The BBC had tried to produce a docu-drama about nuclear war before. Peter Watkin’s 1965 film The War Game was banned by the then Labour Government, though like most of my friends I had seen it – in my case several times. By 1984, Cold War tensions remained high, with Britain placing itself in the front line through its acceptance of US missile bases and Mrs Thatcher’s expressed willingness to use Trident. Unsurprisingly, the peace movement was experiencing a huge revival.
I had joined the Sheffield branch of END, a Europe-wide movement that attacked nuclear weapons of both East and West; this set it apart from CND in Sheffield, whose leading activists included Communists who dismissed END as “Trotskyite”. I don’t know how much success we had, though we had a very large meeting in the City Hall with the historian E P Thompson as our main speaker, and of course we enjoyed the much larger CND marches. Although I think the filming took place before the miners’ strike broke out, there were already plenty of other tensions as Thatcherism ate into the industrial heartland of South Yorkshire.
A BBC drama about nuclear war, in this polarised and highly charged atmosphere, was always going to be controversial. Looking at the Times for the following days, I see that Mary Whitehouse, then a very influential figure, attacked the BBC for screening the film, whose makers received around 100 letters – quite a post-bag in those pre-email days – most of which supported the decision. The BBC also organised a studio discussion, with the Labour politician Robin Cook vigorously defending the film.
And my own part? From where I stood, it was important to support and help this project; the script writer, the author Barry Hines, was a friend of a friend, so I was among the first to get my name down when the appeal for extras went out. I also offered to take my son and his half-brothers (I hope I asked them first!).
What I remember is waiting in the City Hall while the producers selected the likely extras, then hanging around for what seemed like ages on the Moor, a pedestrianized shopping street. I drank some watery coffee. The four of us were filmed marching along with a banner in a demonstration, and later we had to lie down on the pavement and pretend to be dead. Then we went home.