LAST WEEK’S HIGHLIGHTS …
AS the summer of sport continues to dominate TV schedules, it’s been a good time to sit in a darkened room and make another pilgrimage down into the uncharted basements of the BBC’s iPlayer, to see if any good new old stuff has been let loose from the vaults.
Recently, there’s been a flourish of activity from the drama archive, most notably the appearance of The War Game, Peter Watkins’s extraordinary 1965 film about the impact of a nuclear attack on Britain, still easily one of the most powerful productions ever made for the BBC. So powerful, in fact, they banned it from being seen for 20 years.
Watkins practically invented the “drama-doc”, but few ever used it to his radical ends, or with such merciless control. Despite a low budget, The War Game remains impressive on a technical level: from the long, hand-held opening shot; through the editing; the meticulous blending of facts, figures, plans and quotes with reconstruction and informed speculation; and the employment of non-actors. All combine to immerse the viewer in a horrifying picture of possible reality.
It’s the cumulative emotional, psychological and political impact of that picture that remains staggering, however, and is what saw it suppressed for two decades. In 1966, the BBC’s broadcast of Cathy Come Home sparked outrage about homelessness in Britain. If The War Game had been transmitted in 1965, there might have been revolution. Either that, or mass suicide. Fifty years on, it remains genuinely, necessarily, disturbing and difficult to watch. Children’s eyeballs melting; firestorms; British Bobbies employed to shoot victims in the head; radiation sickness; food riots
– all documented in a style at once howling rage and yet disconcertingly straight-faced, almost underplayed. You may find yourself googling current government advice about nuclear attack in horror. It highlights how few British TV dramas of the past 20 years have really been about anything.
For nightmares of a different kind, another striking iPlayer addition is the six-part Quatermass and the Pit. From 1958, the serial was the third and greatest outing for Professor Quatermass, the British scientist created by visionary writer Nigel Kneale. A blend of post-war atmosphere, occult folklore and science fiction, it begins with workers uncovering a five-million-year-old spaceship, and ends with the Devil appearing over a burning London. The ambition of 2001: A Space Odyssey, crammed inside a Crossroads budget.
Elsewhere, look out for Talking To A Stranger, a four-part play written by John Hopkins for the Theatre 625 strand in 1966. Judi Dench leads as a young woman trying to hide fragility and damage behind a flip city-girl façade in a sad, probing, densely woven psychological piece about family. And, from 1956, the Sunday Night Theatre production of Mrs Patterson, a play about race and adolescence in America’s Deep South, featuring one of British TV’s first black leading casts. The inimitable Eartha Kitt stars, which is reason enough for watching.