Forty years after it was broadcast in the ‘Drama Two’ slot on BBC 2, the acclaimed dystopian serial 1990 has secured its first-ever sell-through release, courtesy of Simply Media. Created by TV drama stalwart Wilfred Greatorex, 1990 was part of a new wave of darker speculative dramas that reached British TV screens in the 1970s. These shows’ downbeat and doom-laden predictions about humanity’s future stood in the sharpest possible contrast to the optimism and lightness that characterised so much of the genre TV output of the 1960s.
Taking inspiration directly from George Orwell’s 1984, a seminal treatise on the nightmares of totalitarianism, 1990 depicts life in a then-future Britain that has isolated itself from the world and slid into tyranny. In a country in which freedom of speech has been outlawed and surveillance of citizens’ lives has become all-pervasive, small groups of rebels and dissidents attempt to outwit the authorities and subvert the system; even if that means finding ways to escape the country’s closed borders in the hope of finding a freer life abroad.
The central protagonist in 1990 is Jim Kyle, a journalist who attempts to rebuff the attentions of the spies and snoopers of the Public Control Department (PCD) whilst secretly working for the underground resistance movement. In the shadows, Kyle meets with ‘Faceless’, a whistle-blower who feeds him vital information about the PCD’s plans. Edward Woodward’s performance as the conflicted ‘man of principle’ is expertly judged and delivered brilliantly. Kyle is a flawed hero, a political activist whose motivations are a tangle of contradictions, who struggles to navigate the minefield of his public and private lives and remain on the side of decency and of honour.
The pressures facing Kyle are made more intense by his entanglement with the beguiling senior PCD official Delly Lomas (a pitch-perfect turn by Barbara Kellerman). Kyle is attracted to Lomas, but repulsed by her role as an enforcer of the state’s will. Behind the scenes, ruthless PCD boss Herbert Skardon (Robert Lang, embodying the ‘banality of evil’ with complete conviction) hunts down saboteurs and malcontents without mercy, and soon turns his scrutiny in Kyle’s direction.
Across eight episodes, the first series of 1990 explores how downtrodden citizens either accept, rebel against or attempt to escape Fortress Britain. Kyle has to hold down his job as a hack on a government-censored paper, while he and his handful of activist allies keep the hopes of a clandestine opposition alive. As the first series concludes, Skardon rips away all the protection surrounding Kyle, making him a ‘non-citizen’ in the hope of breaking his will. Much of the future of the fightback will depend on whether Kyle’s spirit snaps under that pressure before a rescue mission can be put into effect.
Very much a product of its televisual times, 1990 relies more on character conflict, sharp dialogue and clever plotting than on major action set-pieces to illustrate the clash between the rebels and the state. That said, with the series making use of the then-popular combination of outdoor film and in-studio video, most episodes benefit from some excellent and atmospheric location work, which showcase the urban environs of 1970s’ Britain at their grimmest and greyest best. Those sequences help to infuse the series with a palpable sense of time and place.
When it was first shown, 1990 was a future-facing drama, which imagined the country’s potential degeneration thirteen years hence. Viewing it four decades on from that initial transmission, it is striking how many of this now-historic show’s themes and anxieties (particularly about the relationship between the individual and the state) continue to resonate in the present day.
Simply Media deserve praise for bringing this hidden archival treasure into the public realm. It is a shame, though, that no restoration or remastering work has been carried out on tape stock visibly marred by the scars of age. It is also a missed opportunity that this is a ‘vanilla’ release. At minimum, the inclusion of a ‘viewing notes’ booklet could have provided some useful context and commentary for those seeing the show for the first time.
The better news is that Simply has already committed to releasing the second (and concluding) series of 1990 in May. The best news of all is that series two is an even more compelling and gripping watch than the excellent series one.
1990 SERIES ONE / CERT: 15 / CREATORS: WILFRED GREATOREX / STARRING: EDWARD WOODWARD, BARBARA KELLERMAN, ROBERT LANG, TONY DOYLE, PAUL HARDWICK, CLIFTON JONES / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW