You can’t be a prophet in your own village. At least, that’s the way the Hungarian proverb goes. But what if your village is the world stage and your words are more pronouncements on contemporary society than dire warnings for a future that may or may not happen? You might want to ask Peter Watkins about that.
When his film Privilege was released in 1967, it was almost universally savaged by British critics. They called it “hysterical,” “flailing”, “juvenile,” “a hopscotch of film and television”—and those were some of the more reserved comments. Critics in America, by and large were a bit kinder in their assessments of the film, hailing it as “uncompromising,” “crisp,” and even “brilliant.” Looking back at it over forty years later, critics on both sides of the Atlantic all were right. And they all were wrong.
What makes Privilege fascinating after all this time is how eerily close its scenario has become to the everyday workings of media manipulation in our contemporary culture. Released in 1967, and postulating a near future of 1970, Privilege was more a symbolic representation of what Watkins saw as the current state of society than anything resembling social science fiction. At its most simplistic, the film chronicles the rise and fall of Steven Shorter, the most successful pop star in Britain’s history. Shorter (Paul Jones, former lead singer of Manfred Mann), caught up in his own PR, is more puppet to the combined forces of the media, government and church, than he is an actual personality. He’s devoid of any independent thought, shifting his persona according to the whims of his handlers, transforming from cathartic victim of society to pitchman for the benefits of apple consumption to an advocate of utter conformity. It’s only when his government-hired portraitist Vanessa Richie (Jean Shrimpton) gradually becomes his lover that he begins to question his complicity in media manipulation.
Privilege was one of the earliest “mockumentaries,” and its distributor, Universal, as well as the press, both in the UK and the US, really didn’t know what to make of it. Watkins’ previous work, The War Game, had already been banned by the BBC, and on this, his feature film debut, the British press of the time marched in lockstep with the conservative government, ridiculing the film in the most minute detail. American marketing, not surprisingly, capitalized on its youth appeal, and sensationalized the film’s more subtle commentary.