1990 – Series 2. Simply Media DVD Review

Broadcast between February and April 1978, series two of 1990 continued to chronicle Jim Kyle’s (Edward Woodward) fight against the all-powerful Public Control Department (PCD). My thoughts on series one can be found here.

Several key cast changes had been made since the conclusion of the first series. Although Robert Lang returned as PCD supremo Herbert Skardon, Clifton Jones and Barbara Kellerman (who played deputy PCD controllers Henry Tasker and Delly Lomas during S1) didn’t. It’s fairly easy to understand why Jones might have been dropped (Tasker was by far the least developed of the three and therefore often seemed to be surplus to requirements) but Kellerman’s absence was more perplexing.

The relationship between Kyle and Delly provided the first series with dramatic impetus (especially the “will they, won’t they” conundrum) and the introduction of the new deputy PCD controller, Lynn Blake (Lisa Harrow), could be seen as an attempt to replicate a similar relationship. Kyle and Lynn have a history – they used to be lovers – which instantly creates a source of tension, since her new job will inevitably bring her into direct conflict with Kyle.

Lisa Harrow & Edward Woodward

It’s possible that Lynn’s character was a hastily written replacement for Delly Lomas (maybe because Kellerman was unavailable for S2) otherwise it rather stretches credibility that Delly’s replacement was also someone whose relationship with Kyle had the same uneasy mix of business and pleasure.

Home Secretary Dan Mellor (John Savident) is another absentee, with Kate Smith (Yvonne Mitchell) taking his place. 1990 was Mitchell’s final television role (she died in 1979, aged 63). Although primarily a stage actress, she had notched up some notable film and television credits during her career – for example, Nigel Kneale’s 1954 adaptation of Nineteen Eighty Four in which she played Julia opposite Peter Cushing’s Winston Smith.

Series two kicked off with Wilfred Greatorex’s Pentagons. Kyle is now a member of Pentagon, one of a growing number of dissident groups. But whilst he favours non-violent action (“words have won more batttles than bullets”) others, such as Thomson (John Nolan), are more keen to fight fire with fire ….

Nolan (probably best known for his semi-regular role in Doomwatch) is one of a number of familar faces who pop up in this one – Barry Lowe, Oscar James and Edward de Souza also feature. Lisa Harrow, debuting as Lynn, makes an immediate impression. Harrow and Woodward share a series of strong two-handed scenes which form the core of the episode (Lynn has been tasked to discover the identity of the PCD mole who has been passing sensitive material to Kyle). Juggling several plotlines – including the complex relationship between Kyle and Lynn – Pentagons is a solid season opener.

Lisa Harrow & Robert Lang

As with the first series, the second run of 1990 used a small pool of writers. Creator Wilfred Greatorex penned four episodes, Edmund Ward contributed three whilst the remaining episode was provided by Jim Hawkins (his sole contribution to the series).

Edmund Ward’s three episodes – Trapline, Ordeal by Small Brown Envelope and Hire and Fire – were broadcast third, fourth and fifth and therefore form the heart of the second series.

In Trapline, Commissioner Hallam (John Paul) seeks Kyle’s assistance. Hallam may be a senior officer in the civil police, but he bitterly tells Kyle that it’s “the second-class police force. The street sweepers that clear up after the politicals”. Private security firms such as Careguard, run by William Grainger (John Carson), are where the real power lies, thanks to their links to the PCD.

It’s always a pleasure to see John Paul (Doomwatch‘s Spencer Quist) as well as John Carson (one of the most dependable and watchable character actors of his generation). The episode explores how the authorities (both Hallam and the new Home Secretary, Kate Smith) have grown increasingly concerned about the unregulated power wielded by the PCD and Careguard. The fact they want Kyle to help them is an irony which amuses him greatly.

Edward Woodward & John Paul

The verbal fencing between Skardon and Smith, as both jostle for supremacy, is highly entertaining as is the interaction between Kyle and Smith, who become unlikely allies. When Kyle calls her “love” (a rather Callan-like touch) watch how Yvonne Mitchell moves from mild disapproval to amusement in a heartbeat.

Robert Lang is well served by this one. Not only has Skardon gained a girlfriend, the very attractive Barbara Fairlie (Sandra Payne), but he’s also given some killer lines. When informed that the Home Secretary is beating a path to his door, he replies on the intercom that he’s preparing to genuflect. Smith overhears this, leading Skardon to respond that on reflection he can’t. “Injury sustained in youth. Choirboy’s knee”!

In the intriguingly-tiled Ordeal by Small Brown Envelope, Skardon puts his latest plan into action – Authorised Systematic Harassment (ASH). Described as “an authorised version of the Chinese water torture” it uses the most deadly weapon of all – bureaucracy.

The unfortunate targets – Kyle’s editor Tom Doran (Clive Swift) and his family – find themselves under close surveillance, but that’s only the beginning. When the state bailiff moves to evict them from their home and into a slum area then the pressure really begins to tell. As a way of breaking somebody’s spirit, mindless officialdom can be more effective than kicks and blows.

Skardon succinctly sums it up. “The slow and noiseless steamroller of the state, the daily brown envelope dropping on the mat”. Doran used to be a fighter like Kyle, but now he’s older and more frightened of making waves, which makes this persecution even crueller. It’s all been arranged in order to put pressure on Kyle, but Lynn argues that by targeting Kyle’s friends they’ll simply turn him into an even more implacable enemy …

Because it’s so horribly plausable and shockingly bleak, Ordeal by Small Brown Envelope is one of the most memorable S2 episodes. Woodward, as usual, is electrifying.

A vicious protection racket, centered around a state factory, is the theme of Hire and Fire. Another first-rate cast – Colin Douglas, Joseph Brady, Simon Cadell – power a story which sees Kyle and the PCD (in the shape of Lynn) form an uneasy alliance for the common good. Skardon is less than impressed when he learns that Kyle has been brought in – which leads to an entertaining confrontation between them (Woodward once again in sparkling form). Also amusing is Kyle’s luncheon with Lynn and the Home Secretary, where he likens himself to “a rose between two thorns”.

Robert Lang & Yvonne Mitchell

Skardon’s pursuit of Kyle continues across the remaining episodes, with matters coming to a head in the series finale, What Pleasess The Prince. Will Kyle and his friends emerge victorious or can the beleaguered PCD fight back?

As with the first series, Edward Woodward shines. Kyle may be more of a thinker than a man of action like Callan, but their core characteristics (a disdain for authority and a highly developed conscience) aren’t too dissimilar. Robert Lang, Lisa Harrow and Yvonne Mitchell are all strong enough actors to hold their own against Woodward in full flight whilst Tony Doyle impresses again as Dave Brett, one of Kyle’s staunchest allies.

Even after all these years, it’s interesting to see how 1990 can be fashioned into a political weapon.  This article from Conservative Woman makes great play of the fact that the government in 1990 was left-wing, although it has to be said that series rarely made party political points (if 1990‘s government had been of the opposite persuasion there would have been little need for any serious redrafting of the scripts – it’s easy to see a fascistic right-wing police state operating in pretty much the same way).

But whatever your political leanings, 1990‘s dystopian future continues to resonate.  At the time of its original broadcast the show was tapping into contemporary concerns about the state of the country (numerous other examples can be found across many different series – Reggie Perrin’s brother-in-law Jimmy, feverishly planning for the day when “the balloon goes up”, is just one example).  Forty years on, 1990 still raises talking points and stimulates the imagination – the year 1990 may be behind us, but many of the issues encountered by Jim Kyle and the others remain.

Tightly scripted and well cast, the second series of 1990 offers another eight episodes of thought-provoking, character-based drama. Both this and series one come highly recommended.

1990 Series Two is released by Simply Media on the 1st of May 2017.  RRP £19.99.

1990 – Series One. Simply Media DVD Review

1990, which ran for two seasons during 1977 and 1978, was set in a Britain tyrannised by the Public Control Department (PCD), a Home Office organisation dedicated to crushing free speech and any other signs of dissent.  Given the parlous state of Britain during the 1970’s, it wasn’t surprising to find a series which posited what might happen if the economy finally and irrevocably disintegrated.  And given the way things are today, many of 1990‘s themes seem eerily topical  ….

Some background to the collapse is teased out as the series progresses.  We learn that the country went bankrupt in 1983, which led to a series of swingeing restrictions from the newly-formed PCD.  These included strict rationing – not only of food, but also of housing and other essential services.  Virtually everything has been nationalised, meaning that the government has almost complete control.  Dissidents are harshly dealt with – via Adult Rehabilitation Centres – where they are treated with electro-convulsive therapy.

1990 is a grim place then, but there are still a few people attempting to resist the state.  One is Jim Kyle (Edward Woodward), a journalist on The Star, one of the last independent newspapers. The PCD, in the form of Controller Herbert Skardon (Robert Lang) and his two deputies, Delly Lomas (Barbara Kellerman) and Henry Tasker (Clifton Jones), keep him under close surveillance, which leads to a tense battle of nerves.

Robert Lang, Barbara Kellerman and Clifton Jones

Series creator Wilfred Greatorex (1922–2002) started his career writing for Probation Officer (1962) and quickly moved onto The Plane Makers (1963 – 1965) and its sequel The Power Game (1966 – 1969) where he acted as the script-editor.  Character conflict was key to both The Plane Makers and The Power Game and it’s plain to see that a similar format was carried over to 1990.  The heart of the series is concerned with the way the main characters (especially Kyle, Skardon and Lomas) interact.

Edward Woodward (1930 – 2009) had been acting since the mid 1950’s but it was Callan (1967 – 1972) which really established him as a household name.  His success as the world-weary state-sponsored killer allowed him to diversify (pursing his love of singing in The Edward Woodward Hour, for example) whilst cult films like The Wicker Man (1973) enhanced his profile even more.  Woodward was a quality actor and his central performance is one of the reasons why 1990 works as well as it does.

The series opened with Greatorex’s Creed of Slaves (“Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves” – William Pitt the Younger).  Kyle is penning a piece for his newspaper on the Adult Rehabilitation Centres (ARCs) which causes Skardon considerable irritation.  But that’s merely the tip of the iceberg as Kyle is also part of an organisation dedicated to smuggling people out of the country ….

There’s more than a little touch of 1984 about the series of course (Greatorex referred to it as 1984 plus six).   This is particularly evident in the opening few minutes as we observe how the PCD are able to monitor everybody, both visually and aurally, although wise old hands like Kyle are able to give them the slip with embarrassing ease.  The relationship between Kyle and the members of the PCD is already well established before the episode begins and it’s his interaction with Delly Lomas which particularly intrigues.  Since Skardon mentions that Kyle likes her cooking, it’s plain that, despite the fact they’re on different sides, there appears to be some sort of spark between them.  Or are both simply playing games? At one point Kyle directs this comment to her. “How do you look like you do and do the job that you do?”

Edward Woodward & Barbara Kellerman

The next episode, When Did You Last See Your Father?, continues one of the plotlines from episode one, concerning Dr Vickers (Donald Gee), a man who is keen to take his wife and family out of the UK. This proves to be impossible via official means, as exit visas are severely restricted.

The banality of evil runs throughout the series. On the one hand, Skardon, Lomas and Tasker are simply bureaucrats doing a job (in their minds they no doubt see themselves on the side of law and order). It’s this blurring between “good” and “evil” which is so compelling – the PCD may be oppressive, but their public face can appear to be reasonable. This is key – if you can keep the nastiness buried then maybe you stand a chance of fooling most of the people.

The first non-Greateorex script, Health Farm, stars the imposing Welsh actor Ray Smith as union leader Charles Wainwright.  Following a disastrous trip to America in which he gave a speech littered with criticisms of the British government, Wainwright is sent to an ARC for “correction”.  The shocking change in him (from the firebrand we first meet to an adjusted patient keen to toe the party line) brings home the true horror of the ARCs.

Strong guest stars continue to appear throughout the remainder of series one, such as Graham Crowden as Sondeberg in Decoy and Richard Hurndall as Avery in Voice from the Past.

The last two episodes – Witness and Non-Citizen ramp up the conflict between Kyle and the PCD. Dr Vickers, who escaped from the UK in episode two with Kyle’s help, is persuaded to return in order to testify in a show-trial against Kyle – if he does then his family will be granted exit visas.  Prior to the trial (featuring John Bennett as the prosecutor) Kyle’s office and home are targeted by PCD thugs, which causes distress to his wife Maggie (Patricia Garwood) and children.  Woodward gives a typically powerful performance, especially when Kyle finds his family are under threat.

Edward Woodward

Series one concluded with Non-Citizen. Considering how much of a thorn Kyle has been in the PCD’s side, it’s odd they’ve taken so long to decisively deal with him. But here at last they finally seem to have broken him. With his family missing, no money, no job, no home and no status, Kyle is pushed to the limit by a sadistic Skardon. It’s not surprising that Woodward once again excels here.

Although the themes of the first series of 1990 tapped into contemporary fears and neuroses, it’s fascinating how most of it still remains topical some forty years on.  The official face presented in 1990 appears to be fair and reasonable – tribunals are held which claim to offer the public an unbiased hearing and the ARC we visit is located in a palatial country home with well-manicured lawns – but scratch a little beneath the surface and it’s plain there’s something very rotten in this state.  You don’t need jackbooted guards on every street corner to create a true sense of fear, there are far more subtle ways than that ….

The way that language, spin and bureaucracy are all utilised in order to obfuscate the truth is especially instructive.  When you hear a politician complaining that the press, in the shape of Kyle, is spreading disinformation and therefore creating disharmony about the state of the economy (i.e. disseminating fake news) then the parallels to the modern world are perfectly clear.  In many ways 1990 is something of a chess game with all the major players – especially Kyle and Lomas – engaged in a game of manoeuvre and counter-manoeuvre.

Barbara Kellerman & Edward Woodward

As I’ve said, Edward Woodward is a fine leading man whilst Barbara Kellerman and Robert Lang (who receive second and third billing) offer strong support.  The gravelly-voiced Lang graced many a film and television programme with his presence and is perfect as the harassed mandarin Tasker whilst Kellerman (possibly best known for playing the White Witch in the 1980’s BBC production of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe) is intriguing as Della, the apparently acceptable face of the PCD.  Kellerman didn’t return for series two, which was a shame, although this did allow the format to be shaken up a little.

Interviewed by the Radio Times prior to the broadcast of the first episode, Woodward said that the series was “either going to create a furore or pass without comment” (Radio Times, 17th September 1977).  Although it didn’t quite go unnoticed, the fact it was tucked away on BBC2 was probably part of the reason why it never became a mainstream hit. But it clearly impressed enough to be renewed for a second series.

Although largely forgotten today, 1990 is a series which deserves to be much better known, especially since its power to disturb and unsettle remains undimmed after forty years.  It’s pleasing to have the first series available on DVD, with the second to follow in May, and for those who appreciate well-crafted British character drama of the seventies it’s certain to appeal.

1990 – Series One is released by Simply Media on the 20th of March 2017.  RRP £19.99.