Here on Unpopcult we like to stand up for the things we like, rather than bother with the things we don’t. And it’s in that spirit that I have to tell you that ‘A British Guide To The End Of The World’, a documentary in the BBC’s long running Arena strand, is one of the most amazing, extraordinary things I have ever seen. It’s a collection of archive footage, illustrating various examples of how Britain – and, more importantly, British people – navigated the nuclear age, from weapon-testing, through the Cold War, to Protect and Survive.
Some of it was ferociously frightening, like the opening sequence – soldiers recalling their experiences of being on Christmas Island when Britain was testing its first hydrogen bomb – which is something I don’t expect to forget in a hurry. “It wasn’t an explosion”, said one soldier of the blast. “It’s the creation of another sun”. Birds in flight were set alight by the heat: “like Catherine wheels, spiralling from the sky”. Some of it was touchingly absurd, like the woman telling a branch of the WI how to prepare for war. “A change of clothing… And sensible clothing, please. Pyjamas. Much better than a nightie”. Some of it was chilling: the young man in the 80s with the keys to a nuclear shelter and plans for the brave new post-Bomb world. “We know exactly what people we have got to put in the shelter”. And some of it felt like a gut-punch – the dawning realisation of the Christmas Island soldiers that they had, very deliberately, been used as guinea-pigs.
I’m stopping short of making this an unqualified recommendation: it’s a touch idiosyncratic, and it’s possible that the approach will put some people off. But, my God, give it a try. It’s on the iPlayer for the next three weeks.