Paul Greengrass: my hero Alan Clarke

Bloody Sunday director Paul Greengrass explains how the dishevelled chain-smoker he met at a court martial became the most inspiring British film-maker of all

You never forget your heroes. First there was Don Rogers, who once strode through the entire Manchester United defence singlehandedly and made the tragic life of a Crystal Palace fan sweeter than imagination for one unforgettable Saturday afternoon. But it was never going to last between me and Don. Nice guy, but the haircut, that diagonal striped Palace kit - it was all just too naff.

Then there was Carl Bernstein. I read All the President's Men, bought a coat and wore the collar turned up, dreamed of being an investigative reporter and bringing governments down. I wanted to turn up on people's doorsteps at night and chain-smoke like Dustin Hoffman. I wanted to tell the editor I had it from two sources. A few years later I saw Hoffman on a chat show and realised he was just another celebrity whore.

Then one cold, drizzly February morning in Colchester in 1981, as I took my first faltering steps in documentaries, I met a real hero - a film-maker whose vision, courage, skill and personality were an inspiration, and who remains a hero for me still, 10 years after his untimely early death. His name was Alan Clarke.

Colchester barracks is cold in February. And grey. And hostile, if you turn up with long hair and say you want to exercise your legal right to attend a court martial. The guards called the sergeant. The sergeant called the officer commanding. The officer commanding said you needed prior permission from the ministry. Not true, I said, and settled down for a long wait. I hardly noticed the slightly dishevelled bloke sitting in the corner.

The case was a trivial one - unless, that is, you happened to be the young private involved. It wasn't murder, or rape, or desertion. The charge was gross indecency, and conduct likely to or intending to prejudice military discipline. Private Davies was 19 and gay, and standing trial for it. And if convicted in this shabby military show-trial, he would go to prison.

Our escort arrived to take us to where the court martial was due to take place. We walked through windy parade grounds, along dull green corridors. The dishevelled bloke I'd hardly noticed was obviously going to the same event. He smoked constantly.

I settled into the seat behind him. It was a well-lit room - about 40 feet long. Two tables were set at each side in front of a raised dais where the tribunal would sit. A couple of officers were talking to one side in low voices. In front of me my unknown colleague fidgeted slightly. I could see he was taking it all in. A proud British institution was about to commit a grubby act and he wanted a ringside seat.

They marched Private Davies in just like you imagine they do in the movies. God, he looks young, I thought. And frightened and alone - even though he had been assigned an officer from the army's legal department to put his case. By now the room had filled with an intimidating array of epaulettes and ribbons. You couldn't help but wonder if this was the army's response to the recent campaign by various gay rights organisations to liberalise archaic anti-gay military regulations.

The boy's mother, to my right, was crying and trying not to show it as the officer chairing the tribunal began to explain courts martial procedure to Davies. He looked faintly bemused at the scale of the event in which he had been cast in the leading role. I could see my nameless colleague in front locked on to Davies, occasionally shaking his head slightly. Who is this man, I thought, and what is it he can see here that I can't?

The case against Davies, began a sandy-haired officer, was the result of a year-long painstaking inquiry. He outlined the progress of the investigation. Tens if not hundreds of thousands of pounds had been spent sending intelligent, grown-up soldiers to Belize, to Hong Kong - to parts of the world I thought we'd long since given up on, but which still maintained military garrisons. And the result of the hundreds of interviews, the months of undercover work, was this: there was irrefutable evidence that Private Davies had engaged in oral sex with a number of other soldiers over a two-year period. When confronted, he had confessed and had asked for some 160 other offences to be taken into consideration.

The chairman suggested it was a good time for a break. Shall we say 20 minutes, gentlemen, and then submissions and sentencing? Outside the tribunal room I introduced myself to my mysterious colleague. He was smoking furiously. I said I was working for Granada - thought I might do something about boy soldiers. He told me his name was Alan Clarke and he was there for Central. He was thinking more along the lines of a court-martial drama. I tried not to look surprised. Clarke's a common name. Could be anyone. On the other hand it might just be the man who directed Scum, Penda's Fen, To Encourage the Others, The Hallelujah Handshake and a dozen other fantastic, searing dramas that had opened my eyes to the infinite possibilities of television.

And of course it was. We talked for maybe 15 minutes, mainly about Sovereign's Company, a film he made for the BBC in 1970 about a young man who joins his grandfather's regiment, and who is so fearful of being unmasked as a coward that he beats another soldier to death. There were lots of parallels with Sovereign's Company in Colchester barracks that day, we agreed - mostly in the way the army was terrorising a vulnerable young boy to prove its manhood. I told him I wanted to direct drama myself. He was polite and encouraging, in a mumble-out-of-the-corner-of-the-mouth kind of way. He lit another cigarette. Maybe he was bored. Maybe people said that to him all the time. I asked him what he took from the day. "Bastards, weren't they?" he said, stuffing a sandwich in his pocket. "Look at the way they move, and the way he looks. Poor kid's shitting himself."

They gave Private Davies, from memory, six months, to be served in Colchester military prison. He would then be dismissed from the service. The chairman made some fairly low-key comments about the special bonds of trust between soldiers, bonds threatened, he said, by homosexual activities. Davies looked pale and straight ahead. His mother was crying again as they marched him out. And as I watched him go I thought of Scum and that famous scene where Ray Winstone turns to the terrified inmates of the borstal and says: "I'm the daddy now." It was going to be a hard, violent, terrifying six months for Davies. And by the look on his face he knew it.

When I turned back, Clarke had gone. He never made his court-martial drama. What he made instead was a decade of the most intense, brilliant, truthful dramas ever. In Made in Britain, Elephant, Contact, Christine and The Firm he chronicled the Thatcher years and uncovered the terrible cost of the Troubles. These were groundbreaking films that revealed cumulatively the macabre choreography of 1980s Britain.

Remember Tim Roth's compelling, sneering skinhead in Made in Britain, or Gary Oldman's exuberant Thatcherite football hooligan in The Firm? Remember the silent, unyielding camera recording sectarian slaughter in Elephant, body upon body until we became immune, numbed, bored? Or the way he captured the tense brutalising reality of life on patrol in South Armagh in Contact? Or the intrusive, ever-present Steadicam on Christine's shoulder as she moves from house to house in search of a fix?

"Let's let the pig out," Alan Clarke apparently used to say to his actors. "Let's have a look at him, and then kill him." That's what his films do - they show us the truth of monstrosity, injustice, violence - just what those things look like. And by showing us they show us a way to kill them.

When I think of those films now - unquestionably the finest body of work created by a British director - I realise that in my casual encounter with him 20 years ago he showed me unwittingly all the essential tools of my trade. Because as a director you have to try to be like Alan Clarke - anonymous, subversive, compassionate, moral. And it's all in the looks and the movement.

Bloody Sunday is currently on release. A two-month season of Alan Clarke's films begins at the NFT, London SE1, today and runs until April. Details: 020-7928 3535.

Paul Greengrass

The GuardianTramp

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