The Falklands Play is a dramatic account of the political events leading up to, and including, the 1982 Falklands War. The play was written by Ian Curteis, an experienced writer who had started his television career in drama, but had increasingly come to specialise in dramatic reconstructions of history. It was originally commissioned by the BBC in 1983, for production and broadcast in 1986, but was subsequently shelved by Controller of BBC One Michael Grade due to its pro-Margaret Thatcher stance and jingoistic tone. This prompted a press furore over media bias and censorship. The play was not staged until 2002, when it was broadcast in separate adaptations on BBC Television and Radio.
The play focuses on the methods by which British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the British government handled the United Kingdom's largest Foreign Affairs emergency since the Suez Crisis of 1956. The play charts the behind-the-scenes dealings between Thatcher's Conservative government and the military, as well as the British, United States, and Argentine governments, in what became a diplomatic breakdown that gave way to war and eventual British victory.
Curteis recommenced work on the play at the start of 1985, meeting many of the key players and visiting most of the locations that would be portrayed in the play. His research also involved reading most of what had already been published about the War, biographies of the chief protagonists, Hansard for the relevant Parliamentary debates, official reports, and the contemporary press coverage. He delivered the fourth draft of the script to the BBC in April 1986. The budget of £1 million was approved, Messina officially appointed as producer, and David Giles as director. Studio time was booked in TC1 at BBC Television Centre (one of the largest television studios in Europe) for 24 January to 8 February 1987 inclusive, with a planned transmission date of the following 2 April, the fifth anniversary of the Argentinian invasion. It was planned to run for around three hours - with a half-hour break for the 9 O'Clock News - and would be a "major" drama production.
At a meeting with Milne on 2 June 1986, Curteis raised the question of the General Election that was expected to happen the following year, and asked whether it might compromise the planned transmission date of the play. Milne dismissed the possibility of an election before the Autumn of 1987 at the earliest, and stated: "I don't see that transmission in April presents any problem."
In early July the new Head of Plays Peter Goodchild (whose background was in documentaries, rather than drama) requested considerable modifications to the script, amongst them objecting to the portrayal of Thatcher's "private and instinctive self" - as opposed to the "bellicose Iron Lady of the public scenes" - and requesting the inclusion of discussions between members of the government about the possible effect of the War on the 1983 General Election. Curteis declined the latter on the grounds that none of the relevant people he had interviewed had alluded to such conversations, and that there was no other record of them. In addition, he considered that attributing such fictional dialogue to real people could be libellous, although he had been quite willing to do exactly that for conversations between - variously - members of the Argentinian Junta, American envoy Alexander Haig, and the Pope.
On 21 July - while Curteis was on holiday in Ireland - the BBC cancelled the play, citing the forthcoming General Election. Curteis mounted a robust defence, and as the press became involved at the end of September, pressure mounted on the BBC, especially when it was discovered that they were going ahead with Charles Wood's Tumbledown, which was claimed to have an "anti-Mrs-Thatcher's-Government theme," even though at that point Wood's script had not been published and few people could have read it. Tumbledown had a planned transmission date in October 1987, closer to - if not coinciding with - the General Election than the planned broadcast of Curteis's play.
Bill Cotton, the BBC's Managing Director of Television, issued a statement claiming: "Ian Curteis completed the first draft of his Falklands Play three and a half years after we had commissioned it... In our professional opinion, it is not a completed commission." He also said it would be "irresponsible of the BBC at a time when the country is leading up to an election to embark on a play portraying a Prime Minister in office, other serving ministers and MPs." He finished by denying the play had been cancelled for any other reason, and refuted suggestions that Goodchild had asked for amendments that would change the political slant of the script. A second statement by a BBC spokeman also referred to Curteis's "draft script," and claimed: "No bookings had been made for studio time. It was too early for this to be done. There had been no commitment to the production of this play." All of these claims either misrepresented the facts, or were completely contrary to either them or the assurances Milne had previously given to Curteis.
Cotton later reiterated most of these points in a letter to the Sunday Telegraph on 22 February 1987, in which he also claimed that the BBC would be quite happy to release their rights to the play to another broadcaster, but they had had no such requests. In fact, there had been an approach from Anglia Television to buy the rights on the day the cancellation was announced, but it had been categorically refused "off the record" by Michael Grade, then Controller of BBC One.
Coupled with the decision to continue with Tumbledown (although its transmission was eventually delayed until 31 May 1988), the whole furore led to accusations of censorship and left-wing bias at the BBC, particularly as the play depicted Thatcher as both a strong and sympathetic character. As arranged prior to the cancellation, the play was published in 1987 as a paperback by Hutchinson, but with the addition of an introduction by Curteis in which he gave his account of the whole affair.
In 1991, as part of a wider season of programmes about censorship, Channel 4 included a reading of some dialogue from the play in the documentary The Liberal Conspiracy, in which Curteis was also interviewed. Channel 4 was subsequently criticised on its viewer comment programme Right to Reply for not having made their own full production of the play for the same season, as they had done with another banned BBC programme (an episode of Duncan Campbell's Secret Society).
The Falklands Play was eventually produced simultaneously for both radio and television with almost identical casts, broadcast by BBC Radio 4 on 6 April and the digital TV channel BBC Four on 10 April 2002 respectively. The television version was an amended and abridged 90-minute version of the script, omitting all of the material involving the Junta and the Pope. The TV transmission was preceded by a half-hour programme on the controversy surrounding the original production, and was followed by a studio debate on the issues raised by both the cancellation and the play itself.