The Near Future

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.


32 Responses to “The Near Future”

  1. “Misfire” my ass! Privilege is a masterpiece!

    It was born (as most great things are) of a casual remark by Terence Stamp that the next big rock star will want to BE Jesus Christ. And so we get Paul Jones uniting Church and Satte in ways the “Fundamentalist” right has demanded ever since.


  2. One could argue that the ” flat, depressive delivery” of Paul Jones and The Shrimp relatest to their characters. But I find it part and parcel of Watkins’ ideas on taking film away from traditional spectator-spectacle relations towards something else. His use of the faux documntary as a filmmaking form is central to this. Cast as a documentary the action we see in films as otherwise diverse as Culloden, The War Game, Punishment Park and (his greatest achievement and one of the Towering Asolutes in the history of the cinema) La Commune (de Paris 1841) put the spectaotr on notice. There is no realistic way any of the actions depicted in the above-mentioned films could be covered by a docmentary camera crew. Eithe the cinema wasn’t invented at the time of the action, or the circumstances depicted wouldn’t have allowed any filming to take place.

    Privilege is slightly different in that it deals with a pop star, who of course would be filmed and his backers in the church who want to use him as a platform. Watkins’ who knew next to nothing of pop music when he made the film “samples” Lonely Boy the National Film Board of Canada documentary on Paul Anka — to great effect.

  3. I liked Privilege myself, but never saw The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer, though it intrigued me when I ran into it on IMDB. From the description, Rimmer seems to have echoes in American party politics as well. It’s been years since I saw Privilege, but the idea was a damn good one, and I don’t think Bowie was the only one to rip it off, even if he was the most successful at it.

  4. Speaking of Peter Cook, the very same year Privilege was released —

  5. Those two films should have established Cook as a major star.

    Paul Jones’ act in Privilege is somewhat prescient, but not as much as the Cook and Moore pop songs in Bedazzled. Cook’s laid-back delivery of lyrics like “You fill me with inertia” is the very essence of cool.

    Culloden obviously rejoices in the impossibility of its own existence as a documentary. The clash is delightful and stimulating and Brechtian, and like all good alienation effects it actually results in greater audience involvement, by a less direct route. The War Game is pretty much set up as a hypothetical scenario, and again the distance implied by that is stripped away as the story unfolds. I kind of believe the doc in Punishment Park, although it sets up the BBC-style filmmaker as a voice of moral authority in a way I’d question a bit.

    Privilege didn’t quite convince me, maybe because the Leni Riefenstahl moments and the burning crosses seemed like things a modern police state might try to avoid. They make very obvious clues to tell us how to respond. And as I say, the stylized performances of everybody BUT Jones and the Shrimp were the problem for me. Everybody always blames the ones who don’t act, without ever questioning whether they SHOULD act. See also the drubbing Anjelica Huston got for her totally believable work in A Walk With Love and Death.

  6. Today’s Steven Shorter:

  7. Rimmer is a fascinating curiosity–I’m very glad to own it on DVD. It doesn’t fully work for a few reasons–Peter Cook’s biographer Harry Thompson noted that the screenplay is too linear and plot-oriented and that Cook himself gives an overly glazed, affectless performance, which might be in keeping with Rimmer’s soullessness but doesn’t jive with or justify the demonic look Rimmer gives us at the end. And explaining Rimmer as either banal, or evil, or both tends to conflict with the fact that real-life Rimmers like Bush and Blair tend to be motivated by deeply-held beliefs, horribly wrong as those are. Still, if the movie hadn’t been screwed over by nervous execs delaying the release date, it might have resulted in more films starring and written by Cook (whose TV output remains underrepresented on DVD–I’m still waiting to see “Cook and Company” on disc).

  8. I never understood Peter Cook’s career arc either. It seemed particularly tragic when I saw him doing a sort of Jeeves on an American sitcom in the ’80s. I mean, I was glad to see him work, dismayed to see what he was reduced to taking.

    David E., re: that Cyrus video. Sometimes I’m glad I’m willfully ignorant of today’s popular culture. I frequent a bass site since I play it, and sometimes a participant will breathlessly inform the rest that he got a gig as a touring bassist for (insert useless poptart here). It’s all I can do to keep from posting something caustic and losing my membership.

  9. Seems he did the sitcom out of a misguided desire to compete with Dudley Moore by cracking America.

    It’s been argued that Cook simply achieved most of what he wanted in the UK and gave up trying. Alan Bennett says that the only regret Cook ever expressed was that he once, in a moment of weakness, saved David Frost from drowning.

    On the other hand, the Derek and Clive tapes reveal a certain amount of barely-repressed rage in the man. Some of that material is brilliant, some is depressing, some is weirdly both.

  10. Poor fellow, having to live with saving David Frost from drowning.

    Never listened much to Derek and Clive (one album is all I can remember), I suppose there’s plenty of it on YouTube now.

  11. Yes, what a terrible burden to the conscience. The Derek and Clive movie (grainy footage of a recording session) does feature some incredible black comedy, as well as some truly uncomfortable moments. At times it looks like Cook is trying to wreck Moore’s burgeoning career… but Dud always rises to the bait and outdoes Cook in vileness…

  12. Even the Derek and Clive I heard has nothing on this. It can be vile and funny simultaneously. If there was a way I could slip Jump You Fucker, Jump into a rehearsal, I would. It’s no more wordy and unrhythmic than the songs we’re doing now. Our songwriter has a problem with terse expression.

  13. PRIVILEGE has only recently been released on DVD, for the longest time it had this cult following of those with a passion for rock-related films, collectors who were nuts over the fact that they couldn’t get their hands on a decent copy of it. So hey time has a way of changing things so I’m sure they’re happy. Surprised no one’s mentioned the fact that Paul Jones was a genuine pop star, sang in either the Zombies or Manfred Mann, not sure which. I was aware of the film through a song from the film that Patti Smith covered on one of her earlier albums, entitled “Set Me Free”. I like her version, it’s passionate, majestic.

  14. Manfred Mann. For anyone who cares to give it a listen, here’s Patti’s interpretation of the song from PRIVILEGE…

  15. >>I kind of believe the doc in Punishment Park, although it sets up the BBC-style filmmaker as a voice of moral authority in a way I’d question a bit.<<

    It also is what bothered me about the film.

    Its the only Watkins film I've seen.

    He wasn't very known, or rather rediscovered, on this side of the pond, until only recently, say 5 to 8 years ago. He gained a certain resonance in post 9-11 US.

  16. I didn’t find it hard to obtain a copy of Privilege back in the ’80s (yes, it was a dupe from…somewhere) and pretty close to every other ’60s rock film. One I did find impossible to obtain was Having A Wild Weekend a.k.a Catch Us If You Can. By the time I could get it I wasn’t that interested anymore, so I’ve never seen it.

  17. Maybe I’m wrong about Watkins’ reputation in the states.

  18. Well, Watkins had a reputation that to some extent related to his work being impossible to see. What’s nice is he’s survived the films becoming available, and indeed his rep has grown. La Commune is the one I have to see next.

    Have never seen Boorman’s pop film either. One of the few follow-ups to the Beatles films to have a real personality of its own, by all accounts.

  19. You pimp! You’re giving me the horn for a tape that’s only 12 years old! It’s still underage!

  20. Cook fans are directed to Why Bother? a late recording session with the great Chris Morris as interviewer, and Cook’s appearances on Clive Anderson Talks Back, from near the end of his life, which are on YouTube.

  21. “Well, if you’re in Scotland AND in Glamorgan, you’re in trouble.”

    I love Watkins’ “Media Statement”. Emailed him a few years ago but the radical beast never even replied!

  22. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again La Commune (de Paris 1871) is the greatest political film ever made.

    It’s available on DVD and should be an essential part of everyone’s library.

  23. Re: other Cook performances worth seeking out—I’d also recommend “A Life in Pieces,” his interview series with Ludovic Kennedy, which is also on youtube. Cook’s best latter-day film performance was probably as the demented Prime Minister in Whoops Apocalypse.

  24. Yes, another version of his beloved Harold McMillan. I think his 80s McMillan routine is on YouTube too. When McMillan entered the House of Lords it was obviously a delight to him.

  25. Howard Curtis Says:

    In the early 1980s, Kevin Billington directed what I remember after all these years as a terrific TV adaptation of Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier. Don’t know if it’s available in any form. His career rather fizzled out after that. Nice to know he’s still alive at least.
    (I also have a vague memory of his mid-60s TV documentary about Madison Avenue, which I think received a lot of acclaim at the time. It would be interesting to see it again today in the light of Mad Men.)

  26. Alive and well and, it seems, deeply moved by the favorable attention Rimmer received here. I hope to track down The Good Soldier soon, although there’s no official release.

    He had an odd career — he went straight from Rimmer to directing KirK Douglas in The Light at the Edge of the World.

  27. Tony Williams Says:

    I’m coming to these threads late but it is worthwhile. Perhaps David C, 1970s cinema especially the UK is a lot more lively and interesting than what appeared in later decades. This retrospective sounds really fascinating.

  28. I’d argue that the 80s cinema, both the heritage stuff and the social realist resurgence, is far less stimulating than the fragmentary, decaying, bizarre movies thrown up during the 70s. The films of Nic Roeg were excluded from the retro because they’re pretty well appreciated and available, but it’s possible to see them as the tip of an iceberg of other cool stuff. Expect at least one follow-up piece on the retrospective next week…

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