Some movies gain a reputation by being seen, others, like Peter Watkins’ Privilege, are noted for exactiy the opposite reason. Thankfully we can now view this 60s cult classic for all the right reasons with the BFI offshoot Flipside kicking off 2010 with a long-overdue reissue.
It got a right old kicking from the critics in ’67, but time has been kind to Privilege since. As has the world we live in. Set at a time of a coalition government (Labour and Conservative polices are so similar, they simply run the country together), we discover that the biggest name in the country is pop star Steven Shorter (Paul Jones). His stage act, which sees him imprisoned and abused onstage, is designed to create anger amongst his audience – taking away their anger from the wider world around them and indeed, the government.
On the back of this public adoration, Shorter is a commercial and political tool. Run by committee (with government backing), his music is played on every station, he fronts a chain of Steven Shorter discos UK-wide and dominates consumption of everything from dog food to fridge freezers. If the country’s leaders want to sell something, they stick Steven’s face on it. Indeed, when the UK has an apple glut, Shorter is brought in to front an ad campaign encouraging us all to eat 6-a-day.
But the ruling elite wants more of Shorter – they want him to bring the public back to the church. Using an all-new stage act where the pop star ‘repents’ and finds faith at a rally at the national stadium, Shorter fronts the ‘Christian Crusade’ backed by funky versions of Onward Christian Soldiers and Jerusalem by a house band, some faith healing and fighting words by the church. It’s all reminiscent of Nazi Germany – a world where everyone conforms for the ‘common good’ and intolerance is not accepted.
But that’s exactly what’s coming from Steven Shorter. In his spare time, he’s being painted by artist Vanessa Ritchie (Jean Shrimpton). But not only that – she’s asking questions of him and about him, questions that, over time, put doubts into Shorter’s head. And on live television, during an awards ceremony, it all comes crashing down as he shows his anger at being unable to live his own life.
As I mentioned earlier, Privilege was hammered by critics back in the day, partly due to its anti-establishment theme, partly because few thought the scenario was even vaguely believable and partly because of the ineffectiveness of the leads. For me, none of that holds up watching this reissue.
Indeed, the scenario is all too real in 2010 – the X Factor’s dominance on TV and across the media, the Prime Minister making a point of commenting on the state of Susan Boyle’s mental state – entertainment in the modern-era does have the ability to take our minds away from the real problems and concerns of the world. And of course, as the Jonathan Ross/Russell Brand incident of last year showed, the media is capable of generating a public backlash against the biggest of names. A coalition government through a lack of policy difference isn’t all that far-fetched either.
As for the leads, well, they work too. Up to a point. Jones perhaps lacks the charisma the pop star role needs, but he certainly has the fragility required for the latter stages of the movie. Shrimpton quite obviously isn’t a big screen natural – you struggle to even hear her at times. But she’s a scene stealer everytime she appears. She wasn’t the face of the 1960s by chance you know.
But the biggest plus of Privilege is Peter Watkins. A controversial figure, he had come to the movie business after his most prominent work, The War Game, was banned by the BBC. He wasn’t willing to pull any punches for the big screen either.
The film is part mock documentary and part movie. Slightly disconcerting at first, but very effective in getting across the scenario, the world of Privilege and the succession of shady figures that run it. Everyone from Shorter’s minder and anarchist music arranger to the businessmen with the ‘real’ power sitting on the ‘committee’ have their own (less than likeable) personalities and quotable lines. There’s a real attention to detail here, which means Privilege is the kind of movies that can take repeated viewing.
Of course, there are holes in the movie – Shorter’s act for a start, Vanessa’s ability to convince ‘break’ Shorter in such a brief time and to some extent, the idea that the entire population will buy into one pop star. But let’s be honest, since when did a movie have to completely conform to logic?
Overall, Privilege is a fine film and one that’s ripe for reappraisal. Unlikely ever to shake off the words ‘cult classic’, it’s a movie that has blossomed with age despite being still very much of its age. If you love leftfield movies of that particular decade, you’ll love Privilege. And if you don’t…well, why are you reading this site?
Finally, a word about the extras. As ever, some fine articles in the booklet, along with the trailer on the disc and some tasty bonus material for fans of the director – early shorts of The Diary of an Unknown Soldier (1959) and The Forgotten Faces (1961). Good work once again Flipside.