Long before David Beckham became brand Beckham selling his good looks and soccer prowess to the youth of today, the enigmatic 1960s film director Peter Watkins conjured up a nightmarish vision of Britain where its totalitarian rulers used the power of celebrity to control the masses.
Privilege was the filmmaker’s ambitious warning of the state of things to come with regards to media manipulation and commercialisation. Made in 1966, just before the ‘summer of love’, the faux fly-on-the-wall documentary follows the tragic story of superstar Steven Shorter (a subtle, brooding performance by Manfred Mann singer Paul Jones), a Birmingham boy whose music and personality has shot him to iconic status – much like the late Michael Jackson, which this story creepily anticipates.
Returning to his hometown after a successful US tour, Shorter soon finds himself being manipulated by his agents, government handlers and even the church, in a bid to keep the country’s youth under control. While juggling his commitments to his minders, Shorter seeks out some kind of humanity in his life – he even tries and fails to find love (with famed model Jean Shrimpton, no less) But the invisible bubble he’s built around him to suppress his true feelings of anger and outrage blow up, causing his fall from grace. And – just like a certain golfing star – loses all of his endorsements, and therefore his star power.
Heavily attacked on its release and given little distribution by Universal, Privilege is one of those anti-establishment films that have long been out of circulation. Visually stunning, it was certainly an inspiration for A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick’s own take on a totalitarian Britain and shares the same themes as Lindsay Anderson’s If trilogy. Now Privilege has thankfully been resurrected and restored by the BFI in an excellent new Flipside release.
With the cult of celebrity and government spin at its zenith, there’s no better time to reappraise this chilling and compelling satire and indeed of Watkins himself.
Special features include two of the filmmaker’s earlier shorts, The Diary of an Unknown Soldier (1959) and The Forgotten Faces (1961) – fine examples of the newsreel documentary style Watkins has become famous for.
Released 25 January