Wednesday, 11 September 2013

BLACKOUT Channel 4, 9pm, Monday 9 September 2013


Humanity dies in a looted supermarket. (Image: Channel 4)

This speculative, ambitious and harrowing drama proved conclusively that modern life is rubbish.

Cripple just one modern amenity that modern society depends on – in this case, electricity by an attack of cyber terrorism – and, never mind twenty-eight days, within four everything will fall apart.

Blackout chillingly and non-sensationally showed just how quickly public order and law enforcement will unravel. Presented as a YouTube-ish compilation of mobile, video camera and CCTV clips, the mounting sense of panic and the ominous threat of brutal violence was all the more believable, reinforced by the casting of some excellent newcomer actors. (Ironically, the advert breaks were selling products that all depended on electricity for their manufacture).

Pleasingly, Blackout was a revival of the apocalypse fiction that flourished in the 1970s. Concepts like the BBC TV series Survivors and Doomwatch examined threats to humanity such as a global pandemic and a plastic-eating virus. A closer comparison is perhaps Alternative 3 from 1977, which in a spoof documentary style apparently exposed a conspiracy around the unexplained disappearances of scientists, transported to secret colonies on Mars because the Earth was dying. I remember watching it and it scared the shit out of my 12 year-old self. Just like Orson Welles’ 1930s radio production of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (performed as a series of fake news reports) in the days after Alternative 3 was shown, the papers ran stories about people jumping out of windows and running down the middle of the street screaming hysterically.

Blackout had a similar effect on my 49 year-old self, although I’m relieved to say I just sat quietly through the small hours thinking about it instead of doing anything drastic. The tension was steadily built up through four interweaved stories. In one, a self-sufficiency enthusiast found himself a target because of the generator he owned. In another, two teenagers start off thinking the crisis is all a big laugh, until their fumbling attempts to siphon petrol result in blowing up a petrol tanker. The disturbing question is raised: who will put out the resulting fire? In a third story, a young girl is helpless as medical staff turn off her comatose brother’s life support system. As he has brain stem death, they make the hard decision to use their dwindling supply of batteries to save patients who have a chance of recovery.

There was some hope in the darkness. In the final tale, a man wearing a restraining device because of an ASBO proved to be a decent person, helping a single mum to find her mother in a riot torn Sheffield.

The last few scenes were some of the most powerful drama I’ve seen on British television for a long time. I’m not going to reveal what happened in case you haven’t seen it. However, I’ll finish by saying that we’re only a split bag of sugar, some tins of processed meat and a jar of gherkins away from barbarism. It’s a terrifying idea that Blackout explored brilliantly.

Pleasant dreams. And don’t forget to turn those lights out.

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