‘1990’ – The BBC’s anti-Socialist 1970s SF Drama

Looking through the chapter on British television in John Clute’s Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopedia (London: Dorling Kindersley 1995), I found this entry for the forgotten SF drama 1990. Produced by Prudence Fitzgerald, with scripts mainly written by Wilfred Greatorex, this ran for 16 episodes from 1977 to 1978. Clute writes

In 1990s totalitarian Britain the welfare state is all-powerful. A maverick journalist helps infiltrators from the freedom-loving United States, and assists British rebels in fleeing there. Intended as a dire warning of trade-union socialism, the series’ caricatures in fact make the venture risible. (P. 101).

The Wikipedia entry for the series also adds the following details along with other information on its plot, characters, cast and crew:

The series is set in a dystopian future in which Britain is under the grip of the Home Office’s Public Control Department (PCD), a tyrannically oppressive bureaucracy riding roughshod over the population’s civil liberties.

Dubbed “Nineteen Eighty-Four plus six” by its creator, Wilfred Greatorex, 1990 stars Edward Woodward as journalist Jim Kyle, Robert Lang as the powerful PCD Controller Herbert Skardon, Barbara Kellerman as Deputy PCD Controller Delly Lomas, John Savident, Yvonne Mitchell (in her last role), Lisa Harrow, Tony Doyle, Michael Napier Brown and Clive Swift.Two series, of eight episodes each, were produced and broadcast on BBC2 in 1977 and 1978. The series was never repeated but was released on DVD in 2017. Two novelisations based on the scripts were released in paperback by the publisher Sphere; Wilfred Greatorex’s 1990, and Wilfred Greatorex’s 1990 Book Two.

and includes this description of the show’s fictional background to its vision of a totalitarian Britain:

Exposition in this series was mainly performed by facts occasionally dropped into dialogue requiring the viewer to piece together the basic scenario.

This state of affairs was precipitated by an irrecoverable national bankruptcy in 1981, triggering martial law. In the general election, only 2% voted. The economy (and imports) drastically contracted forcing stringent rationing of housing, goods and services. These are distributed according to a person’s LifeScore as determined (and constantly reviewed) by the PCD on behalf of the union-dominated socialist government. As a consequence, the higher-status individuals appear to be civil servants and union leaders. An exception to this are import/export agents, which appear to be immune to state control due to their importance to the remnants of the economy. The House of Lords has been abolished and turned into an exclusive dining club. State ownership of businesses appears to be near-total and prohibition of wealth and income appears to be very high. The reigning monarch is male due to the unfortunate death of the previous monarch (queen Elizabeth the 2nd) but his identity is never made clear. The currency is the Anglodollar (replaced the pound sterling in 1982 due to economic collapse) which appears to have little value overseas due to the international boycott of British exports. The armed forces have been run down to the extent that they are little more than an internal security force. This is made clear in one episode where the RAF is depicted as consisting of little more than a handful of Harrier Jump Jets and a few dozen counter-insurgency helicopters. Despite this National Service has been re-introduced (via the Youth Behaviour Control Act 1984 which enforces conscription and Genetic Crimes Act 1985, which makes sexual offences punishable by hanging). It is said that in 1986 two Army Generals and a retired Air Chief Marshal attempted a coup against the government, but it failed.

See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1990_(TV_series)

There’s also a Wikipedia entry for Greatorex, the show’s creator, which states

Wilfred Greatorex (27 May 1921–14 October 2002)[1] was an English television and film writer, script editor and producer. He was creator of such series as Secret Army, 1990, Plane Makers and its sequel The Power Game, Hine, Brett, Man At The Top, Man From Haven and The Inheritors.[2] He also wrote the screenplay for the 1969 film Battle of Britain.[1] He was described by The Guardian newspaper as “one of the most prolific and assured of television script-writers and editors from the 1960s into the 1980s”.[3] Starting off as a journalist, he got his big break as a TV writer on Lew Grade’s ATV service writing dramas about journalism, such as Deadline Midnight and Front Page Story.[3]

As a TV script editor he also worked on series such as Danger Man[1] and was also creator/producer of The Inheritors, Hine and The Power Game.[1] Papers discovered at a Norfolk auction house in 2011 reveal that ‘Hine’ had a budget of £84,000, the equivalent of close to £1m some forty years later.

In 1977, he came up with the dystopian drama series 1990 for BBC2, starring Edward Woodward. Greatorex dubbed the series “Nineteen Eighty-Four plus six”.[4] Over its two series it portrayed “a Britain in which the rights of the individual had been replaced by the concept of the common good – or, as I put it more brutally, a consensus tyranny.”[3] The same year he also devised (with Gerard Glaister) the BBC1 wartime drama Secret Army. The show later inspired the sitcom parody ‘Allo ‘Allo!.[5]


The show’s clearly a product of the extreme paranoia that gripped the Tories in Britain during the mid-1970s. The total collapse of the economy seems to have been inspired by the country’s bankruptcy in the mid to late 1970s, when the country was forced to go to the IMF. It also shows the fears that the Labour party was planning some kind of extreme left-wing coup. This was the decade when the Times was urging the formation of a national government, and various figures in intelligence and politics were considering organizing a military coup against the minority Labour government. Ken Livingstone also states in his 1987 book, Livingstone’s Labour, that MI5 had also compiled a list of subversives, including journalists, politicians and trade unionists, who were to be rounded up and interned in a camp somewhere in the Hebrides. Behind much of this paranoia was the belief, held by James Jesus Angleton, the head of the CIA, and many others in the Tory party, including Maggie Thatcher, that Harold Wilson was a KGB spy.

The series has long been forgotten. I can’t remember ever hearing or reading about it, apart from the entry in Clute’s Encyclopedia and the Wikipedia pages. The show was clearly quite successful at the time, as it lasted two seasons, but I can’t remember anyone I knew having watched it, or even mentioning it in the school playground.

Nevertheless, this is interesting, as the series was clearly written from an extreme right-wing stance, albeit one of that was shared by much of the Tory media during the 1970s. It definitely shows the alarm the Tories and a large section of the middle class clearly felt at trade union militancy and the Labour left’s desire to extend nationalization, as well as the experiments with worker’s control under Tony Benn. In fact, despite the accusation often heard during the ’70s and ’80s that Labour wanted to nationalize everything, the party only wished to take into public ownership 25 more companies. This is far from complete nationalization. As for worker’s control, this was confined to three firms, which were failing anyway. These eventually collapsed, but many of the workers involved in these projects felt that the experiments had been worthwhile and had shown that workers could run businesses.

And it also shows how blatantly biased the BBC could be against the Left.

There’s been considerable discussion on blog’s like mine and Mike’s about the Beeb’s bias against the Labour party and especially Jeremy Corbyn. Mike’s put a number of articles commenting on this bias. The BBC claims it is impartial, and whenever anybody complains about the bias in its programmes, as Guy Debord’s Cat did recently, they receive a bland, and slightly pompous reply telling them that they’re wrong. Researchers at Cardiff, Edinburgh and Glasgow universities have found, however, that the Corporation is far more likely to interview, and treat respectfully the opinions offered by Conservative MPs and experts from the financial sector, than trade unionists and members of the Labour party. Barry and Saville Kushner have commented on how the Beeb uncritically accepts and promotes the idea of austerity in their book, Who Needs the Cuts, to the point of shouting down anyone, who dares to disagree. There’s even been a book published exposing the Corporation’s bias, The BBC and the Myth of Public Service Broadcasting.

The existence of this explicitly anti-Socialist SF drama shows how far back this bias goes. In many ways, I’m not surprised. The corporation is largely staffed by members of the upper middle class. It’s one of the country’s central institutions, and so reflects the views of the established political, business and media elites. Hence it shared the British right’s groundless fears of some kind of radical socialist takeover in the 1970s, and their bitter hatred the Labour party and Jeremy Corbyn today.


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7 Responses to “‘1990’ – The BBC’s anti-Socialist 1970s SF Drama”

  1. katythenightowl Says:

    I vaughly remember this series – I was 16 when it first came out – but found it too right-wing for my tste, so didn’t bother to cntinue watching it. I’m glad to know that I was right – in my opinion of the show! Lol

    • Beastrabban Says:

      I didn’t know anything about it until I came across the entry in Clute’s SF encyclopedia, but it does sound very, very right-wing. I think you were quite right!:)

  2. lylabyrne Says:

    Perhaps the most interesting thing is the extent to which we are actually getting this dystopia as a result of Tory policies (sometimes not their promises, but what they do). For example, they have spoken of ‘The Big Society ‘and how ‘we are all in this together’ – austerity is supposed (including by the BBC) to be what is best for all of us………..but that is just a cover for the tyranny of financial hierarchy – mainly corporate power – for which which the Tories – well all ‘neo-liberal’ politicians, are highly paid goffers. And Public Control Department (PCD) = Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) – and other government departments.

    It is pretty clear, if not blatantly obvious, that for a healthy future, socially and ecologically, a new system will have to emerge. In the course of this, whether politics are described as ‘right’ or ‘left’, we will have to be wary of just another financial/economic hierarchy. Top down power tends to prioritise itself and thus tends to be corrupt, and to cause more corruption – until we see through it’s bias and propaganda/misrepresentations.Of course we also have to care enough to develop systems that are not corrupt. The proof that any politician or political/social movement that is described as ‘left’ is genuinely working for the common good – as in ‘the wellbeing of all’ – will be their continuing dedication to democracy, and the priority of humane and environmentally sustainable development.

  3. stilloaks Says:

    It is extremely right wing. From the first opening scene in “Creed of Slaves” where the Chancellor is talking about the “workshy” Then the compliance squads making sure that those who are claiming to be too unwell to work are not “Moonlighting” and the “ARCS” Adult Rehabilitation Centre’s (Prevent?) it all sounds terribly familiar to the present.
    The entire series can be watched here…

    • Beastrabban Says:

      Thanks, Stilloaks. It does sound like it was written by the Daily Mail and Torygraph, and then plundered by the Tories and New Labour for ideas on how to torment the unemployed.

  4. Anna Thematitian. Says:

    It’s polemic reminds me so much of the sort of propaganda from groups such as the ”Freedom” Association ( which is still going & is peppered with Tory backbenchers ) I wonder if the writers hung out with people from it as well as GB75, Civil Assistance, Unison ( not the union ), RPOC and the other fascist nutters who were ranting about the immediate Soviet ”takeover” of the UK ( google The Clandestine Caucus by Robin Ramsey ). To be fair it does try to make itself seem just a little bit moderate ( Kyle’s revulsion to violence in later episodes for example ) but the dialogue is so right wing ( ”Oxfam are raising funds for us in India” ) and the PCD’s Goons so caricatured ( ”We! Don’t! Like! Violence!” ) that it borders on Pythonesque. There’s also an awful scene in one episode with the PCD’s Skardon ( who lives….. with his mother! ) entertaining delegates from a Commonwealth country that really makes your flesh creep. It does have it’s merits but they’re so mired by it’s faults they’re hard to spot.

  5. Mig Says:

    From an interview with Woodward about the show:

    “It’s about how the majority of people have become non-productive administrators to the administration. Parliament is just a cipher – it’s irrelevant which party is in power. The great thing for all of us while we were doing it was to keep a political balance. That was vital for the feasibility of the message. It’s no good slamming the unions, inefficiency, or the corruption of big business. You’ve really got to say,” turning Shakespearian for a second, “a plague o’ both your houses…”.


    And it’s the baddies doing the things Stilloaks is talking about.

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