The docudrama is an odd bird. As it’s a fictional telling of a real thing, so it’s neither one thing nor the other. It’s supposed to be true but at the same time, plainly it isn’t. But it’s been a weapon in the armoury of educational telly for the last 50 years, so we all know the drill and here’s a BFI disc with two of Peter Watkins’ ground breaking greats of the genre.
Back in 2002, we remember watching Simon Schama’s inaugural BBC History Lecture, Television and the Trouble with History and him citing the then 38-year old Culloden as “the closest that compelling historical reconstruction has come to embodying prime-time manners of contemporary news debate” . In other, less erudite words, it was as if we’d had Vietnam-style TV journalism in 1746. Actors with dirty faces staring into the camera, while a posh BBC voice tells you what’s going on as if they’re with a camera crew. Come on, it was better than those Blue Peter reconstructions with Val Singleton and some shaky drawings. What’s more Culloden is surprisingly compelling. Perhaps it’s the history it’s working with but it’s hardly dated at all and the monochrome just makes it a bit grittier. This is so much better than we get from Dan Snow nowadays.
Culloden did much to demythologise “Bonnie” Prince Charles who was still portrayed in largely heroic terms back in the ‘60s. Rather than David Niven, here he’s the thoroughly un-Scottish military incompetent, leading a largely unwilling army of clansmen (many no more than children) to certain doom against the Duke of Cumberland’s professional killers. The equally tragic aftermath is shown as Charles deserted the country. It’s not pretty but it does what a history documentary should. Unmissable stuff, even if we were slightly amused when someone put their hand to the camera as if to say “no publicity!”
The War Game was really the one Watkins had wanted to make before he was gently pushed in the direction of Culloden and it’s the one you’re more likely to have seen, even though it wasn’t broadcast until 20 years later. While not actually history, it’s made in much the same style and, of course, the reason it was not shown is because it is absolutely terrifying.
It shows Britain during a nuclear war (near the actual strikes) and the immediate aftermath. Now, when it starts, you’re actually left wondering what the fuss was about. It’s nowhere scary enough to warrant a TV ban, surely? In fact the apparent racism of the average Brit seems the most shocking thing on display. That and some of the genuine policies regarding evacuation from the cities. Men of fighting age left behind? Why? Bizarre, but not exactly frightening. Then the police start forming into firing squads to shoot protesters and to carry out mercy killings at the drugless hospitals. Oh.
Powerful though The War Game is, we suspect Culloden will be the one getting the repeat viewings.
Special Features: Culloden commentary by Dr John Cook / The War Game commentary by Patrick Murphy / Interview with editor Mike Bradsell (2015) / Illustrated booklet with essays and full credits.
CULLODEN (1964) & THE WAR GAME (1965) / DIRECTOR & SCREENPLAY: PETER WATKINS / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW