The Original ‘Oppenheimer’: How the BBC Brought the Father of the Atom Bomb to Life Long Before Christopher Nolan (EXCLUSIVE) (2024)

Decades before Christopher Nolan set his sights on a movie about J. Robert Oppenheimer, a science-obsessed BBC executive ventured to America in 1979 to make a $1.5 million TV show about the father of the atom bomb.

Peter Goodchild began his career at the BBC in radio drama, but eventually migrated to the storied “Horizon” science unit to put his chemistry degree to some use. The division began experimenting with factual dramas in the 1970s, and after delivering a hit series on French-Polish physicist Marie Curie, Goodchild set his sights on the New York-born Oppenheimer.

“I’d seen a play on J. Robert Oppenheimer at the Hampstead Theatre Club way back in 1966,” the 83-year-old tells Variety from his home in Exeter, southwest England, where his Zoom background reveals a room teeming with books on heaving shelves.

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“It was an amazing story, and I’d always wanted to do it,” Goodchild continues. “Someone suddenly presented me with a book about Oppenheimer and his relationship with one of his other scientific colleagues, which was an excellent story. I said, ‘I’d love to take it further.’ And we did.”

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Goodchild’s seven-part 1980 BBC series “Oppenheimer” — with the physicist played by 40-year-old Sam Waterston, just years away from his Oscar-nominated performance for “The Killing Fields” — received seven BAFTA nominations and took home three golden masks, including best drama series. The show, which was co-produced with WGBH Boston (which contributed just $100,000), also picked up a Golden Globe nod for Waterston along with two Primetime Emmy nominations.

Viewed through a contemporary lens, “Oppenheimer” is astonishing. A BBC-produced series telling an American story, featuring a predominantly American cast? It simply would never happen now. The broadcaster’s ongoing fight to justify its license fee-based funding model — in which every BBC-watching household in the U.K. pays £159 ($204) a year to fund its content — means that most original dramas on the Beeb have a distinctly British flavor.

But back then, “the sheer volume of drama that was happening was extraordinary,” explains Ruth Caleb, then a plucky line producer on “Oppenheimer.” “It went beyond the insular; it was much more outward-looking.” BBC drama still is, in some ways, she hastens to add. “But for different reasons that are often commercial reasons. Back then, they were creative reasons.”

“When Peter put up ‘Oppenheimer’ as an idea, it was clearly an important subject matter, because it’s not just about the country we live in, but about the world that we live in,” says Caleb, who is still producing films and scripted series under her own banner. “I think they trusted that Peter would come up with something pretty special.”

The Original ‘Oppenheimer’: How the BBC Brought the Father of the Atom Bomb to Life Long Before Christopher Nolan (EXCLUSIVE) (3)

“Oppenheimer” introduces the nuclear physicist during his time with the University of Berkeley physics department — a halcyon period for the listless scientist, who surrounded himself with card-carrying Communists (though never fully subscribed himself) and carried on with the troubled Jean Tatlock while falling for Kitty Puening, a married woman.

The bulk of its seven hours focused on the formation of the Manhattan Project and the Los Alamos settlement in New Mexico, with special attention paid to Oppenheimer’s tumultuous relationship with General Leslie Groves and other scientists such as Edward Teller (played by “Poirot” star David Suchet). A masterful depiction of the Trinity test in Episode 5 used archival material to convey the actual blast, but also relied on a huge, arid Colorado Springs set. The final two episodes focused on Oppenheimer’s post-war troubles, and the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission hearing that stripped him of his security clearance, effectively severing his ties to U.S. government.

While much had been written by the late 1970s about Oppenheimer, who died of throat cancer in 1967, Goodchild and screenwriter Peter Prince spent a month in America researching the scientist. In addition to meeting a number of his academic peers — “They were happy to talk and talk!” says Goodchild — the duo also located Oppenheimer’s son Peter, his brother Frank and sister-in-law. (Kitty had died a few years prior, in 1972, while his daughter Toni died by suicide in 1977.)

“We got very, very strong images from his brother,” says Goodchild. “And then we went one Sunday morning to meet Peter. But when we arrived, he wasn’t there. Someone said he’s gone, but that he has these moods and may feel differently in an hour.”

So, Goodchild and Prince “hung out and wandered about” until he returned. “And he turned up,” the producer exclaims. “He wouldn’t let us in the house. He talked in a very—” Goodchild falters. “It was obvious life has not been straightforward for him.”

The Original ‘Oppenheimer’: How the BBC Brought the Father of the Atom Bomb to Life Long Before Christopher Nolan (EXCLUSIVE) (4)

When the team began casting, they hired U.K.-based American actors, which helped to save money. A lead, however, proved elusive. All sorts of ideas were thrown at the wall — at one point, even “Psycho” star Anthony Perkins was in the mix — until Caleb suggested Waterston, who would need to be flown in from the U.S. where he’d been shooting a movie in Wisconsin.

“He was a dreamboat,” says Caleb. “Just the loveliest guy.”

Adds Goodchild: “I think we were paying him £1,200 a program. He liked the scripts, and said, ‘Yes, I’ll do it’ … We put him up in a house in Chelsea, which was around £1,200 a month, which seemed astronomical to us.” (Calculating for inflation, that’s roughly £6,500 per month.)

Waterston was worth the eye-watering Chelsea rent. His casting was considered to be a masterstroke due to his complex, unsentimental portrayal of Oppenheimer. One Manhattan Project scientist even remarked at the time that Waterston was “more Oppenheimer than Oppenheimer ever was.”

“My abiding memory of the production is how nice Sam Waterston was to work with,” screenwriter Peter Prince tells Variety over an email. “I re-watched a couple of episodes to refresh my memory and was reminded again how good Sam was as the actor: he was the complex Oppenheimer — charming, conflicted and driven.”

The show filmed between a studio in the U.K. for interior shots, and in Colorado Springs, where the Los Alamos project was constructed along with the vast tower that housed the atom bomb (pictured). “Everyone [tried] to be as authentic and near the actuality as possible,” says Caleb, who always had one eye on the $1.5 million budget — the equivalent of around $5.5 million today.

“When we were setting up Trinity, we hired this guy to make the bomb. And I knew that when we film, what you see in it is not the detail. But he did that bomb, which was hugely expensive, and every single detail of it was accurate — not that you ever saw it,” says Caleb. “I wasn’t pleased, yet he was so delighted that he managed to make this bomb exactly as it was. And all he got from me was a rather sour face saying ‘Yes, but you’ve gone over your budget!’”

Trinity was shot in three parts, with the American shoot completed over four weeks, followed by the studio work — which encompassed several control room scenes — and then other extraneous shots. Goodchild and Caleb detail a “pretty smooth” production that was primarily the work of the show’s gifted late director, Barry Davis, whom they describe as “fearsome” but someone who “knew what he wanted.” They also credit their editor Tariq Anwar, “who was brilliant,” adds Caleb.

Despite the show’s heavy subject matter, the team managed to eke out some fun on set. Toward the end of the shoot, when Suchet wrapped his final scenes as Teller and stepped out of the studio, “they delivered a cream pie into his face,” laughs Caleb. “I can’t remember whether it was Sam or someone else. But that demonstrates the good nature on the production. It was a happy production.”

Yet as one of Hollywood’s most visionary directors returns the A-bomb’s formidable creator to the cultural consciousness, the BBC’s “Oppenheimer” has become a largely forgotten production.

The Original ‘Oppenheimer’: How the BBC Brought the Father of the Atom Bomb to Life Long Before Christopher Nolan (EXCLUSIVE) (5)

Goodchild — who used his research to write a book on Oppenheimer that published alongside the series in 1980 — had some interaction with Kai Bird, co-author of the 2005 Oppenheimer biography “American Prometheus” that Nolan’s film is based on. However, neither he nor Caleb were contacted by the “Tenet” director or Universal Studios as the new film came together. In fact, the pair are full of questions about how the movie turned out, and how it compares to the series. “I wonder what attracted [Nolan] to Oppenheimer,” Caleb says.

Goodchild, meanwhile, is shocked to hear the film will open on the same day as Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie.” “Wow,” he mutters. “I’m going to be very interested to see how well it goes down.”

Though there are 43 years between the TV show and the movie, the similarities in approach to scenes between Oppenheimer and the main players in his orbit are striking, particularly certain conversations between the scientist and Groves and Teller. The BBC series may be of its time — devoid of Ludwig Göransson’s feverish score, Nolan’s propulsive direction and a massive IMAX canvas — and made for around 5% of the movie’s budget in real terms, but in many ways, its narrative structure and use of sub-plots that delve deeper into Oppenheimer’s inner circle make it a more holistic portrait of an unpredictable character.

Caleb at one point asks whether the BBC will bring “Oppenheimer” out of the archives to air alongside the movie hitting cinemas. With an estimated opening of $50 million this weekend and clear public interest, it’s a good question.

But for all its critical success, “Oppenheimer” appears to have been all but lost in the annals of TV history. In the U.K., it’s not even on the BBC’s streaming service iPlayer; instead, it’s available for purchase on Prime Video for around £10. BBC Studios owns the rights to the series, but Variety understands a “complicated” rights situation means the show may not be rerun anytime soon.

Those who do uncover the series, of course, don’t tend to regret it. When Goodchild’s neighbors visited New Mexico several years back, he suggested they visit the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History.

“Not only did they do that, but they bought a DVD [of ‘Oppenheimer’] and took it home and watched it,” says Goodchild. “They came back and quite seriously said, ‘That was wonderful.’ After 42 years, it wasn’t something that got thrown at you very often.”

The Original ‘Oppenheimer’: How the BBC Brought the Father of the Atom Bomb to Life Long Before Christopher Nolan (EXCLUSIVE) (2024)

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