Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Was Fascist UK Ever Possible? - The View of Fiction

This posting was stimulated by two things. While I was trying to find information about the 'Noah's Castle' TV series I came across a fascinating couple of websites. The first was Memorable TV which has a pretty full alphabetic list of interesting television programmes, primarily drama and soap operas shown on British television over the past few decades: Another was Television Heaven: which has a more erratic range of programmes featured. However, in terms of the kind of series I was talking about, the most useful was The British Telefantasy Timeline:
This is run by a journalist called M.J.Simpson and lists British television programmes with a science fiction or fantasy theme and when they were shown, year-by-year. Currently it covers the 1930s-1970s and there are plans to expand it into the 1980s and beyond.

What struck my attention were details of a number of dramas in the 1970s which envisaged Britain under some kind of dictatorship. This was further stimulated by the posting from Mitch which I found when I logged on today: it is on the tail of the posting about controversial counter-factuals from last month. He/she had emailed Eugene Byrne about 'The Matter of Britain' (a novel about the UK under Nazi control) which I mentioned in response to MCG's comment about Byrne & Newman's USSA stories. It is interesting to note that Byrne did not envisage a military dictatorship in the UK as being possible and also that he does not believe that in the past any Fascist party in the UK had a chance of coming to power. His model seems to be rather like that in 'V for Vendetta' (in comic form 1982-5, graphic novel 2005, movie 2006) which has the Norsefire party in control, but there is still civil rather than military control of society, though obviously the military works for the authoritarian government. There also seem to be competing factions within the system very much as there were in Nazi Germany between the SS and the Abwehr, Organisation Todt and the Four Year Plan Office plus the three branches of the military and the OKW which in theory oversaw them all.

Before turning to look at the background to these stories, I will mention the dramas from the British Telefantasy website that I had not heard of before and have not seen mentioned elsewhere on the internet, though I am happy if people correct me on this. There were two series each with two blocks of episodes, thanks to Simpson for the details.

The first was 'The Donati Conspiracy' first shown on 14th September 1973 on BBC 2 and had three episodes. Simpson summarises it as 'simmering discontent in a present-day Britain ruled by a fascist dictatorship'. A follow-up called 'State of Emergency' was another three episodes on BBC2 first shown on 4th December 1975, so over two years after the first series. Simpson's summary is 'in a present-day Britain ruled by a fascist dictatorship, a rebellion is planned'. Both were written by John Gould who wrote numerous TV dramas, many of them spy, conspiracy or science fiction, 1965-74. He died in 1974.

'The Donati Conspiracy' starred Michael Aldridge as Professor Donati. Other well known actors in it were Anthony Valentine as Paul Frederick, Richard Beckinsale (unusually for him, in a serious rather than comedy role) as Robert Sadler and Mary Tamm (she was also in the movie 'The Odessa File' (1974) as Sigi, John Voight's character, Peter Miller's girlfriend), who would later be best known as the first Romana in 'Doctor Who', as Sally Ross. What the story was and who these characters were I cannot tell. You can get the best detail, which is thin, from the IMDB website.

'State of Emergency' had Hugh Whitemore pick up Gould's reins probably due to his death. Interestingly almost all the cast had changed with Michael Gwynn now playing Professor Donati and Patrick Mower as Paul Frederick. Only Janet Key as Jane Frederick and Ian Gelder as Dave Dent returned. Interestingly, the early 1970s had seen more states of emergency declared than at any time in British history since the power had been gained by the government in 1920. Declaring such a state allows the British government almost unlimited power and it was used in the late 1940s to tackle dock strikes and in the early 1970s to combat strikes by coal miners.

The other two block series that Simpson highlighted for me was called '1990'. Maybe it aimed to suggest something like 'Nineteen Eighty-Four'. Again details are thin. This is what I have. Each block was eight episodes long. It was again shown on BBC2 the key channel for serious dramas that ran as series as opposed to one-offs. The first block of eight (or six, IMDB disagrees with Simpson) episodes that ran from 18th September 1977 and the second block from 20th February 1978. They both starred Edward Woodward (most famous for the bleak spy series 'Callan' which ran 1967-72, 'The Wicker Man' (1973), 'Breaker Morant' (1980), 'The Equalizer' series 1985-9.  He has been acting year-on-year on television since 1955 and is still appearing in things including the movie 'Hot Fuzz' (2007) and the TV series 'The Bill' this year).

Simpson's descriptions are for Series 1: 'Edward Woodward battles the authorities in a near-future totalitarian Britain.' and for Series 2: 'Edward Woodward continues his struggle against the Powers That Be.' Woodward plays a character called Jim Kyle and IMDB has a long list of other characters and the actors who played them, none of whom I am familiar with. Some of the characters hint at story elements and, interestingly, most characters do not appear for more than two episodes. There is the 'PCD Inspector' played by Stacy Davies and a man called 'Faceless' played by Paul Hardwick in the first series; 'The Surveillance Man' acted by Norman Rutherford and an 'Inspector Macrae' from David McKail in the second series, amongst more standard character names like Harry Tasker, Dr. and Mrs. Vickers, Kate Smith and Tony Doran.

As an aside I came across a three-part counter-factual drama: 'An Englishman’s Castle' which ran for three episoders on BBC2 starting 5th June 1978. Simpson says: 'In a world where Germany won the Second World War, a scriptwriter is forced to work on a propaganda-filled soap opera. Shown in the Play of the Week strand.'

Of course, many TV series are now inaccessible, but it would be intriguing to know what was behind these stories and how they went. I am particularly interested to know how they envisaged a dictatorship coming to the UK. Interesting '1990' was set only 12-13 years into the future of when it was produced. So, it was typical of the near future dystopias that seem common in 1970s drama, notably through the series 'Doomwatch' which ran to 38 episodes 1970-2 and attracted viewing figures of 13 million.

'Doomwatch' had an environmental angle and billed itself as 'science fact' rather than fiction. One episode I have seen part of featured intelligent rats attacking humans and another in which the flight paths of two supersonic jets crossed causing pain and death to the people below. Apparently other episodes showed the effect of growth hormones on staff working at a fish farm, pollution from non-degrading waste (which has come true) and the dangers of nuclear fallout (viz Chernobyl). Apparently the government of the time seriously considered setting up a Doomwatch committee to mimic the one shown in the series.

We are rather getting off track now but one thing that seems to occur when you begin to probe the varieties of British 1970s TV drama. The two stories envisaging a Fascist style Britain that we know most about (or I can find stuff on via the internet) are 'V for Vendetta' and the 'Inferno' epsiodes of 'Doctor Who'. Alan Moore began writing 'V for Vendetta' in 1982 and, like many people, could not envisage that Margaret Thatcher would win the 1983 general election. Of course she did, helped by the 'Falklands Factor' of the nationalism that followed in the wake of the Falklands Conflict. In addition the Labour Party was heavily divided and was fragmenting with the break away of its right to form the SDP. It was led by Michael Foot (born 1913, so 70 years old in 1983, he is still alive now, aged 95) who believed in unilateral nuclear disarmament at a time of heightened Cold War tension. Moore believed there would be full scale nuclear disarmament by the UK which would mean it would not be targeted in the nuclear war that would follow in the mid-1980s (at that time nuclear war did seem very close). Following this, as in my novel, 'His Majesty's Dictator' which envisaged a British defeat in 1916, Moore expected the subsequent crisis to trigger a Fascist seizure of power in the UK, presumably sometime in the late 1980s. This is assisted by them using a biological weapon to kill around 100,000 people in Britain and in this atmosphere of a 'terrorist' attack they are able to get the public to accept dictatorship and the party leaders make vast profits out of the 'cure' which is produced by pharmaceutical companies they control. The stories were set in 1997-8.

The Norsefire party is assumed to be a breakaway from the Conservative Party. It has the slogan 'Strength Through Purity, Purity Through Faith' emphasising the Nordic nature of white Britons. In the graphic novels it uses the sign 'N' or 'NF', the latter which of course stood for National Front, the neo-Nazi party which was active in the UK in the 1980s when the stories were being written; their newspaper was called 'The Flame' and fire symbols also feature a great deal in the story. In the movie the Lorraine Cross is used instead, this was used by the French Resistance but also features in Free Mason iconography. The Norsefire Party also has links to the Church of England, and so is rather more like the authoritarian regimes of Franco's Spain, Salazar's Portugal, Austria 1934-8, the Croat Republic 1941-4 than Nazi Germany. However, this may address some of what Byrne seems to have talked about that a British dictatorship would have to have British (or in fact in this case English) characteristics.

The regime, with its use of concentration camps against ethnic minorites and persecution of other minorities such as Quakers and gays, is the same as in Nazi Germany. Its use of surveillance and absorption of standard police into the party machine are also the same. Persecution of ethnic minorities (who make up 17% of the UK population and are very important in the medical and retail sectors) plus of homosexuals (who make up 10% of the population though clearly there is some overlap with the ethnic minorities) would disrupt the economy, but presumably that is compensated for by it being run rigidly by the state.

Clearly 'V for Vendetta' was written at a time of particular circumstances. However, by covering both the nuclear threat and also negative integration stimulated by a manufactured fear of terrorism, it covers many feasible bases. I certainly think that as in this graphic novel series, we would not have a new party coming to the fore, more that one which had already taken power would begin to become more controlling until it was in a position to reinvent itself with new iconography when no-one would be in a position to complain any longer. From there on, the rest is from a standard template of European (and some South American) dictatorships. In Moore's novel, the USA has become fragmented by the war, but given their support for dictatorships around the world anyway, it is unlikely they would intervene to topple one in the UK in fact some US Presidents would be happier with a less troublesome UK than a democratic one.

I will just mention the 'Inferno' story. This was a 7-part story in the long-running British science fiction series and was broadcast 9th May - 20th June 1970. It featured the third incarnation of The Doctor (played by John Pertwee). Importantly this incarnation had been exiled to Earth and was unable to travel through time and space as freely as he had done previously (the series had run since 1963) in his vehicle the Tardis. Many of the stories of this era feature UNIT (United Nations Intelligence Taskforce) a military force formed to combat alien attacks on Earth. Though the stories have contemporary settings in fact they are supposed to happen in the 1980s. In 'Inferno' there are really two parallel elements. The Doctor is marginally involved with the drilling for 'Stahlman's Gas' from the Earth's core that is supposed to be a new form of energy. It soon becomes apparent that the green slime which oozes from the drill head turns humans into 'Primords', ape-like creatures. The Doctor is tinkering with the control panel of his Tardis which has been removed from the shell (which has the form of a 1960s police telephone box). Rather than moving through time or space he is taken into a parallel UK and this is the element which interests us here.

In the parallel UK there are the same people carrying out the same experiment except that it has advanced further and more people are already infected and ultimately the core of the Earth breaks open ending the planet. What the Doctor learns in this parallel world enables him to halt the experiment in our world and so save the day. The parallel UK, the Republic of Great Britain, is under a form of dictatorship with soldiers armed with Soviet rifles rather than the Armalites which were used in the UK at the time. The UNIT Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart is a 'Brigade Leader', the Doctor's assistant, Liz Shaw is called 'Section Leader', rather than simply a scientist and the UNIT Sergeant Benton is 'Platoon Under Leader' [these are very like ranks in the SS: SS-Brigadeführer; SS-Sturmbannführer (equivalent to a Major) and SS-Unterscharführer]; Professor Stahlman is 'Director' Stahlmann (the extra 'n' emphasising the Germanic nature of his name, it means literally 'steel man'). Rather than work for UNIT they are part of the RSF - Republican Security Force.

We do not know how this parallel regime came about but it is said that the Royal Family were executed in 1943. Possibly the UK has been defeated though not occupied by Nazi Germany triggering a Fascist coup d'etat which clearly as with Spain, the Germans would have supported. In line with Nazi Germany it is not surprising that the RSF, like the SS, would be involved in scientific experimentation, especially of an extreme kind. Also interesting is that it is a Republic of Great Britain, obviously without a monarchy it could not be the United Kingdom but is also might suggest that Northern Ireland is outside this regime, perhaps combined with a puppet state in the Republic of Ireland (some Irish nationalists hoped a Nazi victory would lead to the reunification of Ireland). The rifles may have been developed in the RGB along the lines of Soviet models or perhaps the USSR has either reached an agreement with Nazi Germany or this is the rump that 25 years after the war is trading with the RGB. Of course, throughout history firearms have been made under licence in numerous countries sometimes on opposite sides in a war. Naturally with no United Nations following the Second World War (perhaps the USA stayed out) there is no UNIT. Perhaps the parallel world has faced the same kind of alien attacks as in shown in the series in our world, and the RSF like UNIT is charged with defeating them. Some have suggested that The Doctor himself is the dictator of the RGB.

The series did not use parallel universes very often, the next one featured in the series would not come until 2006. Partly this is because I think there is always a challenge of explaining parallel worlds to the average viewer and 'Doctor Who' has a very mainstream audience. 'Inferno' does adhere to the parallel universe convention as seen in the movie 'Sliding Doors' (1998) in which one of the versions of Gwyneth Paltrow's character has a plaster on her head, in 'Inferno', the Brigade Leader has an eye patch and facial scarring to mark him out from the more amenable Brigadier of our world. Of course, actors in long running series love alternate worlds as it lets them play different characters and show their acting range.

So, from the fiction that I can explore, it seems that dictatorship is not expected to appear in the UK except from a war then supplemented with an engineered crisis, notably one which presents a clear enemy and scapegoats and leads to a serious number of deaths. As I always argue, however, it is wrong to think that the UK is immune to dictatorship (George Orwell believed this emphasising the British focus on the Navy rather than the Army, though missing that Argentina was to have a naval dictatorship). Ordinary people generally go along with whatever offers them stability. The British, in theory, have no real enthusiasm for ostentatious ceremony and marching around in uniform, but as we have seen with the Queen's jubilees and birthdays and the funeral procession of Princess Diana, if they feel an affinity they will turn out just like any Fascist crowd. Interestingly, I would advise any would-be dictatorial parties in the UK to have a woman at least as the figurehead if not as the actual leader. Maybe the British have never got over the Boudicca/Elizabeth I/Queen Victoria (even, dare I say it, Margaret Thatcher) factor and are willing to lap up pomp and circumstance combined with aggression much more from a woman than they will from a man.


MCG said...

Coincidentally, I just finished reading Jo Walton's "Farthing", which is a detective novel set in 1949 in a world where an equivalent of the Cliveden set made peace with Germany in 1941. The Britain in the story is pretty right-wing and as the novel progresses it becomes even more so, with the Communist party being banned, ID cards being introduced, and so on.

I got it free online from Tor Books:

Apparently there are also a couple of sequels.

Rooksmoor said...

MCG, I have heard that the Jo Walton triology (the other two books are 'Ha'penny' and 'Half-A-Crown') takes a pretty right-wing line on the counter-factual itself, i.e. suggesting that Britain would have been better off if it had followed a line like the one shown. Is that correct or have I got the wrong end of the stick?

I followed that link you provided to the Eve's Alexandria blog. The review is interesting. I can understand why Macleod had such difficulties getting his novel published, I found the same. I think the First World War is not known well enough to have people confident of what was real history and so what is the counter-factual.