‘1990’ Series 2 on DVD reviewed

❉ All hail our post-brexit future in 1990…

For those of you who are yet to pick up the first series, which was released by Simply Home Entertainment a few months ago, 1990 was a 1977-78 BBC2 series which envisaged Great Britain under the heel of a bureaucratic and repressive regime, similar to the countries on the wrong side of the iron curtain of the time. It was a paranoid fantasy among the business classes of Great Britain that one day this would happen to them. Yet 1990 is not political drama. Scenes are set inside the House of Lords, but it has been turned into a restaurant for the “leaders”. There is great union domination of whatever industry is available in this bankrupted country, and the unions were the bogey-men of late seventies’ Britain, but they aren’t the problem. The series focuses on the activities of the sinister and thuggish Public Control Department, whose job it is to control the people, crush dissent, control the media, and as we saw in the first series, prevent anyone leaving the country for apparent greater opportunities abroad. They are remarkably effective. There are no guns in the streets of Britain in 1990, although we see a couple of murdering extortionists use an instrument designed to kill cattle in abattoirs.

The future is grey and overcast, which is how eastern block countries were usually depicted in cold war dramas. Science-fiction peeps through to the viewer via some rather impressive sets, such as the computer control room used by the PCD to collate information on dissidents in a rather grandiose style. Doors swish open in Star Trek style, and if you are well versed in TV drama since the 1950s, you will hear the familiar sound effects the BBC had been using to depict computers since the 1950s and Quatermass II. The fashions are more restrained than we had to endure in the 1970s.

The PCD’s tactics are as fun as ever, such as the helicopter employed to disrupt a funeral service where the vicar wanted to make an inflammatory speech in front of foreign journalists. Quite why they couldn’t just go inside a building and have a chat is beyond me, but it wouldn’t have made for a visually interesting, if frankly over the top, sequence. It is better than the little ice cream vans the PCD are seen driving around in. The directors struggle to bring genuine menace and uneasiness and fear to the screen.
Their best intimidation technique is to be seen in the episode Ordeal by Small Brown Envelope. Back in the 1970s, and probably not that long ago, tax demands, bills and anything with OHMSS stamped upon it, was delivered to your door mat inside a brown envelope. The more you got, the faster your heart beats. They were seldom welcomed. Authorised Systematic Harassment uses the brown envelope as part of its system to drive you into a mental home or commit suicide. The brains behind the scheme is portrayed by Jim Norton, who gives a sinister performance. Some of you may remember him as the forever furious Bishop Brennan from Father Ted. In 1990, this is the closest we get to a Nazi scientist, or perhaps the Nazi bureaucrat, fascinated by his work, designed to drive a family to destruction.

Investigative journalism takes a back seat in the second series. Kyle works for two new editors during the series. The first is the weak and cowed Tom Doran, played by Clive Swift, who forever has a fag in his mouth. Their relationship is brittle, to say the least. The next one is played by the wonderful Simon Cadell, who made a career from playing down-trodden and obsequious types. He later found fame playing the holiday camp manager in Hi-de-Hi, and the forgotten bitter sweet Sunday night sitcom Life Without George. For me, he is Dundridge from Blott on the Landscape, a useless, repressed bureaucrat, tasked with building a motorway. The paper for which Kyle works is now under greater state control (the Home Secretary appointed these editors) so his more sensational exposes are printed anonymously abroad. The PCD knows it is Kyle.

As the screws are being twisted tighter and tighter on Kyle during the series, we see more of his activities as a dissident organiser. On one hand he wants to tell the world what is happening and to apply more pressure for change. On the other, he struggles to prevent his allies and fellow dissidents from organising an armed uprising, headed by Tony Doyle, playing a charmed export and import merchant. The real problem lies in the younger, angrier, and frankly downright scary youngsters who believe violence is justified, especially when their own families have suffered at the hands of the PCD. It’s not quite Martin Luther King versus Malcolm X, but you could draw a clumsy parallel. Groups featuring more than five people are outlawed as they are regarded as political assemblies. The dissidents therefore organise their meetings in groups of five, nicknamed pentagons.

There have been changes made to the PCD. The impressive Robert Lang still heads the department, his bald head gleaming with power. We get to discover a bit more about the private man during the episodes. He is preparing for an escape route should the wind change and he is saddled with a human rights trial, which he is often threatened to him by Kyle. He is also threatened by assassination from the young dissidents, one attempt we see in the first episode. We discover his only friend in the world is his 85 year old mother, who knows nothing of his work. She pops up in You’ll Never Walk Alone and their scenes together are rather touching. The episode is about a British grand-master, who can defeat ten opponents in one session, which reminds you of the days the Soviet block used to send their incredible chess champions to challenge the west. Skardon’s mother has a game with our champion, and he allows her to win.

Barbara Kellerman’s icy Deputy Controller Delly Lomas is out, as is her rival for power, Tasker, which is a great pity. She has been replaced by a much warmer and sympathetic character called Evelyn Blake, played by Lisa Harmer. Blake is a former Health official, which makes Kyle remark it’s like finding Edith Cavell in the Gestapo. She is co-opted into the PCD because of her once close relationship with the married Kyle. She has a most interesting story within the series, especially when she is targeted by the dissidents and Kyle has to intervene. Whereas Delly Lomas despised Kyle, Evelyn Blake does not…

Also gone is Dan Mellor, the growling ex-coal miner Home Secretary, played by John Savident. He is replaced by Audrey Smith, played by Yvonne Mitchell, who appears to be basing her characterisation on real-life politician and in 1978 ex-minister Barbara Castle, her career had recently been brought to an end by a change of Prime Minister. Smith has no love for the PCD she has to oversee, and clashes with Skardon. She too is worried by the power of the department, and Britain’s standing in the world and frequently acts to pull it in line, but only so far…

In one episode, Audrey Smith reminds Skardon that there is no dirt on her, nor her husband in case he is thinking of blackmailing her. Herbert Skardon could be seen as the J. Edgar Hoover, who ran the FBI unchallenged for forty years, allegedly with enough “dirt” on any politician who tried to remove him, including Presidents. The dynamic between the Skardon, Smith and Blake is always lifted when Kyle becomes involved. Hire and Fire sees them reach out to Kyle to help them discover who is running an extortion racket amongst the dissidents of a factory. This is one of the strongest, and bleakest episodes, as it features once more the lives of the non-citizens, all of whom are men incidentally. In the third episode, Trapline, there is co-operation of sorts between Kyle and Smith, in a story which features the police, or rather what is left of them, headed by Commissioner Hallam, an “honest copper”, also concerned by the PCD. He is played by the magnificent John Paul, Quist from Doomwatch.

Equally bleak is the penultimate episode Young Sparks, a solo effort written by Jim Hawkins, featuring disappearing people who end up in an Adult Rehabilitation Centre for treatment, which does not have a 100% success rate – or any form of success frankly since the subjects frequently die. That marvellous Czech actor George Pravda makes what virtually amounts to be a cameo performance in the episode.

It used to disappoint me that the novelisation of the second series which still pops up in charity shops, featured only the first four episodes from the series (again written by Wilfred Gretorex and Edmund Ward), and with no clues how the series concluded. It was probably published when the series was transmitting its earlier episodes in March 1978 and did not want to leak the ending. Without wishing to spoil it for you, although the series does draw to a definite conclusion, a third would have been most welcome, and possible.

❉ 1990: Series 2 was released on DVD by Simply Media, 1st May 2017, RRP £19.99.

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