The second and concluding series of dystopian TV classic 1990 ramps up the stakes, as the authorities and the clandestine rebels square up for what might become the decisive showdown between the forces of tyranny and of liberty in dysfunctional 1970s’ Britain. As the show’s producers knew, going in, that this would be 1990’s final instalment, the eight episodes on offer here are able to deliver a definitive (if far from a glib) sense of closure.
As the series opens, a new Home Secretary is settling into their office, the foreign press is building its criticism of unfree Britain and (as the country remains in lockdown and a rigged general election faces cancellation) the resistance movement is planning its next moves against an entrenched government of “civil servants, snoopers and sadists”. Investigative journalist Jim Kyle remains a lynchpin of the resistance, supplying stories to news agencies aboard, and supporting an escape line for emigrants, while accessing a steady stream of intelligence from “Faceless”, his source inside the establishment.
From the opening scene of “Pentagons”, the second series of 1990 reaffirms its determination to maintain a sense of atmosphere and of place through the inclusion of numerous real world London landmarks as filming locations. It’s a budget-stretching commitment that the series holds itself to right up to the series finale, and most memorably includes some shocking sequences staged in Trafalgar Square. Apart from the occasional moment of black humour, there are few laughs to be had in 1990; “Ordeal by Small Brown Envelope” delivers a particularly grim mid-season turning point.
It is a disappointment that the excellent Barbara Kellerman does not return in the guise of the enticing Delly Lomas, but Lisa Harrow immediately impresses as Lynn Blake, her wily replacement as Deputy Controller of the Public Control Department (PCD), the government’s enforcers. Kyle and Blake have a tangled past, and from the first scenes together the sparks between them fly. The dynamic of their relationship replays many of the same cycles of attraction and repulsion that defined Kyle’s involvement with Lomas. But it is a pairing that provides the series with a recurring source of emotional “heat”; an effective tonal contrast with the hard political conflicts that otherwise define 1990.
To thwart the surveillance and infiltration techniques of the PCD, the opposition has adopted a “pentagon” model of organisation: cells of five activists who only share one point of contact with their neighbouring comrades, creating a more resilient network. Behind the authorities’ bluster and deceit, there is a growing sense of nervousness about the regime’s future and about the fate of individual officials within it. Defiance is growing.
Yet it is clear that opponents of the PCD are increasingly divided about their methods. Anyone convinced that the moral ambiguities of the rebellion against the Federation in Blake’s 7 provide the last word when it comes to depicting conflicted revolutionary ambitions (on 1970s’ British TV, at least) needs to set aside some time to become acquainted with the tortured politics of the rebels of 1990. Some put their faith in the pressure of popular opinion and the power of persuasion; others are convinced that the authorities will only be brought to account by force of arms.
Edward Woodward has long since secured his reputation in genre circles for his work on Callan (and, of course, The Wicker Man). The chance to reappraise his portrayal of the flawed “hero of the rebellion” Jim Kyle can only enhance Woodward’s status, as an actor of both passion and precision. As the story unfolds, Kyle’s position within the resistance becomes more fraught, as he continues to associate with petty criminals and black marketeers to advance his cause. He is so determined to eschew violence that he sometimes finds himself at odds with his comrades’ aims. “You are in a minority of one”, his frustrated ally Brett insists when Kyle urges his inner-circle not to distribute weapons as the showdown with the government looms.
George Orwell’s 1984 ends with the complete victory of Big Brother, and the total subjugation of the state’s opponents. The finale of 1990 offers a more upbeat, and more ambiguous, end point. The rebels’ uprising wins concessions and unseats high profile PCD officials, but falls far short of securing a new, free country. It’s the kind of plausible, inconclusive (and grown-up) outcome entirely befitting the series.
The long-awaited DVD release of this then-near-future dystopian drama should lead to a wider appreciation of 1990’s merits. This hard-hitting, character-driven and cerebral thriller will not be to everyone’s taste, and there’s no question that the series reflects the production more of the times in which it was made. But to fans of edgy political conspiracies, Machiavellian intrigue and acutely honed social commentary, this is unmissable drama from British genre TV’s golden era.
1990 SERIES TWO / CERT: 15 / CREATORS: WILFRED GREATOREX / STARRING: EDWARD WOODWARD, ROBERT LANG, TONY DOYLE, LISA HARROW, YVONNE MITCHELL / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW