Let them watch Strindberg!

February 7, 1997

Peter Watkins, the director whose films outraged the establishment in the 1960s, is back warning students of the narrow conservatism of TV. Patrick Murphy reports.

If it's Monday, it must be York. Yesterday it was Birmingham. Tomorrow it's Leeds. Then London. No wonder Peter Watkins looks tired. The man whose first film for the BBC, Culloden won outstanding critical acclaim (and a Bafta) in 1964, and whose second film a year later, The War Game, caused a political storm (and won an Oscar) has just completed an arduous lecture tour of colleges, universities and film festivals in the United Kingdom.

He has not lived here since 1968, leaving after a battle with an establishment that he found increasingly intolerant, mendacious and autocratic. Instead, he has sojourned in France, the United States, Canada, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden and, currently, Lithuania. But wherever he goes in the world he senses a dangerous trend: television narrowly defining itself as a "monoform" - a one-dimensional, oppressive, conformist medium that denies the public opportunity for real involvement or critical debate. Even more dangerously, he sees media teaching as a potential perpetuator of this increasingly "hierarchical, undemocratic and anti-intellectual set of constructs".

Watkins believes that most television merely reflects the status quo, and that media education operates in a dangerous minefield - one in which popular but mind-numbing programmes like Neighbours are seen as worthy of evaluation because they are "accessible". The real question is why dramas like Neighbours are screened in the first place, wasting valuable airtime in a schedule obsessed with ratings as the only criterion of success.

Ask any media student today (and some producers) who Peter Watkins is and a few will remember him as an enfant terrible of the 1960s. For the man does occupy an important footnote in most books about television history and the peace movement. But ask them what he has done since 1965 and few will know. Revealingly, Watkins's work in the intervening years perfectly illustrates his thesis. His most recent project, The Freethinker, a four-and-a-half-hour long meticulously researched drama-documentary about the life of August Strindberg, has been refused a television showing. "I'm told it's either too long or too complicated for the audience,'' he says. Watkins wrote to 70 educational establishments in Sweden, where the film was made with local students, offering details of the work. Only three bothered to reply.

His other films have received a mixed response. Punishment Park (1970), a powerful allegory of political oppression in the Nixon years in the US, was shown for four days in New York before being mysteriously taken off - intervention by the FBI, wonders Watkins? Edvard Munch (1973) has been shown widely, but The Journey (1983-86) has had limited television airtime.

Monday morning, York. One hundred undergraduates watch The War Game, many for the first time. Most are visibly moved. Some express anger, shock, outrage.

Watkins explains the film's history. "It was banned by the BBC and our elected government because it exposed a blatant lie. In the event of a so-called limited nuclear attack on the UK there would be scenes of unparalleled destruction. 'They', the authorities, wanted you to believe that nuclear weapons were absolutely essential, and that in the event of such an attack the volunteer Civil Defence Corps would simply pick up the pieces. In two weeks, life would revert to normal."

A student who was not even born when The War Game was made, on a shoestring budget in just four weeks at the height of the cold war, asks Watkins if he feels angry about the way the establishment has treated him. "Of course I do. The BBC showed the film secretly to the government and then tried to discredit me. They called the film 'an artistic failure', they said it wasn't 'objective enough' and they even broadcast a story on the national news that I'd used concealed trip wires during the filming of Culloden to ensure that my actors fell 'dead' more realistically during the battle scenes." The latter story was completely untrue.

It was only enormous public pressure that resulted in The War Game gaining cinema release. But the BBC banned it from TV screens in the UK and the rest of the world, showing it just once, in August, 1985, rather puzzlingly to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima.

Another student asks a question: "Is there anything you could have done in the film to have made it more palatable to the authorities?'' Watkins cups his face in both hands for a moment, thinks, then answers, ironically: "Yes, it would have been more acceptable if I'd shown the Union Jack waving hopefully in the radio-active breeze at the end of the film''.

He broadens his thesis. "What happened to me was very much the thin edge of the wedge. Television has become a 'them' and 'us' profession. 'They', the programme makers tell 'you' the viewers what is good for you. In a way I was lucky to get the film made in the first place. Such a controversial project would probably be censored at the commissioning stage today.'' It is this sharp division of power that Watkins finds so dangerous.

"I'm not saying don't go into television,'' he tells his student audience. "But do be aware of its general conservatism. Television is not a democratic medium. We had great hopes for it in the 1960s, but the mad surge for ratings and the Murdochisation of mass media has tended to reduce output to the lowest common denominator."

The students look troubled. Many do want to work in television. Media education has become one of the main growth subjects of the 1990s. The latest Skillset figures show that in 1990 there were 6,000 media places in higher education. By 1995 there were 31,820. But if you include part-time courses and courses with media as a minor element the figure swells to 71,740. Many of these students want to work in what they perceive as the creative world of television.

Typically, for an essentially visual thinker, Watkins draws a simple diagram on a white board. "This line represents a continuum,'' he explains. "It can extend as far as you like, for it represents the possibilities of expression using TV as a medium.'' Then he draws a box at the beginning of the line. "This box represents most of the programmes you see on television. Programmes restricted in rhythm, pace, length, and technique. This box represents the monoform which structures what you see on TV most of the time."

"What about filmmakers like Stone or Tarantino?'' asks a student. "The main problem I have with them is that they don't allow the audience time to react to the images. It all happens too fast. You're not allowed enough space to think about what they're saying. Instead, you're bombarded with sound and vision and manipulated to react in a mass, pre-determined way."

York, Monday afternoon. Some of my film and television students are planning a series of vox pops on public awareness of mad cow disease. "Are we going to work in 'the box' or be more experimental?'' I overhear them say. I admire them. They are thinking: "Is it the job of this generation to put more of the real information and education back into television?" This is not an elitist argument. It is about ensuring that the true power and creative potential of television are not lost, forever.

Patrick Murphy teaches film and television at the University College of Ripon and York St John.

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