Britain, the near future. Steven Shorter (Paul Jones) is the country's biggest pop star, who attracts crowds of adoring fans everywhere he goes. His words and endorsements influence the actions of millions. But what they don't know is that Steven is controlled by the government, who are eager to keep the population, and especially its youth, under control and to keep them away from political action. But Steven – who has fallen for Vanessa (Jean Shrimpton), originally commissioned to paint his portrait – is beginning to turn.
Peter Watkins had made his name with two films made for the BBC, Culloden and The War Game, both using documentary techniques to dramatise, respectively, the last battle to take place on British soil and the effects of a nuclear strike. The War Game had been infamously banned by the BBC – a ban not lifted until its so far only TV showing in 1985 – but had gone on to win an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. Meanwhile, the British film industry in the mid-Sixties was on an upswing, with American studios keen to invest in local talent. After a film about the 1916 Easter Rising didn't get off the ground, Universal gave Watkins the go-ahead to make Privilege, with a genuine pop star (Paul Jones, the singer with Manfred Mann) and supermodel du jour Jean Shrimpton in the lead roles. The screenplay was by Norman Bogner with additions by Watkins, from an original story by Johnny (credited as John) Speight.
Privilege proved to be the only film Watkins has directed for a major studio. It's a fascinating but uneasy blend of Watkins's pseudo-documentary techniques and the demands of a commercial fiction feature. Those previous documentary techniques have been carried over here, with a narrator (Watkins himself) and the characters speaking to camera to an off-screen interviewer at intervals throughout. Although there's nothing wrong with Peter Suschitzky's colour photography, or Bill Brodie's art direction, you can't help feeling that this film might have been more appropriately shot in black and white, given that British television was exclusively monochrome (and 4:3) at the time this film was released. (Even the layout of the film's credits - all at the end with Watkins's name last - is more reminiscent of TV than cinema.) Maybe handheld 16mm...though it's very doubtful that Universal would have entertained that for a second, and black and white 35mm in 1967 was rapidly coming to the end of its life as an ongoing cinema tradition. Though some of this film's devices soon filtered into the mainstream (Sunday Bloody Sunday is another film that has its characters give talking-head interviews to camera), its mock-documentary format was ahead of its time for mainstream cinema. I'm writing this at the end of a decade where “mockumentary” has particularly thrived, so Privilege seems very timely. In an age of reality television (which Watkins also anticipated in Punishment Park), much of Privilege seems newly relevant. Though, as so often with Watkins, there's a sense of heavy-handedness at times. While what we're led to think is certainly valid, we're still told to think it a little too overtly.
In other aspects, of course, the film has superficially dated – this is a 1967 view of the late 80s (1990 is at one point referred to as a future date), a Britain which still has pound/shilling/pence currency, for example. (The UK went decimal in 1971.) But another plus is a sense of humour, something not often associated with Watkins, particularly in the bantering of Max Bacon's Uncle Julie, and a hilarious scene involving the shooting of a commercial for apples. This offsets rather wooden performances from Jones and Shrimpton.
Watkins doesn't seem to have much affinity for popular music – he' admitted that much of his inspiration came from a documentary, Lonely Boy, about Paul Anka. At the time this film was made, many people saw popular music as a possible vehicle for social change, but Watkins sees it as a political bromide, its fans easily led. Given a forty-plus-year-later perspective, it's unfortunate that those easily-led and hysterical fans are shown as exclusively female. He was no doubt taking his cue from the then just-peaked phenomenon of Beatlemania, but there were plenty of male fans of the Beatles and others, so where are they in this story? How are they pacified? As Watkins is on the side of the people versus the government, this at-times rather lofty perspective towards the mass audience threatens to undermine his own argument.
The film benefits from having a pop-music insider, Mike Leander, on board to provide the score. Leander and Mark London (who plays the role of Alvin Kirsch) wrote the films's songs which include “I've Been a Bad, Bad Boy” (a contemporary hit single for Jones) and “Privilege (Set Me Free)”, notably covered a decade later by Patti Smith on her album Easter.
Privilege was not a success, and – occasional TV airings apart – has not been the easiest of films to see prior to its DVD release. After this brush with a major studio, Watkins returned to life as an independent. His next film was Gladiators, made in Sweden in 1969.
Privolege is number 007 in the BFI''s Flipside series. Unlike the other Flipside releases, it is DVD-only as of January 2010. A Blu-ray edition is due to follow later in the year, delayed due to “an issue with materials”. The DVD is encoded for Region 2 only. Privilege itself has a PG certificate from the BBFC; the violence in the short film The Forgotten Faces raises the package to a 15.
The film is transferred in the ratio of 1.85:1 and is anamorphically enhanced. The HD master was supplied by Universal, and may well be the same as the one used for the US DVD from New Yorker, which Clydefro Jones reviewed here. The colours are strong, reds especially, with some grain, but nothing distracting: later-60s colour films do look like this.
The soundtrack is mono, as the film was in the cinemas. It's a full-sounding mix, particularly benefiting the songs. Subtitles are available for the feature and all the extras.
Those extras comprise two early short films by Watkins. However, if you own the now-out-of-print BFI DVD releases of Culloden and The War Game, you will have seen them already. Reused from the latter disc is The Diary of an Unknown Soldier (16:21). This was made in 1959 and deals with a young soldier's thoughts as he prepares for battle. Shot in 16mm at a framerate of 16fps, it has been transferred to DVD at the correct speed. The Forgotten Faces (18:08), which was on the Culloden disc, was made two years later and is an early use of Watkins's docudrama techniques as it deals with the people's uprising in Budapest, Hungary, five years before the film was made. Both films are in black and white and are presented in 4:3.
The on-disc extras are completed by the trailer for Privilege (2:47), which trades on Watkins's controversial reputation, even mentioning the War Game banning. The three extras have a “Play All” option.
The BFI's twenty-eight-page booklet begins with a detailed essay by Robert Murphy on Privilege It continues with film credits, biographies of Peter Watkins and Paul Jones.and a piece on the two short films by John R. Cook. It is illustrated with advertising designs and on-set photographs.
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