The Weekly Play

The Wednesday Play: Psy Warriors (1981)

The war in Northern Ireland sparked much creativity from all sides of the conflict, including many famous plays. Perhaps one of the most interesting but also more generally targeted was Play For Today‘s Psy Warriors, written by David Leland and directed by Alan Clarke.

Originally written in 1978 for the theatre, it was inspired by Peter Watson’s book War on the Mind: the Military Uses and Abuses of Psychology, and looks at the ethics of torture, asking how far society can torture and degrade prisoners in the name of democracy and freedom, flipping the situation somewhat by having a group of soldiers captured by terrorists. As well as the Northern Ireland issue, the play also considers Palestine and equally controversially included footage of an actual killing, as well as drawing from official reports and research into the physical and mental treatment of terrorist suspects.

And as if that wasn’t enough, it was broadcast on May 12 1981, the night that hunger striker Francis Hughes died and one week after the death of Bobby Sands.

Naturally, the play was of practically radioactive toxicity and getting it made was as much a matter of luck as anything else. According to Leland, “We only got it done because [producer] June Roberts had a slot and the money and the bottle to do it; everybody else bottled out.”

The TV version features a heavyweight cast including John Duttine, Derrick O’Connor, Warren Clarke and Colin Blakely (who was, of course, the interrogator in one of the most famous episodes of The ChampionsThe Interrogation). As well as Leland’s surprisingly witty script, the play is also particularly notable for Clarke’s direction, which uses space in disconcerting and unnaturalistic ways, showing off just how much is possible with a few interior, minimalist sets. 

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