Alan Morrison on
An Englishman’s Castle
Created and written by Philip Mackie
Directed by Paul Ciappessoni
(Simply Home Entertainment)
Created by Wilfred Greatorex
Written by Wilfred Greatorex
and Edmund Ward, Jim Hawkins, Arden Winch
Directed by Alan Gibson, David Sullivan
Proudfoot, Kenneth Ives, Rob Bird, Peter
Sasdy, Roger Tucker
(Simply Home Entertainment)
England Is Greatorex Again
Nostalgia TV distributor Simply Home Entertainment recently released two exceptional yet never-repeated BBC dystopian television drama serials, the uchronian An Englishman’s Castle, set in an alternate Seventies when England is governed vicariously by a victorious Nazi Germany which defeated and occupied it some time in the early Forties; and 1990, advertised at the time with the strapline ‘1984 plus 6’, set in a near-future ‘socialist’/statist England under the constant intrusive surveillance of the Public Control Department (PCD).
Each of these nightmarish visions, one an alternate history morality tale, the other, a dystopian prediction of the shape of things to come, is a typical example of the richly written, brilliantly acted dramatic standards of their era, the Seventies, when edgy, controversial and intellectually challenging scripts competed for more committed audiences swamped with far more diversity of programming over just three television channels than one can find in the hundreds of indistinct channels at our disposal today.
In many ways An Englishman’s Castle (BBC, 1978) could act as a more armchair-inclined sequel to Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo’s gritty 1964 documentary-style film, It Happened Here –whereas the latter depicts the wartime occupation of England by the Nazis (though it’s hinted at towards its end that the English resistance might be getting the upper hand), the former TV serial depicts England three decades on from its initial occupation, ostensibly self-governing again, but really just a Vichy-style vassal state of a still-existent and triumphant Nazi Germany (or, more probably, Fascist Europe).
Philip Mackie’s supremely subtle dramatisation feels all the more chilling and eerie for the invisibility of the Nazi overlords: there are no stomping jackboots or swastikas or Gestapo nor even any particularly Nazi-like characters –only Anthony Bate’s admittedly very Aryan, but British, television controller, Harmer, who ends up paying an ultimate price for failing to persuade his most popular scriptwriter, Peter Ingram, to drop a controversially sympathetic Jewish character from his popular eponymous soap opera, which is set in London in 1940 just at the point that England falls to the Germans.
(Ingram is played by an excellently restrained Kenneth More, halcyon screen stalwart of stiff-upper-lipped British types, but whose performance here is a revelation –and also adumbrates the similar part of a middle-aged television presenter manipulated into hosting a new right-wing evangelical TV station, played by his screen contemporary, Dirk Bogarde, in the similarly dystopian BBC drama, The Vision, broadcast ten years later, and also recently released by Simply Home Entertainment).
Ingram’s seeming obliviousness to the shady workings of this dystopian England serves as a metaphor for the collaborationist mentality, while the character buries his head in the last-gasped nostalgia of his soap opera’s pre-Nazi setting. Indeed, Ingram’s antiestablishment insurgent son accuses him of being what is termed a ‘delator’, or collaborator; certainly Ingram could be seen as a creative apparatchik of the status quo through his part-propagandist soap opera (his other, more conformist, son is –presumably by nepotism– its producer). But gradually the traumas of the nation’s past start to affect Ingram again as reality seeps back in through the greasepaint like a damp residue of despair, and ultimately he makes a stand against the unacceptable present.
That the fascism is camouflaged throughout, and the English characters by and large attempt to go about their lives as if nothing has really changed, in a kind of national and cultural denial of the long-term traumatic effects of invasion, occupation, a failed resistance, and associated retributive atrocities perpetrated against their numbers by the victors, gives An Englishman’s Castle an all-pervasive air of thundery unease and repressed dread.
It’s almost as if the fact of England’s vassalage to Nazi Germany isn’t something to be completely admitted to, while any mention of the extermination of the English Jews has become a taboo never to be verbalised, and whenever it is in some sense, the characters have a tacit mutual understanding that they mustn’t delve too deep into the topic since officially it has all been ‘forgotten’ (this seems like a subtle counter-play on the post-Censorship Spanish Historical Memory Law, which purposed to proscribe cultural recriminations from the Spanish Civil War, recognising victims and atrocities on both sides, albeit openly condemning Franco’s regime). In this context, the Jewish character Ingram brings unexpectedly into his soap opera to the exasperation of his boss can be seen as an expression of this repressed cultural guilt borne by all English Gentiles.
The drama has an almost uncanny, dream-like quality of barely-disguised nightmare in its blending of the contemporarily familiar with more disturbing and unfamiliar aspects, and in atmospheric terms looks forward to the similarly eerie adaptation of John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids just three years later (itself taking much from the equally apocalyptic Survivors, 1975-77), and, to some extent too, from The Changes (1975), and Noah's Castle (1979-80)): in all these series there are moments of normality during which the characters seem to almost forget the nightmares that adumbrate their days, only to be suddenly reminded of them again. But there are no Triffids in An Englishman’s Castle, no visible fascists or ghastlies, only certain words, phrases and terms that trigger sore memories of a ghastly past which haunts the faintly traumatised present, and which gradually gnaws away at the self-protective complacency of the main protagonist. In An Englishman’s Castle, it is language that is the gatekeeper of the past, and the jailer of the present.
Wilfred Greatorex’s 1990, adapted from his own novel and broadcast on BBC 2 for two series from 1977-8 –so contemporaneous to An Englishman’s Castle– is a very different take on a near-future England. In 1990, Britain has become a superficially ‘socialist’ state but is in practice anything but: it is still deeply stratified and a person’s status is determined by their ‘LifeScore’ and underlying every aspect to this dystopian society is a detectable eugenicist rationale. For instance, dissidents are ‘re-educated’ in ‘psychiatric pseudo-hospitals’ called ‘Adult Rehabilitation Centres’ where they are ‘cured’ by ECT; many prisoners are sent there after having been forced-fed ‘misery pills’, or ‘Oral Swallowing Induction Devices’, which render them clinically depressed, the guinea-pigs for which have been sourced from inmates at Ashworth Asylum for the Genetically Defective (basically Broadmoor); and the Genetic Crimes Act 1985 re-established capital punishment, but only for sexual offences.
The snooping Public Control Department (PCD) is the Stasi-like institutional monolith of Greatorex’s nightmare society, whose unscrupulous Controller, Herbert Skardon, is played with great relish by the gravelly-voiced Robert Lang. The press is state-owned, and thus censored –at least, all of it except for The Star, one of whose rogue reporters, Jim Kyle (Edward Woodward), is also a dissident. This is a bureaucratic union-dominated dictatorship which it would seem is Greaterorex’s personal projection of how Britain might have become had the then-perceived union-manipulated mid-to-late Seventies Labour Government continued through the Eighties. In this particular alternate future history, Britain became bankrupt in 1981, fell to Martial Law, followed by a rigged election in which only 20% voted. It is a society of ‘three day weeks’, ‘closed shops’ (Seventies’ realities), ubiquitous wintry shopping precincts, Brutalist architecture, austerity, rationing, and illicit perks for those in power, most notably the employees of the PCD.
It is perhaps a great irony that Greatorex’s vision for a future Britain has proven uncannily prescient at many levels and in many prophetic details but with one single adjustment: the oppressive bureaucratic ‘austerity’ dystopia predicted in 1990 has at least partially come about not under a ‘socialist’ government but under a capitalist Tory one, and a particularly right-wing one at that. But in terms of bureaucratic brutalities against marginalised and vulnerable citizens and ‘hostile environment’ we are very much there in Greatorex’s anti-society.
The parallels to our post-Crash austerity Britain of today are chilling: for just one example –though intended by Greatorex as a comment on the ‘three day week’ of the time he wrote in– the government claims full employment by enforcing job sharing, which foreshadows the ‘zero hours contracts’ and general insecurity of so many of today’s exploited ‘precariat’ part-time workforce.
In the opening episode, ‘Creed of Slaves’, we witness a scapegoat society exactly like ours today, which stigmatises the unemployed as “scroungers”, the temporarily sick as “malingerers”, and tars all those claiming state benefits while apparently ‘fit for work’ with “parasitism” (unfortunately, even in the mid-Seventies under a Labour Government, the phenomenon of ‘scroungerphobia’, promulgated then as it is today by the right-wing red tops, reached its first peak, so much so that it inspired a brilliantly powerful Play for Today, The Spongers (1977, Jim Allen/Roland Joffé), and was tackled extensively in Pete Golding’s polemical book Images of Welfare (1983)).
But what makes for particularly compelling, uncomfortable and uncanny viewing amid our horrendous modern day pestilence of the notorious DWP brown envelope, is one particular episode of 1990, from its second series, titled, ‘Ordeal By Small Brown Envelope’. While the focus of this episode isn’t specifically about correspondence for the unemployed, its symbolism of spirit-crushing bureaucratic missives gradually grinding down its citizen victim speaks volumes today against the backdrop of our contemporary brown envelope spectres.
The victim of these vicious missives is Kyle’s manipulated superior at The Star, the chain-smoking Tom Doram, a formerly truth-telling reporter who was frightened into submissiveness by the PCD and put in place to not so much edit as censor Kyle’s stories, played superbly by Clive Swift. Doram is targeted by the PCD as a guinea-pig in the implementation of its prototype policy of ‘Authorised Systematic Harassment’. ‘ASH’, as it is abbreviated, basically involves a campaign of government correspondence sent to a selected victim which incrementally informs them of unexpected vicissitudes such as impossible debt repayment demands prompting repossessions of goods such as cars, occupational demotion and thus income diminishment, and general downgrading of status which involves having to move into shabbier accommodation and ultimately to be ostracised as a ‘non-citizen’ and become an outcast.
ASH also involves very subtle but intrusive visible harassment such as having Doram’s wife and children followed about by men in suits when out shopping, and being visited and intimidated at home by uninvited government bailiffs. In the end, realising that they will inevitably be driven out of society as ‘non-citizens’, Doram and his wife decide the kindest thing for their children is to put them to sleep on barbiturates in the back of a car and top themselves afterwards on carbon monoxide fumes. The terrible irony of these particular methods are that Doram gets the sleeping pills from Kyle, and borrows his car for the purposes (having had his own repossessed).
This macabre conclusion to the episode also echoes that of the aforementioned The Spongers, where the impoverished single mother whose disabled daughter has had her invalidity benefit cut by the state on spurious grounds, ends up poisoning herself and her children with an overdose of sleeping pills dissolved in a nightcap of warm milk. Both characters are the victims of bureaucratic persecution, fatalities of premeditated and merciless government correspondences. The likes of Iain Duncan Smith and Esther McVey should be made to watch these Seventies depictions of our DWP-menaced present by means of ‘re-education’.
There are some particularly poignant moments in this particular episode: a scene when arriving home, Doram’s greeted by his ground-down wife clutching a pile of more brown envelopes gloomily intoning that she couldn’t face opening them; another scene in which the PCD Deputy (and, somewhat implausibly, love interest of Kyle) who came up with ASH –although as a dummy policy intended to be leaked to The Star– disapproves of her boss’s implementation of it, referring to it as an authorised version of ‘Chinese water torture’ preceded by the phrase ‘drop, drop’ in response to Skardon’s poetic but distinctly un-ironic trope: ‘The slow and noiseless steamroller of the state. The daily brown envelope dropping on the mat’.
And so Dorman is ‘harassed to death’, or ‘murdered by the state’, as Kyle phrases it in his follow-up story. The only concession made to the resulting tragedy by the chief operator of the ASH experiment, the spectacled Gestapo-like Chief Bailiff Hayes, is that future targets of ASH should be psychologically vetted first to lower the risk of suicide, so that they are made ‘to approach the edge but never pass it’. Perhaps this is the rationale of our modern day DWP in relation to welfare cuts, sanctions and the Atos-facilitated work capability assessments for the sick and disabled, all of which have so far, since 2010, claimed the lives of over 90,000 of our most vulnerable citizens, inclusive of hundreds of suicides (likely now to be much higher since death statistics are no longer recorded by government, apparently, since around 2014).
Fortunately, Kyle and his dissident associates exact a fitting revenge on ASH operator Hayes using precisely the same bureaucratic methods to destroy him and his entire family, including even distant relatives –in one scene, the mock-‘socialistic’ ethics of this State are subtly hinted at when one of Kyle’s avenging associates, masquerading as a PCD operative, informs one of Hayes’ cousins claiming privileged status because of his familial connection that in their society ‘privilege is something always subject to re-examination’.
It is only the occasional line such as this, and the emphasis on Soviet-style Statism, that reminds the modern viewer that this is supposed to be a ‘socialist’ state; it also betrays Greatorex’s limited interpretation of socialism –his masterful depiction of pernicious bureaucracy is very much in accordance with Max Weber’s seminal analysis (based on the German civil service), what he termed the “iron cage”, the impersonal paper prison of proscriptive correspondence and protocols which control all of our lives, and which is every bit as prevalent in capitalist society as it is/was in socialist or communist societies.
It’s open to speculation as to whether Greatorex had seen The Guardians (LWT, 1971) prior to writing 1990, but the similarities are striking: Rex Firkin and Vincent Tilsley’s dystopian vision of the near-future, although oppositely set in a fascist Britain (so in that sense something in common with AEC), policed by the eponymous government militia, but featured some very similar themes and memes to those later depicted in 1990, such as political dissidents and subversives being impounded in pseudo-psychiatric hospitals where they are doped on drugs (in this case, cannabis, so as to render them apathetic) and subjected to ECT and other forceful methods of ‘re-education’; and a running theme of state-sponsored psychiatry attempting to tackle what are perceived more as a political than mental 'illnesses'. But one curious difference between the two settings is that in The Guardians, far from stigmatising the unemployed, the fascist government appeases public discontent among a large population of long-term unemployed by raising state benefits. But that detail apart, the main polemical thrust of The Guardians is, depressingly, becoming ever more relevant to political vicissitudes since my original review, most notably the rise of the Far Right, and the triumph of isolationist, Empire-nostalgia bigotry and rhetoric with the upcoming catastrophe of "Brexit"; most chillingly of all, the motto of the Far Right government of the new-fangled 'Great England' in the The Guardians is "England Is Great Again", echoed today by Ukippers' and Brexiteers' slogan, "Make Britain Great Again" (but I direct readers to my previous extensive review of The Guardians on The Recusant here).
It remains an interesting and probably very telling fact that none of the excellently polemical and challenging dramas mentioned in this article were ever repeated –were they perhaps too near the knuckle for the powers that be of the time to permit them to be shown to the public a second time round? Well, thanks to the ambitious distributors at Simply Home Entertainment, all bar The Spongers (which was only fairly recently ‘removed’ from YouTube) can now be viewed on unlimited repeats via DVD.
Both An Englishman’s Castle and 1990 are strongly recommended for all lovers of politically engaged Seventies dystopian drama.
An Englishman's Castle 10/10
Alan Morrison © 2018