❉ An overview of the cult dystopian drama, recently released on DVD for the first time.
For years, this obscure BBC2 drama series from the late 1970s was a holy grail for us fans of tele-fantasy, as we were then pleased to call any drama with the slightest pretension towards science fiction. Back in the real 1990s, the series never seemed to do the rounds of the videotape bootleggers. Finding an unwatchable, multi-generational copy of, say, Doomwatch, or Quatermass II or Adam Adamant Lives! wasn’t that difficult, if you knew the right people – usually jaundiced Doctor Who fans with complete collections and a desire for something else. But 1990 was off the radar.
The first time I encountered the series was in the late 1980s when I came across the two novelisations the series spawned, both of which I discovered in a second-hand bookshop in Norwich. The title intrigued me enough buy them but it was that they were screened around the same time the Federation were suppressing dissidents in Blake’s 7 was enough to draw me in. The premise of 1990 was suggesting an equally bleak vision of the future. ‘1984 + 6’ it reads on the cover of one. The covers featured Edward Woodward, who at that time I would have associated more with the improbable American series The Equaliser rather than the more noble and bleak government assassin Callan. Each book contained four episodes from both series, and they fascinated me.
A BBC2 series was actually quite a rare beast in the late seventies. They had stopped doing series such as 1971’s The Lotus Eaters in favour of plays or serials. Yet, here was 1990, done in two series, written by writers who were usually at home on ITV. The creator was Wilfred Greatorex, who had shaped and moulded two business orientated series in the 1960s for Lew Grade’s ATV. The first was The Plane Makers which at first dealt with life on the factory floor before the second series found that different levels of management made for more interesting stories, until the third series barely glimpsed the ordinary worker at all. This then lead to three series of The Power Game, which showed what happened when two of the management left the aviation industry and into the rickety world of construction and boardroom squabbles. It made a star out of Patrick Wymark who played Sir John Wilder as an almost Shakespearean anti-hero as he fought for commercial success against the bureaucrats, patrician family businesses or his wife. Whether he was a hero or a villain was your point of view. Another writer, Edmund Ward, also worked on these programmes and had created the ITV legal drama The Main Chance.
Written in 1977, 1977 was the year after Britain had to take out a loan from the International Monetary Fund to avert economic crisis just before oil revenues poured in. Cuts to public spending was a condition. Simplistic history, sorry. But 1990 imagines a Britain which went bust in 1983, stopped paying back its debts and watched as the money-lenders turned its back on us. The result was an authoritarian government and civil service which tore up Magna Carta in order to cope with the massive crisis ahead. The big bogey of the time was communism, but the dreaded ‘c’ word is never once mentioned in the series, nor is socialism. The government in place is not necessarily left or right wing, although its apparently backed by the unions, another bogey man of the time. It had been feared in the early seventies that there would be another General strike backed by militant unions who would then take over the country in violent revolution.
Fears of revolution or authoritarian governments were still bubbling away in the mid-seventies and became the subject of other series such as ITV’s The Guardians and a three part BBC drama called The Donati Conspiracy. Thriller writer Arden Winch wrote one episode, and here’s a lovely factoid for you. He was commissioned to write Episode 6, originally called Strength Through Joy (it went out as Voice From The Past) on 7 December 1976, and this was to be delivered on 31 December 1976. The original producer was Gerald Glaister, who had recently come to the end of the lorry-driving boardroom family series The Brothers. Prudence Fitzgerald eventually produced the series.
It is the bureaucracy creator Wilfred Greatorex has in his sites, crushing the entrepreneurs an small businessman, controlling where people work, live and play. 1990 is a right-winger’s nightmare/wet dream. Look at how terrible the state can be. At times, 1990 does go over the top and hearing how a former plate worker’s son is now in a mental hospital because his business was taken over causes chuckling rather than sobbing. Indeed, some of the victims in these episodes are a right wet bunch.
The villains of the authoritarian world of 1990 is the Public Control Department, a division of the Home Office. The Home Secretary is played by a growling John Savident, who makes several appearances. He would also turn up in another series when bureaucracy and administration became the subject for comedy a few years later in Yes, Minister. The PCD are the probably the KGB or the East German Stasi, or even the Gestapo, yet, they don’t carry guns. There are no soldiers on the streets in 1990. Their appearance is enough, and typically, each official we meet relishes the sadistic opportunities his job presents. The viewer in 1977 may have recognised this Britain as East Germany or even Cuba, isolated and reviled by the democratic world. The locations used in the series are as as drab and grey as possible, the more modernistic and stark the better. It reminds you of how East Germany or any other Soviet block country was represented in contemporary dramas, grim Tower blocks and council flats, although there is a glimpse of the Tower of London in one episode.
It is a country of bureaucratic tyranny, a nightmarish mixture of exit visas, travel permits, strict wage controls, three day weeks, where absenteeism from work is stamped upon, yet you can only work a three day week and only have the one job, providing you have a union card. There is rationing, and state control on practically everything. The House of Lords has been abolished and turned into the Leader’s Club. There were also hints that the Crown Jewel’s have been sold off. There is bugging, surveillance and Prisoner-esque brain-washing in adult rehabilitation centres, references to happiness or misery pills. Cross the line too many times, and you become a non-citizen, which is worse than homeless. You don’t even have a name.
British TV is state-controlled, as is most of the press, thanks to the advertising bought by the government. Except for one newspaper, which tries against the laws and the official secrets act, to shed a little light into the machinations of the state. The PCD play a game of cat and mouse with this paper’s lead investigative journalist, Kyle, played by Edward Woodward. He evokes those two heroic journalists who brought down a presidency, Bernstein and Woodward, (now isn’t that a coincidence?) The Watergate journalists had an informant called Deep Throat, and so does Kyle, although this informant is nicknamed Faceless, and the PCD very much wish to meet him. They have their little conversations in all sorts of places suitable for a thriller, including an underground car park, rather like their inspirations did.
Woodward plays Kyle with an appropriate over-confidence and the swagger of someone who appears to have little to loose, although he has a wife and young kids, one of whom we meet in Episode 7, when the PCD come to call. Quite why the PCD haven’t had him killed in a car-crash or simply shot him, is a mystery. But he can toe the line, and the world is watching Britain, or perhaps glancing over its back. Their patience does exhaust itself in the last couple of episodes, giving Woodward a chance to display his ‘intense’ acting skills which fans of ‘Callan’ will recognise and welcome in a shot.
The villains are a darn sight more interesting than the heroes. The PCD is represented by three characters. Controller Herbert Skardon, played by Robert Lang, heads the department, and has a personal vendetta against Kyle. He probably dreams about him, he talks of little else. Under him are Tasker, played by Clifford Jones and his rival, the Deputy Controller Delly Lomas, is played by the exquisite and icy Barbara Kellerman, Kellerman is the real star of the series, although Lang and Jones make for a formidable set of characters. Unusually, Lomas does not try to use sex appeal in order to manipulate Kyle. In fact, his outrageous flirting repels her. She believes in her job and does not apologise to Kyle for her stance as she has two children and wants them to have the privileges her grading can bring. She tries a form of reason in order to bring Kyle into line, but any admiration she has is not personal, simply professional.
What the PCD don’t realise, and neither does his editor, is that Kyle is working with resistance groups, helping to smuggle people out of the country, usually into America where they try to tell the world what is going on back home in Britain. Leaving the country legally involves going through an ombudsman’s court who would decide if you merited a visa. If you had been to university in Britain, you signed a form pledging to spend at least ten years working in Britain. The lure of earning far greater money in America was to be resisted and the brain-drain prevented. We see several escape routes but we don’t really feel the terror of Secret Army, with machine-gun wielding Nazis hunting downed airmen. A PCD emigration raid on a boat in the first episode is rather comic, than frightening.
This is merely scratching the surface of an otherwise fine series, very much of its time, and quite restrained in its story-telling. There is little brutality, but things do start to get fraught in the second superior series. Hopefully this too will be released before long. It’s been long overdue, and a minor miracle it has finally been released. There are plenty of familiar actors to keep you smiling as you recognise them. Although, when you spot people like John Castle in the cast list, you just know it’s not going to go well for his character… Or his dog. Bimbo. Watch and see.
❉ 1990: Series 1 was released by Simply Media on 20 March 2017. Series 2 of 1990 is due to be released by Simply Media 1st May 2017.