Magazine article The Spectator

Television: Atomic - Living in Dread and Promise

Magazine article The Spectator

Television: Atomic - Living in Dread and Promise

Article excerpt

When I was growing up in the 1970s, my three main fears were: being blown up by the IRA; being eaten by a Jaws-like great white shark; being vaporised by a nuclear bomb.

I expect it was the same for most kids of my generation. The first two, obviously, were a function of the Birmingham bombings (et al.) and the Peter Benchley/Steven Spielberg axis of shark terror. And the third was the product of the relentless propagandising of CND as rehearsed faithfully on pretty much every BBC programme going from John Craven's Newsround to The Archers , Animal Magic and Roobarb and Custard .

I don't actually remember the notorious episode where Hector gets so pissed off with the relentless nagging of Zsazsa and Kiki that he bans them from entering the basement of his eponymous House just as the five-minute warning has been sounded -- and all he sees at the end are the skeletons of a cat and a frog glowing radioactively through the closing credits. But it's probably only because the trauma made me blank it from my memory.

What I do recall, very distinctly, was how incredibly difficult it was to be a nuclear annihilation sceptic in those days. Our entire culture, from Nevil Shute's On the Beach and that notorious documentary The War Game (all the more scary for the fact that no one had ever seen it) to Raymond Briggs's When the Wind Blows and the endless news footage of Greenham Common women being dragged off the fence, was geared towards convincing us that we were all going to die horribly and that it was probably kind of our fault.

And for what, exactly? Here we are, 70 years on from Hiroshima (6 August: my birthday), and not one of you reading this has been blinded by the flash of an exploding nuke or even slightly injured by a blast or suffered radiation sickness or spawned a child with three heads. All that worry and fear was a complete waste of emotion. Though more than 2,000 nuclear warheads have been detonated since and there are now 15,700 in the world, the balance of terror -- that dangerously right-wing concept that the peace campaigners derided -- has worked its magic beautifully.

I wonder if this is a point that filmmaker Mark Cousins intended to make in his film Atomic: Living in Dread and Promise (BBC4, Sunday), a nostalgic look back on seven decades of nuclear threat. Hard to be sure because there was no commentary: just a brooding, dreamy soundtrack by the Glaswegian post-rock band Mogwai and lots of well-chosen archive footage strung together in the manner of an Adam Curtis documentary, only without the complicated overarching theory. …

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