Of previously untreated patients with squamous cell carcinoma of the oropharynx, 145 are reviewed in this study. All were treated in the Department of Head and Neck Surgery at the University of Liverpool from 1990 to 1997. Seventy-seven patients were treated with irradiation, 28 patients by surgery and 40 patients were deemed not suitable for any curative treatment. Univariate analysis showed no difference in the two groups treated by curative modalities but multivariate analysis did suggest that the surgical group tended to have larger neck node metastases. The 5-year tumour specific actuarial survival for all patients was 53%, 65% for the radiotherapy group and 51% for the surgery group. The difference was not statistically significant (χ 2 [over] 1 = 1.5070). The modality of treatment had no affect on either the development of a primary or neck node recurrence or the survival after such a recurrence. Where neck node disease was present it was treated as appropriate. As is generally standard practice, lymph nodes over 2 cm were treated with radical neck dissection whether the patient was having irradiation therapy or surgery. If the patient was having irradiation therapy, the neck dissection was carried out before and irradiation after operation, both on the primary and on the neck, if appropriate. It is concluded that irradiation therapy in properly selected cases in combined head and neck clinics is a safe and effective treatment for squamous cell carcinoma of the oropharynx. Neck node disease should be treated appropriately, but there is no support for the old adage that whatever form of treatment is being used for the neck node should also be used for the primary site.