Written and directed by Peter Watkins for the BBC, The War Game is a 1965 production that paints an apocalyptic picture of what life would be like in the United Kingdom in the event of a global, thermonuclear war. Atomic devastation, death on an almost unimaginable scale, widespread radiation poisoning, disease, starvation, mercy killings of irradiated members of the public at the hands of the military, and firing squads for looters – presuming, of course, that anyone in an official capacity would even be left to order the firing squads, and to prevent the total breakdown of society.
Whereas Hollywood’s 1983 equivalent to The War Game (which was titled The Day After) provided the viewer with lasting images of some hope for the masses, and to the effect that humanity would ultimately surface from the ashes and all would one day be well again, The War Game provided precisely the opposite image.
Its bleak – but far more realistic – message was this: Following a nuclear exchange between the super powers of the Cold War, those who survived the initial holocaust and the inevitable and complete breakdown of society and civilization that would surely follow, would be faced with a future so terrible, and from which recovery (even on a limited scale) would likely take centuries, that instant death in the atomic inferno would seem like an absolute blessing.
Today, half a century since The War Game was made, it has lost none of its stark and powerful impact. Despite the fact that the docudrama was made in 1965, it was never shown on British television until the 1980s – when the BBC broadcast an equally unsettling and graphic drama on nuclear war in the UK. Its title was Threads.
But, why would the BBC ban a drama like The War Game in the first place and for twenty years? Was it simply a unilateral decision on the part of the BBC to spare the people of the UK the horrific reality of a nuclear war that might not even happen, anyway? No, it was not the BBC’s unilateral decision. The British Government insisted on poking its intrusive, meddling nose into the situation.
It was in 1963 that Peter Watkins first put forward a proposal to the BBC for The War Game – a proposal that would illustrate the effects of a nuclear attack on the UK, with the bulk of the story focused on the people of the English county of Kent. Despite the controversial nature of the scenario, Watkins’ idea was accepted by the BBC: “So long as there is no security risk, and the facts are authentic, the people should be trusted with the truth.” Nevertheless, the people were not given the facts. Nor were they allowed to see The War Game.
In November 1965, with the production of The War Game complete, the then-Director-General of the BBC, Hugh Greene, arrogantly announced that the program would not be broadcast: “This is the BBC’s own decision. It has been taken after a good deal of thought and discussion but not as a result of outside pressure.” A condescending Greene added that The War Game was “too horrifying for the medium of broadcasting.”
As a result, the film lay in the BBC’s vaults for two decades – until, as noted above, it was finally shown in the 1980s. While it is true that the decision to not show The War Game was the BBC’s, it was not the BBC’s alone, as Duncan Campbell demonstrated in his book, War Plan UK. “Outside pressure,” had indeed been brought to bear on the BBC. As Campbell stated: “Late in September  a party of Whitehall’s highest visited the Television Center, unannounced.”
That party, as Campbell noted, consisted of the British Government’s Cabinet Secretary, Sir Burke Trend; Home Office Permanent Under-Secretary, Sir Charles Cunningham; and officials from the Ministry of Defense and from the Defense Chiefs of Staff. The Government made its position clear. It was not, in what was patronizingly termed the “public interest,” for The War Game to be broadcast. So, the BBC dutifully kissed ass and rolled over. Pathetic.
But, let’s be very sure on something: broadcasting The War Game most definitely would have been in the interests of the people. It was the government that wanted the film out of the picture, and for just about as long as conceivably possible.
All of this brings me to the present day, and something disturbing that I have heard said increasingly in the last year or so. Namely, that (a) war with the Chinese and the Russians is all but inevitable and is just a matter of time; and (b) with that in mind, we should launch massive, first-strikes to take out both nations before they do likewise to us.
Anyone who thinks that – even with the Cold War over – a nuclear war with Russia and/or China can be fought and won is an idiot, and an ignorant and brain-dead idiot, too. Never mind winning the war, we would not even survive the war. No-one would, aside from straggling bands of irradiated souls who probably wished they were dead anyway. Both the Chinese and the Russians have enough nukes to shatter Western civilization – in much the same way that we could destroy them.
Those who think that a nuclear war can be successfully fought and won should watch The War Game (and Threads, too). It cannot be won. All it can do is escalate and escalate until the point where everyone unleashes everything and civilization is over.
The BBC and the British Government undoubtedly banned The War Game because it would have terrified the people of the UK. Well, that would have been a very good thing: there are times when people need to be terrified. They need to know what the reality of nuclear war would really be like. It would be like living in Hell and with no way out and no going back.
Today’s world is filled with uncertainties. There is one certainty, however: a nuclear war cannot have a victor. There will only be losers. And the outcome for everyone will be The War Game, probably multiplied dozens and dozens of times over, in terms of the horror and the devastation.
No-one (at least no-one of a sound mind) wants nuclear war. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t know what it would really be like. Of course, we should know. Too bad the BBC had to decide otherwise.