Home Television Drama War Game, The

War Game, The

1 9 6 5 (UK)
1 x 50 minute episode

This fictional, worst-case-scenario docu-drama about nuclear war and its aftermath in and around a typical English city was one of the BBC’s most controversial projects.

The 50-minute drama began with maps, reminding us of Britain’s unique vulnerability to nuclear attack. It then postulates a crisis: Chinese troops enter South Vietnam; America threatens to use atomic weapons against them; Russia gives notice that she will take over West Berlin unless the weapons are withdrawn.

Riots at Checkpoint Charlie provoke the Russians to move. NATO divisions, pushing through East Germany to relieve the city, encounter overwhelmingly superior conventional forces, whereupon it is decided (in accordance with official NATO policy) to ripost with tactical nuclear weapons. Once these are launched, Russia strikes back with atomic missiles on Western Europe.

The narrator comments in documentary style; “At 11:00 am on September 18th, a doctor makes an emergency call. The last two minutes of peace in Britain could look this way”.

Then the sirens wail, and down – three minutes or 30 seconds later, depending on whether the source is a distant launching pad or a nearby nuclear submarine – comes the holocaust.

The effects of the bomb blasts are then depicted in harrowing images (in stark black & white), showing the horrors of the nuclear attack on the UK and the resulting chaos.

Eyeballs melt and furniture and curtains ignite. The bomb blast means coma and death for victims in three minutes. The survivors are divided into categories. Some of the hopelessly maimed are shot by the police, many are left to die, covered in burns, in severe pain and with no drugs.

For others, shock causes permanent neurosis. One-third of the area of Britain is covered by radiation and death from leukaemia results in five weeks.

Hunger riots break out and police execute rioters and looters by firing squad, provoking a civil riot against the police. After four months, scurvy is rife from lack of food and refugee compounds are everywhere.

Made for Monitor in 1965 and directed by Peter Watkins, the programme was narrated by Michael Aspel but featured mostly nonprofessional actors to add to the realism.

The overall effect was so startling and depressing that Director-General Sir Hugh Greene banned its transmission, fearing it would alarm or confuse the old and fretful in society.

Although it was released for cinema screenings – where it garnered huge critical praise internationally, winning a number of prizes, including an Academy Award (intriguingly in the Best Documentary category) – The War Game did not air on British television until 20 years later, when it was screened on 31 July 1985 as part of the BBC’s 40th-anniversary commemoration of the bombing of Hiroshima.

Peter Watkins