Privilege was Peter Watkins’ first feature film. It was made after he quit the BBC in disgust following the Corporation’s banning (supposedly after lobbying from the Home Office) of The War Game, his pseudo-documentary detailing a nuclear attack on Britain.
Savaged by the British press on its release in 1967, it was a reasonably big-budget British film set in a futuristic 1970 where the government are using rock star Steven Shorter (Paul Jones) to manipulate the public.
A sensation who holds the country in thrall, the act that has made him famous is a bizarre, violent piece of rock theatre that sees him dumped handcuffed in a cell on stage by leering, uniformed guards, and beaten bloody while he sings his signature song Set Me Free.
The performance regularly drives his hysterical fans to riot, but this is all to the good. Shorter us the government’s puppet, designed to grant his audience cathartic release “from the nervous tension caused by the state of the world” and divert their attention from politics.
Meanwhile, with Shorter’s every move documented, radio stations playing nothing but his music, and his image adorning everything from badges to boutiques, he also keeps them consuming.
In one of the funniest sequences we see him making a commercial for “The Apple Marketing Board” to tackle Britain’s surplus apple crop.
The most sinister phase of the Shorter project is still to come, though. Having built him into a youth hero, his handlers conspire to have Shorter lead Britain’s youth into “fruitful conformity” by going straight and pledging allegiance to God and the Union Jack at a mass Christian rally – a stunning sequence Watkins meticulously modelled after the Nazi’s Nuremberg gatherings.
The only thing “they” haven’t bargained on is what’s left of Shorter’s individuality. He becomes increasingly resentful and confused – feelings which are bolstered when he meets Vanessa, a beautiful artist commissioned to paint his portrait (played, in more intuitive casting, by It-Girl Jean Shrimpton).
Jones had been the singer with Manfred Mann before going solo and making his acting debut.
For four decades, Privilege was extremely difficult to see, but it left its mark on those who did watch it. Echoes surfaced in subsequent downbeat rock movies from Stardust (1974) to (especially) Tommy (1975), and satires from A Clockwork Orange (1971) to Britannia Hospital (1982).
The movie was censored by the BBC and Jean Shrimpton never made another film.
The George Bean Group