A Clockwork Orange and the history of very British dystopias

Britain’s darkest days lie ahead of us – at least according to our long tradition of dystopias on screen. From 1984 to A Clockwork Orange, what do our changing nightmares about the future say about us?

Craig Ian Mann
Updated:

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Credit: Warner Bros Pictures

It’s apt that A Clockwork Orange (1971), perhaps the most infamous dystopian film Britain has ever produced, will return to the nation’s cinema screens in 2019. Amid fraught Brexit negotiations, the threat of a no-deal scenario and social divisions that continue to grow wider by the day, our present is beginning to look uncomfortably like a dystopian future that we once could only have imagined.

The predictions of Stanley Kubrick’s film, in which Britain has become a brutalist wasteland of class conflict, wanton violence and governmental corruption, seem as relevant now as they did upon release – and, of course, it’s just one example of Britain’s long-standing tradition of dystopian cinema. As Britain’s exit from the European Union looms large on the horizon, it’s an apt moment to survey our visions of the future and consider what they can tell us about our history, our hopes and our fears.

Early futures

Though it might seem contrary to the national character, the majority of Britain’s early cinematic visions of the future were markedly optimistic. As the film industry began to flourish following the Cinematograph Films Act of 1927, Britain looked forward to a time of lavish infrastructure, astounding new technologies and closer relationships with the rest of the globe.

F.P.1 Doesn’t Answer (1933) – an international co-production filmed simultaneously in German, French and English – is one of our earliest sci-fi features. It imagines the construction of an enormous structure in the Atlantic Ocean, allowing for the refuelling of aircraft on long-haul flights. The English-language version of F.P.1 was distributed by Gaumont-British Picture Corporation, which went on to produce both 1935’s The Tunnel, concerning the building of an intercontinental passage connecting Britain and the United States, and 1937’s Non-Stop New York, a crime thriller partially set aboard a futuristic flying cruise ship heading for America.

The Tunnel (1935)

The Tunnel (1935)

All three of these films have an obvious fascination with international relations and technological progress. They also shared a writer: Curt Siodmak, a Jewish German expatriate who fled his home nation for Britain following the rise of the Nazi party. His early science-fiction films draw on both his alienation from his country and his geographic displacement, using oceanic airstrips, vast tunnels and outlandish flying machines to appeal for peaceful cooperation – an interconnected world that would use technology for good at a time when nationalist ideologies were on the rise in Europe.

But while these were personal films to Siodmak, they undoubtedly spoke to the British public. Britain suffered through the effects of the Great Depression for much of the 1930s as poverty and unemployment ran rife. The mammoth infrastructural projects at the centre of F.P.1 and The Tunnel, the prosperity they represented and the huge number of jobs such projects would create could only have seemed an enticing prospect amid widespread financial misery. And, as Britain witnessed the ascent of fascism on the continent and began to consider the prospect of another global conflict, Siodmak’s cry for unity was particularly resonant. It’s no coincidence that all of these films imagine transport links that would bring the nation closer to a potential ally in the US.

However, not all of our early science-fiction movies were so hopeful. The shorts Airship Destroyer (1909) and Aerial Anarchists (1911) imagine an air raid on Britain even before the First World War, and a British film had considered the possibility of a second as early as 1929. High Treason (another Gaumont-British picture) splits the Earth into two world powers based in America and Europe, and follows a series of events that leads tensions between the two territories to build to boiling point. In a powerful anti-war statement, it’s revealed that both sides are being played by greedy arms manufacturers. In retrospect, it seems extraordinary that High Treason is set in the year 1940 – and yet it was still not as prophetic as Things to Come (1936).

A lavish prestige picture produced by Alexander Korda, Things to Come is based on H.G. Wells’ 1933 novel The Shape of Things to Come, an alternative history that charts the development of the human race into the far-flung future. Heavily entangled with the pervading anxieties of its day, this is another film that places the outbreak of the next war in 1940, but with far greater accuracy. In a terrifying prediction of the Blitz and an echo of Stanley Baldwin’s grave warning that “the bomber will always get through,” it sees ‘Everytown’ (an analogue for London) bombed from the air by an unnamed enemy. These initial hostilities escalate into a global conflict that sees the planet reduced to rubble by the 1960s, when a biological weapon unleashes a disease known as the “wandering sickness”.

Things to Come (1936)

Things to Come (1936)

By the film’s climax, set in the year 2036, a new world order has risen from the ashes and installed a technocratic civilisation that’s constructed in a breathtaking special-effects montage. After many years of governance under a global administration that rules according to logic and reason, the peace is disturbed when a disagreement arises between scientific progressives and new-age luddites over the question of whether humankind should use its resources to explore the stars. Things to Come, then, laments a divided planet that’s tearing itself apart, and makes an earnest plea for humanity to forge a better world – one united by science. The climax famously poses a harrowing rhetorical question: “All the universe or nothingness… which shall it be?”

Fear of the bomb

In reality the powers of science were used to create technologies that would destroy the world rather than unite it. As in America, the popularity of sci-fi cinema waned in Britain during the war years, but returned to popularity in the 1950s following the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. In fact, the first cinematic imagining of perhaps the world’s most famous dystopian novel, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (published in 1949), actively played on Britain’s fear of the bomb and the fraught divisions that gripped the world at the beginning of the Cold War.

Released in the second year of Anthony Eden’s ill-fated term as prime minister and following Nigel Kneale’s popular 1954 television adaptation, 1984 (1956) begins with an ominous warning that what we are about to see is set in “the immediate future”, swiftly followed by a montage of mushroom clouds and a voiceover explaining the rise of three constantly warring super-states.

The film only makes more explicit atomic-age anxieties that are present in Orwell’s text, but it could not have been timelier for Britain: it arrived in cinemas only months before the Soviet Union threatened to use its nuclear option in response to the Suez Crisis, contributing to Eden’s resignation the next year.

1984 (1956)

1984 (1956)

Fear of the bomb motivated our dystopian cinema in the next decade, and the early 1960s saw the release of two more films directly concerned with nuclear nightmares in The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961) and The Damned (1963). The latter is a Hammer production directed by Joseph Losey, an American by birth who came to Britain after he was blacklisted in Hollywood for his communist sympathies. It follows a mismatched trio who happen upon a subterranean military complex on the Weymouth coastline. Within, they find a group of radioactive children born immune to the effects of fallout due to an atomic accident: Britain’s last hope in the face of inevitable nuclear war. A departure from Hammer’s typically lurid style, Losey’s film is austere, tragic and relentlessly bleak.

The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961)

The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961)

The Day the Earth Caught Fire merges dystopian sci-fi with kitchen-sink drama as a newspaper reporter, very much in the angry-young-man mould, tries to get to the bottom of the world’s suddenly warming atmosphere. As London suffers sweltering heat, he discovers that nuclear tests have caused a shift in the Earth’s axis, causing catastrophic climate change. Under the direction of Val Guest, the film deftly tempers its speculative elements with realism; while its scorching London is largely realised with matte paintings and orange tinting, it also makes use of documentary stock footage and several authentic locations, including the Daily Express headquarters on Fleet Street. The resulting film depicts the end of the world with a startling authenticity.

A concern with mass death and destruction is also confronted metaphorically in the likes of The Day of the Triffids (1963), Children of the Damned (1964) and The Earth Dies Screaming (1964). Even the BBC joined in on the nuclear paranoia: Peter Watkins’ The War Game (1965) employs a documentary style to explore the potentially devastating effects of a nuclear attack on British soil. It depicts the destruction of Rochester and then follows Britain into a new dark age. Ultimately, the BBC pulled it from the broadcast schedule, deciding it was too terrifying for the airwaves (though it was given extensive non-theatrical distribution through the BFI).

The War Game (1965)

The War Game (1965)

Ecological end-times

British dystopian cinema of the 1960s, then, was preoccupied with national and often global catastrophe – and this continued into the early 1970s. However, now Britain’s dystopian visions were not imagining a nuclear disaster, but an ecological one.

No Blade of Grass (1970) – a British-American adaptation of The Death of Grass (1956), a novel by Lancashire-born writer John Christopher – sees the collapse of the Anthropocene when a virus begins to kill off the grass family, causing widespread famine and the crumbling of civilised society. Its lingering images of polluting power stations and animals either dead or in distress make abundantly clear that this is a film about the very Earth itself rising up against its human oppressors.

Its concerns were swiftly echoed by Doomwatch (1972), a Tigon production based on the popular BBC television series (1970-72), in which the eponymous watchdog discovers that chemical dumping is causing the inhabitants of a small island to develop mental and physical deformities.

Watch the No Blade of Grass trailer

In tune with the environmental concerns of Hollywood productions such as Silent Running (1972) and Soylent Green (1973), No Blade of Grass and Doomwatch were products of an era in which environmentalism would come to the forefront of the global consciousness. They also arrived at the beginning of a decade that would be defined by a series of oil crises, which sparked debates over the sustainability of fossil fuels and affected Britain under Edward Heath and Harold Wilson just as much as they did the United States under Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. In fact, in 1974 Heath was forced to introduce the infamous ‘Three-Day Week’ in an attempt to curb Britain’s energy usage.

Haves and have-nots

One of the most notable exceptions to these themes of nuclear and ecological destruction in this period is François Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 (1966), a take on Ray Bradbury’s seminal novel that depicts a future British society that has banned all literature. Truffaut’s only English-language film is very much a treatise on the importance of art, and laments the proliferation of mass entertainment in the age of television. But its interest in the media and the distinction between low and high culture connects it to two socially-conscious British films that would see release in the next five years: Privilege (1967) and A Clockwork Orange.

Privilege (1967)

Privilege (1967)

Privilege was released during a period of intense fiscal turmoil under Harold Wilson. Having inherited a deficit from Harold Macmillan and Alec Douglas-Home, Wilson’s Labour government battled against a series of financial crises and was eventually forced to devalue the pound in 1967. Closely in step with its times, Privilege – another Peter Watkins film shot with an effective documentary aesthetic – imagines a future in which a corrupt future government uses a beloved pop singer as a political tool to placate the masses, prevent political protest and encourage consumption to keep the country afloat.

Economic uncertainty continued throughout the 1970s. A Clockwork Orange also arose from this context and pictures a time to come in which the nation’s working-class youth has grown distant from the ruling elite, its brutalist Britain one of warring gangs and crippling class divides. The central character, an idiosyncratic gang leader, is a member of the urban proletariat who lives with his parents in a claustrophobic flat and drinks narcotic-infused ‘milk-plus’ in dive bars with his dim-witted followers.

But he clearly dreams of the high life: his love for Beethoven, taste for Edwardian-inspired clothing and penchant for invading the homes of upper-class citizens reveal his desire to transcend his low status. Importantly, A Clockwork Orange is not a film about the divide between liberals and conservatives but between rich and poor: the story of a frustrated teenager taking ultra-violent revenge against a society that has stifled his potential for class mobility.

Even Zardoz (1974) – John Boorman’s bizarre (acid) trip to a distant future – is on a basic level a film about social inequality, in which the immortal ‘Eternals’ rule over the mortal ‘Brutals’.

These politically-motivated movies would lay the foundations for the dystopian cinema of the 1980s, which would squarely take aim at Margaret Thatcher’s Britain. Thatcher had come to power following the ‘Winter of Discontent’, and promised to rescue the nation from the chaos of escalating industrial crises and public-sector strikes. Like Ronald Reagan, she was a social conservative and staunch advocate for business who intended to reinvigorate the economy through widespread privatisation and the relaxation of trade regulations.

In truth, Thatcher’s policies did very little to help the average Briton and only worsened the widening gap between rich and poor. Her foreign policy, too, was cause for great concern – she stood with Reagan in re-escalating tensions with Russia. It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that dystopian cinema of the Thatcher era combines a fear of devastation with class issues. Memoirs of a Survivor (1981) reduces Britain to a concrete horror, its streets filled with desperate survivors and feral children. Tellingly, we are introduced to this world through the eyes of a woman peering out from the curtains of her council flat.

Threads (1984)

Threads (1984)

The concerns of Memoirs of a Survivor are intensified in Threads, a docudrama written by Barry Hines and originally broadcast in September 1984. Much like The War Game – which finally screened on the BBC in 1985 – it realistically depicts the build-up to a nuclear attack on Britain and its awful aftermath. Beyond a resurgent theme of nuclear dread, though, the film has plenty to say about life under Thatcher. Set and filmed in Sheffield, it focuses on the struggles of working-class citizens who end up trading rat meat and feasting on sheep carcasses to survive. Meanwhile the government, indifferent to their suffering, concentrates on executing looters.

A new version of Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984) arrived in UK cinemas mere weeks after the BBC’s atomic nightmare had aired. Its depiction of a British police state willing to paint dissenters as terrorists and meet any attempt to protest the regime with violence is an exaggerated portrait of Thatcher’s Britain; it was released amid the miners’ strike of 1984-85, and coincided with brutal suppression of workers on the picket lines by the British authorities. Terry Gilliam’s Brazil followed in 1985, and it too dreamt up an Orwellian nightmare in which any refusal to conform is punished without prejudice.

Apocalypses now

British sci-fi films were rare throughout the 1990s, and a new sustained cycle of dystopian cinema did not arrive until the 2000s. Many of these films were concerned with issues on a global scale. Sunshine (2007), helmed by Danny Boyle and written by Alex Garland, sees a group of astronauts depart from a frozen Earth on a mission to reignite the dying sun. Five years earlier, Boyle and Garland had made 28 Days Later (2002), which initiated an entire sub-cycle of dystopian films focused on the outbreak of pandemic disease.

28 Days Later (2002)

28 Days Later (2002)

Other films in this period turned their attention to the War on Terror, lamenting the culture of fear and division that had arisen in Britain following 9/11 and Tony Blair’s unpopular decision to commit British troops to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. V for Vendetta (2005), an adaptation of Alan Moore’s comic book mini-series (1982-89), imagines a Britain in which the government has gained submissive obedience from the citizenry by stoking fears of terrorism in the aftermath of a war in the Middle East – going so far as to execute a false-flag operation in which a deadly virus was intentionally released in London.

A more nuanced depiction of a post-9/11 future is realised in Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006), in which the human race has seemingly lost its ability to reproduce. As a pregnant woman is discovered among the noise and chaos of a decaying police state, the consequences of the War on Terror – and the division, fear and intolerance it has bred – are made abundantly clear. As an underground movement attempts to smuggle Earth’s last hope to safety, coffee shops are bombed, civil unrest might break out at any moment, and immigrants are herded into cages and transported to city-sized prison camps. Sadly, its dystopia feels even closer today than on the day it was released.

Following the financial crisis, the onset of the Great Recession and the election of David Cameron in 2010, our more recent dystopian visions have returned to issues of class in the age of austerity. Dredd (2012) depicts Mega City One as a squalid slum in which the urban poor live in fear of both violent criminals and the corrupt law enforcers who are supposed to protect them.

High-Rise (2015)

High-Rise (2015)

Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise (2015) is more direct. Based on J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel, it borrows the brutalist aesthetics of A Clockwork Orange and features an enormous tower block segregated by class. Meanwhile, The Survivalist (2015) envisages a post-apocalyptic Britain ravaged by famine, in which those left alive are willing to sell themselves and even consume human flesh to prevent starvation – a powerful theme in an era of benefit cuts and food banks.

Not surprisingly, we have already produced several dystopian films in the age of Brexit, most recently Anon (2018) and Duncan Jones’ Mute (2018). The White King (2016) is particularly interesting in our current climate; it premiered shortly before the fateful referendum and depicts a European state that has regressed into totalitarian isolationism.

British cinema, then, has a long history of using dystopian narratives to work out the nation’s fears and anxieties through science fiction. Given the imminent approach of Brexit and the uncertain future that lies beyond, it seems likely that a new cycle of paranoid visions is on the horizon. As we seem to stand on the brink of disaster, we will undoubtedly continue to speculate on the things to come.

All the universe or nothingness… which shall it be?

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