Thursday, August 9, 2018

dystopian television - 1990 (1977)

1990 is a dystopian drama series made by the BBC. The first season went to air in 1977 with a second season following in 1978. The series was created by Wilfred Greatorex who had a notable career as a writer and producer on British television from the 60s to the early 80s.

The premise is that Britain has an increasingly totalitarian government and that the main agent of repression is the Public Control Department (PCD), operating as part of the Home Office.

Most of the media is controlled by the government but there are still a few independent newspapers and there are still a few journalists willing to criticise the government. The most notorious such journalist is Jim Kyle (Edward Woodward). Kyle is clever and cautious, he’s very tech-savvy (he has some useful little devices that make it more difficult for the PCD to keep track of him) and he has a highly placed source within the government. Kyle is a thorn in the side of PCD director Herbert Skardon (Robert Lang). At this stage Skardon is using one of his deputies, the glamorous Delly Lomas (Barbara Kellermann), to try to manage Kyle. The idea is for Delly to use her feminine wiles to persuade Kyle to moderate his criticisms of the government.

This is a Britain sliding towards totalitarianism but not yet there. It’s at the point where dissidents are subject to serious harassment and the freedom of the press has been somewhat curtailed. In fact although this is supposed to be a dystopia it seems on the surface to be considerably less totalitarian than Britain in 2018.

Kyle is involved with a group that is trying to get people out of the country. Emigration from Britain is pretty much banned. Rather oddly the series chooses to focus quite a bit on this subject of illegal emigrants, but most of them appear to be middle-class people who simply want to leave Britain because they could earn more money in the U.S. and it’s hard to feel much sympathy for them. They’re not oppressed, they’re just economic refugees. The idea of smuggling people out of the country does lend itself to some suspenseful situations which are handled quite effectively in episodes like Decoy.

The main interest is the series of overlapping power struggles. Delly Lomas wants Herbert Skardon’s job as Controller and she wants it now. The other deputy controller, Tasker, wants Skardon’s job as well. Kyle is mixed up in these power struggles because he has very ambiguous but definite PCD connections.

The acting is the greatest strength of this series. Kyle is an interesting mix of cockiness and extreme caution and he’s a decidedly ambiguous character. Is he a brave and dedicated fighter for freedom? We know he’s a journalist so we’re inclined to suspect that he has no actual morals, that it’s all a game to him. Woodward shows great skill in maintaining that edge of ambiguity.

Delly is more clearcut. Her motivation is ambition and she’s untroubled by moral considerations. She’s clever but the question is whether she has the experience to beat an old hand like Skardon.

One thing that is interesting is that this series makes no attempt to disguise the nature of the government. This is clearly a Labour Government. The vicious Home Secretary is a former trade unionist, obviously working class. This is quite explicitly a leftist totalitarianism. It is mostly an old-fashioned leftist totalitarianism, obviously modelled on the old Soviet Union. The series has quite an old-fashioned feel to it. In fact a very old-fashioned feel indeed. The idea of an actual old school socialist dictatorship, with industries nationalised, trade union leaders running the government, the whole classical Marxist dictatorship of the proletariat thing, now seems so hopelessly remote from reality that it’s difficult to grasp that forty years ago the idea could be taken seriously. This was 1977, before identity politics destroyed the Old Left, before Thatcher destroyed the trade union movement. Was it actually something worth worrying about in 1977? There was certainly plenty of angst at the time about the unions, which might explain the virulently anti-union tone of this series.

This is the grey depressing world of Orwell’s 1984. but without most of the really interesting insights included in Orwell’s novel. The repressive measures enacted by the government in 1990 seem crude and amateurish and unimaginative. The idea of using psychiatry for social control was topical in the 70s, being a method favoured by the old Soviet Union, but 1990 does nothing interesting with the idea. The third episode, Health Farm, deals with mind control verging on mind destruction but in a superficial kind of way without any of the refinements of evil that Orwell gives us in 1984. The final episode of the first season is pure Orwell.

The problem is that this is a totalitarianism that was very plausible in the 1940s when Orwell wrote 1984. It was perhaps still plausible, but only just, in 1977 when this series was made. To a viewer today however it seems hopelessly outdated. Totalitarianism has made great progress in the past forty years. Modern totalitarianism is much closer to Huxley’s Brave New World than Orwell’s 1984. It works because it buys people off with consumer goods and sex, just as Huxley predicted in 1931. 1990, by accepting Orwell’s mistaken premise that totalitarianism would be accompanied by scarcity and grinding poverty, seems unconvincing. It seems very 1940s.

The fact that 1990 deals with a totalitarianism not yet firmly established does add some dramatic possibilities. The danger with dystopian dramas is that everything seems too hopeless, there’s too much wallowing in despair. But in this case the struggle is not entirely unequal. The PCD has wide powers, but they’re not unlimited. Skardon does have to be careful not to overreach himself. The press has been mostly muzzled, but not totally. Kyle does have the ability to make life miserable for the PCD and for the Home Secretary.

It’s also quite strong on the psychology of repression. The types of people who end up joining the secret police (or any kind of police force for that matter) are always the same and in the episode Whatever Happened to Cardinal Wolsey? we get an extraordinarily chilling example. 1990 is also very good on the psychology of normal nice rich people who think the apparatus of repression will never be used against normal nice rich people.

It’s intriguing to compare this series with the other notable 1970s British dystopian television series, The Guardians, made a few years earlier. The Guardians seems much less dated, much more complex and subtle and much more relevant to today’s world.


  1. I'm a little surprised that you think BNW and not 1984 correctly predicted our current, or future, state.

    To anyone working in the Outer Party - that is, Corporate America - the world is resembling more and more 1984.

    Our current materialist worldview is only supported through endless financing at world-historic low rates. Eventually, even that party will end. And at the end of it, we won't have much in the way of consumerism to cover for our misery. Environmental catastrophe combined with population explosions will make for an even sicker, less robust society.

    Anyway, I think Orwell was closer to the mark in capturing the total despair of the dystopia we are on the verge of becoming.

    1. My reply ended up being outrageously long so I turned it into another post.