My previous article for Mysterious Universe was on how the BBC, in 1965, banned Peter Watkins’ docudrama, The War Game. Watkins’ production was a graphic look at what could happen to the UK, in the event of a nuclear war between the Soviet Union and NATO. It’s worth noting, however, that the ban (prompted by outrageous Government pressure and interference) was almost certainly the result of a similar, shady affair that occurred a decade earlier.
“I am informed that the BBC are proposing to broadcast in the New Year a program on the Hydrogen bomb,” wrote British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, in a personal minute to the minister responsible for the BBC, Earl De La Warr, on December 17, 1954. Churchill continued: “I doubt whether it is wise that they should do this. And I am sure that Ministers should see the script in advance, in order to satisfy themselves that it contains nothing which is contrary to the public interest.”
In effect, Churchill was saying he did not wish the British people to know the full and horrific potential effects of an all-out nuclear attack on the UK. Keeping the population ignorant of the facts was Churchill’s approach. Many of them being the very same people that elected him Prime Minister. Of course, Churchill was a politician, so we should not expect anything other than manipulation of the people.
As a result of Churchill’s personal desire to try and influence the BBC, immediate steps were taken on the part of the Government to determine the extent of the BBC’s proposed plans. Within 24 hours the BBC faced a battery of questions: What did the Corporation intend to broadcast? What information on thermonuclear war would be contained in the program? And would such a program be in the public’s interest? The Government wanted answers.
For its part, the BBC flatly denied that it had any firm plans for such a program, but did admit to the British Government that ideas had been mooted by “one of our producers.” Despite the BBC’s assurances that at that stage nothing concrete had been decided, behind closed doors official concern was mounting. And mounting fast. An extract from a four-page report of January 7, 1955, stamped “Highly Confidential” and titled Government ‘Interference’ with BBC Program,stated: “It would be quite wrong to have programs on this subject which tended to persuade the public in the U.K. that there was no point in trying to defend themselves against such an all-destructive weapon.”
Additional documentation contained within the file reiterates the above-point and makes it very clear that the Government’s prime concern was not so much the fact that the BBC was contemplating the production and broadcast of a program on the hydrogen bomb, per se. Rather, the major area of worry was whether or not any proposed show would reveal the true, devastating effects that a nuclear attack would have on the population of the UK.
For example, a document classified “Secret” and dated February 15, 1955, states: “The aim of the Government would be to avoid giving such a pessimistic picture that the public would feel ‘what is the use of doing anything?'”
Perhaps most astonishing of all, however, is an entry in the file on the BBC affair that refers, in apparent complete and utter seriousness, to the Government’s sincere hope that in the event of a nuclear war – and with an official forecast of tens of millions of British people killed in the initial bombings, and millions more dying in the radioactive wasteland that resulted from the attacks – there would be a “resolute determination” on the part of the population to “see the thing through whatever befall.” Needless to say, such comments practically defy belief.
A further document states: “The Government’s main anxiety was that they should retain control over the manner in which the effects of nuclear weapons were made known to the public. Great care would be needed in striking the right note, so that the public were made aware of the full power of these weapons without being led thereby to adopt an attitude either of despair or of indifference to the need for effective measures of defense.”
Notably, a memo of February 16, 1955, asserted that the BBC had come to a decision by that date: “It was unlikely that the BBC would wish to mount any feature program on ‘fall out’ or other effects of nuclear weapons but, if at any time they thought of doing so, they would certainly proceed in consultation with the Ministry of Defense.”
Thus was laid down the unofficial and uneasy policy between the BBC and the British Government that ultimately relegated The War Game to its two-decade-long burial behind the closed-doors of the BBC.