A few years ago I stopped binge-watching television. It wasn’t an entirely conscious decision. I had begun viewing a few programmes and they were so good that I wanted to drag out having ‘new’ episodes of them for as long as possible. I didn’t want to race through them, be done with it and then move onto something new next month. This was made easier because I now owned quite a lot of shows and there is always something else to watch. Eventually, it just became a habit to watch one episode of a programme each week, perhaps less and occasionally more, but no longer entire series in a day.
The problem with this method is that I recently realised I have a lot of unwatched or barely-watched DVDs on my shelves. In fact, I can cover at least one for almost every letter of the alphabet. So, partly because I like doing things in order, I’ve decided to work my way through them all in alphabetical order.
Before we get onto the alphabet proper, I had the little matter of a series without any letters in its title: 1990.
“Ninety-Eight Four plus six” proclaims the quote on the cover, from the series creator, Wilfred Greatorex. It was this sort of description that intrigued me in the series. I had never heard of 1990 until Simply Media announced its DVD release, and I sat up and took notice because since watching Callan I have sat up and took notice on anything concerning Edward Woodward.
The first series has now sat in cellophane of my shelf for over a year, partly because I know little about it. I subsequently realised that the reason it had been neglected was there was nothing pushing me towards it.
We live in interesting times. No one actually wants to live in interesting times. They may think they do but life is much easier if we live in dull ones. Have there ever been any? We live with words like freedom, censorship and that newer phrase ‘fake news’. ‘Big Brother’ is an old favourite. It has entered such common parlance that I’m certain many people who use the term now are not aware of its connection to George Orwell’s 1984. The fact that people continue to be tricked, lied to, and, increasingly, watched by their governments means 1984 has never and I suspect will never lose its impact.
I find the most sinister-seeming depictions of 1984-esque societies are those in which the transformation is shown to happen gradually. It reinforces the idea that this could all too easily become us. From this episode, 1990 appears to be going down that path. This is not a full on, smack-you-sideways-in-the-face blatant, totalitarian regime. That would be far too dull and I’m keen to see where it goes as I’m intrigued by the “plus six” part of Greatorex’s quote.
So far, 1990 appears to present us with a very subtely delivered future. While 1984 was set 35 years ahead when it was published, 1990 is only 13 years on from the year of its original broadcast. Setting things in the future is always problematic and even the near future is tricky. Happily, the show doesn’t give a dramatic take on fashions – the one thing always liable to be embarrassing when viewed years later.
I think the sets are going to be interesting throughout the series. Apart from a single modern government office, the rest of the sets don’t look any different from something I’d expect to see in the 1970s. I’m curious as to whether the show will do anything with them or continue to play it safe. Possibly because I have spent so much time with predominantly studio-bound 1960s’ drama recently, I was impressed with the amount of location work and there are some interesting shots. Being set in London helps as so much of it can be relied on to stay the same and certainly for only 13 years into the future.
One thing 1990 completely misses is the prevalence of people smoking. Despite the number of smokers beginning to fall during the ’70s, I don’t think many had perceived this yet by 1977 and 1990‘s creators certainly hadn’t. They didn’t predict anyone cutting down at all by 1990 as people are still sparking up all over the place.
They also didn’t predict the demise of the typesetter in newspaper printing. With technological changes, newspaper copy no longer needed to be manually set in place by the end of the 1980s.
For balance, the one thing 1990 does manage to get right is the use of home video recorders, which actually contributes to the plot in the episode I watched. Home videos were only just coming out in the mid-1970s and they couldn’t have realised that machines would get a lot smaller, but it’s still a nice detail.
Moving on to the plot, in this episode, the leader of the opposition makes a televised speech, professing how much he believes in what the present government is doing. Journalist Jim Kyle (Edward Woodward) is watching and is not convinced. The opposition leader disappeared a while ago and Kyle is sure the speech has been faked somehow. When he writes an article on the broadcast, the typesetters refuse to set it and the newspaper’s editor finds himself snookered by the union leader. Meanwhile, there is an underground newspaper making its way around and Kyle tries to make contact with it, hoping they will be able to help his investigations into the opposition leader. The government are also keen to get in touch with those behind the newspaper. They have words with Kyle, who is, perhaps unsurprisingly, not one of their favourite people.
Due to the DVD manufacturer’s annoying trait of putting disc 1 on the right and disc 2 on the left (*shakes fist*), I actually ended up starting with episode 5 and only realised afterwards. Despite this, I had no trouble following it. 1990‘s world-building comes through in the plot and it will be interesting to go back and watch the actual first episode. I hope they don’t spend too much time on backstory because it really isn’t needed – this reality speaks for itself and that has impressed me.
I like Kyle; I think he’s going to be gutsy and dogged and I don’t expect him to come out of it unscathed, if indeed he comes out of it at all in the end.
An additional inclusion on these DVDs is a wonderful BBC2 Drama ident that I hadn’t seen before. I’m also keen on 1990‘s great minimalist titles.