Privilege (1967)

“We face on every side the danger of overthrow by the forces of communism and anarchy.”

Privilege a 1967 Peter Watkins film, examines the issues of media and population control through the manipulation of a pop idol, Steve Shorter (Paul Jones). Set in Britain in the near future, Steve Shorter is the biggest name in the entertainment business. Capable of drawing huge crowds, his stage show consists of him reenacting a prison term. He’s led onto the stage in handcuffs, and placed in a sized-down replica of his jail cell while baton wielding prison guards circle menacingly around Steve’s cage. Shorter then sings a song about being set free, and the fans scream and go crazy while Steve’s pleas go unanswered. But when Steve rattles the bars, and the guards respond with brutality, the fans go berserk. At this point, a fan is plucked from the audience and allowed to ‘release’ Steve. This results in an on-stage beating for Steve.

Steve Shorter’s subversive image strikes a chord with his hysterical fans. Meanwhile Shorter’s circle jerk management team control his time, his actions and even his love life. Subject to a grueling schedule of public appearances, he also appears in adverts and markets all sorts of items, ranging from clothing to washing machines.

But the manipulation of Steve, and by extension his audience, goes far beyond the usual demands of the vast appetite of the capitalist system. With a coalition government in power, the goal is to “usefully divert violence of youth” away from any political involvement. Obsessed with Steve, and eager to mirror his behaviour, millions of adoring young fans are effectively kept “off the streets and out of politics” through manipulation of his image.

There are 300 Steven Shorter discos built to “spread happiness throughout Britain,” and there are plans to finally remake Steve into a Messianic figure. Steve’s management team, in cahoots with the government and the Church, concoct a religious conversion rally for Steve. The plan is that Steve will accept the yoke of conformity, and enter back into society in front of millions of adoring fans. When Steve publicly acknowledges his acceptance of law and order, it’s thought that his followers will brainlessly follow his meek example. The government and the church, as the dual institutions pulling the power strings in the country, both realise that they have a limited audience, and this is where Steve fits in. As an iconic rebel figure, he appeals to the youth, and so his popularity is harnessed and then hijacked at a convenient moment so that he will deliver a message of mindless conformity to his vast audience:

“It’s really quite simple. Steven Shorter has the largest following in the history of the entertainment business. We need a larger audience, so we’re using Steve’s. And we hope that through him, many of these followers will return to the faith.”

One of the more annoying members of Steve’s management team is Freddie Kay, a “self-confessed anarchist.” He’s an irritating, barely coherent, jabbering fellow, just as much in cahoots with the establishment as the rest of the ponces who surround Steve. Freddie’s avant-garde approach challenges those with more traditional leanings, and in spite of his often-contrary voice, he’s still quite at home with the rest of the management team. It’s impossible to take this character at surface value, and in his case, his professed ‘anarchism’ seems to be a pose or perhaps he serves as a complement to Steve’s rebel image.

Privilege is unfortunately very difficult to find, and that’s not too surprising. Like other films from Watkins, it doesn’t pander to a mainstream audience, and it’s intensely political and subversive. The film illustrates how iconic figures are manipulated and hijacked into patterns of conformity. To a capitalist society, a figure with any sort of following represents coveted rich, new avenues for potential audiences. And it is, therefore, essential, that anyone with mass audience appeal should be harnessed back into the system.

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Filed under British, Peter Watkins, Political/social films

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