Play for Today Writer: Don Shaw; Director: Colin Bucksey; Producer: Louis Marks
“I hope no-one ever needs to go to war over the Falklands, or for that matter, any writer write about them.”
The short but bloody Falklands war between Britain and Argentina played out over two and a half months in 1982. Television drama responded with a handful of plays about the conflict, most of which seemed to excite almost as much controversy as the war itself. (See Disputed Territory: Drama and the Falklands.) The earliest of these was Don Shaw’s The Falklands Factor, which was broadcast in April 1983, just ten months after hostilities in the South Atlantic had concluded.
Specialising in contemporary drama, the BBC’s Play for Today anthology was the natural home for such a recent subject, however The Falklands Factor is actually a historical drama, Shaw having chosen to dramatise a little known incident from the eighteenth century to put the more recent conflict into historic context and draw parallels between the two crises. The reader must excuse the passages which follow detailing brief parts of the Falkland islands’ convoluted history, without which the meaning of the play and this essay will be impossible to convey.
Sovereignty over the Falkland islands was already a murky subject by 1770, when a British garrison on West Falkland was ejected by an overwhelming Spanish naval force, sailing from its colonies in South America. The two nations came close to war over the incident but negotiation resulted in the eventual withdrawal of Spanish forces from the island. Many in Britain advocated a war on Spain and it was uncertain whether the peace treaty would be accepted. The Prime Minister, Lord North, commissioned Dr Samuel Johnson to write a pamphlet to play down the importance of the Falklands and give the case for peace, countering the many pamphlets already in circulation. He was successful in influencing public and parliamentary opinion on the matter, resulting in parliament voting to accept the peace accord in 1771. This portion of the islands’ history forms the basis of The Falklands Factor, although the play is also informed by later events.1
By putting this incident on screen in the wake of the 1982 war, the play gives rise to a number of obvious questions for its audience. Could war have again been prevented by diplomatic process and who, if anyone, would have had the influence and eloquence to sway public opinion against war as Johnson had? Although the 1982 war had enjoyed popular support in Britain, some on the political left did disapprove of military might being used to resolve the situation, preferring continued negotiation. By dramatising how this was previously achieved in the same scenario, The Falklands Factor can be seen as supportive of the anti-war liberal view. However, by tackling the more secretive political machinations of 1770-71, the play asks deeper questions and draws some pertinent parallels with 1982.
The play illustrates the fact that the question of sovereignty over the Falkland islands was never formally resolved during the crisis. Had sovereignty been finally agreed, whether by diplomacy or, more likely, war, the conflicting Spanish/Argentine and British claims to the islands would surely not have continued to simmer for the next two hundred years, ultimately resulting in 1982’s war. As such, The Falklands Factor suggests that the war might have been prevented by more decisive action in 1770-71. Whilst few would advocate one war to avoid another, Shaw’s play does seem to apportion a measure of responsibility to Lord North for allowing the circumstances which eventually led to the 1982 war to remain essentially unresolved.
It is made clear in the later scenes of the play that this ambiguity about sovereignty was deliberate. As is accepted in historical accounts, Lord North reports his intention to withdraw the British presence from the islands once the public interest in them has died down, letting them “return to nature”. This was part of the bargain made with the King of Spain to secure the peace settlement, the implication being that Britain would allow the Spanish to occupy West Falkland (they already occupied East Falkland) once a face-saving period had expired. The islands were clearly considered more trouble than they were worth to Britain at this point. It is not this essay’s intention to be a history lesson, so suffice it to say that Britain subsequently returned to the Falklands in 1833, occupying both islands, with Argentina as a former Spanish colonial territory maintaining a counter claim, thereby setting the stage for the later conflict.
The contemporary parallel with Lord North’s willingness to allow the Spanish to quietly retake West Falkland would not have been lost on The Falklands Factor’s audience. In the years immediately prior to the Falklands war, the British Foreign Office had been investigating ways to transfer sovereignty for the islands to Argentina, making it ironic that they would then fight a war for the same territory.
In his discussions with Johnson, Lord North makes it clear that one of the reasons he wishes to avoid war with Spain is simply that the country cannot afford to go to war. Johnson also indicates that in the event of war, North’s party would be swept from power, with the opposition, led by the aggressively pro-war Lord Chatham, taking their place. It is therefore for both political and economic expediency that North wished to avoid war, rather than any moral or humanitarian reasons. The initially uninterested Johnson is similarly shown to benefit from a peace settlement, with the Prime Minister intimating that he would likely lose his government pension if the opposition came to power, although for him this is not the deciding factor.
By the end of 1981, Britain’s Conservative government, and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher herself, had experienced a downturn in popularity. Although there was no hard evidence to confirm it, some suggested that in view of this and the looming general election, the military response to the new Falklands crisis was due in part at least to cynical political motivations. It was thought that a successful war would boost confidence in the government whilst a lack of firm action would be construed as weak leadership, causing further, quite possibly fatal, damage to the Conservative party’s electoral prospects. This became known as the “Falklands factor” in the run up to the 1983 general election. Shaw’s use of this term as the title of his play, which was broadcast little more than a month before the general election, clearly signalled his intention to both draw political parallels and suggest a level of political expediency had played a part in both confrontations over the Falklands. The Conservatives won the election with a considerable majority, leading to popular acceptance of the “Falklands factor” theory, although academic studies differ on its real impact.2
If the title of the play is unsubtle in drawing parallels, its script is equally so at times. Towards the end, in recognition of Johnson’s success with his pamphlet, Lord North speaks the rather knowing line laced with irony which appears at the head of this essay. Shaw also uses voiceover (accompanied by cartoon illustrations and other graphics) to make his contemporary parallels explicit, as in the play’s opening where it is explained that:
1982 was not the first time the Falkland islands were invaded by a fleet sailing from Buenos Aires … Then as now, the British, having no chance of resisting, withdrew from the Falklands … Then as now, when the ignominious news reached Britain, angry questions were asked in parliament … Indeed, then as now, the Falklands sparked off a crisis that rapidly engulfed the whole nation.
Shaw simplifies slightly, with the voiceover suggesting the disputed territory was the same in both crises. As explained above, the crisis of 1770 revolved around only West Falkland, not the whole of the Falkland Islands as it did in 1982, with East Falkland having already been occupied by the Spanish for four years by 1770 without apparent British interest. However, given the complicated nature of the politics involved and that the audience may not be expected to care about the minutiae, such simplification is not objectionable.
The link was to be most clearly made at the play’s conclusion, with Johnson’s pamphlet text being read in voice-over against a montage of newsreel footage from the 1982 war, including shots of the British fleet at sea, its seamen cheering, missiles in their housings, Thatcher in Downing Street, a stretcher party, and soldiers being interned in a mass grave.3 Excerpts already heard from the pamphlet had described the Falklands as a barren territory of little worth to Britain and the final voiceover concluded that he who “can choose to snatch by violence and bloodshed what gentler means can equally obtain” is “the enemy of mankind”. These words with images from the recent war would have cemented Shaw’s argument that, in 1982 as in 1770-71, the territory was not worth the fight.
However, at this point the play encountered the controversy which seemed to dog all Falklands war dramas. Just days before broadcast, an eleventh hour re-edit of the conclusion was imposed, resulting in the omission of all the contemporary footage. Instead, a rather uninteresting and obviously hastily assembled montage of footage and stills (many looking like simple video freeze-frames) of Donald Pleasence as Johnson was substituted under the voice-over. It was reported in the press that the director, Colin Bucksey, disassociated himself from the edits and that the producer, Louis Marks, disagreed “violently” with the decision.4 Shaw asked for his name to be removed from the play but this did not happen, with The Guardian reporting that such an action was “not technically possible.”5
Although contradictory accounts were given, it seems the decision to edit The Falklands Factor was made by the BBC’s director of programmes, Brian Wenham.6 The official line was that it was done to avoid causing “offence or pain to the bereaved.”7 However, Shaw suggested an alternative rationale:
We think that because there is now a hothouse atmosphere in the run-up to a possible election, the decision was made in some trepidation that the play might be construed as being political and might offend the Government. We think it’s political censorship [in] that sense8
He was also reported to insist that The Falklands Factor was not political and that he had supported the military intervention in the Falklands, only having “reservations” once he had started his research for the play.9
Shaw’s suggestion that the play’s politics and the imminent general election were the BBC’s real concern is interesting in light of events a few years later. In 1986 the BBC postponed production of Ian Curteis’s The Falklands Play for ostensibly this very reason, stating that it would be “irresponsible” to broadcast such a play in the approach to a general election.10 The notable difference, however, was that Curteis’s play dramatised the activities of the current Prime Minister and government, which Shaw’s did not, although even his brief newsreel glimpse of Thatcher was excised.
The last-minute edit caused a minor commotion amongst the press critics, who had already had their preview of the original version. The Times suggested it had been an unwise decision and whilst The Guardian’s Nancy Banks-Smith didn’t “much care for the use of newsreel” she recognised the “insult” to writer, director and producer.11 In The Listener, John Naughton concluded: “It makes one wonder how the BBC, which has often been courageous on great issues, can sometimes be so craven on small ones.”12
The play’s roll of credits ends with a quote from a British naval officer killed in the Falklands campaign, in which he notes his opposition to “all this killing that is going on over a flag”, and himself quotes war poet Wilfred Owen. It is not clear whether this formed part of the conclusion prior to the edit (one assumes so), but regardless it ends the play on a contemporary note – as the excised footage also would have done – and leaves no doubt that it takes an anti-war stance.
Despite Shaw’s protestations, therefore, even the edited version of the play makes clear political comments and ends on a strongly anti-war note, which would seem to go beyond the mere “reservations” the writer reported. Without these comments and allusions, The Falklands Factor would be an interesting drama of obscure history; but with them, it’s dramatic dynamite.
Originally posted: 4 November 2010.
[This piece first appeared on our this website’s Play for Today mini-site in March 2010. It was transferred here when the Play for Today section was integrated into the main site.]
24 November 2014: very minor typographical amendments.
16 November 2015: very minor amendment to link.