My friend Niall Greig Fulton’s retrospective season at Edinburgh Film Festival has already produced some fascinating and little-seen works from Britain in and around the seventies. While Peter Watkins’ PRIVILEGE is often dismissed as a misfire, it’s a very interesting one, and I haven’t ever read anything which really pins down its virtues and vices in a way I recognise.
Paul Jones and Jean Shrimpton get a lot of stick for their flat, depressive delivery, but the non-actors actually work quite well with Watkins’ faux-documentary approach. It’s the more experienced cast members, playing in a slightly comedic manner, who clash with the verité trappings. And indeed, those stylistic choices seem a little unhelpful. This is meant to be a near future world where a pop star is used as a means of controlling and subduing dissent. But no BBC documentarist would ever be allowed to document such a process in a real totalitarian state, so the film might have been more convincing as fiction. Or, if Watkins was determined to employ the style he’d successfully used on CULLODEN and THE WAR GAME, he ought to have had the grotesque establishment figures played in a more subdued manner — inventing the low-key comedy of something like The Office, perhaps.
Watkins seems a reclusive sort, but Kevin Billington was on hand to introduce his 1970 film THE RISE AND RISE OF MICHAEL RIMMER, which he co-scripted with Peter Cook, John Cleese and Graham Chapman (who all appear). While PRIVILEGE is set in a sixties vision of the near future, the Billington is resolutely contemporary, yet seems far more prophetic. It was nice to learn that the drones of Watkins’ dystopia are watched over by a coalition government, “since there is no longer any difference in policy between Labour and Conservative,” but RIMMER’s idea that party politics are rendered redundant by the overwhelming power of the PR department is more sinister yet.
In PRIVILEGE, the church harnesses the power of a youth icon to make the masses conform — “By 1990 the only people going to church will be the clergy,” and to boost attendance (but the film is oddly tone deaf about pop culture, and we’re never convinced a move this bald-faced would work), but the bishop played by the great Graham Crowden in RIMMER has progressed beyond this. “We’ve tried everything, you know: pop groups, bingo, hallucinogenic drugs in the wafers, son et lumiere in the graveyards…” Rimmer, played by Peter Cook with sinister smiling emptiness, a thin void in smart duds, tells him the problem is God, and they had best get rid of Him.
Like all the films so far, the movies are both thronging with familiar acting talent — the lovely James Cossins is in both. And Harold Pinter appears as a current affairs show host — I laughed at the name of his show, Steven Hench is Talking To You. Here’s Billington on meeting Pinter ~
Billington: “It all seemed to be I was in, as I discovered later, this Pinter world, when you were with him. [...] Whenever you were alone with him, wherever you were, the world became the way he wrote. It’s the most extraordinary thing. With just one or two marvelous writers, in a funny way, this is how the world is with them.”
Billington very sweetly apologized to the ladies in the audience for the film’s prevalent sexism — a near-pornographic advert for sweeties produced by Rimmer is acceptable as satire (and anybody who’s seen a ’70s Cadbury’s Flake ad know how close to reality it is) but starlet Vanessa Howard is served up in a gratuitous nude scene which cheapens the movie. She doesn’t have much of a role, and it’s sad when you see how amazing she is in Freddie Francis’s nearly-lost weirdfest GIRLY.
Meanwhile, we have creeping dictatorship, covert invasion of a non-threatening country, bogus weapons of mass destruction, and the evidence of a generous budget from Warners, making this an unusually lavish and ambitious British comedy for any era (produced by David Frost of FROST/NIXON fame).
Me: “There must have been times in the last several years when you’d be watching the news and experience deja vu. Was there a particular moment when you thought, ‘This might not be satire anymore?'”
Billington: “Absolutely. I do have to say that the whole New Labour thing smacked so much… of how you ask the people… this whole thing is the people, they’re going to decide. Which has obviously strong links back to socialism in the early days. That’s not the way it’s used here. [...] I could see the way politicians wanted to use television, and what they were actually thinking was ‘How do we come across?’ [...] So when Blair suddenly was there, and his youth, ‘a New Tomorrow’ etc etc… I shouldn’t go on about Blair because at the moment we have a chap called Cameron who has a certain amount of PR about him. So I’m not being party political at all now, it just happened that that’s the way it came.”
It certainly did.