Wednesday, 22 November 2017

1990: The Complete Collection

Cast: Edward Woodward, Robert Lang, Tony Doyle, Barbara Kellerman, and Lisa Harrow

Creator: Wilfred Greatorex

880 minutes (15) 1977-8
Simply Media DVD Region 2

Rating: 7/10
Review by Steven Hampton

Between his career-defining roles in genre TV shows Callan (1967-72), and The Equalizer (1985-9), British actor Edward Woodward starred in dystopian show 1990, a speculative SF drama that nowadays seems more prescient than ever. It is a grimly prophetic tale of sinister government in Britain but, whereas the original classic novel 1984 (1949), and its screen adaptations, were about fascism, this Orwellian scenario warns of the danger to society of enforced socialism, and it’s especially observant and relevant today because of the brutal government’s blatant refusal to accept criticism. Here, the people are policed by a Public Control Department, staffed by bullies and supported by a tyranny rubber-stamped by secret deals.

The programme’s animated title sequence is particularly striking. Two people standing in a white room, and this shrinking space makes the pair of captives into obvious prisoners, forced together, under a tortuous confinement of extreme detention. All they have left is each other as the walls close in about them, and a crucible symbolism is a quite profound visual statement of the show’s basic themes.

The futurism is limited to Anglo-dollars, ID cards, and compulsory TV. Indie news-hound Jim Kyle (Woodward) routinely evades state surveillance because his job would be largely impossible, and his life endangered, if they always know exactly where he is, never mind what schemes he gets up to. ‘Faceless’ is Kyle’s own ‘Deep Throat’ informant with furtive meetings conducted usually while parked side-by-side in their cars. As Scarlet Pimpernel references abound, the nets tighten around Kyle when suspicion falls upon him, just as if steel chains are made from tangles of red tape.

Fascinatingly detailed, there’s a brain-drain crisis of illegal emigration (including 500 exit visa applications per week), an opposition party leader becoming a mere cheer-leader for cabinet policy, an underground press ‘Facts’ leaflet sheet’s outlawed and eagerly quashed by boots-on-the-ground, and could the new Inspectors of Culture actually be censors? In its scripting of cynical class-war attitudes in civil service corruption 1990 boasts wit sharp enough to stab hearts-of-gold through a knife-proof vest. Kyle’s dalliance with Mata Hari-ish femme fatale Delly (Barbara Kellerman) brings him as much grief as satisfaction. Kyle investigates the regional establishments of so-called ‘adult rehab centres’ (ARCs), where many activists, dissidents, and other rebellious souls are simply crushed by ECT or drugs into zombies, and even serial killers can be turned into dutiful servants.

Rounding off the first series, Kyle is stripped of identity cards, and his human rights, and then declared a non-citizen, just a nameless number. Down on the street with the down-and-outs, he’s down, but not out of the fight, and our hero returns to a prominent action with a clever blackmail plot against his enemy. The most notable guest stars include: Ed Bishop, Edward Judd, and John Rhys-Davies. Some type-casting in evident: Ray Smith is a union leader, replete with shop-floor accent; John Savident portrays an ebullient Home Secretary; and Graham Crowden excels as a foreign VIP academic.

For series two, Lisa Harrow replaces Kellerman as the show’s leading lady, practicing new charm offensives while prospects for a general election are worrying all concerned. Kyle’s insistence upon a non-violent campaign against the Public Control is threatened by a lone gunman. When his identity is revealed, Faceless turns out to look like a fusion of the two Ronnies into one. Black marketeers make a mockery of rationing. Private cops Careguard foresees today’s G4S security contractors. Ordeal By Small Brown Envelope concerns the systematic harassment by the state, aimed at crushing any civil resistance to new official policy. But it’s worse than postal threats when they send those special bailiffs round with keys to a downgrade a family’s home.

Some of the sting plots hatched by Kyle & Co, against the oppressive regime, are like the tactics and strategy of Eric Frank Russell’s novel Wasp (1957), an infamous book about a movement ranging from psychological warfare to guerrilla mayhem. Using indirect action, not just open defiance, the crusading heroes of Kyle’s plucky gang of radicals eventually turn the game tables on authoritarian power. Tony Doyle (Who Dares Wins) is good value throughout this show as Kyle’s bullish chum, import-export agent Dave, smuggling Brits to Europe and USA, here still bastions of freedom, and leading the charge when muscle is required to calm or conclude a tense situation.

You’ll Never Walk Alone is a crisply theatrical piece with a chess tournament’s mind-game overshadowed by a kidnapping plot against the black-hats’ own queen. The final episode reaches a wholly predictable climax after a solo protestor in Trafalgar Square disturbs the pigeons with a self-immolation stunt. Can this grim situation end in anything but violence with a bitter irony? Although parts of this - especially its modest technology - are tellingly dated, this drama is educational, and incisive about political criticism, so perhaps it ought to be shown in schools.

Presented in very good condition for a BBC programme of its era, this complete series of 16 x 55-minute episodes (previously available separately, as two seasons), is re-released on a DVD box-set of four discs.  

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