The War Game 

8 October 2015

Ludovic Kennedy introduces The War Game when it finally premieres on BBC-2 on 31 July 1985


The programme is introduced by newsreader and announcer Michael Aspel using a very stentorian voice and explaining how the Soviet Union selects nuclear weapons targets in the United Kingdom

The BBC has a duty in law and within its own charter to be, as far as possible and at all times, neutral and independent. How well it manages this is up to the viewer and listener’s individual views: as a rule, complaints are usually 50-50 in accusing the BBC of taking the other side in an argument.

‘Ordinary’ people and sights of the time dominate the first part of the film, settling the audience into the then-present day scene

One thing the BBC established early on was that its duty to be neutral does not go as far as being neutral between good and evil. The Corporation will report neutrally on evil that is done, sure, but it should never even consider needing to balance a piece about the good in the world with a piece about the evil, nor invite a representative of evil on to defend or promote that evil. This is basic common sense, of course, but as alway the devil is in the detail.

The film postulates that the Vietnam War, then accelerating, is joined by Communist China, leading the Americans to authorise use of ‘tactical’, low-yield nuclear weapons in the region; the Soviet Union respond by cutting off access to West Berlin and threatening invasion; NATO authorises tactical nuclear weapons as part of an attempt to push through East Germany to reach West Berlin

Sir Hugh Carleton Greene is recognised as the best Director-General the BBC ever had, even above John Reith himself. He reinvigorated the Corporation. He oversaw it target itself on bringing information, education and entertainment to all corners of the country are a long period where it had become the Upper Middle Class Broadcasting Corporation. He also took the opportunity of aligning the BBC with the new ‘permissiveness’ that was sweeping the country, helped from 1964 onward by the reforming government of Harold Wilson, mainly due to Home Secretary Roy Jenkins determined pushing of abortion reform, the end of hanging and the part-legalisation of homosexuality through the Commons.

NATO troops in Germany are massacred; tactical nuclear weapons are launched; with little warning, the Soviet Union retaliates by using nuclear weapons on ‘strategic’ targets in the UK. One overshoots and hits Rochester in Kent

Greene saw this change in society as a good-against-evil matter: the BBC would not be neutral as Britain changed, it would be amongst the changes and changers, not following behind and certainly not speak for (or even to) people with the old views on fallen women, the rope and the pooves. He made this most clear with his treatment of public busybody Mary Whitehouse in her ever-futile campaign to ‘clean up the airwaves’, who he refused to take seriously or even take note of.

The film juxtaposes death and destruction in Kent with the lofty statements of both Roman Catholic and Anglian priests in favour of nuclear weapons; the Anglican statement is then placed up against an American nuclear strategist, who essentially parrots the vicar’s words

Greene’s period in charge was the time of Up The Junction, a BBC Wednesday Play and the first film to deal with backstreet abortions and the destruction of women’s lives that they cause, and of Cathy Come Home, another Wednesday Play, this time dealing with how the state blamed families for their misfortunes and happily split them up, never to be put back together again and at a terrible cost emotionally and financially. Both of these films led to changes in the law – the Abortion Act of 1967 and a new statutory duty, since abolished, for local authorities to rehome homeless families as a single unit as quickly as possible.

Very unusually for British television even now, let alone in 1965, the camera lingers of shots of the horrendously burnt, the wounded, the dying and the dead

Into this bold new socially-minded BBC came Peter Watkins with his feature The War Game. It was truly nothing like anything that had gone before on television, so much so that it defied categorisation in 1965 – although we would now call it a drama-documentary or docudrama. Presented in a cinéma vérité style yet very different to, for instance, Cathy, the film started as a standard-seeming piece of adult education. From there it flowed into a documentary, following the plans for what would happen in the UK during a ‘national emergency’ such as nuclear war.

Basic services collapse under the weight of the casualties. A doctor explains the concept of ‘triage’ – dividing the wounded into three categories for treatment, Category 3 being to leave them to die

This is all very ordinary, until the bomb itself drops. Then the film moves into the realms of a highly polished drama, yet still cinéma vérité and still featuring Dick Graham’s dispassionate tones over the top, narrating both what is happening and nodding towards speculation of what might happen during such an event. Pictures never before seen on British television are shown – the horribly mutilated, the dying, the dead, all in close-up on grainy black and white (of course) film. As they appear, the film moves on again, into what the internet is proud to call a “shockumentary”, with scene after scene and image after image that are almost – but tellingly not quite – too hard to watch.

More shots of piles of dead bodies, here on their way to be burnt en masse in the ruined buildings of Rochester

Finally, the film starts to editorialise, making use of that grey area between the lines of good and evil: the nuclear bomb is inherently evil, and even in the middle of the 1960s arms race, you were unlikely to find anyone who disagreed. Since it is evil, its effects are evil. Since its effects are evil, then the people who use the weapon are, by association and directly, evil themselves. That last part is the part that possibly crosses the line from never-defending-evil into a neutrality-breaking fighting-evil-and-the-causes-of-evil. It’s dangerous ground, not easily covered by running a World War Two-era anti-war poem on a roller seemingly at random in the middle of the film.

Further juxtaposition: the chief constable, issuing unpalatable orders but rarely seeing their consequences; a constable who carries them out and is broken by the experience; and a PC who is enjoying his new found authority slightly too much

Hugh Carleton Greene knew this. For whatever reason, he called the film in, watched it, and then asked the BBC Governors to support his decision to prevent it being shown on the BBC. The reasons for the ban given and speculated about since are many. The film’s maker, Peter Watkins, is clear: it was government and military interference:

…a representative of the Military Chiefs of Staff, and Sir Burke Trend, Secretary to Harold Wilson’s Cabinet. Approximately six weeks later, the BBC announced that they were not going to broadcast the film on TV – and denied that their decision had anything to do with the secret screening to the government. To this day, the BBC formally deny that the banning of ‘The War Game’ was due to pressure by the government, but a review of now available documents reveals that there was (is) much more to this affair than was admitted publicly. – Peter Watkins

Watkins goes on to accuse the government and military of having the BBC blackball him, and his career floundering as a result.

A break for a poem on a roller. At this point, the film is wandering into editorialising

Others believe that Greene, facing ever louder shrieks from Mrs Whitehouse and her supporters, thought that he would be unable to defend the BBC on two fronts – from the ‘clean-up’ brigade and from an outraged press that heretofore had been quietly supportive of his progressive stance.

The film postulates that an exhausted, shocked and wounded population without basic services could become lethargic and simply exist, rather than live, surround by their own filth…

There is also the possibility that Greene, or his advisors, doubted the resiliency of the British public. Faced with a film that shows the pointless escalation of hostilities headlong into a war that had not been prepared for and an aftermath that nobody could even begin to plan, would the film itself cause riots? A popular groundswell for CND leading to the government splitting? Soldiers refusing to take up arms? Policemen walking off the job unable to accept the role that might be handed to them as judge, jury and executioner?

…or they could take to the streets and riot, firstly over food but then just for the sake of rioting, a strange coalition between hungry middle class mothers and disaffected anarchists

However, it was most likely the Greene saw what anybody can see: the film is biased against evil (this is all well and good) but it is also biased against authority, governments of all colours and the military. There’s no way to edit the film to correct this – not that Watkins would have been willing to – as the bias runs like sprockets against each frame of the film. But it’s also something not easy to explain, either to the filmmaker or the general public.

The authorities respond with pointless crackdowns, leading to drumhead trials and summary executions

The line that had been crossed was not written down, let alone carved in stone in the reception in Broadcasting House. It was one based on gut reaction, an ability to tell what the line was and where it lay, a talent for finding that line and guiding others to walking along its edge. Sir Hugh Carleton Greene had that talent and could spot that the line had been crossed, even if he could not easily articulate why: it was a gut reaction. This goes too far. It cannot be shown.

The fates of the survivors are questioned: will they die of radiation poisoning or later cancers? Will this woman’s baby be born alive? What will become of the orphaned children, abandoned by everyone to a feral existence in the rubble?

That said, Greene didn’t order the film destroyed, nor did he have it locked in the vaults. The scandal over the ban passed through the newspapers and the BBC quietly made the film available to purchase by film societies, cinema clubs and schools and colleges. Many private schools – Birkenhead School, for instance – made a point of showing the film several times to their boys. As Ludovic Kennedy says in his 1985 introduction, some 6.5 million people ended up seeing the “banned” film – less than may have watched it on BBC-1 had it actually gone out, but more than could have watched it if it had been shunted to BBC-2, for instance.

The sources for the film are listed, albeit with the advisory panel remaining anonymous, probably in case of retribution by their employers

This way, Peter Watkins’ masterpiece – and the film is a masterpiece, even with its biases intact – got shown to the people who wanted and needed to see it, but didn’t get the hell from the press, Mrs Whitehouse, the government and every Tom, Dick and Harriet keen to give the BBC, and Greene, a good kicking. A pragmatic approach by Sir Hugh Carleton Greene, in an era when being called pragmatic was a compliment, not an insult.


Written and produced by Peter Watkins for the BBC

The BBC’s export endcap from the programme

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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1 response to this article

Tim Synge 24 May 2018 at 11:29 am

We were shown the film at King’s College, Taunton in the late 1970s.

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