Watkins’ savaging of commodified culture remains disturbingly relevant
After retailing Scotland’s Jacobite rebellion of 1746 to almost universal acclaim in Culloden (1964) and, in less than a year, establishing an undeserved reputation in the press as an irresponsible left-bent crackpot with 47 still-horrifying minutes of The War Game, Peter Watkins could look back in anger at the fastest, sharpest rise and fall the British film industry – or any film industry – had ever witnessed.
For a film director, the fallout was poisonous. The War Game might have received an Academy Award here in the U.S. (a species of institutional insult all its own), but in Great Britain, Watkins’ meticulously detailed, despairing vision of a fictional nuclear war and its hopeless aftermath was officially banned by the BBC (a ban that took a quarter century to be lifted) after the Home Office reportedly advised against its transmission in what must have been a blood-freezing series of veiled threats. Not only did the Board of Governors at the BBC then refuse to permit the film’s broadcast in other countries – restricting it to clandestine, 16mm reduction-print screenings on the Nuclear Disarmament circuit – but Watkins himself was brutishly pilloried by newspapers on both the Left and the Right for his supposed recklessness in making a film that representatives of the BBC kept telling everyone off-the-record would result in headline-grabbing horrors such as chronic depression and even mass-suicide. Watkins resigned in protest from the BBC’s Documentary Programming division, loudly and forcefully accusing those spineless Orangutans at Shepherd’s Bush of caving in to government pressure. But the intensity of his protest did nothing to aid his cause. The way the press covered it it just made him look like a crank.
Worst of all, not a single film director in England rose to speak out publicly in his defense. All the Tony Richardsons and Lindsay Andersons, all those Free Cinema mavericks and Angry Young Men who’d made an aesthetic killing off of Britain’s decline after the War were nowhere to be found, it seemed, when one of their confreres (albeit one who worked in Television) faced an onslaught of public disapprobation and censorship the like of which they only faced in their grimmest nightmares. Some of his fellow filmmakers privately chastised Watkins for laying waste to his early success so soon; others later expressed regret at their own moral cowardice in staying silent. And Peter Watkins? All he could do was bear up under the pressure, tell his side of the story to anyone who would listen, and wait.
Is it any wonder, then, that the thousand turmoils of that awful season permeated his next film? The England of Privilege (1967) is a nation whose institutions are ruthlessly pursuing blanket conformity among its people. The Conservative and Labour parties, no longer having any discernible differences between them, have formed a coalition government: a benign two-party dictatorship that believes it can hold power indefinitely so long as rebellious impulses within the sensate brains of Britain’s youth can be distracted, rechanneled, and tranquilized. Toward that end, the state has taken an all-consuming interest in the career of Steven Shorter (Paul Jones), a Pop singer whose fame appears to know no boundaries. When we first see him riding through the mob-filled streets in his hometown of Birmingham, he waves and nods solemnly to his throng of worshipers in the midst of a ticker-tape outpouring of love sufficient to make Caesar bow with all the appropriate humility of triumph.
For that is who Steven Shorter is, you see: A Pop Prince, a Caesar for the “Tiger Beat” set with stature commensurate to that of presidents, kings, even astronauts. He is, in the words of Watkins’ off-screen narrator/interviewer, “the most desperately loved entertainer in the world,” and both the State, its financial institutions, as well as the Church of England have seen to his emergence as a presence in the national consciousness of Britain almost as great as the Queen herself. His name and face are on everything: discotheques, household appliances, any species of promotional tie-in that can turn a buck and inspire unending consumption on the part of the public. Without the government’s patronage, he’d be just another face on “Top of the Pops,” humping his latest 45 to bored teenagers; with it, he’s practically Jesus.
Consequently, they feel they can do with him whatever they desire.
Shorter achieved his vast stardom, we are told (and shown), through a bizarre Theater of Cruelty stage act that has him handcuffed, thrown onto the stage, tossed in a cell, and, for a finish, beaten senseless by a group of thuggish chorus boys gussied up to look like prison guards; all the while begging the screaming teenagers in the audience like a Carnaby Street Jolson to Set Him Free. Both musically and theatrically it’s nothing James Brown would have lost any sleep over, but it has a tremendously cathartic effect on the kids who see it. And that’s the whole point: Her Majesty’s government has seized on this act, its immense popularity as well as its element of protest, and are in the process of twisting it to their societal ends. They see Shorter’s stage presentation as a way of providing the youth of Britain with a release “from the nervous tension caused by the state of the world outside,” and eventually they hope to have Shorter lead them en masse to God and Flag; culminating in the uniform acceptance of what one Anglican bishop calls “a fruitful conformity.”
The only potential weak spot is Steven Shorter himself. Pliable though he may be within the maw of his own success, he’s beginning to betray signs of wear and tear. The government of Britain has him touring the globe with that screwball act of his, and working like a field hand at home to promote its various initiatives. But his growing importance on the national scene makes him uneasy in ways he can’t articulate (he’s a pop singer, after all, not a documentary filmmaker). He only gives expression to his inner dissatisfaction through a kind of sullen discomfort he carries with him everywhere. At photo ops, industry bacchanals, even shagging his official portraitist (Jean Shrimpton) far away from the unblinking public eye, he looks as though he’s forever mounting the scaffold to the awaiting guillotine.
His resigned joylessness is in stark contrast to the way pop singers had been portrayed in British cinema in the relatively small number of years since that end of the medium began addressing this phenomenon. Though the paradigm had been set in granite by The Beatles’ tireless cavorting through Richard Lester’s Pop fantasies A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, as well as The Dave Clark Five in John Boorman’s more subdued Having a Wild Weekend, earlier models such as Cliff Richard’s reluctant teen idol in Val Guest’s brilliant Expresso Bongo were, no matter how directly manipulated, capable of working up at least a degree of enthusiasm whenever they got a chance to sing. But Steven Shorter doesn’t appear to have enthusiasm for anything at any time. And his menagerie of handlers are so busy plotting the next stages of their ultimate triumph they have little idea how close he is to opening his mouth and saying something that’ll ruin the whole setup for everybody.
Privilege did not begin with Peter Watkins. The film’s producer, John Heyman, had commissioned a screenplay from television writer John Speight (creator of the long-running BBC series Till Death Us Do Part), then brought in an American novelist named Norman Bognor to transform it into final script. At this stage in the production it was intended as satire, albeit of a rather sour cast (Heyman avowed publicly that the film would “expose the rotten world of pop,” as though pop music was a racket any more in need of exposé than, say, film producing). Indeed, the film’s closest antecedent at this point was probably Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd, only this time with a more manipulable protagonist, a “Swinging London” spin and, who knows, maybe a nice, marketable soundtrack LP when all was said and done.
Eventually Peter Watkins was approached to direct, a task he was more than ready for after a prospective film on Dublin’s Easter uprising in 1916 fell through (not to mention the still-lingering War Game imbroglio). He reworked Bognor’s screenplay significantly, with and without the writer’s participation, turning it significantly from the realm of satire to his own extraordinary species of semi-documentary filmmaking (what Raymond Durgnat, rejecting the term “science fiction” as pejorative in connection to Watkins’ work, later called Social Fiction), and bringing to it the same techniques he’d used to such powerful effect in Culloden and The War Game. Indeed, the supplementary voice-overs and interviews, improvised scenes, and non-professional actors in Privilege manage to give it the feel of a documentary without either sacrificing the expressiveness of Peter Suschitzky’s cinematography – which owes far less to the documentary tradition than the on-the-spot, hand-held filming styles of Watkins’ BBC works – or erasing the viewer’s awareness that they’re watching a work of fiction. Like The War Game, like many of his later films, Privilege is set in the near future; a technique that renders what might at first seem overheated, even hysterical scenarios a strange verisimilitude. In the case of Privilege, Watkins had latched onto something already in progress, if not entirely visible either to him or to the general public.
In the handful of years leading up to Privilege, elements of protest (often quite naive) had been steadily bleeding into areas of popular culture, pop music especially. Given the times, such a development was inevitable. But while a degree of social consciousness left over from the folk revival of the late ’50s appeared to be flourishing in pop, albeit on a very small scale, it was also being systematically co-opted and undermined by the same media entities that were busily marketing it.
Record companies in particular had an enduring instinct for cashing in with impunity while lessening the potential impact of even the most strident pronouncement so long as its dissemination was firmly within their control. Whether it was Dunhill Records in 1965 making a fortune for the parent corporation (ABC-Paramount) off Barry McGuire’s recording of P. F. Sloan’s “Eve of Destruction” – a catchy melody with hair-raising lyrics about racial conflagration, nuclear holocaust, bodies floating in the Jordan River, you name it – or Dino, Desi, and Billy’s attempt on the life of Bob Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom” for the Reprise label (a wholly owned subsidiary of Warner Bros.) that same year, it was obvious that the organs of mass media – even in the 1960s, that dangerous decade of marketable revolution – could easily turn an earnest statement into a cultural joke of immense profit. And anybody who tuned in, let’s say, to WOR in New York – 710 on the AM dial, y’dig – and caught the last minute or so of The Byrds singing about how the times they were a-changin’, then heard Murray the K barge in during the fade-out (“Whuz happ’nin’, baby?”) to breathlessly plug next Friday’s big remote from Roosevelt Field on Long Island with Paul Revere and The Raiders signing autographs, didn’t need to know the punch line. They were the punch line.
Of course, it’s only with the passage of time that Watkins’ films reveal themselves for what they are: eerily prescient. The War Game had been banned for this very reason. Her Majesty’s government may have been comprised of fools and madmen, but that didn’t make them stupid. Watkins’ devastating portrait of Britain’s inadequate preparedness for a nuclear conflict they were doing nothing to prevent would have made everyone look like incompetent, senseless goons if it had gone out over the air. And his 1971 film Punishment Park, with its specter of mass sedition tribunals and detention camps for native-born American dissenters, is more breathtakingly relevant in the age of the so-called War on Terror than it ever was during the Vietnam conflict when it seemed to some a trifle paranoid.
With Privilege, Peter Watkins appeared to sense the ongoing process of corporate absorption of protest and how it would come to eventually consume all media – in the United States, in Great Britain, everywhere (in fact, his current website is almost wholly preoccupied with the issue of media manipulation and the variegated forms it now assumes). It wasn’t difficult at all for him to imagine a scenario whereby the State would themselves find a way of cashing in on public demonstrations of dissent. Remember, that brief moment he experienced as a luminous figure in the state-run BBC’s Documentary Programming division was the result of a film that openly condemned warfare and militarism at a time when Britain’s defense spending (over £300 million) accounted for half its national debt. When he followed it with a film of such elemental force that its absorption proved impossible, Watkins was officially rendered an outcast from the mainstream and subjected to a hundred different libels both private and public. In effect, he knew Steven Shorter’s story intimately – his rise as the government’s pet pop star, his fall as a teller of unmarketable truths – because in a very real sense, before any hand had written it, he had been Steven Shorter.
How else would he have known? By his own admission Peter Watkins went into directing Privilege knowing little to nothing about the pop music scene; extracting what insight into this universe as he could from Wolf Koenig’s Lonely Boy (1962), a cinema verité hand job on Paul Anka produced for cinema’s bastion of narcolepsy, the National Film Board of Canada. One could make the case that Koenig’s sweaty-palmed portrait of a rapidly aging teen idol in the pre-Beatlemania era may not have been the most appropriate source of inspiration for a movie about a cutting-edge English pop star with a masochistic stage act in the late 1960s, but this anomalous choice didn’t prevent Watkins from lifting entire scenes and bits of dialogue from that movie like a dinner napkin and dropping them into Privilege with only the most perfunctory modification (that he used them to great effect is only a testament to his skill as a filmmaker; it says little about the judgment of his research).
But the earlier documentary, while it certainly informs Privilege, does not dominate it. That psychodrama of catharsis which is the controlling intention of Steven Shorter’s act, for instance, is nowhere to be found in Koenig’s film, yet it became a persistent motif in Peter Watkins’ filmmaking, residing at the center of later works like Punishment Park and his 1976 masterpiece Edvard Munch. Indeed, with regard to Punishment Park he spoke in a 1975 interview with schoolteacher Joseph Gomez about his desire to “create a framework within which the very participants in the film release their pent-up emotions and frustrations and fears; these that are common to us all, and which are created by the pressures of contemporary society.” And when it came to Shorter’s fall from public grace, he would also find nothing in Koenig’s cinematic press release to draw from. He had his inspiration for that turn of events closer to hand than he may have wished. He’d been living through it, after all, for well over a year.
Privilege opened on April 27, 1967 – just in time for the fabled Summer of Love – at the Warner Theatre in Leicester Square to a general chorus of scorn from virtually every film writer in England. Some of the bile spewed at Watkins’ film may have been left over from the War Game controversy, but that couldn’t account for all of it. The general tenor was one of “Here he goes again,” with the tiny giants of British film criticism questioning either his sanity, his integrity, or both.
The worst part was, nobody seemed to have any idea what they were criticizing. John Russell Taylor, writing in The Times, received the film as “a comment on the swinging Pop scene” and dismissed it accordingly as “juvenile” (a word, along with “hysterical”, that would echo throughout many reviews). The Guardian wrote it off as “a hotchpotch of film and television,” while the critic for The Financial Times, who seemed to think Privilege represented Watkins’ debut – he’d only been making movies since the late 1950s – found it “alternatively arresting and ridiculous” and maintained that “teenage taste still has an odd way of favouring professionalism, artistry and certain qualities of warmth and vitality and humour” (in other words, Watkins could have learned a lot about the world from studying The Beatles . . . the most neurotic act in the history of show business). The most bizarre notice of all came from dear old Penelope Gilliat in The Observer, who managed to at once praise the film and heap more invective on it than all the other critics in England combined (a balancing act that could well have won her that gig at The New Yorker a year later).
None of that mattered, of course. The multifarious grousing of critics meant almost as little in 1967 as it does today, particularly when it betrayed a quality of radiant ignorance such as this. But the J. Arthur Rank Organisation, which handled the film’s distribution in Great Britain on behalf of Universal Pictures, soon took the drastic step of withdrawing it from general circuit bookings after somebody over there determined that Privilege was, in the words of Alexander Walker, “an immoral and un-Christian picture which mocked the Church, defied authority and encouraged youth in lewd practices.” And that meant something. With that last, blinkered act, Privilege was officially consigned to the margins of cinema forever.
People love to look back on the 1960s as a time when everything broke wide open; when the old order of Western society was thrown off in favor of a new consciousness, raised by a new generation restless for change. It’s a good myth, long enduring and almost touching in its romance. But it’s a myth nevertheless, and people only buy it, as they buy everything else, because it’s been skillfully sold to them. In Privilege – a genuinely radical film; a near masterpiece so lost in the ether that its own director cannot get a copy of it – Peter Watkins boldly advanced the proposition that, in the end, we exist as followers in a cult of commodity, creatures of the marketplace buying every manner of human phenomena (war, rage, dissent, revolution, love) the way we buy tube socks and teacups. But no one wanted to hear it; not from him, not from anybody. Then as now, everything has its price. The only thing you can’t make a dime off of is the truth.
For those who derive comfort from this principle, conformity doesn’t get any more fruitful than that.