Since 1947, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists have maintained the ‘Domesday Clock’; a symbolic timepiece whose minute hand is tweaked back and forth in the moments before midnight as a visual metaphor for illustrating how close they believe the world is to a civilisation ending catastrophe; primarily nuclear war.
On the 25th January 2018 the clock was moved forward to stand at just two minutes to midnight; the closest it’s been since 1953 when both the USA and then USSR acquired the hydrogen bomb.
According to The Bulletin, the reason for this recent, alarming advance is due to the complete failure of world leaders to address current threats to humanity; something no doubt inflamed by the crisis on the Korean Peninsula and U.S President, Donald Trump’s penchant for bragging about America’s nuclear arsenal.
Tensions have also been strained further in recent weeks with Hawaii and Japan suffering false missile alerts.
In the early 1980s when the globe was still gripped by the Cold War, the Domesday Clock also stood perilously close to midnight, nudging 11.57pm in 1984.
Around this time, the BBC produced several documentaries looking at the potential consequences of nuclear war which, despite looking decidedly dated to today’s audiences, now seem as relevant ever in the current climate.
The first was a Panorama documentary entitled ‘If the Bomb Drops‘, which aired in March 1980 and was presented by a young Jeremy Paxman who took to the streets of Shepherds Bush to ask people what they’d do in the event of hearing sirens sound the Four Minute Warning; the famous time in which it was estimated the public would be warned of an incoming nuclear attack.
The no-nonsense cockneys interviewed by Paxman summed up the futility of preparing for such an event (please click below to view):
Later in the documentary Paxman takes to to the air in a helicopter to describe the impact a 1 megaton nuclear device would have if detonated high above the Houses of Parliament (please click below to view)…
‘If the Bomb Drops’ also featured a terrifying sneak-peak of the government’s ‘Protect and Survive’ public information films.
Produced by the now defunct Richard Taylor Cartoons -who were once based on Great Portland Street and are perhaps better known for creating the far more charming ‘Crystal Tipps and Alistair‘ –these films were top secret at the time and Panorama achieved quite a coup in obtaining them.
In the event of an international crisis that looked set to trigger a war, it was intended that the UK’s TV stations would go off air and be replaced by the BBC’s Wartime Broadcasting Service– on which these short films, of which there are 20, would be played on a continual loop.
Although Paxman rather chillingly predicts that these films “Won’t be seen again until nuclear war is imminent”, they are all now available on Youtube and unsurprisingly make very unsettling viewing.
Particularly eerie is the jarred, electronic jingle which concludes each segment; a product of the former BBC Radiophonic Workshop who were based at the Maida Vale Studios on Delaware Road and are best known for creating the theme tune to Dr Who
Considering this link with the Time Lord, it may come as no surprise to hear that the attack warning itself (which was intended to alert the British public had a nuclear launch been detected in the 1970s/80s) is rumoured to have featured flashing lights and ‘Dalek‘ sounds. This chilling recording remains unseen to this day.
To view the entire catalogue of the Protect and Survive films- which includes advice on how to recognise warnings, how to construct a shelter and even how to dispose of the dead- please click below….
It didn’t take the BBC long to put out another documentary presenting the dire consequences of nuclear war.
In the summer of 1982, the science strand, QED broadcast ‘A Guide to Armageddon’ which, narrated in the stern tones of Ludovic Kennedy, speculated on what fate would befall London if a nuclear warhead was detonated 1 mile above St Paul’s Cathedral.
According to the documentary, this would involve:
The vaporisation of St Paul’s mighty gold cross:
The annihilation of priceless artworks:
Cabs and double deckers set ablaze:
The combustion of homes as far aways as Battersea:
The charring of meat in Lidgates Butchers, Holland Park (used by QED as a grim metaphor for the impact on human flesh):
The total destruction of buildings under pulverising blast-waves:
A tidal wave of deadly flying glass (demonstrated here on the skin of an unfortunate pumpkin):
And some pretty scary fashion choices!
Modelled here by Joy and Eric, a Finsbury Park couple who attempted to build various nuclear shelters for the documentary.
Joking aside, ‘A Guide to Armageddon’ is very scary stuff- particularly the doom-laden end sequence in which famous London locations are depicted as ruins in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.
To watch the entire episode of this QED documentary, please click below:
‘A Guide to Armageddon’ was produced by Essex born Mick Jackson who, shortly after, drew upon the experience to direct the 1984 drama, ‘Threads’ which was written by Barry Hines (author of ‘A Kestrel for a Knave’ which had been adapted as the heart-breaking 1969 film, ‘Kes’) and portrayed the consequences of a nuclear war as experienced by the people of Sheffield.
Threads is arguably one of the most disturbing dramas ever broadcast by the BBC and can be viewed here in its entirety- although please be aware, viewer discretion is highly advised.
Here’s hoping the Domesday Clock ticks back soon…
As the clip below demonstrates, the eerie, banshee-like howl of the air-raid siren was one of the most defining sounds of WWII.
Although the conflict ended in 1945, the UK maintained a fully working network of these chilling devices right up until 1992- primarily thanks to the Cold War.
Most air-raid sirens have now vanished from the streets… but an intriguing example can still be spotted in central London; perched high up on one of the numerous bridges which ferry slowly rumbling commuter trains past Waterloo Station.
Information on this siren is pretty much non-existent.
Personally speaking, I’m inclined to believe that this particular example is post-WWII; installed to warn unfortunate Londoners of flooding (a grave threat before the Thames Barrier opened in 1984) or, worse still, an impending Soviet nuclear attack.
Perhaps though this siren isn’t a relic at all… on closer examination, wires can be seen trailing from the device… and the alarm still appears to be plugged in.
Let’s hope it never gets the chance to be cranked out of retirement…