Jim McLean. Ozymandius Fremantle. Mike Preston. Steven Shorter. All central characters in great British cult works. All fictional rock stars. All, to paraphrase Graham Chapman, “names that will live forever”.
And Steven Shorter may just be the one whose name still carries the most mystery and intrigue. For, despite the renown and cult of personality that surrounds PRIVILEGE- say its name to any devotee of 60s culture and they instantly know what you’re talking about- very few have been able to see it- until now. Once again, a big thank you to Flipside.
I myself first saw it in 1988 or thereabouts, during a season of British New Wave/counter-culture films on Channel 4. The 20th anniversary of Sergeant Pepper in 1987 had resulted in the first flush of major, industry-driven (as opposed to casual and fan-generated) nostalgia for “the swinging Sixties” and all that went with it, from the frivolous capers of Jason King and Adam Adamant to the grit and gristle of the kitchen-sinkers, and it didn’t end when 1987 slowly faded away: rather, it seeped into many of our consciousnesses and heralded new fascinations that would shape our lives. Of course, those of us born in the early 70s weren’t to know that for the last few years, a bloke called Phil Smee had been busy unearthing the genre’s most obscure musical artefacts on vinyl, setting the benchmark for nascent anoraks everywhere, but we caught up on that later.
For now, we were happy to sit in our parents’ living rooms and mezzanines (or in some cases, if we were lucky, our own bedrooms) and stare wide-eyed at the likes of If!, The Servant, Morgan!, The Pumpkin Eater, Alfie, Up The Junction and There’s A Girl In My Soup, which all found their way onto our screens, interspersed with DEF II-generated repeats of ITC fare and Scotland Yard episodes- the latter parodied with uncanny accuracy at the time by contemporary comedians Smith And Jones as Porno And Bribeasy Of The Yard. And Privilege.
Most of the films listed above turned up a few times, some even receiving multiple screenings lasting well into the beige 90s. Peter Watkins’ uneasy rock biopic was shown only once, tucked away in a late Sunday or Monday slot (forgive my vagueness, but I’ve slept since then) and to date has never been repeated. I don’t think I understood it much, either, or maybe I just didn’t pay enough attention: I say this because upon receiving it on pirate video in 2003, the pictures struck a chord, but its storyline and thematic content seemed strangely unfamiliar, except that it concerned a pop star that rebels against a Totalitarian regime. Over two decades later, I’m the proud owner of this fully restored digital print. And it’s a beauty. And, again, I’m noticing things I never spotted before- would you believe, for instance, that only on my fifth viewing did I recognise Victor Henry? Unbelievable. Then again, Privilege is an unbelievable film, both groundbreaking and influential.
But is it any good, I hear you cry? Yes. Is it also, however, a little quaint, dated and anachronistic? Well of course it is. It is set, lest we forget, in what basically amounts to “201966” in the same way that Robert Zemeckis’ Back To The Future summed up “201985”, so viewing it now, from a real 21st century viewpoint, is bound to cause some amusement. Yet it’s also strangely prescient, grimly foretelling in a way which its screenwriters Norman Bogner and Johnny Speight (yes, he of Til Death Us Do Part fame, reviled by misinformed leftie students the length and breadth of Britain) could have only begun to guess.
Those blessed with an innate and uncanny ability to predict futures, such as Nigel Kneale, always tend to stick in their contemporaries’ craws- but to Watkins, who had already and directed the dramatised BBC “mockumentaries” Culloden and The War Game (both available on regular BFI DVD for quite some time now), rubbing people up the wrong way had become second nature. The first, a re-imagining of the battle between the Jacobites and Hanoverians which ultimately saw Scotland capitulate to English rule, had catapulted him to instant fame among TV’s upper echelons- who presumably missed its obvious analogy to America’s recent invasion of Vietnam under the Truman doctrine of “containment”. The relationship was to be short-lived, as the second (a prediction of what life would be like in the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust) was- due to Government interference- suppressed, and eventually banned by the channel that funded it, claiming it “lacked objectivity”. The director, ever the lone agitator, promptly quit in disgust and never worked for “Auntie” again. And who can blame him?
Did his frustration at such treatment, even though he would subsequently have little difficulty obtaining revenue from no less a multinational conglomerate than Universal to make the film (now that’s what I call attacking the system from within), directly influence the basic tenet of Privilege, in which a rock star is used by the Government to control the populace, whilst discouraging criminality among the youth and shaping its habits, lifestyle and belief systems? Maybe. There is certainly something of the cynic in Bogner’s script (which, although taken from Speight’s storyline, was presumably written to directorial requirements). A misanthropic disregard for the media at large (a pet peeve which has shaped most of his work, and one we shall discuss further later)- to say nothing of the public gullible enough to believe them- is also present, but conversely, we must not overlook the wry humour inherent in the narration (delivered with an unthreatening, sardonic lilt). Is Speight’s satirical style rubbing off on the director’s nihilistic vision, or the other way round?
It’s a moot point. Watkins stated emphatically then, as he does now, that the film’s message is serious and should be seen as such- and true to form, the last half hour is steeped, cloaked even, in despair and hopelessness. Yet there is undoubted comic gold to be found, particularly during the initial 30 minutes. Scenes of Shorter’s old-school Yiddische publisher “Uncle Julie”(Max Bacon) who suddenly and delusionally thinks himself adept at songwriting, attempting to dictate a dire music-hall song called “Mother” to the singer’s slightly more sympathetic yet still cringeworthy accompanist Freddie K (Henry) are worthy of Pete & Dud, whilst the “religious” characters (a ‘groovy reverend’ and five ineffectual Bishops) are almost forerunners of the clerics soon to be portrayed by Derek Nimmo in All Gas And Gaiters and Oh Brother, with their attempts at “grooving” to a Hammond-driven psych rendition of “Onward Christian Soldiers” as hilarious as the description suggests. Ironic, considering star Paul Jones’ later conversion to Christianity at the instigation of Stiff Pilchard…
And so we come, neatly, to the subject of Jones himself. His performance in this- the first of several “fantastic films” to bear his name including The Committee (1968), for which the term “it was the Sixties, they were all on drugs” was surely invented, and Hammer’s imaginative werewolf retelling Demons Of The Mind (1972), both the work of Peter Sykes- caused much debate upon the film’s inaugural release, and to this day, critics don’t seem to be able to make up their mind as to whether his portrayal is one of sulky recalcitrance or believable detachment, his childlike, sultry physiog suggesting to several people the former option.
For me, he falls somewhere between the two- undoubtedly, there are moments of theatrical camp on display, particularly during both renditions of the (admittedly haunting and effective) theme song “Set Me Free”- later famously covered by Patti Smith on Easter, proving that at least one person outside London saw the film. His approach features much “wailing, moaning and gnashing of teeth”, which one could suggest suits perfectly the quasi-religious “armineminuming” of the song’s arrangement, but elsewhere such excesses are tempered by endearingly human expressions of disappointment, frustration and pain, juxtaposed with the warmth, likeability and innocence that only someone with genuine acting talent could convey, and as such, I find myself really rooting for him. His transition within 100 minutes from moderate disinterest to psychotic burnout is quite an achievement- and a stroke of luck, considering that Watkins originally wanted Geordie hellraiser Eric Burdon, who, with hindsight, would never have effectively conveyed the character’s fragility. Rather, one imagines he would have duffed up his entire entourage and rammed the Birmingham crowd’s ticker-tape welcome down its collective throat.
While this wasn’t the first time a pop star had been presented as depressed and unhappy with their lot (Butchers’ Terry Dene vehicle The Golden Disc, which uncannily heralded its subject’s real-life difficulties, could lay claim to that trophy, as obviously could A Hard Day’s Night), nor the silver screen’s first depiction of a “dystopia”, Jones, even if unconsciously, takes both concepts to new levels, playing Steve not as a superhero demagogue- which, given his status as “the most famous celebrity in the entire Western hemisphere”, one could have expected- but a wide-eyed innocent catapulted into a world (both that of the music industry and life itself) he has no understanding of nor control over. More disturbingly, no explanation is given as to how he was ‘discovered’, or rose to his position of prominence, which leads the imaginative viewer to imagine a dozen possible conspiratorial scenarios. The most we learn is that he once served a spell in prison (an experience re-enacted nightly during live performances, resulting in a gladiatorial interface between singer and audience) and that he originates from Birmingham, (where most of the film was coincidentally shot, thus negating its perceived status as a “Swinging London” picture in all regards except contextual association. Other than that, Shorter is a blank canvas, or as he puts it himself later, both “a person” and a “nothing”, chosen at random by the establishment for the sole purpose of anaesthetising the masses.
Er, sound familiar, anyone? Is this not the type of evil practised today by a smug square-jawed git with dyed black hair, the plastic harpy wife of a once-credible heavy metal singer and a dubiously camp Irishman? We haven’t quite reached the stage yet where gigantic stadiums are constructed in the name of vacuous popstrels without an eighth of the talent of Jones/Shorter, but it might only be a matter of time, the most painful irony being that while the fictional Shorter seems like a genuine human being underneath all the glitz and hyperbole, today’s ‘real’ pop “celebrities” possess little inherent realism or personality of any abound note. And while we don’t worship our ‘pop idols’ like they were infallible gods (OK, we use such adjectives as synonyms when describing guitarists or songwriters, but that’s a different thing altogether) how many people are hoodwinked today by reality television into thinking their ‘vote’ makes a difference in the greater scheme of things, thus providing, even unconsciously, a nation starved of any genuine democratic process with a palatable placebo? “Britain, in the near future” indeed…
All such questions are fuel to the fire of the filmmaker, who even today at 75 mounts an ongoing campaign against what he calls the MAVM (mass audio-visual media) and the MONOFORM (not an acronym, but a derisory term for the orthodoxy of film-making and its limitations). While this is a radical stance I myself personally don’t agree with (you can’t casually dismiss over 110 years’ worth of work, from Melies through Lean and Godard to Linklater, with such catch-all terminology) one has to admire the man’s commitment to his cause. Where I do find myself agreeing with Watkins is with regard to the decision-making process behind much of the industry, down to the reasons why some movies get made and others don’t, and why some, even when made, are withheld from distribution or release. The War Game fell into this category, and the ‘intervention’ of Harold Wilson’s Labour Government into the matter was a clandestine, not to say sinister one: thus, it’s not surprising that the director should have spent practically his entire subsequent career striving to create cinema that exists outside such boundaries, like his 14-hour episodic work The Journey. The results haven’t always been beneficial for his casts (such as the actor whose appearance in Punishment Park earned him a spell in real jail), leading detractors to accuse him of the exploitation of inexperienced and underpaid (i.e. amateur) performers- but in any war, there are casualties, and Watkins will probably wage his battle against conventional cinematic mores till the day they screw the lid down.
His “on site” documentary style, employing his own narration as an essential part of the process, and thus blurring the distinction between fact and fiction, past and present and cast and crew, has been widely influential on genres as disparate as horror films, sitcoms and mondo cinema, to the point where it’s such a “given” that it’s almost taken for granted. Likewise, the art of director of photography Peter Suschitsky, whose relationship with the filmmaker remained constant throughout his most influential works, should not be ignored: at least 50 percent of the “look” of all “docudrama” as we know it today is down to him. For these reasons alone, Privilege should be rediscovered by the next generation of aesthetes, lest they forget or never even discover where their influences originated from. And if the film alone doesn’t lay that on the lines, the extra features Diary Of An Unknown Soldier (1959) and Forgotten Faces (1961), the latter of which ran into similar problems with broadcasters to those The War Game would later face, will make it quite clear. Bear in mind that these were made, even as amateur features, at a time when British cinema was yet to fully embrace “social realism” and it will become quickly apparent how ahead of his time Watkins was.
In the latter, the sleepy town of Canterbury is used to represent the Hungary of three years previous, when a brief anti-Communist rebellion was crushed by Soviet tanks: the authenticity bestowed upon the subject is such that people mistook it for an actual newsreel. The former, based (allegedly) on the writings of an actual unnamed squaddie (not Owen or Sassoon) during World War I, actually references the director’s own time in National Service, which, despite being spent in peace-time Kent, was, apparently, little more than a regime of legitimised bullying- and indeed, it’s hard to tell at various points which are the genuine WWI writings and which are the thoughts of the film’s creator. Privilege is, of course, due to its science-fiction trappings and tendencies toward the fantastic, a million miles away from its predecessors’ harsher leanings, but there lurks underneath, even during its most upbeat and deliberately slapstick moments, the same cry of anguish from one (in this case Shorter as voiced by Jones) trapped in a perpetuity of torment. On the downside, though, it is perhaps this undertow, as well as its lack of linear development (it more or less begins and ends in situ, with only Steve’s character having undergone any transformation by the conclusion) which prevent the film from standing up to repeated viewings. Still, one or two minor flaws do not under no circumstances make Privilege, as a fellow historian friend recently said to me, “a bloody awful film”, and the ending, whilst ambiguous, is as chillingly moving as any in the British New Wave or the era which immediately followed it.
The disquieting thought is that aside from Evening Land (1977) which shares no thematic or structural ground but is as deeply rooted in fantasy, it might actually be its maker’s most conventional work. And despite my suspicion that Watkins, like Don Levy, despised the “Swinging decade” and all it represented (most probably because at 33 he was considered too old to take part) he will, because of Privilege, be forever intrinsically associated with that epoch, and in particular the sight of the feather-haired, red-jacketed and gold-buttoned Jones, arms aloft delivering his rock’n’roll sermon (in the decidedly un-rock’n’roll locations of the Birmingham City FC ground), and the waiflike beauty of Jean Shrimpton, goddess in a dress.
We can’t discuss the film without mentioning the Shrimp, as her appearance (obviously a major selling point at time of release, and considered something of a coup) tends to be the other thing audiences remember it for outside of Jones’ vocal declamations. Again, she wasn’t Watkins’ first choice (he wanted Sarah Miles), which makes the fact that she could actually act, (as opposed to merely possessing perfect posture and lips that could slice concrete) even more of a surprise. In the role of Vanessa Richie, the artist hired to paint Shorter (and subsequently, the only person with whom, much to the chagrin of his “owners”, he feels any respite from the pressures of stardom and manipulation) she is likeable, believable and utterly convincing. On the minus side, she has an occasional tendency to mumble her lines, but knowing Watkins, he left that in for the sake of realism: whatever the actualities, it’s a shame she didn’t pursue her thespian career (I said thespian, all you retro-perves, so stop making up your own films) further after her modelling days came to an end, choosing instead the relative seclusion of the Cornwall hotel she runs with her husband to this day.
Still, such anomalies are grist to the mill of those who devour the myth, mystique and legend of cult cinema, and who presumably comprise a fair percentage of Flipside’s intended audience. Of their releases so far, Privilege looks the most likely to sell significant units and recoup outlay, as its name has been whispered in hushed tones by Mods and ‘heads’ practically since that first explosion of mid-80s nostalgia alluded to earlier, and its arrival has already been welcomed with considerable fanfare. Hence, if you’re one of the above (and why would you have bothered reading this far down my inane dratherings if you weren’t?) then you do need this in your collection: those approaching the ‘genre’ for the first time may wish to start with something lighter in tone, such as Smashing Time or Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush (at least one of which, I have it on good authority, will also be made available this year). The question is, do you choose the DVD or the Blu-ray version? Personally, I couldn’t care less (the DVD looks perfect anyway), and I have very much my own opinions about the longevity of the latter format, but this isn’t the place to express such things.
In Watkins’ own words- “within five minutes, this room will be filled with over 200 people, most of whom will have nothing directly to do with Steven Shorter himself”. What wouldn’t you have given to have been one of them? Now you can keep a piece of Steve in your room forever. Isn’t technology wonderful?