The War Game is a 1965 docudrama directed by Peter Watkins that was banned from broadcast by the BBC but simultaneously won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. It depicts a nuclear war in Western Europe, showing the impact on the whole of Britain but particularly in South-East England. The film was not shown in full in any public arena until the 1980s. In this episode of ClandesTime I look at the film’s innovative style and make an argument for it being ‘peaceful predictive programming’. I also look at the questions of how and why the film was banned, using the director’s own views and government documents to shed light on this extraordinary work. We finish up this time with a comic look at how the BBC’s ‘independence’ is nullified by government influence.
The War Game was a 1965 TV docudrama produced by BBC, directed by Peter Watkins, and it depicts a nuclear war with the Soviets in Western Europe, particularly the impact of this war on South-East England. It has the dubious honour of being withdrawn from broadcast by the BBC, it did have a limited release in cinemas, and won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1966. So I think it is the only film in history to have been banned by its own producers from being broadcast but also won an Oscar.
The film first shown in full on US TV show in February 1983 and it was first shown in UK in 1985, a full two decades after it was produced and thus two decades after it was banned. The US show that broadcast it for the first time was Alternative Views – a public access cable show which ran for 20 years between 1978 and 1998, producing 563 hour-long episodes. This was Truther TV 15-20 years before David Icke and Alex Jones etc. turned up on the scene. Looking around about this show and watching a few episodes it is clear that this was a very low budget show but has absolutely brilliant content.
The style of The War Game is very interesting to me, I love this genre of docu-drama where you have a scripted drama shot and edited in the documentary style. This is quite common in the British film tradition but Peter Watkins was one of the first to be doing it. As the film unfolds you get this wonderful mixture of reality and fiction, with a documentary chronology of the major events and an omniscient narrator telling you what’s happening and describing what you’re seeing. That is mixed with fake news footage depicting the events as they unfold. You also have fly on the wall segments depicting the impacts of the nuclear strike and the government policy in the aftermath of these nuclear strikes. And all of that is mixed up with staged, scripted interviews with members of the public talking about nuclear warfare and nuclear war policy.
On top of that you have statements by public figures particularly from the church, which are ludicrously optimistic given the unfolding events and the horrors that you’re watching. Very strange mixture where they’re using a mainstream new format to depict fictional events. While that may be nothing new now it was very innovative in 1964-65.
With that introduction I do think it is important to watch some of or all of the film in the podcast I play only the first 16-16 minutes telling the story right up until the Soviet nuclear strikes on Britain.
There are three different elements I’d like to draw your attention to:
1) Is this predictive programming?
2) Why was the film banned?
3) How was the film banned, what was the mechanism?
1) Is This Predictive Programming?
Yes, it is. But it is a different kind to the sort that I normally discuss. The litmus test for whether it is predictive programming is as follows:
1) Is it prophecy, does it attempt to predict a future scenario? Yes, of course.
2) Is the event or scenario culturally or socially significant? Yes – in The War Game the scenario is a catalysing event that changes transforms society.
3) Is it clearly aimed at trying to form people’s opinions about the possible future scenario? And also about current, present-day policies and attitudes and behaviours? Yes, this film is quite explicitly aimed at doing that.
The main way in which the film seeks to inform or influence public opinion is through scripted interviews with members of the public. This is a simple dramatic technique designed to engage the ordinary people watching the film in the questions being asked. Usually the members of the public in these scripted segments come across as quite dimwitted and ignorant. I don’t see this as at all cynical, because when it comes to nuclear war most of the public are pretty dimwitted and ignorant. I think that this is done deliberately in the film to encourages the watching viewer to disagree with the ‘common person’ or ‘ordinary person’ opinions that are being expressed.
This is most apparent when it comes to question of retaliation, where most of the people answer yes:
The filmmaker’s views were the opposite of this argument, so I would argue that this is predictive programming but from a pacifist point of view, an anti-war, anti-nuclear point of view. It is therefore peaceful predictive programming, it is weaponing prophecy for moral good.
Whether or not the film succeeds or fails in this endeavour I leave to you to judge, but I will offer my opinion which is that I think the film succeeds admirably. I was scared and horrified by this film. I was anti-war and anti-nuclear before watching this film and it did nothing to dissuade me from that, if anything it only reinforced those views and so it that is the film’s intention it succeeded with me.
In coming to your own view on whether I am interpreting this film correctly, I’d like to highlight a couple of things about the second half of the film.
1) In the story there is no resolution, no hero saves the day, there is no happy ending, no riding off into the sunset. It is just a horrible, shit situation all round.
2) We see in the second half of the film after the Russian attack the security state clamping down following the nuclear strikes, but its actions are portrayed as horrible, not noble in any way. We see the police shooting critically injured people to alleviate the pressure on doctors and limited medical services. The Army burns bodies in huge numbers, reminiscent of 17th century plague pits. When food supplies run low towards the end, food is hoarded and kept only for those who hold up the state and maintain order. This predictably leads to looting and rioting, and the police end up shooting rioters. None of this is portrayed honourably. They are simply the inevitable consequences of nuclear war.
I don’t think anyone could sincerely come away from this film thinking that either nuclear war or the security state in general are good or even necessary things. This is in stark opposition to most predictive programming media whose narrative conclusion and resolution is typically that the security state, in particular the transhuman security state, is going to save us from whatever crisis we face. In this story in The War Game, nothing saves us from this crisis, it is just horror and destruction. So, to re-emphasise: this is pacifist predictive programming.
2) How and Why was the film banned?
There are probably several answers to these questions. The first is that the government and by extension the BBC wouldn’t like someone using predictive programming to advance an anti-war, anti-nuclear, anti-security state agenda. So they banned it because they wouldn’t want someone using predictive programming in that way. But we can also look at an article on the website of Peter Watkins, the man who directed the film, for some clues. He wrote:
“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.”
Watkins goes on to describe how he approached the BBC with film idea, it was reluctantly approved and given a budget and how he made the film in early 1965. On the banning of the film he says:
“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.”
You might say Watkins is subjective, biased, has an axe to grind but everything in his article checks out. To back him up there are documents from the Office of the Prime Minister from 1965 all about the banning of The War. The files confirm there was a secret showing of the film to a high-ranking select government audience prior to the BBC’s decision not to broadcast the film. The files also show how the government tried to co-opt the film via a series of private screenings at the British Film Institute. These semi-secret screenings were for for MPs, members of the British armed forces and military journalists. Film journalists and the public were not allowed inside.
What the documents don’t show is a specific order from the government to the BBC telling them to not show the film. But of course, there may never have been any such written order. There are other ways of accomplishing the same aim. To illustrate this and to add a little levity to an otherwise rather depressing subject I will point you to an episode of Yes, Minister that was clearly inspired by The War Game. Yes, Minister was a sitcom, made by the BBC in the late 1970s and early 1980s, so obviously I didn’t watch this at the time because I hadn’t been born. I became a fan later, and it has recently been turned into a stage play and some new episode have been made.
Series Three Episode 2 ‘The Challenge’ was broadcast November 1982, 17 years after The War Game had been banned. In the episode, the central character Jim Hacker MP, minister for administrative affairs, gets new responsibilities including civil defence, i.e. fallout shelters for the public in case of nuclear war. The minister gives an interview to the BBC where he accidentally says some embarrassing and politically damaging things and so he and his advisor – Humphrey Appleby – try to get the BBC to shelve the interview and not broadcast it. Effectively this is the same narrative as what happened in real life with The War Game.
So you will recognise, I hope, that this episode is a comedic retelling of the true story of what happened with The War Game. I do accept that making such things a subject of comedy can trivialise them, can make them seem benevolent even, but I do think Yes, Minister is very instructive about how the British establishment actually works.