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An (almost) forgotten BBC drama about what happens under extreme collectivism in the UK

1990″, which is a drama on the BBC (made in the late 1970s), portrays a Britain where emigration by persons in certain professions is banned, extortionate taxes are imposed. In short, a Britain where the hard left is in charge. The series was not issued onto DVD (I wonder why?) but can be viewed on YouTube. It is quite striking that the BBC made this at all.

(H/T: The Conservative Woman. Read the whole article.)

31 comments to An (almost) forgotten BBC drama about what happens under extreme collectivism in the UK

  • llamas

    I remember the series quite well. I did not see all the episodes, as I seem to recall that it was on quite late on a Saturday or Sunday.

    My recollection, which may be dulled by the 35-year interval, is that the storylines quite-overtly suggested that this state of affairs was the result of right-wing governments.

    The circumstances shown were not so very different than those which prevailed in the UK during and immediately after WW2. On the principle of ‘never let a good crisis go to waste’, that period was exploited by the hard left to create a populist mindset that survives to this day – a contempt for wealth and success, and an expansion of state powers, never seen before or since. It was in this period that they were able to put in place the NHS, to general popular support, and successfully mask the fact that it was set up based on what amounted to a combination of indentured servitude and confiscation.

    I’m glad of the reminder, I will go to YouTube and refresh my recollections.



  • It reminds me of the film V for Vendetta where the totalitarian government was depicted as a right-wing/Christian coalition, presumably because the luvvies couldn’t bear to admit that New Labour was the most authoritarian government in several generations and any such nightmare scenario would almost certainly arise from the Left rather than the Right.

  • Laird

    Tim, I agree. I’ve never heard of “1990” (I’ll have to check it out), but I really liked “V for Vendetta” (I have the movie poster on my office wall). Yes, that did seem to be a hard-right Christian authoritarian government, but if you go far enough to the right or to the left they both seem to wind up in about the same place. Totalitarian is totalitarian, whatever the flavor.

  • Carl

    Try reading 1985 by anothony Burgess. also an interesting take on extreme collectivism

  • Paul Marks

    “1990” was not a perfect series – there were leftist elements, but in general it was an attack on the left.

    For example the elite school was “Comprehensive One” – and was clearly a state school.

    And the economy was state dominated.

    But then I only watched the series when it came out – in the other room in the flat on the black and white television (we lived above the shop in those days – when it was “we”, when it was not just me).

    Julie (from Chicago) has, I believe, watched the show much more recently than I have.

  • Paul Marks

    By the way remember what the last “Conservative” government had done in Britain – that Mr Heath.

    Wage and price controls, the “three day week” (it is hard to even explain that one).

    Nationalisation of companies.

    And demented crawling to Mao.

    To Mr Heath everything he disliked was the “unacceptable face of capitalism”.

    Rather like those demented people who try and excuse Pope Francis by saying that he has bad memories of “capitalism” in Argentina.

    A nation that has been dominated by Peronist Social Justice since World War II.

    Anyone who thinks the problem with Argentina is any sort of “capitalism” – is potty.

    If Peron and Heath represent “the right” – then I can believe that “the right” could produce a society such as depicted in “1990”.

  • John Mann

    Having read Paul’s posts, I, having never seen the series, am tempted to surmise that it depicted the problem as being caused not by a government of the extreme left or the extreme right, but by an authoritarian government of the Heathite centre.


  • Schrodinger's Dog

    Although only a teenager at the time, I was a great fan of 1990 the only time it was ever broadcast, in late 1977 and early 1978. I even bought the books of the series. (No videocassettes in those days, let alone BluRays. Tell this to kids today and they don’t believe you …)

    Obviously, I’m dredging up some very old memories, but from what I do remember, it depicted a left-wing dictatorship. As others have mentioned, most industry was owned by the state. Meanwhile Herbert Skardon, the head of the Public Control Department, the organisation responsible for repressing the population, was a former coal miner. There were also references to the very powerful Metal Turners’ Union.

    Anyway, off to YouTube – something which definitely was in the realm of science fiction in 1977.

  • thefrollickingmole

    Never seen or heard of it, might have a look this weekend.

  • Nicholas (Andy.royd) Gray

    Why are you surprised that the BBC did this? Some of them probably think this would be a desireable state of affairs! I don’t imagine that the Beeb had many Thatcherites, either, when Maggie came to power, something else not predicted.

  • Julie near Chicago

    It was at Paul’s suggestion that I hunted up 1990 on UT. I downloaded it and proceeded to watch all 16 episodes (2 seasons, the entire series) three times, straight through. That was (mostly) in August.

    On the first viewing, the thing was absolutely chilling, and especially Season 1. “This is how the Soviet Union would have looked if it stopped short of general terror and mass murder.” It did include the Adult Rehabilitation Centers, and go a little bit into their purpose and methods.

    The people running the Public Control Department are, almost without exception completely amoral; utterly heartless, soulless even.

    You know how it is. On the second viewing one begins to notice some details, and the third time through I was really struck by the sub-story, of political infighting.

    Highly, highly recommended.

    Interestingly enough, this spate of TV-viewing was followed immediately by Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister. It seems some of the episodes aren’t up on UT, or if they are they’re in that dreadful wide-screen format with everybody as tall as a dwarf and as broad as a barn. I’ve checked the DVD set for YPM out of the library: published by the BBC, and thoroughly watchable.

    What’s interesting is that this comedy series is also about political machinations. Where 1990‘s Britain is a product of (among other things) the Trade Union Movement (which nobody questions; it’s just There, sort of providing the rails for the train of the story to run on), the YM series revolves around the practical importance and effects of the Civil Service, which sees its job as (1) keeping its members in their jobs or promoting them, while (2) making it impossible for the Politicians, that is the Elected Ones, from wreaking havoc by gumming up the works: Having ideas, refusing to take orders from the beleaguered Civil Servants such as Sir Humphrey Appleby, the Cabinet Secretary, and generally behaving like incompetent imbeciles who must be jollied along by means of the carrot, the stick, and whatever machinations all that takes.

    It’s a hoot (as you all probably already know!), because it surely seems to portray the real skinny on politicians.

    Also, the acting is superb. :>)

    I think that different as they are, the two shows are evidence that whoever dreamed them up was aware of some of the realities.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Nicholas! Did you think that donning that pathetic costume would serve as sufficient disguise to conceal your identity?

    I for one twigged to it, just this afternoon in fact. “Robolutions” indeed! You lover of wordplay, you! You punster! You Ozian creator of jokes! Next thing we know you’ll be jumping about hitting people over the head with a bladder!

    I must say however that I quite enjoy your alter ego. Have you ever thought of writing for Mad Magazine? :>))

  • Nicholas (Andy.royd) Gray

    Thanks, Julie, I just think that if automation is expanding everywhere, then I might as well join them! (short of going the full Cyber, that is! Doctor Who portrays that as a one-way option.) I wonder how much robophobia I’ll encounter?

  • Julie near Chicago

    Oh, lots, I’m sure, Andy. Most of it harmless enough, I imagine, though I’d advise steering clear of Herbert Skarden — I’m not sure he’d take kindly to being hit over the head with a bladder. Sir Humphrey would either lash out at you, treat you to one of his fits of despairing hysteria, or with all the smiles and charm at his command (a shedload full, as you folks would say) he would explain to you how it be in your own interests as well as that of the British People to desist, or, alternatively, to redouble your efforts; whichever was in line with his current project.

    Just be careful to steer clear of Dr. Susan Calvin. She would probably stick up for you, and it would ruin your comedic muse.

  • RRS

    This will probably read a bit off thread at first, but to follow along with the theme of the Civil Service becoming predominant, consider:

    As our social orders have become more Open Access (see, North, et al) there appears to have been a correlated expansion in the numbers, kinds and demands for, Public Goods.

    Healthcare, in both the U K and The U S, is a more recent example.
    Public Goods appear (so far) to require “public” administration. Take the evolution of city transport in both countries as an example, which moved from commutative services to “Public Transit” status.

    To some extent (say healthcare) a Public Good may come to be regarded as a “RIGHT.” Little attention seems paid to these two phenomena – Conversions, evolutions of things provided by exchanges, into Public Goods and those Goods ( and the access to them) taking on the aura of Rights.

    Those phenomena should be considered in observing the possibilities for an Administrative (managerial) class to become more “effective” through more total control; and in the consequent growth of the Administrative State in both countries.

    The expansions of Public Goods is carried forward in the Public Utility concept. If the activities of the Civil Service are to be expanded as Public Goods expand, it will become more and more important that those functions be subject to limiting principles. As of now, there seems to be no recognition of that need.

    The managerial class will continue to expand in the Administrative State as Public Goods expand.

  • Nicholas (Andy.royd) Gray

    why did the human cross the road because he didnt know how to build a wormhole… your computer thinks that is hilarious so watch out outnumbered humans!!

  • Julie near Chicago

    That’s an interesting point, RRS, about a “Public Good’s” coming to be seen as a right. I suppose you’re correct. A vicious circle then, because it also goes the other way: “public goods” expand as the bureaucracy expands: the bureaucracy always finds work for itself to do, and this work is explained as being For the Public Good, and the next thing you know the “work product” (e.g., Education) is a Public Good — first in the layman’s sense — something that’s (presumably) just good for the public in general; and then even in the economist’s technical sense, something that must be available to everyone (“non-excludable”) and which is such that one person’s use of it doesn’t impair others’ ability to use it (“non-rivalrous”).

    On the other hand, it’s not that easy to think of Public Goods that require Public (i.e. governmental) administration, if we are thinking in the lay sense anyhow. Transportation certainly can be provided privately, and mostly it has been throughout human history, I believe. The same with education. The same with health care. The same with food. It seems to me also that mostly when the government has provided the roads, it’s been because the government needed them itself, for instance for military purposes.

    I suppose that clean air is one example of an actual, technical Public Good.

  • Nicholas (Andy.royd) Gray

    Why not a 2020 contest? What will the world be like in 5 years time? Will Britain be better or worse, or the usual mixture? (Good and bad). What will America be like?

  • James Hargrave

    ‘The people running the Public Control Department are, almost without exception completely amoral; utterly heartless, soulless even.’

    Ideal recruits to any ‘Human Resources’ dept in some large ‘politically correct’ organisation, public or private – you will find them by the waste-bucket-load.

  • Roue le Jour

    Probably most people actually, James. Proved in several experiments, notably prisoners and guards and the electric shock one.

  • Having not watched it yet:

    This state of affairs was precipitated by an irrecoverable national bankruptcy in 1983, triggering a de facto state of emergency. In the General Election only 22% voted.The economy (and imports) drastically contracted forcing stringent rationing of housing, goods and services. These are distributed according to a person’s status in society 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.

    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.”

    Note the ‘1984’ bit: that one definitely was referring to a Left-wing regime, so it at least stands to reason that Greatorex had something similar in mind. Pity we can’t ask him now.

  • Bod

    I started to rewatch the series last night – having seen it and forgotten it over the passing years.

    It’s very clear that the new regime is controlled by trades unionists – two episodes in, there have been at least three scenes where one of the mandarins takes a swipe at a different mandarin who leads a different union. There’s a reference to the suppression of a military coup, which – in the context of the 70’s – would have resonated most like Pinochet/Amin/etc – essentially “rightist” initiatives.

    So it’s very clear in my mind who Greatorex was casting as the “bad guys”; although the primary condemnation is that of a totalitarian, panopticon state. The timing was appropriate – my guess is that the screenplays were written in about 1975-6, with inflation running at 25%, the Labour initiated “Social Contract” with the TUC, after what seemed to me a significant climb-down by the TUC over wage controls regulations.

    Major props to the props people; when you see the cars they used for the show, they were all Trabant-esque nightmares, as well as the choice of what were by then the dying London Dockyards.

  • RRS

    @Julie in C:

    Hope I was not too obtuse.

    As you pointed out, “Education” has become a Public Good.Now, every child has a Right to what has been politically determined to constitute “Education, (not to be confused with learning). [Public Goods as things necessary; roads & streets, e.g for public use] In the strict sense, a “Good” is not “Public” in that it is “good for the society” and/or because it is available for public use (as, for instance, public libraries and universities).

    We know quite well that streets and roads are better built and maintained when private contractors are used for those Public Goods (with minimal “public” employee staffs for monitoring needs and performance).

    The “pressures” to expand Public Goods are probably still as much political as strictly “bureaucratic” in origin. Public Goods for Public Services to meet Public Needs is a political mantra. That has (so far) brought on more bureaucratic expansions for public administration. But, we are aware it need not be so. We know that existing services can be “privatized;” that learning can be provided under contractual forms; that limiting principles can be installed and enforced.

    It is just not being done.

    So far, we are probably seeing the Administrative (managerial-bureaucratic)class expand because of the expansions of Public Goods, rather than the expansions of Public Goods from the powers or influence of the Administrative Class; though there is some “seepage” of that latter effect. If limiting principles are not established, we will see more.

  • RRS

    @ Julie again:

    As you note:

    “On the other hand, it’s not that easy to think of Public Goods that **require** Public (i.e. governmental) administration, if we are thinking in the lay sense anyhow.”


    You will note, my phrase- “so far” “appear” to require.
    That is the point of establishing limiting principles.
    How are the Public Transit systems of London, NYC, Boston, D.C., BART, etc., administered – practically all through (not always so little) little managerial empires.

    But, those are only examples. The problems and the trends are much broader.

  • Julie near Chicago


    In no way did I or do I think you “obtuse.” “Percipient” would be a better description. :>)

    Education as a public good, “therefore” a right, “therefore” someone must oversee the children’s educations. Homeschooling not wrong in itself of course, but everyone has a right to a proper education, therefore either home (and private) schooling must be overseen every step of the way, or else it must simply be forbidden: All children must attend public (or approved private) schools.

    Interestingly enough, the penultimate (I think it was) episode of Yes Prime Minister deals precisely with the issue of whether it wouldn’t be better to abolish the Dept. of Ed. (British version of course) and simply give the parents the money instead (via ‘vouchers’ I think) to send their kids to the locally-run or private school of their choice. HEAVENS! Britain will fall off the face of the Earth! It cannot be allowed! Mr. Hacker, the P.M., and his wife and his political advisor think it a swell idea, to be done at once. It will also get the P.M. votes, of course, and show that he is on the side of the constituencies. Besides, it makes sense.

    Sir Humphrey and others: No no no! Since when are the locals sufficiently well-educated to runs schools, still less are the parents qualified to have anything to do with their children’s education! The last thing they should be allowed to do is to rear their children!

    Etc. A very good episode, though you would probably need dental work by the end of it. All that grinding, I mean.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Alisa, thanks for the link — especially to the piece on Mr. Greatorex.

    There’s no reason, by the way, that you can’t have the military attempting a coup against a leftist government. For example, the 1938 German Generals’ plot against Hitler would have been one example:


    The Foot of All Knowledge also includes this little tidbit on the plot of July 20, 1944, interesting in the light of Kyle’s insistence that Skardon be taken alive and tried before the International Court on charges against human rights (boldface mine):

    Moltke was against killing Hitler; instead, he wanted him placed on trial. Moltke said, “we are all amateurs and would only bungle it”. Moltke also believed killing Hitler would be hypocritical. Hitler and National Socialism had turned “wrong-doing” into a system, something which the resistance should avoid.[7]

    Source: second para,


  • RRS

    Public “education” seen as an example of a (and the) Public Good:

    All children must attend schools (be processed as “education”).

    All schools (and their processes) must conform to “Publicly” (politically, socially, academically, or …)[?] determined criteria.

    “Education” is for “the good of society;” is thus a Public Good. Thus, it must be “publically administered.”

    That is eons away from the Hueber School set up on donated land in Malta Township, DeKalb County, IL. built and supported by parents for ALL the children (regardless of parental participation)as a Public Good in that community.

    That metamorphosis to the example given above provides clues to how we have become what we are.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Isn’t that AMAZING, RRS! How backward they were in Malta! Now just down the road a few miles (35? 50?) there was the railroad-and-farming town of Amboy, where prior to the brilliant idea of Consolidation which became all the rage in the ’50’s, there were many one- and two-room schools built by local volunteers, and paid for by the local “community” — in some cases that would mean all 25 or so families in some not-to-small radius of the schoolhouse.

    And yes, originally (before my time I think) the parents or even the whole community, or a local philanthropist, ponied up to hire a teacher. And I understand that in the Old Days, sometimes the teacher had room and board for the term at someone’s house….

    I was lucky enough to go to one of those myself for the first three years. Of course, I think that even then (I started first grade in 1949) the Great State of Illinois picked up at least part of the tab, though I won’t swear to it. I do know that over about the next four years at least four of those little country schools were absorbed into Community Unit School District 202, and we were all bussed into Town School. Except the Catholic kids. The Amboy Parish set up a parochial grade school that they all attended. (How much the local Catholic families contributed to that financially, I don’t know. But the teachers were nuns of whatever order.)

    Thanks for your observation, RRS. It speaks to my deeps. :>))

  • Paul Marks

    Yes Julie – the “Consolidation” movement (getting rid of those little schools built by local volunteers and controlled by local school boards that were really LOCAL) was a deliberate Progressive movement effort.

    It was an effort to hand over American education to the bureaucracy and the unions.

    And it has succeeded.

    Hence the brainwashed young population.

  • Niall Kilmartin

    I recall ‘1990’ and its sinister PCD (Public Control Department); I’ve not thought about it since it was shown. Interesting it was shown in the late ’70s, shortly before Maggie’s victory in 1979. Quite a few people, even including a few of the usual suspects, were noticing that the unions were getting very big for their boots in those days. After all, even the Grauniad noticed that, thanks to print union, no-one could correct it on the day it went out under that title, and many a lesser typo got through because if anyone other than a unionised typesetter corrected it, the print union would halt the shop.

    It’s interesting that those who have viewed ‘1990’ recently notice the trade union and other ‘left-wing tyranny’ references whereas some posters who vaguely remember it recall a more ‘right-wing tyranny’ feel. Partly, this may be like Nazis being treated as solely right-wing; the culture, then and now, tries to suggest that authoritarians are right-wing and we respond even when we don’t intend to. Partly, the author / series producer may have avoided being to overtly on one side of the divide, both to evade thought-controllers in the BBC and for artistic reasons – I’ve certainly noticed left-wing writers hurt their own work by being too eager to score a contemporary point. (Plus, as a poster above remarked, when Heath ran the Tory party, some fellow-travelling from “Tories” was not unlikely – as, alas, it is not today either.) At the time (I was a lot younger), I recall being impatient about this; it seemed to me the amoral characters in the PCD would have to have a more explicit ideology. I’d have to re-watch it to decide if I were right or (very possible, given my age then) just missing subtleties.

  • RRS

    @ The PMO:

    While all that came to pass in the end, the phases were somewhat different than what may be imagined as a “handing over” effort.

    All this was a topic some years back of some detail between me and the then WSJ “Economics” editor (who has moved on to greater things). As I recall Midwesterner may have followed all that[?].

    But, you are right, it was from the actual phases of involving local tax bases for physical facilities (initially) that the Education System and all the hierarchy that entails, evolved.

    As Julie infers, “Education,” as a Public Good was altered by conversion to system, into a facility for the “needs and good of society,” in place of a facility providing a good for individual children – without exclusions.