Falklands on film: how broadcasters have handled Margaret Thatcher’s war

BBC and ITV enraged the government with early portrayals of the conflict but it is being supplanted by recent conflicts

British TV deployed rapidly – and with frequent controversy – to attack the Falklands war as a subject. The assiduous historical website British Television Drama records, in the decade after the war, 10 dramas based on the conflict.

The BBC screened five plays within five years of the events, which may surprise those who now associate the corporation with editorial caution and at the time clearly astonished the Ministry of Defence, which made numerous objections and obstructed access to actual locations and equipment.

The earliest pieces were oblique, with Don Shaw’s The Falklands Factor dramatising an 18th-century dispute over the islands, and Maggie Wadey’s The Waiting War focusing on military and naval families. ITV also enraged the MoD and the government with a children’s series, Jan Needle’s A Game of Soldiers, in which children on the island find a hiding Argentinian conscript. It was documentary, though, that made the quickest impact on the public with Simon’s War, a film (and various sequels) about the Welsh Guard Simon Weston, who was terribly injured in the attack on the troop-carrier Sir Galahad.

However, around the time of the fifth anniversary, television fiction became the major battleground over how Thatcher’s crusade should be recorded by broadcasters. The BBC commissioned but then rejected a docu-drama about the invasion from Ian Curteis, one of the few TV writers of the political right.

Although some journalists were privately briefed that the play was of inferior quality, Curteis believes that executives were unhappy with his sympathetic portrayal of Margaret Thatcher; and certainly his script is alone among the Falklands dramas in not presenting the conflict as a savage and pointless colonial overhang. When finally screened in 2002 to mark the 20th anniversary, with Patricia Hodge supreme as Thatcher, it usefully balanced TV’s record of the events.

But the most powerful representation of the human consequences of the conflict on the British side remains Tumbledown (1988, BBC1), written by Charles Wood and directed by Richard Eyre, based on the experiences during and after the conflict of the seriously injured Scots Guards officer Robert Lawrence. With Colin Firth giving one of his best early performances in the central role, the play was transmitted despite sustained political and military complaints that it showed only the failures of the campaign.

Tumbledown, in common with Paul Greengrass’s cinema film Resurrected (1989), raised the figure of the Falklands veteran who feels ignored by postwar society as a conscious parallel to US movies about Vietnam vets. And the writer Jimmy McGovern made similar use of a Falklands vet in a 1995 episode of Cracker, in which a soldier is deranged by the feeling that he fought a pointless and forgotten war.

The Falklands has, though, largely disappeared as a back-story in drama – mainly because the UK has been involved in many other, more lengthily resonant conflicts. McGovern, in his last two series, The Street and Accused, has used vets from the Northern Ireland, Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns, while Ian Rankin’s DI John Rebus, played on TV by John Hannah and Ken Stott, also saw military service in Belfast.

Thatcher’s war now mainly gets a show in epic dramas following characters through recent British decades, such as Peter Flannery’s Our Friends in the North (1996, BBC1) and Paula Milne’s White Heat (2012, BBC2), both of which have an episode that reflects the influence on British politics of the response to Argentina.

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