Following the success of his television docu-drama Culloden (1964) and a surprise Oscar for the BBC-banned The War Game (1965), director Peter Watkins resigned from the corporation and went to Universal Studios to make his debut feature Privilege. Shot in the same docu-drama style complete with BBC-style narration, it was almost universally panned on release and has rarely been seen since.
With the former Manfred Mann singer Paul Jones and supermodel Jean Shrimpton in the cast, it seems that Universal thought they would be getting a marketable ‘Swinging London’ film. Instead, Watkins set his film in a dystopian future as in The War Game; the post-nuclear panic of the earlier film is replaced with a world of terrifying conformity where Conservative and Labour parties have formed a coalition government and youth rebellion is channelled through pop performances. Steven Shorter (Paul Jones) is the king of pop: his songs constantly play on all radio stations and he is even treated to Britain’s first ever ticker tape parade. His bizarre stage act involves being beaten by prison guards before breaking free, inciting the crowd into pantomime booing and hysterical stage invasions. As well as calming unruly youth, Shorter’s popularity is used to sell dog food and tackle the nation’s apple glut. It seems he has become a commodity himself - one ad claims: ‘When you buy here you’re buying Steven Shorter’. This empty personality is perfectly embodied by Paul Jones’s performance of studied blandness, which drew much criticism at the time. He seems ill at ease and/or bored, and at times looks like he is about to vomit, but no one seems to care. He is a poor overworked pop star, with Vanessa (Shrimpton), an artist hired to paint him, being the only one with any sympathy. His management makes plans for him to promote religion and nationalism amongst his fans. ‘A better way of life, a fruitful conformity’ is to be endorsed. That this is done without consulting him leads to an act of defiance (asking for hot chocolate instead of wine with his lobster).
Perhaps the highlight of the film is the music, with great original songs by Mike Leander (the man who later gave us Gary Glitter), from the pleading melodrama of ‘Privilege (Set Me Free)’ - famously covered by Patti Smith on her album ‘Easter’ - to Paul Jones’s poppy top 5 hit ‘I’ve been a bad, bad boy’. But best of all are the ‘hymns’ played by Shorter’s backing band, The Runner Beans, sporting tonsures and monks’ habits (not to be confused with the American GI band The Monks): we get a raucous rhythm and blues version of ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ and a gorgeous Byrds-esque ‘Jerusalem’.
Although Privilege is a fascinating and unusual film in some aspects, the allegory is often too heavy-handed (the chanting ‘We Will Conform’ and Nazi salutes albeit with Union Jack armbands). But its greatest flaw is that it fails to capture the way music and rebellion were being commodified and sold at that time and would be in the future too. Peter Watkins admits to knowing very little about the music industry when he made Privilege, picking up what he could from watching the documentary about American teen idol Paul Anka, Lonely Boy (1962). Where the narration in Culloden is informative about the economic and social structures behind the historical battle, in Privilege it fails to shed light on the workings of the music business in the way a film such as, say, DA Pennebaker’s Bob Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back (1965) does. Unlike the disturbingly realistic The War Game, Privilege is convincing neither on a documentary nor dramatic level. And where The War Game and Culloden stand as two of the most distinctive pieces of television, Privilege holds a less exalted position in the history of cinema.
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