It feels appropriate that Privilege, Peter Watkins' future-facing, Dystopian curio from 1967 recently released by the BFI on its intriguing 'Flipside' imprint, presents two major players from sixties popular culture as its main stars. Paul Jones, the singer from Manfred Mann, is Steven Shorter, to the masses a hugely successful pop icon, in reality a nullified puppet controlled and promoted by the state as a quasi-religious figurehead. Jean Shrimpton is Vanessa Ritchie, a young artist intent on coaxing the awakening Shorter into a greater awareness of his true situation.
It is the film's suggestion that Shorter has probably complied with his own appropriation. It implies that, prior to the story's beginning, he fully enjoyed the trappings of success. A man has sold his soul to the devil and is in the process of paying his dues: this introduces from the outset the increasingly prominent theme of religion. We are not privy to the implied good times, and instead we join a decidedly morose Shorter on his endless treadmill of pre-arranged routine. The fact that he does not say much only adds to the enduring sense of ennui, although this probably helped Paul Jones, whose acting ability appears slightly dubious. That said, Jones' expression is suitably anodyne throughout, a fact which, when coupled with the film's often psychedelic presentation, is enough to raise the question whether drugs have been involved in character's acquiescence.
Privilege is an imaginative and colourful discourse, partly on life as an iconic singer (heavily influenced, according to Watkins himself , by the 1962 Paul Anka documentary Lonely Boy), but primarily on the notion of control. It is no surprise when Shorter's talents are employed by the Church to persuade the young generation to become God-fearing Christians. Comically, he is also used in a promotional film to encourage greater consumption of the nation's apple mountain. From branded supermarkets to mass public gatherings, the state is unrelenting in its quest to find new uses for this powerful symbol of popular culture. It is, of course, Steven Shorter himself who is being controlled more than anyone or anything else, and his gradual realisation of this, combined with the decline of his pop career, leads to the breakdown of his own perceived identity. Tellingly, Shorter's stage act has him caged and tormented by authoritarian guards, to the distress of a 'Beatlemania' type audience, as he struggles musically to break free. (Incidentally, the song in question, Set Me Free, was later covered in a lyrically altered form by Patti Smith on her Easter album, and is considered by many to be a cult classic.)
It must be said that at certain points this entertaining, often fascinating film starts to lose its way. The concluding Nuremburg rallies-style public gathering seems undecided as to whether it wants to be surreal, comedic, or transmit a serious message. It manages none of these convincingly, ultimately becoming something of a ramble. To its credit, however, the scene does feature the memorable vision of a large throng of the nation's youth partaking in a ritual pledge to 'conform.' Privilege contains a number of intentionally ludicrous moments: the aforementioned apples, for example, and a troupe of be-cloaked 'rock monks' thrashing out a raucous Onward Christian Soldiers. In the end, and despite less than heroic acting by the main stars, Privilege does manage to fulfil its own thought-provoking remit (in the pointed and consciously heavy-handed manner of, say, Orwell's Animal Farm) and also meets the essential criterion of actually being watchable throughout.
Privilege joined the ranks of several pictures deemed immoral at the time of release--largely a 1960s phenomenon-- because of their overt and sometimes rather trite focus on youth-related issues, such as a freer attitude to sexual relationships and the use of narcotics, and the overbearing influence of the state. In the UK the J. Arthur Rank organisation refused to show Privilege at its cinemas, with Universal in the US following suit. Critical reception (apart from a minority of yea-sayers) proved damning, particularly with regard to the acting. Today, however, opinion seems to have been revised, with a greater appreciation of the film's artistic endeavours, perhaps fuelled by the realisation in hindsight that in some ways Privilege's portent of things to come was not so outlandish. It may be a reflection on modern society that this picture is now absorbing and relevant, where once it may have been interpreted as simply a garish fantasy (not helped by the era's default method of advertising such films with lurid imagery and strap-lines of absurd sensationalism: "He entertained…captivated…then betrayed! He had the power of privilege!" ).
Watching Privilege today, it is striking how a film presumably intended as an exaggerated allegory on a celebrity-obsessed, consumer-driven nation, steered by a knowing, superficially benign coalition government, resonates so closely with the England of 2010. Celebrities are used increasingly by the state for public relations purposes, various project bids and national image perception. Meanwhile, on English high streets football supporters can be heard discussing the sale of their latest hero in terms of 'good business,' dwarfed by glowing big-screen advertisements for 'the best a man can get.' It is an image worthy not only of Privilege but of the depths of Orwell, and commonly available most evenings in any town. The style of news reporting and reality television imagined in the mid 1990s by Chris Morris for The Day Today and Brass Eye has become worryingly authentic. It is little wonder that these shows are rarely repeated: their bizarre comedy is devalued by the fact the world has caught up. It all casts a rather quaint patina over the objectives of Privilege, and begs the question: where now for Dystopian visions of England's future? --Neil Jackson
 See Watkins' own commentary on Privilege on his website, http://pwatkins.mnsi.net.
 From an original promotional poster for Privilege.
A Kid for Two Farthings is an unexpected film from the director best known for the brilliant suspense thriller The Third Man. This whimsical, endearing fantasy is based on the novel by the remarkable Wolf Mankowitz, born in Bethnal Green, an expert on porcelain and the author of various screenplays (his credits included Dr No, and he also scripted A Kid for Two Farthings) and many novels of East End life, such as Make Me an Offer. The first hint of the film's fantastical edge comes in its opening sequence, which traces the flight of an inquisitive pigeon through Petticoat Lane Market and the attempts of the protagonist, a tiny boy named Joe, to intercept it. The market is a focal point of the film, and this makes it truly extraordinary for its time: Cockneys of diverse religious and racial backgrounds trade and interact in a scene which recalls (perhaps deliberately) Voltaire's praise of London in the Philosophical Letters as a place of pluralist harmony fostered by commerce. The stallholders' patter is vividly captured: "We got more birds than the London zoo. Get yourself a white canary and start your day with a song!" The market and the little shops surrounding it are Joe's world, and it is here, troubled by the yearnings of the adults around him, that he searches for a unicorn to make wishes come true. When a baby goat crosses his path, he is convinced that he has found one.
There is strong acting throughout the film, including characteristically solid turns by Sidney Tafler, the great Irene Handl, and Brenda De Banzie. The highlight, however, is David Kossoff's moving performance as the philosophical tailor Mr Kandinsky. (Kossoff also appeared in another Mankowitz-written film, The Bespoke Overcoat, an East End transposition of Gogol's famous short story.) The script is alternately melancholy and humorous, and some brilliant monologues are given to Kossoff's character. Most touchingly, he tells Joe how the unicorns lost their home in Europe and some escaped to Africa; a story which is, of course, not really about unicorns. It is no coincidence that Joe's father is currently in South Africa, trying to establish a new life there for his family. The adults surrounding Joe have an interest in protecting him from the cruel realities of recent history, not just because they love him, but also because his innocent belief in the unicorn represents the hope that they are all struggling to find. The image of Joe and the baby goat together has a powerful, mythic resonance, and the bittersweet and ironic contrast between the child's impressions and the world around him lifts the story above mere sentimentalism.
Visually, the film is a delight. The decision to shoot in colour was an excellent one, though some have criticised the film for being garish. Its fairy-tale qualities are heightened by the vibrancy of the palette, and would have been lost in black and white. A Kid for Two Farthings is far from perfect, but somehow the whole is so delightful that the viewer overlooks the flaws of its parts. The sub-plot involving Diana Dors' character and her uninteresting wrestler fiance does not add much to the story, except to provide another focus for Joe's concern and the unicorn's miraculous powers, and to underscore the point that everyone is looking for something. Celia Johnson as Joe's mother convincingly captures the sadness of a woman missing her husband and worried about her family's future, but she does not even attempt a Cockney accent. Neither does Jonathan Ashmore as Joe, sounding suspiciously cut-glass, but this is balanced by an otherwise highly naturalistic performance which suggests that he was not aware of himself acting.
The film is also notable for its seamless mixing of two very different cultural styles. Mankowitz's fable is in deeply rooted in the magic realism of the Yiddish folk tale tradition represented by Sholem Aleichem or Isaac Bashevis Singer, and the interweaving of this heritage with the documentary-style social realism of the post-war period lends the film particular fascination. Although focussed on a child, this is not really a children's film. This wistful, gentle little parable about faith in a faithless world is written largely from the point of view of the adults around Joe, so that the viewer is shown the realities that Joe does not understand. As such, it is probably more appropriate for adults than children.--Isabel Taylor