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New Perspectives on Watkins: Future Revolutions, Wolf Cinema, Berlin, 2018

With the exception of the title itself, the only opening credit Privilege contains is the very first image of the movie: that familiar sphere against a background of stars, with the words, ‘Universal presents…’ It is an extraordinary moment. For the audience is participating in a major act of subversion, as a Hollywood studio funds a movie that takes an axe to all the values and qualities that it has relied upon to capture audiences worldwide, whether fast-paced narrative, glamour or the charismatic personality. 


Privilege was Watkins’ one chance to use the system to take on the system. For during the iconoclaustic 1960s, the studio executives no longer knew what the rules were to hold on to a predominantly young audience whose sympathies lay increasingly with the anti-establishment voices of the counter-culture. Their answer was to grant an unparalleled degree of freedom to film-makers whose instinct was to break the rules. Associated with Watkins in the making of Privilege was the small British company, Memorial Enterprises, which had been founded by the actors Albert Finney and Michael Medwin. In this brief window of opportunity before convention re-established itself, Memorial Enterprises went on to produce two more famously anti-establishment films for Hollywood studios – Lindsay Anderson’s If…. in 1968 (Paramount), and O Lucky Man! In 1973 (Warner Bros). 


‘So the lunatics have taken over the asylum,’ a Hollywood executive famously observed when in 1919 Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith established United Artists as a corporation that would enable them to maintain artistic control over their own films. In 1966, when Privilege was filmed, Hollywood’s most promising asylum seemed to be Britain. It was the year of ‘swinging London’, when Britain was setting the agenda in popular music, fashion and, yes, even film.


That summer, while Watkins was filming his satirical take of the British pop world, Antonioni, who had to come to London to make Blow Up, was holding up an equally sardonic mirror to the world of fashion. Both were documenting what would with hindsight come to be seen as a turning-point: the liberating spirit of the decade was giving way to decadence and disenchantment. Yet for all its critique of a shallow society that had lost its sense of meaning and value, Antonioni  fashioned Blow Up – with its good-looking stars and Herbie Hancock score – into a sexy, cool product that made a fortune for MGM.  He exposes an empty society, yet, like his photographer ‘hero’, produces beautifully manipulated images that quickly dissolve any indignation the audience might feel. 


In Privilege Peter Watkins refuses to allow the audience such aesthetic gratification. Using a metaphorical pair of tweezers, he holds up his ‘beautiful people’ to the cold light of intellectual scrutiny, demanding that the audience confront the deceit that shapes their world. 


Using his trademark ‘mockumentary’ style, Watkins visits a Britain of the near future. Young Steven Shorter is the nation’s most successful pop star, with a global following.  His talent and glamour make him so irresistible that the coalition of forces that make up the establishment – whether business, state or church - seek to use him as an instrument to control the masses. The setpiece of the film occurs when all these forces come together to stage a concert in the ‘National Stadium’ at the beginning of ‘Christian Crusade Week’, with Steven as their reluctant figurehead. Watkins stresses the malevolence of the enterprise by filming the event in the style of Hitler’s Nuremberg rallies. But the chilling core of the sequence is the presence of so many familiar, even cosy British symbols that the establishment co-opts, perverts and re-purposes to its own end. It is a section of the boy scouts who lead the Nazi-style paramilitary brigades. The priest who bids the vast crowd to ‘conform’ looks like the local vicar. And when Steven Shorter’s warm-up band, in black shirts and tunics with Union Jack arm bands, take the stage, it is not the ‘Horst Wessel Song’ they sing, but that most innocently British of all anthems, sung every year on the last night of the Proms, William Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’.


Watkins warns us about the insidious power of the enemy within who will undermine our freedom not in spite of our way of life but through our way of life. In a world that is still struggling to come to terms with the consequences of Brexit and Donald Trump in the White House, it is an an obviously topical message. I am writing this piece in the wake of the revelation of how the British consultancy company Cambridge Analytica took control of the details of 50 million Facebook users. One of its executives, not knowing that he was being secretly recorded, offered a succinct explanation of how it took advantage of this knowledge to manipulate public opinion:


‘Sometimes you can use proxy organisations who are already there. You feed them. They are civil society organisations. Charities or activist groups. And we use them – feed them the material and they do the work… We just put information into the bloodstream of the internet and then watch it grow, give it a little push every now and again over time to watch it take shape. And so this stuff infiltrates the online community and expands but with no branding – so it’s unattributable, untrackable.’


The internet had yet to be invented when Peter Watkins made Privilege, yet he anticipated the way in which our apparent freedom can be used to control us.


In the 1960s, there were few more potent symbols of freedom than the British rock star, yet as the adoring masses within the frame of the film fall under the charismatic spell of Steven Shorter, Watkins presents him to us the audience as a deeply troubled, unwilling participant. Any charisma that Steve might hold for his adoring fans, Watkins deliberately snips away in presenting him to us as a trapped, awkward, unhappy, maladjusted young man, whose exploitation is so complete that he is incapable of even smiling. He may be at the very height of his superstardom, but our abiding impression is of his weakness as he struggles to control the forces that have taken him over.


Privilege is a warning that vested interests will control us if we let them. Watkins’ refusal to allow those vested interests to control him is one reason why Privilege is a less well known film than it ought to be. Rather than fashion a pleasing product observing the commercial rules, Watkins confronts his audience with a difficult message, resisting the temptation to offer any false comfort. The satisfaction of seeing Steven Shorter take the hero’s journey of katharsis and transformation so beloved of Hollywood scriptwriters is denied to us. He is wretched and unfulfilled as a pop idol, and there is no attempt even to dress up his eventual refusal to co-operate as some kind of a personal triumph; he is simply dropped and forgotten. The focus is not on the possibility for personal redemption but on the remorseless logic behind the struggle between an exploitative system and the individual.


Shunning the compromises that made poor Steven Shorter so miserable in the entertainment industry, it was perhaps inevitable that Watkins should have been an outsider to that industry himself, but Privilege still left its mark, even if those who borrowed from it tended to water down its message. 


The Who’s 1969 rock opera Tommy, which Ken Russell turned into the 1975 movie, took Steven Shorter’s tormented sense of his own imprisonment as its starting-point. In Privilege, Steven sings of his broken spirit, of the pain he cannot shed, and of his hands that are tied. He begs to be set free...  Tommy, the ‘deaf, dumb and blind kid’, is an alter ego, trapped in himself, but he breaks out to achieve a messiah-like status. ‘I’m Free’ is an anthem to the kind of self-fulfilment that Steven never achieves, at least so long as he remains a rock star. Uninterested in the political potency of the original story, Tommy delivers the conventional affirmation that mainstream entertainment demands. It becomes itself an example of the phenomenon that Privilege articulates – the tendency of popular culture to bring the individual voice within the bounds of safe conformity. 


Closer to the original spirit of Privilege is Derek Jarman’s 1977 Jubilee, which pursues the same theme of big business corrupting free spirits. Jarman seems to offer a conscious nod to Watkins’ film when he stages a spectacularly decadent performance of Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ in Westminster Cathedral, which has been turned into a giant discotheque at the bidding of nefarious media mogul Borgia Ginz.  But finally Jarman relishes the mayhem he depicts too much to be an effective critic. The power of Privilege stems from the fact that Watkins keeps the catchy songs and attractive personalities at arm’s length, never allowing aestheticism to blunt the satirical edge of a film that remains first and foremost an indictment of the establishment’s corrupting influence, whether then or now.

© Charles Drazin, 2018.

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