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…
Warning, this post contains clips & images which some readers may find disturbing.
This is part two of a look at some of London’s scariest film and television scenes. For the first instalment, please click here.
The Day of the Triffids (1981)
In this BBC adaptation of John Wyndham’s classic 1951 novel, most of the world’s population have been permanently blinded after witnessing an incredible ‘meteor shower’ (which it transpires, was actually created by malfunctioning Soviet satellites).
Society collapses overnight and to make matters worse the blind are now at the mercy of swarms of ‘Triffids’; bio-engineered plants which can move around freely, lash out and kill.
In this clip, Bill Masen (played by John Duttine) and Jo (Emma Relph), both of whom have managed to escape blindness, are ambushed by a desperate, grasping group of scavengers on Rocliffe Street, Islington.
Later on in the series, a sequence of chilling images depicts an abandoned, crumbling London being reclaimed by nature.
QED: A Guide to Armageddon (1982)
Broadcast at the height of the Cold War, this deeply unnerving QED documentary examined what would occur if a single, 1-megaton nuclear weapon was detonated above St Paul’s Cathedral.
To simulate the impact on the human body, flying glass is blasted at a pumpkin, meat from Lidgate’s butchers is seared to charcoal and actors are slathered in make-up to emulate severe burns and the gruesome effects of radiation poisoning.
Perhaps most terrifying of all though are the early 1980s fashions, as modelled by this young Finsbury Park couple…
The full documentary can be viewed below.
By far one of the most controversial programs ever broadcast on the BBC, Ghostwatch was billed as a live investigation into apparent poltergeist activity at a normal, suburban home in Northolt.
Closely based on the ‘Enfield Haunting‘ from the late 1970s, the malevolent spirit in Ghostwatch was a being nicknamed ‘Pipes’ who is briefly glimpsed several times as chaos unfolds.
The problem with Ghostwatch was that many viewers didn’t realise it was a drama and genuinely believed that the events they were witnessing were real- rather like the infamous War of the Worlds radio broadcast in 1938. Panic ensued, complaints flooded in and it has never been repeated since…
Red Dwarf: Quarantine (1992)
In this episode of the deep-space set comedy, Red Dwarf the crew discover an abandoned medical research laboratory where professor Hildegarde Lanstrom (played by Maggie Steed) has placed herself in suspended animation. After reviving the professor however it’s discovered that she is infected with a deadly virus which produces petrifying results…
The eerie medical base in this scene is in fact Kempton Park Pumping station, an impressive industrial building on the outskirts of south-west London which is open to the public for guided tours.
28 Days Later (2002)
In the famous, Day of the Triffids inspired opening sequence to this post-apocalyptic horror film, Jim (played by Cillian Murphy) emerges from a coma in St Thomas’s Hospital, only to find himself completely alone and the building deserted.
As Jim heads out onto the streets of London it becomes clear that a massive catastrophe has occurred and the city has been effectively abandoned– something which director, Danny Boyle achieves with tremendous skill, making the capital’s most prominent spots appear completely devoid of life…
Later on in the film, Jim meets Selena (played by Naomie Harris) and London cabbie, Frank (Brendan Gleeson). The group agree to travel together to Lancashire from where a mysterious radio message offering hope and safety is being repeated on a recorded loop- Frank plays the broadcast to Jim and Selena on top of East London’s Balfron Tower:
As they embark on their journey however, Frank’s cab suffers a puncture in the middle of the Blackwall Tunnel, resulting in an utterly terrifying adrenaline rush… (although in real life they wouldn’t need to cross the Thames- the Balfron Tower is already north of the river!)
Shaun of the Dead (2004)
Despite being a comedy, Shaun of the Dead– a homage to George A. Romero’s infamous zombie films- has some alarmingly tense scenes.
Much of the action occurs in Crouch End, north London where Shaun lives on Nelson Road. The film’s climax however, which takes place in The Winchester pub, was filmed on the opposite side of the city at The Old Duke of Albany on Monson Road, New Cross. The pub has since been converted into flats.