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Guardians, The (1971)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment Ltd

Main image of Guardians, The (1971)
LWT for ITV, 10/7-2/10/1971
13 x 60 minutes episodes, colour
Directors includeRobert Tronson
 Mike Newell
 Jim Goddard
ProducerAndrew Brown
Series Created byVincent Tilsley
 Rex Firkin
Writers includeJohn Bowen
 Jonathan Hales

Cast: Cyril Luckham (Sir Timothy Hobson); Derek Smith (Norman); Edward Petherbridge (Christopher Hobson); David Burke (Dr. Benedict); Lynn Farleigh (Eleanor); Gwyneth Powell (Clare Weston); John Collin (Tom Weston)

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In a near-future Britain, the far-right government has declared a state of emergency and suspended elections. The Queen has fled in protest, while the defence of the state is in the hands of the Guardians, a paramilitary force with absolute power and a ruthless determination to stamp out resistance.

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A product of the new pessimism of the early 1970s, and reflecting that decade's key concerns - mass unemployment, spiralling inflation, chronic industrial unrest - The Guardians (ITV, 1971) is now largely forgotten, perhaps because relatively few viewers had the patience to see this lengthy, talky drama to its conclusion. For all its faults, however, the series is fascinating for its insights into the political ferment of its times, and for what now appears an unusual and bold attempt to present a drama of moral philosophy for a mainstream television audience.

Although it calls to mind Orwell's 1984, the series is far from the straightforward warning it first appears. Carefully avoiding black and white moralising, The Guardians creates a complex ethical universe in which oppressors and resistance alike are plagued by conscience and self-doubt, and the use of force is never without disturbing consequences, however apparently just the cause.

The figurehead of this repressive Britain is Prime Minister Sir Timothy Hobson (Cyril Luckham). Real power, however, is exercised by the Guardians, the gestapo-style force presided over by the shadowy General and his ruthless representative, Norman (Derek Smith). Hobson's dictatorship is a paternalistic fascism, based on the premise that 'democracy is a form of group suicide'. The calculation behind its mask of benevolence is exemplified by the use of cannabis to keep prison inmates in a state of happy passivity, and by its 'humane' method of capital punishment, in which the condemned are unknowingly sedated then executed by lethal injection, while a bogus ritual - including an actor as hangman - is presented to satisfy public bloodlust.

Opposing this apparatus is an array of competing factions, chief among them the Communists and a non-ideological, deliberately fragmented structure whose members adopt the name Quarmby. Unlikely revolutionaries - one stated objective is to restore the monarchy - Quarmby's strategy is a classical terrorist one: to drive the state to greater and greater repression, forcing it to reveal 'the nature of the beast'. But its members must face the risk that by adopting violence they become a mirror image of their enemy.

Ambitious in scope, if not in budget, The Guardians was marred by uneven performances and a shortage of real action. It was, nevertheless, a serious, thorough and highly intelligent examination of both totalitarianism and the ethics of violent resistance to totalitarianism, which convincingly showed how an apparently gentle man might almost unwittingly become a dictator.

Mark Duguid

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Video Clips
1. Constitutional power and real power (6:12)
2. Resisting arrest (1:30)
3. An unexpected solution (4:10)
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