Production Overview: 1.The Four Icons / 2.A New Man / 3.The End of the Festival / 4.Twenty-Four Steps / 5.Arrival / 6.Stand Up And Vote / 7.From Boneyards To Courting Pits / 8.Normal Service / 9.Homes Fit For Cathy / 10.Sleeping Dogs / 11.Last Orders / 12.Casualties of War
Episode Guide: Season 1 / Season 2 / Season 3 / Season 4 / Season 5 /
Season 6 / Season 7 / Season 8 / Season 9

The Casualties Of War

Courting controversy on a weekly basis was always going to result in the writing and production teams of The Wednesday Play living dangerously close to the edge of an abyss otherwise known as internal politics. Between 1964 and 1970, the series had been attacked for its presentation of "filth" and squalor" by champion of televisual purity Mary Whitehouse, who had decried that the programme was nothing more than a covert advertisement for loose morals and sexual deviancy.

Left: The War Game

Such criticism had, of course, indirectly helped to bolster audience numbers and ratings figures, but behind the scenes dissent raged. The presentation of "risk-taking" drama, which had already succeeded in ruffling feathers within the BBC hierarchy, had already placed a strain upon the working relationship between the department responsible for the anthology series and the "powers-that-be". That relationship was tested to breaking point under the inspired Garnett-Loach move towards documentary realism through a series of filmic enterprises which blurred the line between fact and fiction to such an extent that drama could, ostensibly, be presented as news. However, this highly publicised collapse in harmonious working environments was the second time the pursuit of such a radical new form of television making had been approached, and a great deal of the difficulties the pair faced in the realisation of such long-held ambitions was as a direct result of a decision taken to permanently remove, shelve and ultimately archive an edition of The Wednesday Play (by then BBC Director-General Sir Hugh Greene) deemed wholly unsuitably for public consumption.

During James MacTaggart's first season in charge of the anthology series, BBC executives intervened in the normal course of events to withdraw a hard-hitting and disturbing play from the proposed twenty-five planned for the second series of The Wednesday Play, and it would be some twenty years before it ever officially saw the light of day again. Banning transmission of the production served to only heighten the programme's controversial news value, and the reasoning behind the decision was partly due to the drama-documentary style adopted in terms of its presentation, and partly as a means of extinguishing propagndist claims directed against writer-director Peter Watkins, as Lez Cooke explained: "Up The Junction was not the only programme to provoke controversy in this respect. Also in 1965, The War Game, written and director by Peter Watkins, was so successful in mixing the conventions of drama and documentary that it was considered too hot to handle by the BBC of the time and was banned from transmission, ostensibly on the grounds that its graphic depiction of the aftermath of a nuclear strike on south-east England was `too horrifying for the medium of broadcasting'". (British Television Drama: A History).

It was construed that Watkins had entered into the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament by presenting such a horrific portrait of life after the button had been firmly pressed that viewers would be shocked from their complacency and immediately support CND policies. The banning of the transmission of the film raised important questions as to whether government intervention and pressure had been brought to bear on the BBC, an argument which raged long after the dust had metaphorically settled on this particular incident. Certainly, the film enjoyed covert screenings in educational establishments and amongst archive television enthusiasts, but it would be almost twenty years precisely before the film would finally see the light of day, as part of a week-long series of programmes (importantly transmitted on the risk-taking BBC-2 as opposed to the mainstream broadcaster) under the banner title of After The Bomb. Importantly, the transmission was accompanied by a brief introductory speech delivered by journalist and television presenter Ludovic Kennedy, who appropriately outlined the circumstances surrounding the banning of the production and the importance of the play finally being broadcast to a wider audience.

The central and crowning achievement of Watkin's fifty-minute play lay in its use of non-professional performers and its stark, "in-your-face" realism (as particularly exemplified by the footage of a police officer gunning down "survivors" of the holocaust) and capacity to shock viewers from a complacent acceptance that the politics of nuclear warfare should always mean that if one country has the bomb, so should another. A powerful proponent of the CND cause, the film, more than any other in The Wednesday Play (apart from, perhaps, Cathy Come Home) confirmed the fact that television should always sustain a rightful place as a medium to entertain, surprise and, above all, educate the masses with a wide range of views which may not always conform with the accepted and legal order of the day.

© Matthew Lee, 2004