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Falklands Factor, The (1983)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Falklands Factor, The (1983)
For Play for Today, BBC1, tx. 26/4/1983
55 min, colour
DirectorColin Bucksey
ProducerLouis Marks
Written byDon Shaw
MusicAndy Roberts

Cast: Donald Pleasence (Dr Samuel Johnson); John Bird (Lord North); Terence Rigby (William Pitt, Earl of Chatham); James Grout (William Strahan)

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1770: when a Spanish fleet invades the British Falkland Islands, the British government considers its response. Dr Samuel Johnson is called upon to make the case for peace.

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Television drama responded to 1982's Falklands war with a handful of plays that were often almost as controversial as the conflict itself. The earliest of these was Don Shaw's 'The Falklands Factor', broadcast only ten months after hostilities had concluded. Although the subject was contemporary, Shaw chose to present a historical drama to illuminate the background of the war and draw some sometimes uncomfortable parallels.

The play dramatises a little-known incident from 1770-71, when Dr Johnson was enlisted by prime minister Lord North to help turn the steamroller of British opinion against a seemingly inevitable war with Spain over occupation of the Falkland islands. By drawing attention to this episode in the wake of the 1982 war, the play raised a number of obvious questions for its audience: could war again have been avoided and who, if anyone, would have had the eloquence and influence to intervene as successfully as Johnson had?

As such, 'The Falklands Factor' would seem to sit within the liberal camp that disapproved of a military response to the Argentine invasion. However, the play also shows how the subject of sovereignty over the Falkland islands was allowed to remain ambiguous, with the prime minister himself secretly conspiring to "hand the islands back to nature". This begs another question: had Britain taken a firmer stance in 1770-71, would the circumstances underlying the 1982 war ever have arisen? The direct link between the events of 1770-711 and 1982 is made explicit with a voiceover and the knowing line Shaw gives Lord North: "I hope no-one ever needs to go to war over the Falklands, or for that matter, any writer write about them."

The original edit of the play's conclusion even used a montage of news footage from the recent war. However, an eleventh hour re-edit was imposed, resulting in the omission of all the contemporary footage. The BBC reported that the change was made to avoid offending the families of servicemen who had died in the conflict, though Shaw alleged another motive. He suggested that the edit amounted to political censorship, with the BBC being extra sensitive of offending the government in view of the impending general election. As John Naughton wrote of the re-edit in The Listener: "It makes one wonder how the BBC, which has often been courageous on great issues, can sometimes be so craven on small ones."

Oliver Wake

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Video Clips
1. The British expelled (1:57)
2. A history lesson (2:25)
3. To dispel a nightmare (3:17)
4. A disturbing power (2:29)
Falklands: The Story (1948)
Falklands Play, The (2002)
Pleasence, Donald (1919-1995)
Play for Today (1970-84)