BIRMINGHAM ON FILM: PRIVILEGE

Almost fifty years to the day before Spielberg and crew landed in Birmingham to shoot dystopian gaming thriller Ready Player One, the city played host to another big studio production – although this time with a slightly frostier welcome.

 

Fresh from his acclaimed television work on the likes of The War Game and Culloden, Peter Watkins was making a first foray into features with a dystopian satire on the music business. (What is it with Birmingham and near-future dystopias?) Paul Jones from Manfred Mann was named as the lead, playing a pop-star whose hypnotic effect on adolescents is employed to sinister brain-washing ends by big business and the church. Looking back it’s hard to fathom how Universal got involved in something so odd, but this was that chaotic late-60s period when the studios were throwing money at all kinds of things in an effort to reach a groovy young audience.

Most of the film was to be made on location around the city, with sequences including teen hysteria in the Town Hall, a homecoming parade on Pinfold Street, and a climactic performance-cum-crucifixion at the Birmingham City ground. Shortly before filming began the location supervisor David Griffith lauded the support and facilities on offer in Birmingham, but it’s clear from the coverage in the Post and Mail that this wasn’t an entirely untroubled shoot. Some of the smaller grumbles included extras going unpaid, road closures and last-minute schedule changes, while the colourful banners adorning Town Hall for one scene summoned up a swarm of angry councillors.

 

“They have made it look like a dive in down-town Vegas,” fulminated Councillor M. Rees. Councillor Robert Merry went further: “I am fairly broadminded, but the Town Hall has dignity, and this incident is rather like ‘tarting’ an old woman… The whole thing has got out of hand. I am certain that Londoners would not stand for this sort of thing, especially Pinfold Street being closed. I have a feeling that we shall look mugs, and Birmingham will look ridiculous.” More conciliatory voices could be found in the letters pages. “This was a very rare happening in Birmingham,” wrote Derick J. Lawrence of Deritend. “It will, one hopes, let the rest of the country know that the city can do a little more than produce cog-wheels and smoke.”

 

All of this was a minor kerfuffle in comparison with the all-night shoot at St. Andrews, a legendary mess that the filmmakers arguably brought on themselves. A large crowd of extras was needed to pull off this final sequence, and a couple of days beforehand ads appeared in the local press publicising an ALL NIGHT RAVE, complete with pop groups, brass bands and competition giveaways. “Cats and chicks of all ages” were pronounced welcome, and come Friday night an estimated 2000 filed through the turnstiles at the Tilton Road end to find a light-up crucifix and giant placards at one end of the ground.

 

Due to power issues the promised performances did not materialise, and then after some time it began to rain. The Post was on the scene, and interviewed one of the girls on the terraces: “We thought there was going to be some kind of beat rally, like they have in London. But instead, we’ve been standing here for nearly three hours, just watching some chap in a red jumper running about waving his arms.” Bored and well-lubricated, a portion of the crowd stormed the barriers and ran onto the pitch. Shortly before midnight filming was called to a halt, at which point some of the unpaid extras began to throw beer-cans at the production crew, shouting “we want what we were promised.”

All of this helps to explain the slightly eerie quality of Privilege’s closing scenes, most of which were shot the following night in an empty stadium. The advertised prizes were later shared out amongst Birmingham City staff, with secretary Doreen Hopkins winning the top prize – a trip to see Burton and Taylor filming at the Dino di Laurentis studios in Rome.

 

Ian Francis