DVD Review: Privilege (1967) dir. Peter Watkins, Script by Peter Watkins, Norman Bogner and John Speight
6 July 2009
At The End of The Reactionary Storm
There is story retold by Peter Watkins in the booklet that accompanies the release of his first feature film Privilege. He is sitting in a café in Cannes listening to a British film critic lecture him on why it was ‘impossible to use political allegory in film’, showing the ignorance he was up against - ignorance of the genres of art and of film. For example, take FACE, which has been reviewed elsewhere on this site. At first look the film looks like a British heist movie about an East End gang of thieves when what we are really seeing is an allegorical tragedy of the Belfast republican streets where the author, Ronan Bennet, grew up. Bennet witnessed how revolutionary socialist politics in the 1960s and 70s, was abandoned for an underground military conspiracy.
Using flashback technique he shows how the gang leader was once a socialist activist who fought hard against Tory vandalism but gave up in despair as he says to his mother at one point to justify his abandonment of politics; “haven’t you heard - they won!!”. But as his mother replies “they haven’t won - we are still fighting”. At the time of the making of FACE - 1996 many would have been more in sympathy with the son than the mother. Bennet in FACE, using the extended metaphor of the gang, was able to tell us what he thought about the direction of radical struggle in Britain and Ireland in one short film with just a few actors. Times have changed, now we are at the end of that film where the son manages to escape the mayhem of his gang - to try and ‘start again’ - that is to build a new socialist movement as capitalism falters.
Anticipating The Reactionary Storm
Peter Watkins, the director and a writer of Privilege at the time of its conception 1966-1967 had just completed the War Game for the BBC, which they then promptly banned. This is also now available on DVD and is yet to be beaten as a film showing what Britain would be like during and after a nuclear attack. Its strength was that it turned the government information film on its head and coolly and deliberately explained what would happen moment by moment after a nuclear weapon had been dropped. It is truly a stunning piece of work and a great achievement. He then began researching his next project - a film about the Dublin Rising Easter 1916, which is still to be made.
His next project was to be his first feature film in which he tried to look ahead to anticipate the intensity of the reactionary storm to come (that is the period that has just ended 1970-2007). That ideal was going to be very unpopular right from the start – didn’t people think that Britain in 1967 was ‘swinging’ and the place to be free – to drop out and do your own thing – live how you wanted to live and with whomever you wanted to live with? Hadn’t ‘we’ – as the pop press used to say ‘just won the world cup’? So what was all this about Britain being a place of future reactionary conformity? Wasn’t the future going to be one in which the working class would become a happy band of brigands - like Michael Caine and the lads in the ‘Italian Job’ - celebrating the ‘Self Preservation Society’?
Err– no it wasn’t. So no matter how many more people believed the then new Tory leader Ted Heath - that in modern Britain ‘class would not matter’ or how many working class people thought of themselves as ‘classless and free’ they were just about to find out how much an illusion ‘classless Britain’ actually was. Balanced on the edge of the cliff of anticipation as were Charley and the lads and their ‘magic bus’ leaden with gold in the Italian Job, they wouldn’t just balance on the edge but were about to go right over the cliff into the ravine taking Charlie and his fools and their fools gold with them.
Against The Mad Man Ad Man
The golden future of a share and property owing democracy would only be for the few and in Privilege you can see the utter contempt that Watkins had for pathetic chiselers and hucksters that peopled the media and entertainment industries of his day, and whose job it was to sell consumer conformity. One of the best scenes in the film shows Steven Shorter (played by Paul Jones of Manfred Man) at work as celebrity pop star promoting consumption of more apples. It gives an accurate and very funny contemporary portrait of the TV ad industry and its new conformist rebels like Ridley Scot, who makes thousands of these soft focus TV ads, as well as features like Alien and Black Hawk Down. Watkins succeeds very well in deconstructing the absurd never never world populated by ‘mad men’, where this type of ad-pap would be produced day in, day out. Ridley Scot was also frustrated at the BBC and he left to become a mad man ad man. Watkins on the other hand sunk his teeth deep into the ad man’s sun tanned flesh and drew blood. In Privilege the ad men and Shorter’s government management team work together and hold forth to the camera to show us how shallow you must be to be in the business of producing pseudo rebellion.
Saving Steven Shorter and Saving Yourself
The team that is responsible for producing Steven Shorter’s pseudo rebellious stage act that we see at the beginning of the film are of course just subcontractors. They can’t function or work unless a connection is made between the alienated lives of the audience and the ‘freedom’ that Shorter sings of. That’s why the stage act is brutal, with Shorter showing genuine pain as he is beaten and humiliated by prison guards on stage. He is then ‘imprisoned’ and later ‘released’, but only after the crowd is worked up to an hysterical frenzy by Shorter singing and pleading with the audience to help him. Using Shorter in this way the authoritarian government is saying, “we understand you!”. “Your lives maybe brutal and empty but, you too can be like Steven by helping him! Then we can help you! - to live a better life!’ . This ‘better life’ we next get a glimpse of as Shorter opens a ‘Steven Shorter Shopping Mall’ all white concrete and space age naffness - much like the mall that would be build ten years later at Brent Cross in London.
But Steven isn’t just pretending to be alienated he genuinely is alienated. In much the same way some of the orphans who grew up in East German state orphanages were groomed to be pretend radicals by Stasi. They were groomed so they could infiltrate radical reform movements only to be crippled by guilt and remorse in later adulthood. This is the reality of Steven’s life - he really is imprisoned by the role that he is forced to play by his official sponsors in the government. Today this is mirrored by the official pop industry in China where pop stars are super groomed before they can be allowed to tantalise the public with a life without drudgery or exploitation.
But these are general observations about what the film got right mostly unknowingly. It is what it knowingly attempted that is even more interesting. Noticing that their asset is having doubts about being a pseudo radical and may be harbouring thoughts of genuine rebellion, a crisis meeting is called by the government quango that manages Steven. They decide that he is to lead a new Christian Nationalist Crusade that will replace rebellion with the inner peace that comes of religious faith and inner conformity.
We then see Steven’s new redesigned appearance, which brings a lump to the throat for there, right there in front of you introducing the meaning of the new reformed values that Steven’s new clothes represent is ‘Mrs Thatcher’ speaking in her what would be her own redesigned tones, another remarkable moment, for here she is, the future re-fashioner, re-fashioning Britain before our very eyes. But Steven’s doubts are noticeably increasing. Faced with this challenge Steven’s government supplied psychologist (a Keith Joseph like figure) explains to him why he must turn his pseudo-rebellious stage act into a Christian crusade – he asked Steven to go over to the window - they look down on a piazza far below surrounded on all sides by 60s sky scrapers and he tells Steven:
“There are millions of people down there, millions of little people. First we must be quite clear in our minds about one thing: That the liberal idea that given enough education these millions will grow into self-aware creative human beings is nothing but an exploded myth – it can never happen”.
This is the thinking behind the right wing Tory movement that would campaign against Labour’s comprehensive education reforms. Two years later in 1969 the first Tory ‘Black Paper’ on education was published – it laid much of the groundwork for the eventual abolition of the grant system and the PFI education initiatives. The emptiness and spiritual longing that that new policy would produce, explains the Keith Joseph figure would now be satisfied by Shorter who is ‘privileged’ to entertain the alienated as an evangelical Christian nationalist.
This was twenty years before Tim and Tammy Baker, Jimmy Swaggart and the Praise the Lord TV Ministry and thirty-eight years before Make Poverty History - the mutual appreciation society of the billionaire George Soros, Christian Rocker Bono and the loathsome Pat Robertson.
After this ‘heart to heart’ pep talk Steven’s new tour is launched at a press conference and the state unveils its religious representative who has been chosen to ‘tour’ with Steven who turns out to be a well-observed version of Ian Paisley Snr - had he been produced by England. But the idea that pop stars would join with the rich and the religious right in nationwide crusade for Christian values to halt the decline of Britain was the most accurate prediction in the film as Mary Whitehouse, Malcolm Muggerage, Lord Longford and the Salvation army joined forces with Cliff Richard to oppose Britain’s ‘permissive society’ with a Nationwide Festival of Light which held rallies in Trafalgar Sq only four years later in September 1971. All this was first ‘premiered’ in Privilege in the night rally scene near the end of the film as the ‘largest Nationalist-Christian demonstration since the war’ is staged where Shorter follows a rock rendition of Jerusalem by singing of Jesus’ second coming as the answer to the nations woes.
Developing And Fixing the Image
Other notable elements went into the making of the film. Technically there is the use of the new documentary style pioneered by programmes such as World in Action and Panorama with its unifying narrative of the voice over. The influence also of how those programmes used lighter cameras to give a sense that you are there following what is happening like another body or pair of eyes in the same space as the film was also influential. Although Watkins was working with much heavier equipment the film manages to use this technique in its camera work. As regards acting style much was made at the time of the films release of what appeared to be the flatness of Paul Jones and Jean Shrimpton’s performances. But with hindsight we can see that both Paul Jones and Shrimpton’s performances were against the glamour and excitement that the public thought characterised their lives at the time. What you should keep in mind is that Shorter is actually afraid that he may be having a nervous breakdown – he’s trying to keep it together in the language of the time. Which is difficult as the ‘pretend violence’ of the stage act turns out to be real as Vanessa (Shrimpton) discovers. We also can’t ignore who ‘Vanessa’ is – she is part Vanessa Redgrave as we saw her the previous summer in Antonioni’s Blow Up (1966) – vulnerable and uneasy. And she is part Marianne Faithful - clued in but on the way to drugs and depression.
But Shrimpton is given one of the most important things to do in the film that remains with you. And that is to paint Steven Shorter’s portrait. Significantly, Shorter is an unfinishable work, a lifeless hollowed-out presence. Shorter empty, blank, hollow under the skin, is like Manet’s Olympia who is also blank, alienated but has a miserable job to do for the client who pays her. Just as Manet was saying that ‘we are all Olympia’s now’ so Peter Watkins is saying that we are all like Steven Shorter and have at least some doubts about what we are expected to do for race, nation and the State.
But Privilege is not just about the leaders; it is about the lead and those who are eager to follow unquestionly. Watkins dreaded along, with Johnny Speight, (the author of the original script outline which had interested Watkins) that certain backward elements of the working class would respond well to dying rallying cries of Empire when faced with challenges to their ideals of race, nation and the end of that empire. A very grim view indeed and near the end of the film as we watch Steven’s Shorter’s band give the fascist salute after singing of ‘England’s green and pleasant land’ at the night rally for Christian Nationalism, we must remember that those salutes were not empty symbolism but a genuine horror and anticipation of what was about to and did happen: Enoch Powell’s River’s of Blood Speech, the dockers marching in his favour to lobby parliament for the control of ‘coloured’ immigration, the rise of the National Front (formed in 1967 the year of the films release). These movements and reactions became closer to the mainstream of British Politics in the 1970s when pop stars like Rod Stewart and Eric Clapton joined in the clamour and voiced their support for Powell.
But as Watkins repeatedly has said the film is not about pop stars or pop music as such it about future conformity and control. True others would write songs and make good films about that fight back - what Watkins’ was saying - very loudly and rightly in Privilege was that a more destructive conformity to reaction would emerge in the future and not just the conformity of the 60s ‘consumer society’.
When the Sun reviewed the film in 1967 it was adamant that ‘we weren’t going to conform’ a statement which has become deeply ironic given their rabid support for Thatcher’s blood lust during the Falklands War and the unquestioning support they gave the government during the civil war that was the miners strike.