The drab and derivative title is hardly inspiring, but don’t let that fool you: 1990 is a clever slice of 1970s television drama starring one of the biggest names of the day – Edward Woodward – who leads an amazing cast of British character actors.
Derivative because fables that are a reflection on our current time but set in the near future can’t help but recall Orwell’s 1984 – published in 1948. Drab, because 1990 wasn’t that awful or even remarkable a year; there were distinct plus points such as the then very recent collapse of the USSR and subsequent fall of the Berlin Wall and reunification of Germany. If anything, 1990’s stark warnings about the near future were unfounded. Or were they?
1990 takes place in a UK where its corrupt and incompetent socialist government has squandered the nation’s wealth, ruined the economy and reduced productivity to such a level that a brain drain has occurred – meaning all the best talent has left to live abroad. When the series starts, the Home Office has created the Public Control Department (PCD) – essentially state police and militant thugs – to prevent anyone from leaving without official permission, as they also crack down on civil liberties in a country where the standard of living is falling rapidly. In other words, 1990 is set in an England governed like any other socialist hellhole in history, from Cuba to Venezuela.
Edward Woodward, who had scored a massive success earlier in the 1970s for Callan, and would gain even greater worldwide fame the following decade for The Equalizer, is perfectly cast as Jim Kyle, a journalist working for the only newspaper not under government control and issuing propaganda for the state. Nobody played the everyman coping under pressure – reasonable, but a fighter when pushed – more solidly and convincingly than Woodward. Whilst it may stretch credibility a little that a totalitarian leftist government would allow any freedom of the press, this is neatly covered off by Kyle’s uneasy and unequal relationship with officials from the PCD, notably the beautiful but manipulative Delly Lomas (Barbara Kellerman), who tips him stories in return for some freedom. He’s not entirely in their pockets and finds adventures of his own. The first few episodes detail his attempts to smuggle a GP (played by the wonderful Donald Gee) out of the country without the PCD discovering his involvement. This introduces us to his sidekick Brett (Ballykissangel’s Tony Doyle) who works in exports, which is the only line of business not under stifling government scrutiny.
Other episodes cover storylines such as the torture of criminals or the mentally ill on government health farms, under the guise of curing them, and the grotesque human rights abuses this entails (an idea was ticked off to perfection in Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, but is given a reasonable outing here); and another in which an overseas dignitary, inspired to set up a PCD in his own country, is used to try to flush out resistance. The episode is notable for featuring the legendary Graham Crowden (Waiting For God), complete with American accent, as the villainous Dr Sonderberg.
Although there were two series, there isn’t an entirely satisfying transition between them, and this speaks to the heart of the show’s main weakness. A few of the key players in the PCD are replaced. Although the implied sexual tension between Kyle and Lomas is never quite convincing (mostly down to Kellerman’s generally vague acting) she’s written out between the series but the dramatic tension is never capitalised upon. Wouldn’t it have been better to have her killed off rather than just disappear? Clive Swift (Keeping Up Appearances) joins for the second season, in familiar avuncular territory. He’s not given much to do but he’s one of those splendid actors who can make the most of not very much.
1990, as with most British TV of the era, is shot on a mixture of 16mm film and tape. There is good use of location filming in and around London, finding plenty of places that make the place look like a wasteland. It was in the late 70s – socialism and the inflation, strike action and militancy that are its calling cards saw to that. If you want to know what life in the UK will be like in just a couple of years once the Corbyn Youth vote in their deity – watch 1990.
Overall, the series is heartily recommended for its intelligence, generally good cast and unusual subject matter. It has some strong roles for women, including a villainous female Home Secretary in the second series (Yvonne Mitchell, replacing John Savident). A bit dry in parts, and more than the odd moment of awful dialogue – but satisfying. You can’t go wrong with great actors and a good concept.
Cast: Edward Woodward, Robert Lang, Tony Doyle, Barbara Kellerman, Graham Crowden, Clive Swift Certificate: 15 Duration: 880 mins Released By: Simply Media Release Date: 20th November 2017