of the bereaved Toyne) causes a stir among the prisoners - including those who raped him, and the toadies of Banks who had previously bullied him - and they go on a hunger strike and later a riot in the mess hall, which leads to the final scenes of the film. The 'ringleaders' of the riot - Carlin, Archer and Toyne's distressed comrade Meakin - are badly-beaten by the warders and thrown into solitary confinement. Later, the governor is shown before an assembly of the other inmates, warning them that the damage to the mess hall will be repaid through lost earnings. He then orders a moment of silence for Davis and Toyne.
The most important part of the ending is that the Governor refers to 'accidents, which happen in real life as well as inside'. He is clearly making reference to the prisoners who have been beaten by the warders. When convicts beat each other, their official explanation to authority is that 'an accident' happened. This scene is the final, brutal irony: that the system feeds back into itself, effectively silencing, cowing and brutalising both warders and prisoners under a regime which is meant to rehabilitate as well as punish, whilst providing employment supposedly for those individuals willing to support reform.
The television play version of the film features less graphic rape and gory suicide scenes. An additional scene shows Davis trying to talk to Carlin about the incident. Carlin dismisses him when he refuses to talk in front of his 'missus' (partner). He then commits suicide. In the remake, although the relationship between Carlin and his 'missus' doesn't feature, Davis looks up at Carlin from the dining table as if about to confide in him, but Carlin unwittingly chooses to get up and leave at that point.
Banks (known to his stooges as 'Pongo') is the antagonist in the movie and the initial daddy of the wing that Carlin is sent to. Banks uses strength to bully inmates, including Carlin, who is subjected to a severe beating upon his arrival in the dormitory after Banks was tipped off by warders about Carlin's arrival and history. This and other incidents provoke Carlin to take over as the 'daddy'. After hitting Banks' main toady Richards with a sock containing snooker balls (and threatening his other stooge Eckersley when he tries to run away and warn Banks), Carlin returns to the dormitory area to find Banks in the bathroom, midway through a wash. Carlin dunks Banks' head in the basin and repeatedly punches and kicks him, declaring himself the new 'daddy'. Because of favouritism in the borstal, Mr Sands knows it was Carlin who beat up Banks and Richards and wants Banks to name Carlin as the culprit. However, Banks, bleeding profusely and in obvious pain, is reluctant and insists he 'slipped'. This is a common thread throughout the movie - when violence is discovered by the warders, no victim ever names the perpetrator but just claims to have 'slipped'. Once Banks is admonished by Mr Sands, Richards and Eckersley continue to victimise some of the younger inmates, claiming that Carlin will be released before any of them, and therefore leaving the way open for their return to power. Banks, however, is only seen in the film again at the end when the inmates pray for their dead colleagues (in the television play it's made clear Banks is in hospital, in the theatrical version this is not revealed).
Meakin, an inmate with a distinctive Mancunian accent, keeps a relatively low profile, and is respected by other inmates. He stays out of trouble, yet knows how useless the borstal system is (sometimes rebelling against the rules), and demonstrates his annoyance at it, and his high level of intelligence, on numerous occasions. In the get-together with the matron, immediately after Archer's questioning of the notion of trust, Meakin asks whether it is permissible for the matron, supposedly a mother figure, to address the inmates by their Christian names (forenames), citing that it is their final reminder of any identity they have. When the matron's answer is negative, Meakin leaves as quickly as possible, refusing to be patronised any further. He is known to be a close friend of Toyne, and when Toyne stabs his wrist and tries to escape, Meakin breaks the barrier further by shouting: "Mr. Sands! Mr. Sands! Move your fucking self". He is most remembered for his emotional outbreak after learning that Toyne had commit suicide at Wormwood Scrubs (The Scrubs), launching a loud verbal attack at the key borstal staff in the room, ending it famously with "up your fucking borstal!" before walking out. This leaves the staff, and everyone else in the room, dumbfounded. In the dining hall riot, Meakin plays a key role, and is seen afterwards heavily beaten and bloody-faced, being dragged unconsciously by Mr. Greaves, through the corridor and into a cell.
He becomes very withdrawn and grief-stricken as a result of this, and his mental anguish is made worse when a fellow inmate is temporarily released to get married. Later, Toyne suffers a mental breakdown and, in a graphic scene, cuts his wrist (running into the borstal's mute, timid, petrified 14 year old inmate Formby in the process) and runs around screaming, feebly trying to escape. He is dragged into an office by the warder, presumably for medical attention. Following this incident he recovers and is transferred to 'the scrubs'. It is revealed that he finally succeeds in committing suicide, resulting in an emotional outburst from Meakin that leaves the warders and inmates alike stunned.
His only other contribution comes when Toyne, grieving for his deceased wife, runs amok around the recreation room with his wrists cut and runs into Formby as he yells in agony. Formby is in the borstal because the penal system, according to the matron, has no specialist units for boys of his age. It is quite clear from Formby's immaturity and demeanour that he should not ever have been placed with hardened older criminals when sentenced to custody. His only saving graces are that he appears to be left alone due to his sheer youth by Banks and the warders - indeed, he is never even referred to by anyone except Eckersley and Archer in the scene with the matron - and also, due to his age, seems to be exempt from having a prison job, as when Mr Sands instructs everyone to leave the recreation room and get to work, Formby stays behind. Mr Sands leaves Formby there, but does tell Toyne - who is also slow to get up (as he is about to slash his wrist) - to get up and join the others in work.
The film was first released on DVD in the UK by Odyssey and Prism Leisure. It was the digitally remastered uncut version but in fullscreen, with only a trailer and an interview as bonus features. The US were treated to an Alan Clarke boxset that included several films, among them both the BBC original and cinema version of the film plus audio commentaries. Prism Leisure released a limited edition 2-disc set in the UK in 2005. Disc One featured the BBC version with an audio commentary and two interviews. Disc Two instead featured the theatrical remake with an audio commentary, several interviews and featurettes and two trailers. It was digitally remastered from a widescreen print. This special edition DVD was sold in amaray slipcase packaging and also in a limited edition tin case. A Region 0 DVD - very similar to that in the Alan Clarke boxset, but this time available separately from other Clarke films - followed in the US, released by Blue Underground.