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Watkins, Peter

Entry updated 12 August 2018. Tagged: Film, TV, People.

(1935-    ) UK television and film director. Educated at Cambridge, Watkins worked in documentary films from 1959. He made a reputation with two quasidocumentaries for BBC TV, Culloden (1964) and The War Game (1965), which he novelized as The War Game (1967). He was one of the pioneers of the technique of staging historical or imaginary events as if they were contemporary and undergoing television-news coverage. The War Game (1965) adopted a cinema-verité manner to simulate the likely consequences of nuclear attack on the UK, and did this horrifyingly enough for the film to be denied a screening on television, for which it was made, until 1985; it was successful when released in the Cinema. His next film, Privilege (1966), features a pop star used as a puppet by a future government in a cunning propaganda plan for the manipulation of the nation's youth. Gladiatorerna (1968; vt The Peace Game), made in Sweden, and Punishment Park (1971) are both set in the future, and both use stories of channelled violence to argue a pacifist case. Both revolve around agonistic games (see Games and Sports), the latter more plausibly; it features tournaments to the death "played" without choice by political prisoners (see Crime and Punishment), interestingly sophisticating Robert Sheckley's The Tenth Victim (1966), and prefiguring Suzanne Collins's Hunger Games sequence.

An interesting paradox is that, while his theme is normally the use of mind control by future governments to channel the aggressive instincts of the people, and his purpose is to generate moral indignation at this cynical curtailment of our freedom, his own work equally uses the illusion of fact to present a propaganda fiction. Whether knowingly or not, he is fighting fire with fire. After its initial success, Watkins's work was treated less kindly by critics, who did not doubt his sincerity but deprecated his methods; in the twenty-first century, however, it increasingly seems the case that Watkins captured a moment in the history of the West. In their shifting of focus from nuclear Holocaust to governmental control over its citizens, his films now seem prescient. [PN/JC]

Peter Watkins

born Norbiton, Surrey: 29 October 1935



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