Monday, July 16, 2018

television dystopias - The Guardians (1971)

The Guardians is a dystopian political thriller series made by London Weekend Television which went to air in Britain in 1971. It has never been screened since. It was also screened in Australia but as far as I know has never been seen in the U.S.

Back in the 60s neo-nazis and fascists were immensely popular as villains in both British and U.S. television - writers seemed to be convinced that there was a neo-nazi under every bed. They were usually presented as ridiculous cartoonish villains and the subject was mostly treated in a mocking way.

The Guardians was quite different. This series took itself very seriously indeed. It also refused to trivialise the subject by creating cartoonish villains. It dealt with the subject in a relatively subtle and even nuanced way. This is rather sophisticated political television.

The first episode raises more questions than it answers. That’s not a criticism. The intention (I assume) is to show us firstly the surface appearances of Britain as it is being transformed into a police state. We see the Guardians in action. They are obviously some kind of paramilitary political police, although whether they are actually under the effective control of the government remains doubtful. We are introduced to the Prime Minister Sir Timothy Hobson. He seems to be well-meaning but ineffectual. He’s the sort of man who likes to think he is willing to stand up for principles, as long as he doesn’t actually have to do so. We discover that real power is in the hands of a shadowy figure known as The General. We have no idea as to his identity or the means by which he has come to wield power over the government. Norman appears to be the man who transmits The General’s orders to the Cabinet. We see news broadcasts running in the background and it is obvious that there has been a lengthy period of strikes and civil unrest. We already have reason to be suspicious of this - is this genuine civil unrest or is it manufactured by the government or by The General?

We also meet a number of other characters. Tom Weston is a keen and ambitious member of the Guardians. While he’s happy to kick heads in the line of duty he’s actually a jovial sort of fellow and seems devoted to his wife Clare. Clare has been suffering from headaches and has been seeing a top government psychiatrist, Dr Benedict. There’s some interesting sparring between these two - Dr Benedict thinks Clare may be spying on him, Clare thinks Dr Benedict may be spying on her, Dr Benedict speculates that he has been called in because someone is taking an interest in Tom Weston.

Tom Weston is in charge of recruiting and training and he finds himself forced to accept a very upper-class recruit named Peter Lee. Tom Weston thinks that Peter Lee may not be at all what he seems to be and we’re inclined to agree with him. Is Lee a communist subversive? An agent of The General? An agent placed in the Guardians by some other group?

So all in all the opening episode establishes a definite mood of paranoia and conspiracy. It’s a promising opening.

As the series progresses some weaknesses do start to appear. The great danger facing a program dealing with politics is that it will succumb to the temptations of preachiness and speechifying. At times The Guardians succumbs to those temptations in a truly disastrous manner. The worst example is probably when the prime minister is dining with his old friend Sir Francis Wainwright who is now the head of the EBC (obviously a thinly disguised version of the BBC). The speeches start immediately and they go and on and on. The prime minister puts the case for the government’s increasingly authoritarian rule while the EBC chief puts forward the liberal argument for no censorship. It’s fairly obvious that we’re meant to accept Wainwright’s feelgood arguments but you have to give this program credit for at least putting forward the case for authoritarianism. And, surprisingly, the prime minister makes his case with passion and conviction. The problem is that it’s all done in such an unbelievably clumsy manner. It’s two characters sitting in a London club and talking and talking and talking.

Just as it seems that the series has self-destructed with excessive talkiness it suddenly comes to life again and becomes truly fascinating with some wonderfully devious power plays for the highest stakes of all.

One aspect of this series that does seem dated is that the imposition of a police state is seen as being a response to a crisis caused to a large extent by waves of strikes. Of course back in the early 70s strikes really were perceived as a major threat to the social order. It’s a fascinating look at the things the Left was paranoid about in 1971, and they were certainly terrified that strikes would be used as a justification for repression.

There is of course a resistance movement. Although they do not seem to be particularly efficient some interesting points are made about the right approach to take if you’re trying to overthrow the government, the key being to provoke the government into overreacting with excessively repressive measure which (in theory) will result in increasing opposition to the regime. This was in fact pretty much the theory behind the activities of urban terrorist groups like the Baader-Meinhof Gang. In the series it is believed that such a strategy will work since Sir Timothy Hobson firmly believes that even an undemocratic government ultimately relies on the consent of the governed.

The series focuses partly on this resistance movement and partly on the power struggles within the government.

One problem this series faced was that in 1971 Dixon of Dock Green was still on television. The idea of British policemen behaving like uniformed thugs seemed too silly even to contemplate. The idea of a British government setting up a paramilitary political police force and suspending long-cherished legal rights seemed like a joke. Today of course it all sounds chillingly plausible. In 1971 it sounded a bit far-fetched.

There’s some stuff about brainwashing, this being another major obsession of that time period. And there’s a considerable emphasis on the problems of crime, both ordinary crime and political crimes, and on effective and ineffective methods of dealing with these problems. This of course was a major obsession at that time - 1971 was also the year in which Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange was released.

There is an assumption here that a fascist dictatorship is going to exploit nationalism in order to gain legitimacy. The government of Sir Timothy Hobson has adopted the slogan of Britain Great Again!

It’s also interesting that Hobson’s government is not portrayed as being all that totalitarian. In fact it’s rather less totalitarian than Theresa May’s government today. The series portrays an authoritarian rather than a totalitarian society. It appears to be a society in which, as long as you’re not openly a communist or openly opposing the government then the government pretty much leaves you alone. It appears to be a government than is not all that interested in controlling people’s thoughts and opinions on every conceivable subject.

As the series progresses we also see the resistance movement resorting to methods that are just as morally reprehensible as anything done by the government. As the series progresses we find that things get more complex. There is opposition to the government, not from ordinary people but from organised groups. These groups do not agree on tactics and they most certainly do not agree on ultimate objectives. In fact these opposition groups loathe each other more than they loathe the government.

Also interesting is the fact that Hobson’s government did not gain power as the result of a coup. They were democratically elected, by a landslide majority. It was more a case of an elected government carrying out a coup after being elected. It’s also worth noting that there isn’t a great deal (other than a certain hostility to unions) to indicate that this is a right-wing rather than a left-wing dictatorship. There’s very little mention of economic policy. And of course this was 1971, when political correctness as we know it was still virtually non-existent.

The Guardians has some very real strengths. It doesn’t rely on characters who are simplistic heroes or villains and while it’s very obvious that the series takes a firmly antagonistic view of Hobson’s fascist government it is prepared to accept that his government did come to power in response to a genuine crisis and it is prepared to grudgingly admit that a case can be made for a kind of benevolent authoritarianism (which is the kind of regime that Hobson believes he can bring about). Hobson is a man who sincerely believes he is doing the right thing. And while he might be deluding himself and he might in fact be doing the wrong thing the resistance movement is in many ways every bit as bad. This is a series that starts out giving the impression that it’s going to be propaganda but it ends up being surprisingly nuanced and intelligent.

The weaknesses are perhaps not entirely avoidable if you’re going to try to address serious political issues - there are a lot of speeches. This means that we do at least know exactly what the various characters stand for but it can make for some very stodgy television.

I have to admit that I ended up feeling more sympathy for the prime minister than for the resistance. Even the Guardians with their repressive measures seemed preferable to the chaotic violence of the resistance. The makers of this series really do seem to be cynical about both left-wing and right-wing extremists but what’s really intriguing is that they seem to be even more contemptuous of both left-wing and right-wing moderates.

The Guardians is one of the more fascinating attempts at making a dystopian political thriller. It has its flaws and it can get very talky but it’s intelligent and thought-provoking and  exceptionally complex. Although it was promoted as such it is most definitely not just an exercise in leftist anti-fascist paranoia. It’s an exploration of the conflicts between freedom and stability, authority and chaos, obedience and responsibility, duty and loyalty, liberty and order. It does not try to persuade us that there are easy answers. I suspect that's why it was never repeated - in the 70s, with the Troubles in Northern Ireland, a TV show dealing in a nuanced way with questions of terrorism and political repression was not going to be viewed sympathetically.

The Guardians has been released on DVD in the UK by Network. It is well worth a look.

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