Background: In 1996, following the collapse of a film which I hoped to develop with Albert Finney’s production company, on the 1916 Easter uprising in Dublin, I was approached by John Heyman, a British artists’ agent, to make a film based on an original screenplay by Johnny Speight, which dealt with the influence of Steven Shorter, a pop star in the 1960s. American novelist Norman Bognor and I adapted the script, which we retitled ‘Privilege’, to emphasize the significance of Steven Shorter as an allegory for the manner in which national states, working via religion, the mass media, sports, Popular Culture, etc., divert a potential political challenge by young people. In case this theme appears exaggerated, it is important to keep in mind that it was set in the ‘swinging Britain’ of the 1960s, and was prescient of the way that Popular Culture and the media in the US commercialized the anti-war and counter-culture movement in that country as well. ‘Privilege’ also ominously predicted what was to happen in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain of the 1980s - especially during the period of the Falkland Islands War.
Filming: ‘Privilege’ was filmed in Birmingham and London in August and September 1966, with a mixed amateur and professional cast, including pop singer Paul Jones, and model Jean Shrimpton. Cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, sound recordist Ian Bruce, art director Bill Brodie, make-up artist Ann Brodie, costume Vanessa Clarke, and editor John Trumper made up the principal crew. The film used indirect colour lighting, a mobile camera, and - again - interviews to camera. Additional scenes (e.g., in a nightclub, with Steve’s manager Uncle Julie presenting his protégé with a framed portrait of his wife Gladys), and a number of the interviews were inspired by the remarkable Canadian documentary film directed by Wolf Koenig and Roman Kroitor called ‘Lonely Boy’ (1962), about pop-star Paul Anka.
Reaction: ‘Privilege’ was heavily attacked for being “hysterical” when it first appeared in Britain, with particularly unpleasant reviews for the acting of Jean Shrimpton and Paul Jones. The fact that everything which was shown or implied in the film came about in Britain in subsequent years - especially during the nationalistic period of Margaret Thatcher - has done nothing to change the status of ‘Privilege’ as another marginalized film. Although it was attacked at the time for “copying the style of TV”, it is noticeable that many of the elements of this film - use of colour, mobility, structure - have since been absorbed by mainstream feature filmmaking. At least one scene from Privilege appears to have been directly copied and used in Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Clockwork Orange’. The national cinema circuit in the UK, J. Arthur Rank, refused to show the film for something to do with what they deemed its “immoral nature”. Universal Pictures withdrew the film after brief screenings in a few countries, and the film has been rarely shown since - very occasionally on TV. Universal Pictures in Hollywood refuse to let me rent or buy a copy of this film, even on VHS.
First, several newspaper reviews from 1967 (it is interesting to compare the tone of the critics in Britain with those in the USA), followed by some comments from the public today:
‘Watkins has produced not so much a film as a hotchpotch of film and television - and it simply doesn’t come off.’: (The Guardian)
‘The emotional ambivalence in this film is even more marked than it was in ‘The War Game’. Both movies seem to me to luxuriate in images of the violence they believe they are indicting ... ‘Privilege’ is not only about hysteria; it is itself hysterical ... In its ranting simplifications, it may well be procuring a conformity as repugnant as the one it is claiming to reject.’ (The Sunday Telegraph)
‘Pop goes the Watkins ... Misanthropy is one thing, monotony another; and watching ‘Privilege’ is rather like watching a man repeatedly labouring to raise a heavy hammer, whirling it round his head, and bringing it crashing down on his own hand.’ (Spectator)
‘Nowhere does the film admit any inherent social or cultural resilience in the human race, not even to the point of acknowledging that in show business, which is the setting of the story, teenage taste still has an odd way of favouring professionalism, artistry and certain qualities of warmth and vitality and humour. ‘Privilege’ is, indeed, a dispirited view of us and our future, and a strange first film - alternatively arresting and ridiculous - for Peter Watkins.’ (The Financial Times)
‘The Government is Coalition and the slogan is “We Will Conform.” No we won’t, and you should know that by now, Mr. Watkins.’ (The Sun)
‘What hangs around Watkins’ neck is sheer lack of professionalism: his film is a mass of poor scripting, inept acting, and directionless, irrelevant camerawork and editing ... the television-vérité style that Watkins has clung to so obsessively throughout his short career has now reached its ultimate condemnation ... Everything in ‘Privilege’ goes wrong, and one can do little but catalogue the failures ... For ‘The War Game’ the technique was just about as hollow, but the film’s subject gave it the compulsive fascination of a nightmare; with ‘Privilege, the result is mere farce.’ (British Film Institute Monthly Film Bulletin)
‘Privilege’ ... is more absorbing in its failure than a good many films are that fulfill their purpose.’: (Washington Post)
‘Privilege’, a cruelly compelling, often brilliant film ... the real star ... is director Peter Watkins, only 31, who must get credit for this acidly anti-establishment film ... the quasi-documentary touches he mastered on BBC money are sharply and effectively in evidence. And in his first full-length film, he shows he can use color with startling success. No doubt about it: Watkins is on his way.’ (Playboy)
‘Absurd? It is set in mythical British 1970, which removes it from now. But a thoughtful look at today’s super-adoration of pop-music singers makes director Watkins’ chilling premise more believable ... ‘Privilege’ is at times brutal and offensive. It is not a happy film. But it is always brilliant.’ (The Christian Science Monitor)
The public today:
In 2000, four members of the American public wrote the following on the ‘Imdb’ website...:
‘Absolutely in tune with the year 2000 ... Very fascinating movie about how a society can control their youth via a super star. Take note that all of these elements were conceived in the ‘60s. The theme and the message of this movie are the important part. Too bad that it is impossible to find a copy of it, but if by accident it is shown, please don't miss it ...’ (Portland, Oregon)
‘Interesting take on the use of celebrity to enforce conformity ... I wish this film was available, but I remember several images though it's been almost 30 years since I saw it on a late TV movie. One was the scene of monks in robes jamming to an updated version of "Onward Christian Soldiers." A second was the huge concert in the arena where the archbishop blessed the flags, surrounded by torches (purposely copying Nazi rites). The last were the chants of tens of thousands - "I will conform!" with upheld candles, like lighters at a concert encore.’ (Dallas, Texas)
‘Fascinating, baffling, confused and prescient - sometimes all within the same scene. A true artifact of the late ‘60s. Unfortunately, because it was released by Universal Studios (often referred to as "The Movie Studio that hates Movies"), ‘Privilege’ has been near impossible to see for decades. Still never released on home video (shocking). Fortunately, the American Cinemateque just showed the ONLY existing print in the world. It was pretty ratty, with a constant hiss on the soundtrack, but at least it was shown. The idea of a pop singer turning into a national icon that transcends his commercial status is even more relevant today than in '67 ... See it if you can. And write those letters to Universal Studios and hope this gets released on video, soon.’ (USA)
‘Good movie about a singer whose popularity serves for societal manipulation ... The concept of using rock for social control is a bit dated, but try reworking it in the context of modern consumerism: Huge corporations and their musician-sponsors. Why, Madonna and Michael Jackson would never allow their artistic talents to be used to get people to buy Pepsi, right? The Beatles "Revolution" in a Nike ad is out of the question, true? Janis Joplin's estate wouldn't allow Mercedes-Benz to feature her tune about the car, correct? We aren't being manipulated by that old time rock and roll, are we? Not even to buy "Like A Rock" Chevy trucks? Paranoid enough? Then you'll enjoy ‘Privilege’. (Florida)
At the present time, ‘Privilege’ is one of the hardest of my films to acquire. For many years it has unfortunately been the general practise of the major Hollywood studios to shelve their old films (especially those from the 1960s) and not make them available to the public. Thus it has been for ‘Privilege’ for many years, and the film is rarely seen, except at a few festivals, and is still not available anywhere in the world on VHS or DVD.
There is one 35mm copy (still in excellent condition) which is available from Universal Pictures, but this is only for special cinema and festival screenings, and is expensive to rent. This is the copy which was specially supplied by UP to the Carpenter Centre at Harvard University for their retrospective of my work in January, 2001 For the terms and availability of this print, please contact:
SVP of Technical Services,
Universal City Studios,
100 Universal City Plaza,
Universal City, California 91608,
++1-818 777-4727 tel
I have now prepared a public statement on the blocking of Privilege by Universal Pictures and I hope this to be available shortly on this website.