Chernobyl raises the game on so many levels, says Peter Fincham, and will surely dominate this year’s BAFTAs
In the seaside village where I live, if you stroll down to the beach on a clear day and turn right, you can see in the far distance the imposing bulk of Sizewell nuclear power station. It dominates this part of the Suffolk coast so much that I once spotted it when at cruising height on a flight to Stockholm. You can walk past it as you exercise your dog, but it’s got a scary-looking perimeter fence like the one they’ve just put up around the White House. Casual visitors are not welcome.
There are two Sizewells: ‘A’ which was constructed in the late 50s in the brutalist style of that era – like a giant cardboard box dumped beside the beach – and its unimaginatively-named follow up ‘B’ which was built between 1987 and 1995. By the 1980s it was necessary to have a full public enquiry to approve the building of a new nuclear reactor, and this led to a greater emphasis on aesthetics. As a result Sizewell B is finished in a bright and cheery shade of blue, like a branch of IKEA. Transparency and accountability were also coming into fashion. The public enquiry took place at the nearby Snape Maltings, home of the Benjamin Britten-themed Aldeburgh Festival, and as is the case with public enquiries anyone could attend. I went along one day in the early eighties and listened for a while to lawyers for both sides droning on about the pros and cons of nuclear power. When I left, I asked if there was any literature I could study and was given a copy of the full plans for constructing your own water-cooled nuclear reactor. I’ve still got them somewhere in my garage and I suppose, if lockdown goes on much longer, I could make a start.
Although Sizewell ‘B’ isn’t normally open to the public, you can write to its French owners ESF and ask nicely if they’ll give you a guided tour. As long as they’re satisfied that your intentions are benign, i.e. that you’re not a journalist or a terrorist, they will grant you one. I did this a few years ago with my family. The staff members who showed us round were unashamed cheerleaders for all things nuclear. They told us all the usual stuff about half the homes in the Midlands depending on Sizewell to boil their kettles, and the safety record being second to none, and the dome of the reactor being larger than the dome of St.Paul’s. The emphasis on safety was unremitting, so much so that my teenage son was told he couldn’t keep his hands in his pockets during the tour because, in the event that he fell over, he would be more likely to need medical assistance which could distract them from, say, an explosion in one of the turbines.
At the end we were allowed to ask questions, and I pitched in with what I thought was a pretty obvious one – bearing in mind that the golf ball-like dome looks, from the air, like a bull’s eye on a dartboard – what would happen if somebody hijacked an airliner and flew straight into it? In other words, what if somebody did a 9/11 on East Anglia, shouting ‘180!’ at the moment of impact?
I clearly wasn’t the first person to have asked this question. ‘Simple,’ our guides replied complacently, ‘the dome wins.’ Studies had apparently shown that a commercial airliner would effectively bounce off the dome which, unlike the twin towers in New York, is made of 12-foot thick reinforced concrete. ‘Right….’ I replied, ‘has this ever actually been tested?’ ‘No, but studies have shown that there’s nothing to worry about’.
I’ve been reminded of this often during the coronavirus crisis during which studies have shown almost anything you want them to show: that 500,000 people were likely to die; that copper doorknobs are better than plastic; that herd immunity was the logical response; that Matt Hancock is an intelligent form of life.
But I was reminded of it more forcefully during the transmission of the TV series which has just been nominated for an extraordinary 14 BAFTA awards: Chernobyl (Sky Atlantic). The 1986 disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear plant has a lot in common with coronavirus, of course – innocent people going about their daily lives suddenly confronted with a silent and deadly threat that they can’t see, smell or taste. Authorities that reacted too slowly, and then went into panicked denial. A lack of preparedness for something that is described in management-speak as a ‘Hill’ risk – high impact, low likelihood. As the TV series graphically shows, one of the reasons that the wider world wasn’t alerted in time to the disaster at Chernobyl was that the political regime in power – Soviet communism – only dealt in good news. The servants of the state were consistently more concerned with perception and messaging – ‘we’ve got it under control’, ‘the threat is exaggerated’ – than in truth and reality. Remind you of anyone?
Chernobyl is a brilliant and extraordinary series. There’s something heroically uncompromising about it: it takes you straight to the heart of the disaster and never lets up; it assails you with scientific detail you’ve got no hope of understanding; it never wavers from its theme, or softens its edges. It’s a visceral rollercoaster ride into hell.
Television and movies have been here before, of course. Twelve days before the notorious Three Mile Island nuclear accident in Pennsylvania in 1979, the Michael Douglas film The China Syndrome was released. It was a critical and commercial success, but it’s no Chernobyl. Those with longish memories might remember the excellent 1980s nuclear conspiracy thriller Edge of Darkness, which gripped audiences at the time. Again, it’s no Chernobyl.
Chernobyl raises the game of television drama on many levels. It’s written, improbably, by Craig Mazin, whose previous credits include the unloved sequels to the gross-out comedy Hangover. The roll call of nominations – production design, editing, make up and hair design, special effects, direction, photography and many others – makes you wonder whether it’s worth anyone else turning up for the ceremony at all. Not that there’s going to be a ceremony to turn up to – like all awards in the year of Covid 19, the BAFTAs are going to be held behind closed doors, with all nominees recording their ‘winning’ speeches in advance.
Although on the face of it they couldn’t be more different, Chernobyl bears a resemblance to the more recent TV phenomenon Normal People (which will surely dominate next year’s BAFTA awards). Both series confront you with a life-changing experience – nuclear disaster/first love – and stick to their theme to the exclusion of almost everything else. They are, in the best sense, mono-thematic. In both cases, rather than using the conventional tricks and tropes of TV drama, they simply say – this is what it is actually like; don’t flinch or look away.
The most extreme images from Chernobyl – the skin peeling off faces, the radioactive rubble that needs to be swept off the roof into the burning core of the reactor – stay with you for a long time. There is plenty of heroism among the cowardice and incompetence. The central performance, by Jared Harris, is definitively good. Harris plays Valery Legasov, an all-too-familiar figure in the current crisis – the scientist who knows better than his political masters, but also understands that, for political reasons, truth is an expendable commodity. He’s like one of the hapless experts who flank Boris Johnson at his press conferences, knowing that when the Prime Minister opens his mouth almost anything might come out. The series begins with Legasov’s sad, lonely suicide, despairing at the folly of the system he’s spent his life serving.
The disaster at Chernobyl grips the imagination in a way that is perhaps unique to nuclear – the sense that we’ve tampered ill-advisedly with nature to create a power we can’t be sure to control, and that that power is in the hands of fallible, flawed human beings. Will there be a comparable series about coronavirus? Several, I would guess, and of course the Hollywood movie Contagion got there already, back in 2011. If you haven’t seen that, it’s extraordinarily prescient, and a lot better than you’d expect. But again, no Chernobyl.
You might, of course, be forgiven for looking to television to take you away from these horrors, rather than straight into them. It would be perfectly understandable. I find I’m increasingly drawn to the comforts of Monty Don in Gardeners’ World. Humankind, as T.S. Eliot noted, cannot bear very much reality.
But the real, troubling world keeps on turning. Here in sleepy Suffolk campaigning is already underway by those who are pro- or anti- EDF’s plans to build not one but two gigantic new reactors at Sizewell, ‘C’ and ‘D’, over the next decade. Studies have shown that they’ll be perfectly safe.
The BAFTAs will be broadcast on 31 July
Peter Fincham was MD at Talkback until 2005. He then became Controller of BBC One and from 2008 to 2016 was Director of Television at ITV. In 2017 he co-founded independent production company Expectation.