The Herald on Sunday - Sunday Herald Life - - Television & Radio -

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.

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