Privilege is a neglected but rather special film. It sits somewhere between A Hard Day's Night and A Clockwork Orange in the time line for progressive British cinema but unfortunately didn't find favour with the critics of the day. It also precedes by decades the likes of Starsuckers own recent attack on the media manipulation at the heart of capitalist monoculture, with a searing critique of how mass media cultural brainwashing is used to create diversions from what really is happening in the world. Director Peter Watkins is one of those few film makers who has directly engaged with mass media in order to deconstruct and undermine its pervasiveness but such a conflict with the very institutions that might have supported him has all but obscured most of his work post 1970.
Watkins is rightly lauded for his early work at the BBC. The stunning Culloden in 1964, pioneering a form of docu-drama to present the Battle Of Culloden of 1746 almost as a live news bulletin was very innovative but Watkins was somewhat disappointed that more viewers didn't make the connection between Culloden's depiction of ethnic cleansing with the Vietnam War that raged daily on millions of television sets. The War Game followed in 1965, a sobering and disturbing docu-drama that examined the effects of a nuclear strike on the UK and it fell foul of the BBC, under pressure from the Wilson government. BBC DG Hugh Carlton-Greene 'decided' it was too harsh for broadcast and shelved it. When it acquired a cinema release in 1966, it triumphantly went on to win an Oscar for best documentary feature. It didn't get shown on television until 1985 in an After The Bomb season of programmes.
When he emerged from the controversy with the BBC, effectively walking out of the BBC's documentary department, he found himself in the middle of a British film boom and with £700,000 from Universal he made Privilege. The film, based on a play by Johnny Speight, uses his highly effective docu-drama style, and is a mixture of direct to camera interviews, newsreel and fly on the wall observations that blurs the boundaries between scripted drama and news reporting. It is Britain - 'the near future' - and the film introduces us to Steven Shorter, (Manfred Mann singer Paul Jones) one of the biggest pop stars of the day adored by millions, returning to a ticker tape welcome in the UK after a US tour. Shorter, a mass media brand, is being used by his government sponsored management to influence rebellious youth culture into accepting conformity.
Shorter's act is a violently staged, musical melodrama of self-harm performed in front of legions of screaming, mainly female fans (evoking the same hysterical response seen at the time to every Beatles appearance) providing them with a release "from the nervous tension caused by the state of the world outside." As Shorter spirals into numbed acceptance of his abuse, endorsing apples in a nightmarishly accurate commercial ("think apples, be apples and ultimately become apples" purrs the director), the church approaches his management with the idea that Shorter could be used to bring the disaffected back into the bosom of Christianity. They want Shorter to perform at a mass rally and 'repent', encouraging his audience to 'conform'.
However, Shorter has found empathy with a young painter, Vanessa Ritchie (iconic 1960s supermodel Jean Shrimpton), who seems to have penetrated the blanket media manipulation beneath which he is suffocating and has falteringly made him question the morality of what is happening to him. After the 'event', a frightening blend of the Nuremberg Rally and Mary Whitehouse's Festival Of Light but staged by the Church Of England and a crudely nationalist media, Shorter cracks under the pressure and questions the very forces that have elevated him to this iconic status. Immediately, his career is over. The bandwagon moves on and he disappears into obscurity. 'It's going to be a happy year this year in the near future', the narrator (Watkins himself) intones. Yes, whether you like it or not says the film.
It is steeped in 1960s aesthetics and it's vision of the near future is more 1968 than say 2008 and where everyone seems to be wearing the 'futuristic' fashions of the era and commercialism is dressed in the pop-art of the day. The idea of media conglomerates using pop music and rock stars as endorsers of their products isn't new and you only need to look at the deals that 'celebrities' now do with mass consumerist media companies to see that Watkins was on the button in 1967.
He basically posits that we will become steeped in media, the consumers and the consumed, distracted and blinded by our unconscious participation in mass media. It doesn't matter that visually Privilege all looks vaguely nostalgic because the messages are still so strong and many of the images still have a satirical, often hilarious but unsettling power, with a pop group dressed as monks belting out a rock version of 'Onward Christian Soldiers' and bishops blessing nationalist fervor in a huge stadium of crowds all chanting 'I will conform' in a heady collision of religion and showbiz. And all under the auspices of a coalition government.
And as Watkins rightly observes, anyone given the privilege of youth spokesman won't win hearts and minds if they start to abuse that public trust and 'disturb the public peace of mind'. It shares the same obsessions with rejecting conformity with that other 1960s satire about state control, The Prisoner and clearly went on to influence A Clockwork Orange. Watkins near equivalent today must be Adam Curtis wherein at least he's dealing with same 'mass media' subject matter. The film's view of protest via pop media, glamourised in that youthful agit-prop of the Summer Of Love, where dissent is, as Tom Sutpen argues, "systematically co-opted and undermined by the same media entities that were busily marketing it" is writ large today via the likes of talent and opinion squashing media behemoths like The X Factor and Britain's Got Talent.
It's ironic then that the mythologising of the 1960s didn't sustain Shrimpton or Jones' careers either. Shrimpton, an ethereal presence in the film, was an icon of the 1960s but by the decade's conclusion she had retreated into privacy. Jones never really become the pop superstar that he portrayed in Privilege and swapped his avowed atheism for evangelical Christianity in the 1980s under the influence of Christianity PLC's greatest A&R man, Cliff Richard. In a bizarre way this is their story and it's also Watkins own story too - feted by the BBC and then disowned when he offered some rather unpalatable truths to the masses.
In the end the film itself met with hostility and sadly vanished. It's achievement, watching it now through, and beyond, the tint of nostalgia, is that we must treat the romanticising of the period with some suspicion. We love the 1960s for its reshaping of our capitalist society via the actions of the then new generation but watching Privilege makes you think that even that idea is a construction, something that Tom Sutpen suggests has been 'skillfully sold to us'. It proposes that we are the media and the media is us and today's ash clouds, BA strikes, the 'War On Terror', coalition governments, Britain's Got Talent are all market stock to be bought and sold to us like a new brand of toothpaste. The film remains as prescient a message about all consuming media power as Nigel Kneale's Year Of The Sex Olympics warned us about the public and private space that television would eventually occupy.
The 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer to high definition seemed to hit some problems and this release was delayed from January but the delay has been worth it. The picture here is rock solid and detailed, with bold and saturated colours, with excellent flesh tones and contrast. There is a little bit of damage here and there and evidence of lightly applied edge enhancement. A very handsome transfer and lovely to have it presented at its best here. The mono soundtrack is excellent and reproduces the film's music very clearly and powerfully.
- Original Privilege trailer
- The Diary of an Unknown Soldier (Peter Watkins, 1969, 17 mins): a young solider in the trenches of the First World War, preparing for combat, shares his innermost feelings in this compelling short
- The Forgotten Faces (Peter Watkins, 1961, 19 mins): a gripping newsreel-style account of the peoples’ uprising in Hungary, 1956, given forceful authenticity by Watkins’ unique approach
- Extensive illustrated booklet with new essays by film historian Robert Murphy and Watkins specialist John Cook
Guy Hamilton. James Bond. Those are the immediate associations you make. But Hamilton had been directing some very interesting British films before he was swallowed up by the Bond franchise in 1964 with Goldfinger. He made some modestly budgeted fare in the 1950s, with The Intruder (1953), an effective drama looking at how soldiers adjusted to post-war civilian life, and POW drama The Colditz Story (1955), his most successful film of the period, offered a subtle exploration of male camaraderie beneath the action heroics. He attempted a somewhat torrid bit of eroticism with Manuela (1957) but it never really had much success. He started making bigger budget action films, including The Devil's Disciple (1959) and the Italian war comedy The Best of Enemies (US/Italy, 1961).
He turned down the director's job on Dr. No (1962), for personal reasons, and instead made The Party's Over (1963, released 1965). It's an atypical film from Hamilton and is often lumped in with the 'swinging London' genre of the period. It certainly isn't the kind of 'swinging London' that's usually served up in British films and instead offers a bleak, pessimistic view of a youth movement ('beatniks') who want to break or destroy the rules by which society operates but have nothing to offer in replacing or rejecting them. It ran into censorship problems, with the BBFC's John Trevelyan noting that film's themes of 'beatnik philosophy, sexual relationships and scenes of drunkeness and nudity' needed to have a clear moral point to be acceptable. The BBFC clearly wanted the film to underline more how awful the beatnik way of life was.
By the time the film was submitted in March 1963, a horrified BBFC requested a number of cuts to remove some of the shots of the character of Melina being undressed, kissed and caressed by the beatnik gang and, critically, any suggestion of necrophilia in the scenes between Phil and the either unconscious or dead Melina. After much cutting and changing, Hamilton removed his name from the credits and the film went out with an X certificate in January 1964.
The version presented here is a never-before-scene pre-release version of The Party's Over as submitted to the BBFC in the early stages of the censorship battle. It's a very striking film with a serious anti-authoritarian streak running through the film and only one real authority figure caught in the middle of the beatnik gang's antics willing to call them to book. Oliver Reed, looking utterly gorgeous here in only his third film (he'd completed Hammer's Curse Of The Werewolf and The Damned, a film that shares some of anti-establishment themes of The Party's Over) plays the 'leader', Moise, of a disparate group of youngsters who drift across a still war-scarred London of the early 1960s.
Moise is clearly educated, as are most of the group, and that makes for an interesting reversal of the way some youth cults are depicted as brain addled morons in 60s British cinema. Their cultural hedonism is typical of the era but it's uncontrolled, unfocused and even Moise seems to back away from some of their activities, both fearing their excess and subtly encouraging it at the same time. The opening shot, of his desperate, partied-out band drifting across a bridge into a deserted London visually sums up the rather barren philosophy by which they live and, in fact, die.
Into this ragged group of Chelsea miscreants comes Melina (Louise Sorel), an enigmatic young American girl. When she disappears, her fiance Carson starts to investigate and discovers the heavy price you pay for wild partying. At the centre of the film is a series of flashbacks to the party at which Melina allegedly disappears, told from various view points. It is only until the rooftop suicide of one of the gang, Phil (a wonderful Jonathan Burn) that Carson really gets to the truth about Melina's disappearance. Yet, even Carson is sucked into their lifestyle, his American middle class morality rejected when he gives up on the search for Melina and it's only really held to account when the truth about her death emerges.
Whilst Moise rejects and approves a triangle of women in Libby, Nina and Melina herself, his guilt about what happened to Melina is also gradually exposed by the film's conclusion and his status as 'leader' is continually re-evaluated. By the end of the film, when the full confession has been revealed to Melina's father, Ben (Eddie Albert) Moise is clearly feeling rather soiled by the way he allowed Melina to die at the party and then be subjected to a sexual assault that they were all, apart from him, complicit in. The hint of necrophilia, where Phil kisses and, it is implied, makes love to Melina, is still rather disturbing in the film, giving it a unique dynamic for a film from this period. The gang's attempt to dispose of her body adds further to the degradation that the scene has already generated.
In the end, Moise turns his back on the 'cult' group of followers, clearly uncomfortable with both his role as neither the controlled nor the controller and the consequences of their wild debauchery. He tentatively looks towards the uncertain future with Libby.
As Hamilton himself said of the film: 'The 'message' was that they should by all means opt out but society would have to be replaced by something. It wasn't my function to tell them what that should be, but just opting out is insufficient.' Reed's brooding, simmering unrest as Moise is the heart of the film and his palpable regret a fine coda to finish on. He's ably supported by Ann Lynn as Libby, a rather idiosyncratic turn (with a terrible American accent) from Mike Pratt as Geronimo - a speed addicted drummer/sculptor, and some notable appearances from Roddy Maude-Roxby and Eddie Albert. It is a melancholic film and suggests that the drug fueled counterculture of the 1960s, where everything was questioned, social structures were abandoned and materialism was rejected, wasn't always going to lead to the great panacea it claimed to offer.
The film is presented in 1.66:1 anamorphic and branches the 18 minutes of alternative theatrical sequences to present the full pre-release cut of the film newly uncovered by the BFI. This results in some drop in quality in some scenes but the majority of the black and white transfer is lovely. Good contrast and blacks, crisp detail and definition to faces and other textures. The audio is excellent and shows off the John Barry score, which is very close to his classic Bond themes in some parts, to great effect.
- Presented in both High Definition and Standard Definition
- Alternative theatrical release cut (Blu-ray only, 92 mins)
- Alternative theatrical release sequences (DVD only, 18 mins)
- The Party (R A Ostwald, 1962, 16 mins): a time-capsule short about an art school get-together, with drinking, dancing and romance
- Emma (Anthony Perry, 1964, 12 mins): an expressive meditation on the loss of innocence and the certainty of death, from the producer of The Party’s Over
- Illustrated booklet featuring contributions by Guy Hamilton, Andrew Roberts, William Fowler and Vic Pratt