John Heyman commissioned television writer Johnny Speight to pen a screenplay
for him which was intended to be a satire that would “expose the rotten
world of pop". He then hired American author Norman Bognor to rewrite
the entire script, transforming it.
When he approached Peter Watkins to direct, Watkins also took part in re-writing the screenplay with Bognor. Discussing the making of the movie, Watkins was to say, “In 1966, following the collapse of a film which I had hoped to develop with Albert Finney’s production company, on the 1916 Easter uprising in Dublin, I was approached by John Heyman, a British artists’ agent, to make a film based on an original screenplay by Johnny Speight, which dealt with the influence of Steven Shorter, a pop star in the 1960s.
Watkins had directed the acclaimed television drama ‘Culloden’ and also the television depiction of a nuclear attack on Britain called ‘The War Game’, which the BBC had banned. This was to be his first feature film.
He comments, “American novelist Norman Bognor and I adapted the script, which we re-titled ‘Privilege’, to emphasise the significance of Steven Shorter as an allegory for the manner in which national states, working via religion, the mass media, sports, popular culture, etc., divert a potential political challenge by young people.
case this theme appears exaggerated, it is important to keep in mind
that it was set in the ‘swinging Britain’ of the 1960s, and was prescient
of the way that popular culture and the media in the US commercialised
the anti-war and counter-culture movement in that country as well.
Set in a totalitarian Britain in a fictitious 1970, the film has been described as social fiction rather than science fiction and concerns the manipulation of the young masses by the Establishment via the use of a popular singer as a figurehead to promote religion and Government policy.
Filmed in Birmingham and London, it features Steven Shorter (Paul Jones) as a singer who has teenagers screaming with ecstasy at the stage act which features him in a cage surrounded by youths dressed as policemen who pretend to beat him while he pleads with the audience to ‘Set Me Free.’
‘Privilege’ was refused a showing on the J. Arthur Rank national cinema
circuit in Britain, being described as an “immoral and un-Christian
picture which mocks the Church, defies authority and encourages youth
in lewd practices". Universal Pictures even withdrew the film after
a handful of screenings in a few countries and it has been rarely seen
since. In fact, Universal even refused to let the director rent or buy
a copy of the film.
Although it had a very limited release, it aroused great controversy and numerous reviews, with the British critics mainly lambasting it while American critics were more positive. Originally, Sarah Miles had been offered the role of Vanessa and Eric Burdon claimed he had originally been cast as Steven Shorter. The film soundtrack was released on 1st January 1967. There was also an EP featuring the songs ‘Privilege’, ‘Take Me’, ‘(My Poor Heart Is Surely) Breaking’ and ‘I’ve Been A Bad, Bad Boy', the latter track becoming a Top 5 hit in Britain. In the U.S. Capitol T2795 issued ‘Paul Jones Sings Songs From The Film ‘Privilege’ And Others,’ an 11 track album which featured all the numbers from the movie.