pop culture time capsules, The F.B.I. (1965)

I have a great fondness for the pop culture of the past. This includes vintage television which is in fact one of the great loves.

Once you become red-pilled though you find that vintage pop culture can be a little disturbing. For one thing, you can’t avoid noticing the propaganda. And the liberal propaganda was always there in television, going right back to the 50s.

At times watching old TV shows can also be an oddly melancholic experience. That’s what I’m finding at the moment with The F.B.I., or more specifically with the first season of that series. The F.B.I. was an immensely popular series which aired from 1965 to 1974. It’s the fact that the first season originated in 1965 that gives it a real poignancy. 1965 was a very very pivotal year. Everything was about to change. Pop culture can offer us a fascinating window into the past and can sometimes be more illuminating than official history.

The 1965 season of The F.B.I. shows us an America that is peaceful, prosperous, united and confident. What’s interesting is that this is a crime series, so it actually has an agenda to show us the darker side of society. Which it does. It makes no attempt to deny that problems exist. However the overwhelming feeling that the show conveys is that these problems are entirely manageable. They are challenges that can be, and will be, met and overcome.

There’s the challenge of organised crime but the Bureau is already giving that top priority. There’s communist subversion but in this series the communists are mostly paid agents of foreign governments and mostly they’re involved in sabotage. In those happy days of 1965 no-one had considered the possibility that society might be much more effectively undermined by subversives taking control of the education system and the media. Erskine, the older of the two F.B.I. agents featured in the series, actually wants his daughter to stay in college rather than get married. It’s difficult to think of a more wrong-headed notion but in 1965 college still seemed like a good idea.

Drugs are mentioned but are seen as purely a law enforcement problem and as another challenge that can be met. Vietnam gets mentioned in passing but there’s no sense that it’s going to prove to be an historical watershed. The horrors of feminism and militant LGBT activism weren’t even on the horizon. Pornography was seen as a threat but a threat that could be largely eliminated by vigorous law enforcement. The idea that within a few years a policy of complete surrender on this subject would be adopted and the country flooded with pornography would have been considered crazy talk in 1965.

There’s one episode in which a cab driver decides to become an F.B.I. informant. I don’t mean that he’s a reluctant witness who is persuaded to come forward. He volunteers to be an active informant, seeking out information to pass on to the Bureau. And he does this because he thinks it’s his duty as a citizen. Even two or three years later I don’t think such a decision could have been presented in such an unironic way. In fact that’s one of the notable things about the 1965 season of The F.B.I. – it is totally lacking in irony. Which I think is wonderful.

America in 1965 is not exactly portrayed as being complacent, merely very confident. Democracy seemed to be working. The political and economic system as a whole seemed to be delivering the goods. Technological progress appeared to be limitless and entirely a good thing.

By 1974, when this series ended its run, the society depicted in the first season had pretty much ceased to exist. And it was a disaster that, apparently, was entirely unexpected.

The series is politically incorrect, and often delightfully so, but in those innocent times no-one knew that political correctness was going to become a thing. The F.B.I. is extremely good but watching it  really is desperately sad at times.

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television dystopias – The Guardians (1971)

The Guardians is a dystopian political thriller series made by London Weekend Television which went to air in Britain in 1971. It has never been screened since. It was also screened in Australia but as far as I know has never been seen in the U.S.

Back in the 60s neo-nazis and fascists were immensely popular as villains in both British and U.S. television – writers seemed to be convinced that there was a neo-nazi under every bed. They were usually presented as ridiculous cartoonish villains and the subject was mostly treated in a mocking way.

The Guardians was quite different. This series took itself very seriously indeed. It also refused to trivialise the subject by creating cartoonish villains. It dealt with the subject in a relatively subtle and even nuanced way. This is rather sophisticated political television.

The first episode raises more questions than it answers. That’s not a criticism. The intention (I assume) is to show us firstly the surface appearances of Britain as it is being transformed into a police state. We see the Guardians in action. They are obviously some kind of paramilitary political police, although whether they are actually under the effective control of the government remains doubtful. We are introduced to the Prime Minister Sir Timothy Hobson. He seems to be well-meaning but ineffectual. He’s the sort of man who likes to think he is willing to stand up for principles, as long as he doesn’t actually have to do so. We discover that real power is in the hands of a shadowy figure known as The General. We have no idea as to his identity or the means by which he has come to wield power over the government. Norman appears to be the man who transmits The General’s orders to the Cabinet. We see news broadcasts running in the background and it is obvious that there has been a lengthy period of strikes and civil unrest. We already have reason to be suspicious of this – is this genuine civil unrest or is it manufactured by the government or by The General?

We also meet a number of other characters. Tom Weston is a keen and ambitious member of the Guardians. While he’s happy to kick heads in the line of duty he’s actually a jovial sort of fellow and seems devoted to his wife Clare. Clare has been suffering from headaches and has been seeing a top government psychiatrist, Dr Benedict. There’s some interesting sparring between these two – Dr Benedict thinks Clare may be spying on him, Clare thinks Dr Benedict may be spying on her, Dr Benedict speculates that he has been called in because someone is taking an interest in Tom Weston.

Tom Weston is in charge of recruiting and training and he finds himself forced to accept a very upper-class recruit named Peter Lee. Tom Weston thinks that Peter Lee may not be at all what he seems to be and we’re inclined to agree with him. Is Lee a communist subversive? An agent of The General? An agent placed in the Guardians by some other group?

So all in all the opening episode establishes a definite mood of paranoia and conspiracy. It’s a promising opening.

As the series progresses some weaknesses do start to appear. The great danger facing a program dealing with politics is that it will succumb to the temptations of preachiness and speechifying. At times The Guardians succumbs to those temptations in a truly disastrous manner. The worst example is probably when the prime minister is dining with his old friend Sir Francis Wainwright who is now the head of the EBC (obviously a thinly disguised version of the BBC). The speeches start immediately and they go and on and on. The prime minister puts the case for the government’s increasingly authoritarian rule while the EBC chief puts forward the liberal argument for no censorship. It’s fairly obvious that we’re meant to accept Wainwright’s feelgood arguments but you have to give this program credit for at least putting forward the case for authoritarianism. And, surprisingly, the prime minister makes his case with passion and conviction. The problem is that it’s all done in such an unbelievably clumsy manner. It’s two characters sitting in a London club and talking and talking and talking.

Just as it seems that the series has self-destructed with excessive talkiness it suddenly comes to life again and becomes truly fascinating with some wonderfully devious power plays for the highest stakes of all.

One aspect of this series that does seem dated is that the imposition of a police state is seen as being a response to a crisis caused to a large extent by waves of strikes. Of course back in the early 70s strikes really were perceived as a major threat to the social order. It’s a fascinating look at the things the Left was paranoid about in 1971, and they were certainly terrified that strikes would be used as a justification for repression.

There is of course a resistance movement. Although they do not seem to be particularly efficient some interesting points are made about the right approach to take if you’re trying to overthrow the government, the key being to provoke the government into overreacting with excessively repressive measure which (in theory) will result in increasing opposition to the regime. This was in fact pretty much the theory behind the activities of urban terrorist groups like the Baader-Meinhof Gang. In the series it is believed that such a strategy will work since Sir Timothy Hobson firmly believes that even an undemocratic government ultimately relies on the consent of the governed.

The series focuses partly on this resistance movement and partly on the power struggles within the government.

One problem this series faced was that in 1971 Dixon of Dock Green was still on television. The idea of British policemen behaving like uniformed thugs seemed too silly even to contemplate. The idea of a British government setting up a paramilitary political police force and suspending long-cherished legal rights seemed like a joke. Today of course it all sounds chillingly plausible. In 1971 it sounded a bit far-fetched.

There’s some stuff about brainwashing, this being another major obsession of that time period. And there’s a considerable emphasis on the problems of crime, both ordinary crime and political crimes, and on effective and ineffective methods of dealing with these problems. This of course was a major obsession at that time – 1971 was also the year in which Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange was released.

There is an assumption here that a fascist dictatorship is going to exploit nationalism in order to gain legitimacy. The government of Sir Timothy Hobson has adopted the slogan of Britain Great Again!

It’s also interesting that Hobson’s government is not portrayed as being all that totalitarian. In fact it’s rather less totalitarian than Theresa May’s government today. The series portrays an authoritarian rather than a totalitarian society. It appears to be a society in which, as long as you’re not openly a communist or openly opposing the government then the government pretty much leaves you alone. It appears to be a government than is not all that interested in controlling people’s thoughts and opinions on every conceivable subject.

As the series progresses we also see the resistance movement resorting to methods that are just as morally reprehensible as anything done by the government. As the series progresses we find that things get more complex. There is opposition to the government, not from ordinary people but from organised groups. These groups do not agree on tactics and they most certainly do not agree on ultimate objectives. In fact these opposition groups loathe each other more than they loathe the government.

Also interesting is the fact that Hobson’s government did not gain power as the result of a coup. They were democratically elected, by a landslide majority. It was more a case of an elected government carrying out a coup after being elected. It’s also worth noting that there isn’t a great deal (other than a certain hostility to unions) to indicate that this is a right-wing rather than a left-wing dictatorship. There’s very little mention of economic policy. And of course this was 1971, when political correctness as we know it was still virtually non-existent.

The Guardians has some very real strengths. It doesn’t rely on characters who are simplistic heroes or villains and while it’s very obvious that the series takes a firmly antagonistic view of Hobson’s fascist government it is prepared to accept that his government did come to power in response to a genuine crisis and it is prepared to grudgingly admit that a case can be made for a kind of benevolent authoritarianism (which is the kind of regime that Hobson believes he can bring about). Hobson is a man who sincerely believes he is doing the right thing. And while he might be deluding himself and he might in fact be doing the wrong thing the resistance movement is in many ways every bit as bad. This is a series that starts out giving the impression that it’s going to be propaganda but it ends up being surprisingly nuanced and intelligent.

The weaknesses are perhaps not entirely avoidable if you’re going to try to address serious political issues – there are a lot of speeches. This means that we do at least know exactly what the various characters stand for but it can make for some very stodgy television.

I have to admit that I ended up feeling more sympathy for the prime minister than for the resistance. Even the Guardians with their repressive measures seemed preferable to the chaotic violence of the resistance. The makers of this series really do seem to be cynical about both left-wing and right-wing extremists but what’s really intriguing is that they seem to be even more contemptuous of both left-wing and right-wing moderates.

The Guardians is one of the more fascinating attempts at making a dystopian political thriller. It has its flaws and it can get very talky but it’s intelligent and thought-provoking and  exceptionally complex. Although it was promoted as such it is most definitely not just an exercise in leftist anti-fascist paranoia. It’s an exploration of the conflicts between freedom and stability, authority and chaos, obedience and responsibility, duty and loyalty, liberty and order. It does not try to persuade us that there are easy answers. I suspect that’s why it was never repeated – in the 70s, with the Troubles in Northern Ireland, a TV show dealing in a nuanced way with questions of terrorism and political repression was not going to be viewed sympathetically.

The Guardians has been released on DVD in the UK by Network. It is well worth a look.

The Search for the Nile (1971)

The Search for the Nile was a very ambitious project for the BBC in 1971. It features a good deal of location shooting and the results are certainly impressive. documentary-style historical drama about African exploration is in its own way an astonishing television achievement. 
Even more astonishing is that it’s not an exercise in political correctness. It deals with colonialism in a complex and nuanced way. It also deals with slavery but the slavers encountered here are Arabs and Africans. 
In the middle of the nineteenth century the hot topic in geographical circles was the source of the River Nile. In fact it had been a hot topic in geographical circles for around two thousand years and no-one was any closer to finding the answer.
This is more than just a story of exploration. It is a race. The rivalry between Captain Sir Richard Burton and Lieutenant John Hanning Speke for the honour of making the great discovery is an epic in itself. Burton and Speke undertook joint expeditions as well as solo expeditions and the relationship between the two men was uneasy and complex. It is difficult to imagine two men less suited to work together in harness and Burton’s decision to choose Speke to accompany him on his first major attempt to find the source of the Nile in 1856 is at first sight surprising. The one thing they had in common was the obsession to unravel this greatest of all geographical mysteries.
There was also another potential runner in this race. Scottish missionary David Livingstone  was rumoured to have an interest in finding the source of the Nile as well and the depth of Livingstone’s knowledge of Africa made him a formidable rival. There would be others joining the race later, most notably Sir Henry Morton Stanley.
Burton was one of the most extraordinary men of the nineteenth century (a century that produced more than its share of remarkable men). He initially gained fame as the first European non-Muslim to visit Mecca, an incredibly foolish and dangerous undertaking  as the city was absolutely off limits to non-Muslims. Burton mastered countless languages and gained as much fame as a translator of eastern classics as he did from his journeys of exploration. His interest in eastern erotica scandalised Victorian England. He immersed himself in non-European cultures to an extent that raised eyebrows. He was wildly eccentric and unconventional and nothing pleased him more than to shock English society.

Speke was more of an enigma, a man driven by burning ambition that led him to make great discoveries and tragic errors of judgment. Speke was rather straitlaced and while Burton was fascinated by other cultures Speke hated everything about Africa and its people. Their joint expedition would prove that they were disastrously ill-suited to the task of working together. 

The TV series deals not just with this one epic journey of exploration but with a whole series of expeditions led by an assortment of extraordinary larger-than-life and often eccentric characters – Burton, Speke, Livingstone, Samuel and Florence Baker and Henry Morton Stanley. The search for the source of the Nile proved to be elusive and frustrating. Each of the various expeditions filled in some of the missing pieces but it seemed that the final solution to the puzzle was always just out of reach.
The journeys of exploration make fascinating viewing and the personal dramas of these remarkable human beings provide even greater interest. 
The excellent cast is a major asset. Kenneth Haigh is splendidly extravagant and outrageous as Burton. Michael Gough is equally good as the obsessive, saintly but amiable Dr Livingstone. John Quentin landed the most challenging and potentially most thankless role as Speke. Speke’s motivations remain mysterious and although he gave the impression of being something of a straight arrow his conduct on several crucial occasions is difficult to explain except as the actions of a man whose excessive ambition drove him to behave selfishly and dishonourably. It isn’t easy to make Speke sympathetic but Quentin does manage to make him a tragic figure.

James Mason adds a touch of further class as the narrator.

The location shooting is stunning and by the standards of 1971 British television it’s really quite spectacular. 
This being 1971 the material is handled in a pretty even-handed manner with surprisingly little preachiness. The viewer is assumed to be capable of making his own judgments. It’s actually a little surprising that the BBC has finally allowed this series to be released on DVD – this is an historical series for grown-ups who do not require everything to be filtered through a lens of political correctness.
The Victorian era produced an immense number of colourful larger-than-life heroic figures like Richard Burton and (albeit in a very different way) David Livingstone. These were men whose achievements and virtues were on the grand scale, and at times their vices were on an equally grand scale. They were complex men and this series takes them seriously and generally speaking it takes them on their own terms without trying to judge them by late 20th century standards. The courageous and indomitable Florence Baker, who accompanied her husband Samuel on his expedition down the Nile, showed that Victorian women could be just as remarkable and just as heroic.
This is intelligent literate television and it’s also immensely entertaining. Very highly recommended and it looks great on DVD.