The War Game: how I showed that BBC bowed to government over nuclear attack film

The War Game depicted true horror of nuclear war.

On the front of a folder of declassified 1965 Cabinet Office papers from the national archives, scribbled in pencil by an unknown hand, is a legend that reads: “HMG censorship of BBC film The War Game”. It is enough to make anyone familiar with the troubled history of this film draw a sharp intake of breath.

Fifty years ago Peter Watkins, a brilliant 29-year-old director at the BBC, made The War Game, a powerful dramatised documentary that portrayed what might happen if Britain were subject to a nuclear strike. Depicting harrowing scenes of firestorms, radiation sickness and the complete breakdown of civil defence and law and order, the film was banned from screening by the BBC.

Despite having commissioned it, the corporation claimed The War Game was “too horrific for the medium of broadcasting”. It stressed it had reached this decision on its own and without “outside pressure of any kind”. But when it emerged that prior to announcing its ban, the BBC had invited officials from Whitehall to preview the film, it became a major cause célèbre.

Watkins resigned from the BBC in protest, claiming its much-vaunted charter of independence from government had been violated. The furore helped The War Game become one of the iconic films of the 1960s, especially when after a limited cinema release in 1966, it went on to win an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. It was not shown on television until 1985.

A blinding flash.

Spin by any other name

The question of who banned The War Game – the government or the BBC – has raged for years. It has been the subject of claim and counter-claim not least by Watkins himself, now retired in France. But the trail within BBC archives goes cold as to who exactly banned it, which has meant that there has always been a tantalising lack of hard evidence.

That changed when I gained access to the previously classified Cabinet Office papers. They appear to show the role of Whitehall in the film’s original TV banning was much more extensive than anything publicly acknowledged by either the government or the BBC at the time.

Examining the files, I was surprised at the level of scrutiny the government paid to the film and how explicit discussions were to suppress it. Politicians, not just civil servants, were involved, including then prime minister Harold Wilson. None of the discussions concerned preserving the independence of the corporation, but rather how to find a way to suppress the film without implicating the government or embarrassing the BBC. Much as we think we live in the era of political spin, the emphasis in the discussions was less on whether to censor but how best to present that censorship to the public.

Sir Burke Trend, Wilson’s cabinet secretary, was explicit in an internal briefing document of October 6 1965, following his invitation by the BBC to see the film in the late September:

The difficulty for the BBC, no less than for the government is to think of some reason for suppressing the film which would not stir up controversy or provoke suspicion that it was motivated by political prejudice.

A family hide under the kitchen counter.

The revolving door

Why did the BBC permit its cherished independence to be compromised in this way? The reasons take us to the heart of the relations between British broadcasting and the state during the Cold War era. The chair of the BBC board of governors, Lord Normanbrook, who had first written to Trend to alert Whitehall to the film, was himself a former cabinet secretary who had actually helped draw up the very civil-defence plans in case of nuclear war which Watkins’ film was now exposing as inadequate.

He was part of a revolving door between Whitehall and the BBC at this time. There was a “Home Office liaison official” working at the heart of the BBC as a “partner” in civil defence. One has to remember this was only 20 years after the end of World War II and just three after the Cuban missile crisis, which had brought the world to the brink of nuclear conflict.

Key memo p.1, September 1965. Cabinet Office

The BBC’s director-general at this time, ostensibly its independent editor-in-chief, was Sir Hugh Carleton Greene. Greene is now commonly remembered as a great liberalising figure who opened the BBC up, shedding its establishment image with challenging programmes like That Was The Week That Was (1962-63) and The Wednesday Play (1964-70).

Same memo, p.2. Cabinet Office

But Greene was also a scion of the Cold War. Prior to becoming director-general, he had led psychological warfare against anti-communist guerrillas in Malaya and organised the BBC’s East European Service broadcasts to behind the Iron Curtain.

For senior BBC officials, the key issue with Peter Watkins’ carefully researched film was whether its graphic depiction of national collapse in the aftermath of thermonuclear attack would undermine public morale during the Cold War and give possible succour to the Soviets. This seems to be why Greene and Normanbrook were keen to refer the matter to government for a final decision.

Indeed the Cabinet Office papers reveal that Greene, in an early meeting with the leader of the House of Commons, Herbert Bowden, had even suggested that if the government decided not to show the film, he himself would be prepared to put out a press release to the effect that the BBC had taken the decision alone. This was exactly what did occur in November 1965.

A history of intervention

The affair recalls other crises with government in the BBC’s history, such as the Real Lives: At The Edge of The Union documentary from 1985, which profiled Ulster Unionist and Sinn Féin politicians. Then home secretary Leon Brittan threatened to veto it if the BBC went ahead with transmission.

More recent was the Hutton Inquiry of 2003-04. It led to the resignations of both BBC director-general Greg Dyke and chair of the BBC board of governors Gavyn Davies, following Lord Hutton’s criticisms of the BBC over its reporting of the alleged “sexing up” of the British government’s dossier on supposed weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

The difference between these later controversies and The War Game is that both At The Edge of The Union and Huttongate were examples of conflict between government and the broadcaster. In the case of The War Game, the censorship was entirely consensual at the most senior levels of the corporation.

As Whitehall officials noted with typical civil-service nuance in their memo concerning Greene’s meeting with Bowden, if the BBC and government were to disagree over whether the film should be shown, that would be a matter in which government ministers might have to intervene. But “there is no need to consider this possibility, with its serious political implications, at the moment”. Not with such a pliant leadership team at the BBC.

The War Game Files is transmitted on BBC Radio 4 on 6 June

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