Teaching the Nuclear Cold War: Week 6, nuclear popular culture

27 Oct

This was, without a doubt, one of the classes I was looking most forward to taking: how nuclear weapons affected popular culture in the 1950s and 1960s. Those of you who have followed this blog for a while will know that I’m a big fan of using The War Game (Dir: Peter Watkins, 1965) as a teaching tool and discussion point. Things turned out as something of a mixed bag, however.

We’re just over a week away from the hand-in date for the big course essay, and this is quite reasonably dominating students minds. Hence, there was perhaps not quite as much preparation done as there normally would be. That being said, we had some excellent presentations on a variety of topics: civil defence and popular culture, the ‘apocalyptic imagination’ in 1950s science fiction movies, comparisons of The War Game and A Day Called X, and so on and so forth. In the main, I’ve been very impressed with the standard of presentations on this course. They have generally been thoughtful, well put together, and imaginative.

Given that we were looking at popular culture and nuclear weapons, there was (in both classes) a moment when I realised that my pop culture reference points and experience were radically different to the rest of the class. I grew up watching old SF and horror movies on BBC2  and Channel 4. As a kid, I was fascinated by films such as Them!, Invaders From Mars, and It Came From Beneath The Sea. Only later do you learn the fears and anxieties that were behind these films, but they form a fundamental part of experience as a child.

I realised while taking the class that the vast majority of my students had never seen any of these films. They just simply aren’t part of the pop culture landscape – in any significant way – any more. Discussing this with a friend last night, we wondered if easier access to media online means that because of the sheer variety of content, you’re less likely to watch certain things unless you specifically seek them out. Growing up, you had limited choice. Given the budgets of BBC2, for example, it was most economical for them to show cheap-to-air old SF movies late at night or in the early evening. And as consumers, we took what we were given. It was, though, a jarring realisation that taught me that in future, I really should think more about these inter-generational cultural differences when approaching course design.

The one area where the classes really took off was in discussion of The War Game. When we examined the Strath Report a couple of weeks ago, the vast majority of both classes were in favour of government suppression of Strath’s findings and recommendations. In the case of The War Game, the classes were split about 50/50 in terms of agreeing that the BBC was right not to screen the film, or disagreeing and making the case that the film should have been shown.

In one class, the debate between the two sides became particularly heated. At points, there was a little bit of people talking past each other. In the main, though, the arguments were vociferous, but well reasoned. One issue that comes up again and again, though, is students being given time to speak. For future classes, I think I’ll experiment with explicitly asking students to limit their remarks (“You have thirty seconds/one minute”) in order to give space for more reticent members of the class.

This coming week, we’ll be looking at nuclear non-proliferation in the 1960s. Given that the class takes place three days before essay hand in, I’m going to make it a little less focused on debating the issues and make it a bit lighter. We’ll see.

3 Responses to “Teaching the Nuclear Cold War: Week 6, nuclear popular culture”


  1. Teaching the Nuclear Cold War: Week 7 | theatomicage -

    […] Non-proliferation aside, I thought that an activity unrelated to hardcore academic reading and debate might be a good thing to do at this point in the semester. Hence, the nuclear bunker survival scenario. October 1962, two weeks after global nuclear war, three months before anyone can leave. There’s only enough food and water for a limited number of people to survive. Who do you value? What skills do you want to retain? Will personal relationships play a role? This drew on our reading of the 1955 Strath Report and viewing of The War Game. […]

  2. Teaching the Nuclear Cold War: Week 9 | theatomicage -

    […] This all led to – on one of the classes at least – some highly politicised and at times tense debates about these very issues. I’d say that this is the class where personal feelings and political viewpoints really started to impact the seminar. The only other classes where I’ve felt this happening was when we were discussing issues of government secrecy and media suppression surrounding the Strath Report and The War Game.  […]

  3. Teaching the Nuclear Cold War: Week 10, 1980s nuclear culture | theatomicage -

    […] taught classes on The War Game before, I was genuinely fascinated to see if teaching a class that involved the grim and disturbing […]

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