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The War Game

  •  - U.K.
  •  - BBC TV
  •  - 1965
  •  - 47 mins

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By late 1964 Harold Wilson’s newly elected Labour Government had already broken its election manifesto to unilaterally disarm Britain, and was in fact developing a full-scale nuclear weapons programme, in spite of wide-spread public protest. There was a marked reluctance by the British TV at the time to discuss the arms race, and there was especially silence on the effects of nuclear weapons - about which the large majority of the public had absolutely no information. I therefore proposed to the BBC that - using one small corner of Kent in southeastern England to represent a microcosm - I make a film showing the possible effects, during an outbreak of war between NATO and the USSR, of a nuclear strike on Britain.

At that precise moment the BBC was undergoing a power struggle, a ‘night of the long knives’ - someone very senior had been fired, someone else had quit in support, and Huw Wheldon was pushed two notches up the Corporation’s hierarchical ladder to the position of Controller of BBC 2. He was no longer the Head of the Documentary Film Department, and, at the worst possible time, his personal backing was suddenly gone. The BBC read the script of ‘The War Game’, reluctantly agreed to give me a budget, but warned that the film might not be completed. This warning was a result of the British Home Office (in charge of Civil Defence, into which the government was pouring great amounts of money and propaganda) having telephoned the BBC to inquire why I was making a film on this subject. As part of my research, I had sent a letter to the Home Office inquiring how many hospital beds, etc. the Civil Defence would be able to provide following an all-out nuclear strike on the UK, and this had naturally prompted their query to the BBC.


The filming took place in early 1965, in the Kent towns of Tonsbridge, Gravesend, Chatham and Dover. Once again the cast was almost entirely made up of amateurs, found via a series of public meetings throughout Kent some months earlier. Much of the filming, including the scenes of the firestorm, was done in a disused military barracks in Dover. The crew included cinematographer Peter Bartlett, sound recordist Derek Williams, make-up artist Lilian Munro, action co-ordinator Derek Ware, set designers Tony Cornell and Anne Davey, costumer Vanessa Clarke, and editor Michael Bradsell. I repeated the “you-are-there” style of newsreel immediacy. My purpose, as in ‘Culloden’, was to involve ‘ordinary people’ in an extended study of their own history - only this time the subject involved potentially imminent events, for the threat of full-scale nuclear war was a very real one at that time. There was, however, an important stylistic difference in this film. Interwoven among scenes of ‘reality’ were stylized interviews with a series of ‘establishment figures’ - an Anglican Bishop, a nuclear strategist, etc. The outrageous statements by some of these people (including the Bishop) - in favour of nuclear weapons, even nuclear war - were actually based on genuine quotations. Other interviews with a doctor, a psychiatrist, etc. were more sobre, and gave details of the effects of nuclear weapons on the human body and mind. In this film I was interested in breaking the illusion of media-produced ‘reality’. My question was - “Where is ‘reality’? ... in the madness of statements by these artificially-lit establishment figures quoting the official doctrine of the day, or in the madness of the staged and fictional scenes from the rest of my film, which presented the consequences of their utterances?”- and to that end I consistently inter-cut said interviews. Obviously beyond and above the question of form was my concern to use the film to help people break the silence in the media on the nuclear arms race.


The BBC panicked when they first saw the film, and sought government consultation re showing it. They subsequently denied this, but the sad fact remains that the BBC violated their own Charter of Independence, and on September 24, 1965, secretly showed ‘The War Game’ to senior members of the Home Office, the Ministry of Defence, the Post Office (in charge of telecommunications), 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.


What is even less known publicly, are the measures the BBC then took to marginalize me as a filmmaker, both within and outside my profession. At the height of the scandal, with questions being asked in Parliament re whether the Government had in fact pressured the independent TV company, many of the public wrote to the BBC asking them to show the film. In December 1965, two days before Christmas, the BBC took the unprecedented step of publishing an open letter to the public, the first paragraph of which implied that ‘The War Game’ had been banned as an artistic failure! Their exact - and very sneaky words - were as follows: “There was an element of experiment in this project, as in much broadcast production. Such programme experiments sometimes fail and have to be put on one side at some stage in production, even though money has been spent on them. They are, nevertheless, a necessary part of the development of broadcasting, and such failures as may occur are the price we must expect to pay if new forms and subjects are to be brought within the compass of television.” (The startling hypocrisy of this statement was highlighted by the BBC’s eagerness a few months later to collect the Academy Award for Best Documentary - for ‘The War Game’.)

At about the same time, the BBC further attempted to deliberately blacken my name: the BBC evening news announced that I had deliberately used trip wires hidden in the heather to make my actors fall during the filming of ‘Culloden’ [!!] I believe that the context was that of an accusation by ‘Equity’, the British actors’ union (who were angry that I had used non-professional actors). This accusation was stated in solemn tones by the BBC news reader, in the midst of other world-news items. There was no attempt by the BBC itself to refute this accusation. I immediately called the newsroom, and asked if they had verified these facts by checking with the cast in Scotland? There was dead silence. I then told the senior news producer that if the BBC did not immediately retract this lie, I would come down the following day and dismantle the TV Centre, brick by brick. The BBC announced a retraction the following evening.

These episodes expose the primitive and almost desperate extent to which TV organizations will go to defend their hierarchical power regarding what the public sees. Specifically - including in respect to what later happened with ‘Edvard Munch’ and ‘La Commune’ - the usage of the rationale of ‘artistic failure’, which TV organizations are fully prepared to use in order to suppress or marginalize films which they do not want the public to see. This has been a recurring motif in the suppression of my own work. In the words of one senior official who was explaining to me in the autumn of 1965 how difficult it was for the BBC to show ‘The War Game’: “Let’s face it, Peter, your film is less than a masterpiece ...” - the identical ‘logic’ used by La Sept ARTE in France, to suppress ‘La Commune’ in 2000.

Following their decision to ban ‘The War Game’, and despite - or perhaps because of - growing public outcry, the BBC organized a series of private screenings at the British Film Institute’s National Film Theatre during a week in February, 1966. Invited to see the film were carefully selected representatives of the British Establishment, members of the armed forces and Civil Defence, parliamentarians, and defence and military affairs correspondents; film journalists were not allowed into the cinema. Also not allowed were the public, who were denied entry by a phalanx of BBC security guards standing elbow to elbow in a long line in front of the cinema. The BBC undoubtedly hoped to use these unabashedly elitist screenings in order to consolidate its decision to ban ‘The War Game’, by gaining the approval of its colleagues in the Establishment. Evidently this they did - even among sufficient numbers of the press. Sir Hugh Carleton Greene, Director General of the BBC, subsequently rejected a request by Mrs. Renee Short (Labour Member of Parliament), that the BBC should arrange a public screening of the film, on the grounds that the weight of press opinion was against the public showing of ‘The War Game’. I also read a letter from Hugh Greene (which I presumably should not have seen) confirming that their intention was to banish the film to a vault after the screenings at the NFT; I recall a phrase to the effect that, “we will have fulfilled our obligation to show the film”.


The role of the British press in this affair was very mixed, with military and defence journalists condemning ‘The War Game’ for its ‘ban-the-Bomb propaganda’, and a number of film and TV journalists stating that the film should be shown. Some journalists wrote that the film should be seen as widely as possible, others that it should be seen only in controlled circumstances such as private film societies, and others that it should be suppressed altogether. Overall, Sir Hugh Carleton Greene was right about the weight of press opinion: The Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail, Daily Express, Daily Mirror, Daily Sketch, Sun and London evening papers all supported the ban, and although the Sunday papers brought the percentage in favour of the BBC down, the clear majority of the mainstream press were for suppressing ‘The War Game’.

‘YES, THE BBC ARE RIGHT TO BAN THIS .... the only possible effect of showing it to the British public at large would be ... to raise more unilateral disarmament recruits.’ (Defence Correspondent, Evening News)

‘BRILLIANT. BUT IT MUST STAY BANNED. It is a brilliant film, a brutal film. But I would never let any son of mine see it ... I object to this film because it is propagandistic and negative in its approach, politically calculated in its effect. What producer Peter Watkins has made here is not a film about The Bomb, but a plea to ban it ... It excluded hope. In that I judge it to be irresponsible. It excluded any reasoned argument on why we must have The Bomb. The powers-that-be have the right to censor ‘The War Game’, for it is a game to be played seriously and responsibly. It is better left to the powers-that-be than to Mr. Peter Watkins.’ (Daily Sketch)

‘WHAT DOES IT REALLY ACHIEVE? It is hard to argue with Mr. Watkins’ appalling predictions. Nobody can accuse him of exaggerating the effects of nuclear war. Nuclear war cannot be exaggerated. Perhaps he cannot even be accused of hysteria. Nuclear war may entitle him to hysteria. But throughout ‘The War Game’ there is not a glimmer of human resilience. And humans are incredibly, wonderfully resilient ... All ‘The War Game’ has to offer is a screen of protest and blame. Not an opportunity is missed for a sneer at the Civil Defence or the Church.’ (The Sun)

‘MUDDLE-MINDED MR. WATKINS. This monstrous misrepresentation so accurately mirrors the claims of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament that it is a mystery how the BBC was induced to put up 10,000 pounds to make the film, which could more accurately be called ‘The C.N.D. Game.’ (Daily Express)

‘ONE BAN THE BBC NEED NOT HAVE DEFENDED ... the real horror is the stark documentary quality of the film. It reproduces with sickening realism charred limbs, crushed faces and eyes melting in their sockets. This, as the BBC rightly decided, could not have been borne by the millions of viewers sitting at home.’ (Daily Mirror)

‘The film is the most sickening in the world today and one the public should never see.’ (Manchester Evening News)

‘The BBC is failing in its duty in keeping it from the public ... packed with things people have forgotten or not bothered to read.’ (Leicester Mercury)

‘Shocking ... leaves the impression of sadness and madness.’ (Oxford Mail)

‘Horrifying, but so also would be a nuclear war.’ (Evening Mail, Birmingham)

‘THIS FILM MUST BE SHOWN ... No wonder the Establishment wants to stop the film being widely shown. If several million people saw it, the campaign for the banning of nuclear weapons would receive an enormous impetus.’ (The Daily Worker)

‘A WARNING MASTERPIECE. It may be the most important film ever made. We are always being told that works of art cannot change the course of history. Given wide enough discrimination, I believe this one might ...‘The War Game’ stirred me at a level deeper than panic or grief ... It precisely communicates one man’s vision of disaster, and I cannot think that it is diminished as art because the vision happens to correspond with the facts. Like Michelangelo’s ‘Last Judgement’, it proposes itself as an authentic documentary image of the wrath to come - though Michelangelo was working from data less capable of verification.’ (Film and theatre critic, The Observer)

Up-Date (Nearly 50 Years Later)

The Herald, Scotland June 1, 2015

A SCOTS academic has uncovered previously secret government files which show how the BBC collaborated with Whitehall officials in the 1960s to block a controversial film about a nuclear attack on Britain .

BBC drama documentary The War Game, directed by Peter Watkins, which shows shocking scenes of radiation sickness, firestorms and widespread panic following a nuclear attack on Britain , was infamously pulled from broadcast at the 11th hour in 1965.

The corporation insisted it was its own decision to implement the ban as the footage was "too horrifying for the medium of broadcasting".

However the move has been mired in controversy ever since, as it was known the drama had been viewed by Whitehall officials in the weeks beforehand.

Now fifty years on, John Cook, professor of media at Glasgow Caledonian University , has uncovered previously secret Cabinet Office files which show how civil servants influenced the banning of the film. His findings will be discussed as part of a BBC Radio 4 programme `The War Game Files´, which will be broadcast on Saturday 6th June at 8pm.

In an interview with the Sunday Herald Cook said: "This has been a 50 year mystery - I wouldn´t say I have solved it, but it is probably the closest we have got to figuring out what happened.

"The BBC put out a press release in November 1965 saying they had decided not to show the film to the public as it was too horrific for the medium of broadcasting - and stressed it was a decision the BBC had taken alone.

"But there has been much suspicion over the years that the British Government was involved in the censorship in one form or another."

Sir Norman Brook, who was chair of the BBC Board of Governors at the time - and whose previous job as secretary of the Cabinet Office included drawing up civil defence planning in case of a nuclear war - had written to Cabinet Secretary Sir Burke Trend to alert him to the film ahead of its planned broadcast.

Cook said one key memo he uncovered revealed Brook and Trend subsequently had a meeting with then director of the BBC Sir Hugh Carleton Greene.

He said: "In the memo Sir Hugh Carleton Greene said if it was decided by the government the film should not be shown, then the BBC would put out a press release saying they had taken the decision independently. It is pretty clear."

The Whitehall officials who were invited to view the film on September 24 1965 before it was due to be broadcast included Trend, the head of the Home Office Sir Charles Cunningham,and senior representatives from the British Armed Forces, the Ministry of Defence and the Post Office, which at that time was responsible for granting the BBC its licence to broadcast.

Cook said an internal memo was then put together by the officials for ministers and civil servants about the reaction to the film, which was labelled top secret and sent to Prime Minister Harold Wilson.

But he added: " Wilson is astute enough to realise that he cannot be seen to be explicitly censoring a film because the BBC publicly is an independent body.

"So he writes to his cabinet secretary advising that the government doesn´t want to be involved in this - but adds you may wish to communicate your views along with the other civil servants privately to Brook, the BBC chair.

"And that is essentially what happens - ministers don´t want publicly to get involved, but they give civil servants the nod that they should communicate their views that the film was unbalanced."

The War Game was not screened by the BBC until twenty years later, in July 1985. The film´s director Watkins left Britain to work abroad in protest following the ban.

Cook added: "Essentially the BBC´s charter of independence was violated in 1965 ... The key thing is the censorship was entirely consensual."

Among those interviewed for the BBC Radio 4 programme is Sir Christopher Bland, who was BBC chairman of governors between 1996 to 2001.

He said he was "astonished" that the BBC would have agreed to show a film to politicians before transmission.

A BBC spokesman said: "Fifty years on it´s difficult for us to comment on the background to the broadcast of this programme."

© Peter Watkins 2024