Arena – A British Guide to the End of the World

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.

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