The War Game, Peter Watkins’s truly extraordinary 1965 film about the impact of a nuclear strike on Britain, is still easily one of the most powerful productions ever made for the BBC – so powerful, in fact, that they banned it from being seen for 20 years.
Watkins practically invented the “drama-doc”, but few ever used it to his political ends, or with such merciless forensic control. His 1964 BBC film Culloden, a speculative reconstruction of the 1746 slaughter shot in a manner that deliberately evoked raw news footage from Vietnam, was explosive in its day, but Watkins was only warming up.
Despite a low budget, The War Game remains impressive on a technical level: from the long, constantly moving handheld opening shot; through the editing; the meticulous blending of real facts, figures, government plans and establishment quotes with reconstruction and informed speculation; and the employment of non-actors (no well known faces feature). All of this combines to fully immerse the viewer in a horrifyingly plausible picture of possible reality.
It’s the immediate emotional, psychological and political impact of that picture that remains staggering, however, and is presumably what saw it suppressed for two decades. Fifty years on, The War Game remains genuinely, necessarily, disturbing and difficult to watch. Children’s eyeballs melting; firestorms; British Bobbies being employed to shoot victims in the head; radiation sickness; food riots – all delivered in a style at once howling with anger and yet straight-faced, almost underplayed.
One year later, in 1966, the BBC’s broadcast of Ken Loach’s Cathy Come Home famously sparked widespread public outrage about housing and homelessness in Britain. It’s tempting to think that if Watkins’s horrifying film had been broadcast in 1965, there would have been a near revolution. Either that, or mass suicide. Watch it today, and you may still find yourself urgently Googling current government advice about nuclear attack. If nothing else, it highlights how few British TV dramas of the past 20 years have been about, or meant, much at all.