UK Politics

Nightmare visions: 1984 to V for Vendetta

Quatermass and the Pit, Anonymous protester, The Prisoner

A new BBC Radio 4 documentary reveals how nightmarish visions of the future have shed revealing light on the times we live in.

Compared with other countries - their revolutions, assassinations and coups - British politics can look rather dull.

Nowadays, when Britons have a political "revolt" it rarely gets bloodier than a few MPs voting against their party whip.

Yet, despite its apparently calm surface, since the 1940s many of the country's leading authors have imagined the many ways in which British democracy could go wrong. Their fictions depict a Britain of the near future populated by dictatorships, coups and conspiracies. And, despite their grim storylines, such dystopias have often been extremely popular.

These tales were, of course, written to entertain. But many were explicitly produced to warn people what might happen if they didn't take appropriate action.

Former Labour MP Chris Mullin certainly admitted he wanted to "ring some bells" when he wrote his 1981 thriller A Very British Coup. For fiction is a very powerful way of transmitting ideas, especially to those who would never dream of listening to a politician's speech or reading a think tank policy document.

Whatever their authors' intentions, by depicting what Britain might be like if certain malign forces were not stopped, such stories tell us a lot about the fragile nature of British democracy. They also tell us why people think the way they do about politics.

For the evidence suggests that these fictions often encouraged audiences and readers to see the real political world through their writers' eyes.

The fictional crisis and death of British democracy has been played out time and time again over the decades. It's come under threat from without and within; from the Soviet Union and United States; from militant trade unions and the nation's own security services; and even from aliens and our elected officials.

Here are just some of the more notable examples of these very British dystopias.

The 1940s: State control and totalitarianism

Image caption Peter Cushing's portrayal of Winston Smith in 1984 shocked a nation

George Orwell's novel 1984 was the daddy of all dystopias. Published in 1949, it warned against totalitarianism, the seeds of which Orwell saw all around him, and painted a picture in which Britons of the future are governed by a vaguely socialist regime, which oppresses them in the name of freedom.

More a parody of the emerging Cold War, Orwell denied his novel predicted how Attlee's new welfare state would end in dictatorship.

But, showing that sometimes an author's intentions can sometimes be subverted by their readers' preconceptions, that was how some read it.

Conservative MP Charles Curran even claimed it "probably had more to do than any other single factor with the Socialist defeat in the 1951 general election. That book did more than all the speeches, all the advertisements and all the politicians to change the climate of public opinion in England."

If that was a fanciful view, the themes contained in 1984 certainly resonated throughout the decades, with a library of 'Orwellian' fictions showing how future governments would tyrannize Britons in ways its author never imagined.

The 1950s: What are they building in there?

Image caption Quatermass played on public suspicions about the secret nuclear state

Orwell's novel was first adapted for BBC television by Nigel Kneale in 1954. This made a dramatic impact on viewers horrified by its depiction of state police torturing those who stood up against it. According to the press, one unfortunate woman was even killed by the shock.

The shadow of 1984 is apparent in the second television series Kneale wrote about the heroic scientist Bernard Quatermass.

His 1955 Quatermass II - which was preceded by the BBC announcer solemnly warning children and those of a nervous disposition against watching - told a story of aliens secretly taking over the bodies, one by one, of ministers and civil servants.

The aliens wanted to build - protected by the Official Secrets Act - a vast feeding station, to help them take over Earth. Kneale's alien invasion was inspired by his qualms about government secrecy during the Cold War and the wider paranoia to which this gave rise. His alien facility undoubtedly shared many of its characteristics with the very real chemical warfare establishment at Porton Down.

Kneale's concern about what might be going on behind the electrified fences and armed guards was echoed in numerous other dystopias of this time - like Joseph Losey's 1963 movie The Damned, which openly doubted Britain's government could be trusted.

That these stories were set in the science fiction genre meant, however, that censors usually missed their insubordinate implications.

The 1960s: 'I'm not a number, I'm a free man'

Image caption The Prisoner pits an individual against a mysterious all-pervading authority

If only because it made controversial political ideas easier to express, fantasy remained the main means through which writers in the 1960s depicted how democracy might go wrong.

Having fallen foul of the authorities over his realistic depiction of a nuclear attack in The War Game, Peter Watkins produced the movie Privilege in 1967, which showed how a future government might use a pop star to prevent the young embracing radical ideas.

Similarly, despite its setting in a surreal, futuristic village in which a secret agent is incarcerated, an early episode of the 1967 ITV series The Prisoner shared similar concerns to those expressed by Orwell about the oppressive power of the state.

Written by its star Patrick McGoohan, Free For All has its hero - known to his captors as Number 6 - stand for election to run the village.

To secure their votes Number 6 parodies a politician's alacrity to promise absolutely anything, however unobtainable. The campaign is also shown as completely stage-managed.

Having won the contest, Number 6 thinks he can now set free himself and all the other villagers. But, in an indictment of contemporary democracy, he discovers that real power lies elsewhere so he cannot do what he wants - and that the other prisoners do not want their liberty.

The 1970s: Scottish nationalism and trade union power

Image caption Douglas Hurd's Scotch on the Rocks: Banned by the BBC after SNP protests

With the lifting of big and small screen censorship, dystopias in the 1970s tended to become more realistic.

In fact one was so close to reality it got the BBC into deep water.

The Corporation broadcast Douglas Hurd's novel Scotch on the Rocks in 1973. Hurd - by this point working for Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath - had been inspired by the rise of the Scottish Nationalist Party during the late 1960s to imagine a nationalist insurrection organised by those on the fringes of the party and armed by the Soviet Union.

The BBC series faithfully translated Hurd's story to the screen - much to the anger of the real SNP whose representatives did not appreciate being associated with violence and were afraid it would harm their electoral prospects.

Image caption Edward Woodward is a journalist battling an over-mighty state in 1979 BBC drama 1990

Even today Hurd remains bemused by their reaction, seeing his story as "a bit of fun". Yet the BBC's own audience research shows that many viewers saw his fiction as all too credible, particularly in light of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. As a result, the BBC promised never to show the series again.

Hurd's novel ends with Scotland becoming independent; but he was unusual in writing about the nationalist threat.

Many other 1970s dystopias reflected the view that militant trade unions posed the most potent danger to democracy with titles that paid explicit homage to Orwell.

One such was Anthony Burgess whose novel 1985 was published in 1978, a few months before the Winter of Discontent.

Its original title, 'Don't let them get away with it', reflected the anger in which Burgess wrote, so incensed was he (as an expat in the South of France) about what he thought the unions were doing to the country.

His novel imagined a Britain in which strikes were endemic, union membership compulsory and the loss of a union card led to dissidents becoming non-persons.

While Burgess wrote his union-bashing dystopia, the BBC - at the time suspected by many on the right as a hot-bed of Communism - broadcast 1990, a series dubbed '1984 plus 6' by creator Wilfred Greatorex.

This depicted a union-run Britain in which the three-day week was government policy, the economy in dire trouble and the only hope of freedom lay in escape to the United States.

1980s: Cold War paranoia and the secret state

Image caption Bob Peck gripped viewers in environmental thriller Edge of Darkness

Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government ended fears of union domination almost overnight. The early Thatcher era however spawned other kinds of dystopias ones inspired by the intensifying Cold War, to which Britain's parties reacted very differently.

While Thatcher enthusiastically supported Washington's policy of nuclear escalation Labour embraced unilaterally abandoning Britain's nuclear deterrent and many of its members even hankered to leave NATO.

Two thrillers that peered into the near future illustrate the polarised nature of politics at this time.

In Frederick Forsyth's Fourth Protocol the KGB sends a top agent to Britain, his mission to explode a suitcase bomb close to a US nuclear base for which the Americans would be blamed so as to swing the country behind Labour.

Forsyth's story had it that should Neil Kinnock win a general election on the back of this disaster Labour extremists would topple him and install a Marxist-Leninist as prime minister.

Citing the influence of Militant Tendency in Labour's ranks, Forsyth says his plot was inspired by real life.

Forsyth was one of Thatcher's favourite novelists. On the other side of the barricade was Chris Mullin then a close associate of the leader of the Labour left, Tony Benn.

Image caption Was Tony Benn the model for the hero of A Very British Coup?

Mullin's A Very British Coup imagined what might happen should a Benn-like government set about ridding Britain of its nuclear bases and asking the United States to withdraw its weapons. Mullin says the novel reflected real fears amongst his peers about how the Americans and the British Establishment would react if such a government were elected.

With the Soviet Union turning towards glasnost after 1985, according to a variety of mid-80s dystopias the main threat to democracy now came from a combination of a rampant United States and Britain's own intelligence services.

Nineteen eighty-five was in some ways the year of the conspiracy drama came into its own for it was then the BBC broadcast its version of Robert McCrumb's 1981 novel In the Secret State, when the movie Defence of the Realm was released and the BBC produced the series Edge of Darkness, in all of which government secrecy - often about nuclear weapons - and its abuse of privacy were prominent themes.

Despite its challenging storyline Troy Kennedy Martin's Edge of Darkness was hugely popular.

The series' hero is Craven, an honest policeman who tries to discover who killed his environmental activist daughter so he can avenge her death.

His investigations take Craven to the heart of Britain's secret nuclear state and exposed the dangers American obsession with nuclear dominance poses to the Earth.

Edge of Darkness had a clear agenda. Kennedy Martin's script identified threats to both parliamentary democracy and the environment.

Michael Wearing, its producer, sees the series in very striking terms, describing it as "a metaphor for an apparently broken world". BBC audience research suggests Kennedy Martin persuaded many viewers of his case, for if some thought his story unlikely the majority found it believable and even frightening.

The Present: Protest and survive

Image caption V for Vendetta inspired democracy protesters around the world

The Establishment conspiracy remained the hallmark of many dystopias into the 1990s and beyond.

Those who are meant to defend democracy have now become - in fictional terms at least - amongst its greatest enemies. Significantly, in an era when the people's trust in representative politics is said to be at an all-time low, politicians have increasingly become the popular villain of choice.

Perhaps the most influential of contemporary dystopias is V for Vendetta.

Written in the 1980s as a graphic novel it was adapted into a 2005 movie: both depict an authoritarian government, which maintains itself in power through exploiting the people's fears and indolence.

Its central character is V, who wears a Guy Fawkes mask to preserve his anonymity while encouraging Britons to resist oppression.

The film concludes with thousands converging on Parliament each wearing the same mask as V to watch him blow it up. Democracy can apparently only be saved by the destruction of the building many once believed was its symbol and guarantee.

Some consider such a view of politics unhelpful: Times columnist and author David Aaaronovitch describes V for Vendetta as "an adolescent fantasy".

Yet, V for Vendetta also has an inspiring message: the people can resist those who abuse power. Demonstrators in Britain and around the world who wear the V mask on their protests have certainly been influenced by the story.

V for Vendetta is but one instance of a dystopia - from 1984 to the present day - that express a deep mistrust of those exerting political authority.

The villains and victims might change, but such fictions each expose in their different ways a very real political issue: the gap that lies between representatives and the represented, something that is one of the most intractable problems of British democracy today as never before.