Sunday, 29 April 2012

Privilege (1967)

Privilege is one of those films from yesteryear that you watch back and find yourself baffled and frustrated that we learned nothing from it.

Directed by Peter Watkins - the genius behind such BBC productions as the anachronistic Culloden, which featured a modern day documentary film crew interviewing both the English and Scots soldiers of the 1746 battle and the  controversial, banned for twenty years nuclear war docu-drama The War Game - Privilege would prove to be his only real commercial feature, and it wasn't in the least bit watered down for a more mainstream audience, relying on Watkins usual documentary, cinema verite stylings and packing a powerful message against the established order. 

It tells the story (from an original idea by Johnny Speight, Alf Garnett's creator) of Steven Shorter a pop star who, in the near future of the time, is the UK and the world's number one musician. Thousands upon thousands are totally enamoured by Steven and, as the film opens, he is returning from a US tour to a sensational, hysterical and positively presidential ticker tape parade through the streets of his hometown, Birmingham. 

Steven is played by Paul Jones who was at the time no stranger to musical fame, having just quit from his position of the lead singer of Manfred Mann, citing exhaustion from the pressures of fame. No doubt, the film's subject chimed with him. Because you see, all is not what it seems; Shorter isn't just luckily popular, as the 'documentary' plays out we are let into the secret that his meteoric rise to fame has all been planned. Planned by The Establishment (who incidentally are a Coalition Government) They gave the nation Steven Shorter, a vibrant, charismatic performer with some suggestion of violence and aggression in his character (it's alluded to that he had received a prison sentence and indeed, performs a concert from behind bars, handcuffed and attacked by 'guards' whipping his devoted teenage female fan base into a frenzy) when violence was popular and now, at the point of commercial saturation, they're moving onto the next stage of the plan to have Steven repent and find religion. The result will be a more pacified, obedient and controlled nation and a rise in C of E figures across the country. 

It's a brilliant theme for the story and chillingly prescient and prophetic. One can easily imagine just such a story not only being made now, but actually happening now as today's music and entertainment business is ostensibly much more manufactured than it ever was in the 1960s, a world in which arch media manipulator Simon Cowell thrives and gains domination both across TV, radio and music charts and, as I grumbled earlier last week, manages to procure front page news daily despite bigger more important global news stories occurring.

Steven Shorter is in fact little more than a puppet, a blank canvas for the Establishment to paint whatever they want for society upon. Watkins gives us some brilliant little allusions throughout. Look at this shot, when the documentaries camera seeks out a blown up photo of Steven;

In this first shot Steven's face is completely obscured by the glare from a light. It's seemingly accidental, but the camera lingers for some time and the subliminal message becomes clear; Steven is blank, a nothing. He is the most important thing, but he is totally devoid of himself.

When the camera loses the glare we see Stephen's expression for the first time and it's clear something is awry. He seems pained, wincing and completely at odds with the rest of the photograph. Clearly Stephen is troubled and uncomfortable as the focus for a nation - yet ironically, the nation fails to see it, seeing only what they're meant to see, as part of the grand plan.

This theme is further explored by the inclusion of the character Vanessa Ritchie; an artist commissioned to paint Steven. And who do you cast alongside a major pop artist with a growing resentment for the spotlight in your film about fame? Why, the world's first supermodel of course, a young girl who by this stage had appeared on the front page of every magazine possible and as such knew fame all too well - and would later turn her back on it completely to become a hotelier in Penzance (which she is to this day); the beautiful Jean Shrimpton.

As he sits for her, Vanessa tries to get to know him and encourages him to express his individuality and question his path more and more. During one of the film's many direct to camera 'interviews', she bemoans the fact that Steven is so distant and remote and in short hard to get close to or get to know. The irony being that Steven appears everywhere, as one amusing and equally sad scene shows when she asks him to change the radio station, which is playing his latest single (in fact Paul Jones's 'I've Been A Bad Bad Boy', a great tune that would later be revived in The Boat That Rocked soundtrack) only for the next station to be playing it too, and the one after that...

It is this trait of untouchability to his character that eventually shapes her work; the painting is suitably blank, hollow eyed and empty

We see Steven's world, both through the eyes of Vanessa and the eyes of the unflinching documentary camera. Occasionally, Steven stares directly at it, with a look of bemused helplessness, a plea for some support and understanding playing in his eyes. The first glimpse of it is seen in the frankly amazing silver domain known, as the voice over explains, as a Steven Dream Palace; a place where everything remotely Steven related can be purchased, all 100% made in Britain, hinting at the 'I'm Backing Britain' Campaign and proving that Steven is key to the economy in the Establishment plans too.

The plan for Steven repent comes to a head, he is freed by his faith and, after a couple of religious songs suffused with a freakbeat and jangling guitar backing; 'Onward Christian Soldiers', played by Steven's band dressed as monks and a version of 'Jerusalem', both of which are actually rather good...which does make one worry how valid the manipulation actually is! (but don't take my word for it, I've included the latter at the bottom of this post) Steven becomes a scarlet Nehru collar suited new Messiah bought wholesale by the C of E and holds a giant open air concert cum rally at a football stadium, the result of which sees hundreds of thousands flock to the Church in its aftermath.

It's a stunning highpoint in the film, as the besotted congregation hang on his every word amidst all the pageantry, pomp, fireworks and glowing, burning crucifixes. It's part Songs Of Praise on acid and part Nuremberg rally - shedding a dubious and damning light upon the Government and The C of E as a result. It even precedes the epic similar quasi religious, quasi Nazi and wholly fanatical sequences which appear in Ken Russell's Tommy eight years later. Sorry Uncle Ken, but Peter beat you to it.

But inevitably, the relationship between painter and sitter becomes something more and serves as a catalyst for change in Steven that will ultimately remove him from his position of 'privilege'

He finally breaks down at an awards ceremony demanding, inarticulately, to be seen as an individual and questioning who he is. His team and hangers on (an eclectic and funny mix which gives the film it's humour; there's Freddie K, a John Cooper Clarke accented self styled anarchist, an old Jewish money man called Uncle Julie with an idea for a terribly mawkish song called 'Mother', an upper class personal manager and a bodyguard who is "Five foot eleven in uplift boots' and the perpetually preening Alvin) baffled by the outburst, squabble and fall apart. As a result he's swiftly dropped like a bad habit.

The film and documentary ends with a chilling notion; Steven is banned, with public endorsement from ever appearing in public again.
He is effectively wiped from history. 
All that's left, the voice over (which has been provided by Watkins throughout) tells us, is a handful of records and one piece of newsreel-the sound having been wiped. The puppet no longer has the script, the message has been scratched to save their own skin and perhaps, to use again leading the sheep with another shepherd. 

The reality that a pop star can fade away, remembered by a minority with a nostalgic 'whatever happened to...?' glow isn't uncommon, but the suggestion that the Establishment can wilfully do that, manipulating even our memories let alone our current thinking is an alarming one.

The film's final words tell us, perhaps even order us, that "It's going to be a happy year in Britain this year in the near future".

Privilege is available on DVD via the excellent BFI Flipside label. It is well worth watching, perhaps as a double bill with that equally prescient-though light hearted- Peter Cook satire of the late 60s The Rise And Rise Of Michael Rimmer.

How accurate our last generation were in predicting the state of the nation...

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