The fact that Shrimpton herself rose to fame through being a different type of cipher – a projection of the beauty industry through advertisement modelling – plays further into the overall irony of Watkins’ documentary style. His outraged, Oliver Postgate-like voice comments on the proceedings, rather like Adam Curtis’s voiceovers. Such a technique frames the drama in a way that has had a clear influence on many documentary films in spite of Watkins working in fiction.
This blurring is again apt for our times, in the era of ‘alternative facts’, ‘fake news’ and the very destabilising of factual perception. Watkins, however, is aiming such a displacement back upon the establishment in the same way as several other filmmakers did from this era, finding a more powerful and uncomfortable truth behind a fictional retelling. It’s the same technique Ken Loach would use in the Wednesday Play episode Cathy Come Home (1966), and that Alan Clarke would use a decade later to much controversy in his banned Play for Today episode, Scum (1977).
Privilege’s most unsettling moment, especially in the context of today, comes in Shorter’s performance at a televised evangelical rally. When his managers coerce him into ultimately representing the opinion and desires of the state church, he performs at a spectacular event with music, fireworks and lights. In an age where the recently elected president of the USA arguably came to power with the help of this same type of propaganda rally, Privilege gives such occasions (and the subsequent inauguration) a disturbing sense of déjà vu.
Unnervingly, Watkins also shows the end point of this power-play in his later 1971 film, Punishment Park. Here all political dissent and questioning is banned and now punished through a violent survival challenge. It is for this reason, this highlighting of the method in Privilege and the eventual result in Punishment Park, that Watkins is the most disturbingly prescient filmmaker of the 1960s.
As the reverend at the heart of Privilege’s political rally proudly declares to the adoring crowd: “National cohesion has become unimportant to us. We must fight this. We must… We will conform!” For Watkins, this was a terrifying “What if…” For the world of 2017, it is merely a dazed “What happened?”