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Review: Very British Dystopias

Updated: Feb 9

By Matthew Kresal

When dealing with sub-genres, there can often be a thin line between them. Take alternate history, dystopian fiction, and future history. At what point do the latter genres, with visions of near or even far off futures, become alternate history? And what can they teach us not only about our genre but the real world? My fellow blog writer Ryan Fleming explored those questions in his excellent Days of Future Past articles almost two years ago, but he wasn't the first to consider it. Steven Fielding, Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham, examined some of those tales in the 2013 BBC Radio 4 documentary Very British Dystopias.

Fielding's documentary, which aired as part of the Archive on 4 strand, is a self-described journey through six decades of stories of what he termed a "politics gone wrong." Those who read Ryan Fleming's series, and its concluding part, in particular, will recognize some of the usual suspects featured. There's Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, Chris Mullin's A Very British Coup, and the graphic novel V For Vendetta, to name but three. There are also others, often written as thrillers originally, which now fit into the alternate history category, such as Douglas Hurd's Scotch on the Rocks and Frederick Forsyth's The Fourth Protocol. And a few choices that, while without a doubt dystopian, are not alternate histories, such as The Prisoner and the 1964 Doctor Who serial The Dalek Invasion of Earth.

Fielding's purpose, across the hour, is to explore both what influenced their creation, their effects upon the politics of their time, and why they didn't come to pass. From the experiences of Nazism and Stalinism upon Orwell's work and its lasting influence onward, the novels and screen productions featured take listeners on a journey through the changing political landscape. There's the conflating of Scottish nationalism and Irish terrorism in Scotch on the Rocks, fears of trade union power in works such as Anthony Burgess' 1985 and the TV series 1990, and the perils of the Thatcher era Secret State in A Very British Coup or Edge of Darkness. The latter era, with a War on Terror twist, is explored in a section on V For Vendetta in its comic but more especially filmic form. More often than not, Fielding argues, they present potential futures seen from the time they were creations of, sometimes written as pure entertainment but, in the case of Burgess and Mullin especially, as possible warnings of what might happen.

Being part of Archive on 4, with its various documentaries pulling from the BBC Archives, it's rich in source materials. There are clips from a number of both well-known and rarer productions. These clips range from the likes of the seminal 1954 live TV production of Nineteen Eighty-Four to soundbites from the controversial (and unseen since its 1973 broadcast) adaptation of Scotch on the Rocks and the 2005 film version of V For Vendetta. It offers a rich soundscape drawing on different mediums in the process.

Fielding also turns to both authors and experts, both in archival pieces and newly recorded interviews. It's the authors who are the most interesting, offering up what inspired their works from Douglas Hurd, who also discusses the controversy his novel inspired, to the likes of the late Nigel Kneale (whose adapted Orwell's novel for TV in 1954), Chris Mullin and Frederick Forsyth. In one of the documentaries most intriguing segments comparing and contrasting the very different visions of 1980s British democracy under threat, both Mullin and Forsyth lay out their cases for how they captured the threats of the time from their side of the proverbial barricade. The experts, too, have insights to offer from Kneale's biographer Andy Murray to Voodoo Histories author David Aaronovitch and Lucy Sargisson of the University of Nottingham. Together, they offer context to these dystopic alternative histories.

Very British Dystopias also offers a rich vein for writers in the alternate history genre. For all the focus on the Second World War and the American Civil War for tyranny to triumph, there are plenty of other moments when dramatic upheavals and dystopias could have come to pass. Moments that, while they've now come and gone, presented clear and present dangers to those who lived through them, from Soviet Communism to terrorism and from the dark depths of government power. Ones that offer, for writers both then and now, a chance to explore how things might have been long ago in a very British dystopia.


Matthew Kresal is a fiction writer who has a story in the Alternate Australias Anthology by Sea Lion Press and has also written a book about the TV series 'Dark Skies'


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