The Day Britain Stopped

Tuesday, May 13, 2003 by

It was just one small, almost insignificant event. But it began a chain reaction that would cause a tenuous, intricate system, permanently balanced on a knife-edge, to collapse with tremendous speed. From the moment Gary Lineker (bless him) mugged his way through a gratuitous cameo with the stilted words “I’ve just heard the match has been … cancelled!?!” The Day Britain Stopped began shedding its credibility.

The early signs something was about to go wrong were obvious with hindsight. The heavy publicity for the docudrama had already set it up as an Important Film, an apocalyptic “what if …?” scenario that would send shockwaves through the viewing public and, it was implied, the complacent Establishment who have taken their eye off the question of how to turn Britain’s decaying transport infrastructure around for too long. It was set apart from being just another documentary by dint of its 90 minute running time and its high-gloss production values. Being entirely fictional, it had a lot to do to keep the viewer’s disbelief suspended.

The premise was, in deference to this point, very believable. After a “minor” rail accident in Edinburgh, a one-day national rail strike over safety issues led to a completely gridlocked M25, and then, due to air traffic controllers not being able to turn up to relieve their colleagues, combined with safety-second practices employed for dealing with such situations, two planes collided over Hounslow. The interdependence of each part of the system on the other was put forward very well, but unfortunately as drama it posed a major problem.

There simply wasn’t a human “thread” running through the whole thing. Initial stories of people affected by the road chaos gave way during the second half to the luckless air traffic controllers on duty that night. The woman initially held responsible for the crash emerged as a main character, although due to the nature of the story she couldn’t be introduced until the second half for fear of telegraphing the plot. Likewise the officer overseeing the flow of traffic on the M25 stepped back into the wings after his part of the story was done. Continuity was all over the place.

Which, were this documentary real, wouldn’t be a problem. Likewise, the extended running time would have been more than justified for an event of this enormity. But the makers didn’t have the “luxury” of the events having actually happened, and became too complacent in cranking out an authentic-looking mock documentary, a genre which has been massively over-exposed in recent years. And there the problem of disbelief began – we’ve become hardened to the mock-doc style since the days of the Panorama spaghetti harvest and Alternative 3. We are all familiar enough with its tricks and techniques to sit and pick holes in the tiniest details. And details matter more in this genre than in any other.

The slew of celebrity cameos was the first, and most obvious, point of irritation. There were simply far too many. Instead of one news report, we got a montage of BBC, News 24, ITN and Sky presenters, an extended cameo from Radio 5′s traffic correspondent, and a round robin of regional faces reporting on bogus calamities. This sort of stuff is fun in Alistair McGowan’s Christmas Special or the Freeview ads, but it couldn’t help but detract from what was ostensibly a heavily serious Warning to the Nation. If the programme makers are having fun, and more importantly are seen to be having fun, how seriously are we expected to take it?

The second problem, as the cameos rolled on, became clear – presenters are seldom any good at playing themselves. Poor Gary (who is of course as blameless as Poor Nicola the controller) was the worst, but none of them were any good. To bring up an old chestnut, The Day Today never used real celebrities in unreal situations. It knew the pitfalls, and stuck to duping them, not having them act. So the backslapping cameofest seemed doubly pointless. If we can have a fictional transport minister, why not a fictional Radio 5 presenter, if they can be more believable on screen?

The minister was one of the better performances. Initially slightly pompous and defensive, in the manner we’ve almost come to expect from junior ministers, he was revealed as helpless and, after the final tragedy, resigned, and (in the talking head sections) became resigned to the political impossibility of a funding-based renaissance for British transport. A political point had been fleshed out into a believable, if not terribly rounded, character.

Similarly humanised was Nicola, the scapegoat ATC. When these and a couple of other characters were on screen (the seen-it-all M25 chief was another standout in script and acting terms) the makers had every right to be pleased with their fabrication. Others weren’t so great – the woman who lost her daughter in a road accident did a rather corny stilted tearfulness turn, and the character who turned up at the end to smugly tell of how he predicted the whole thing smugly overdid the smugness and had me switching off completely.

While flawed, the programme was certainly worth making. Maybe a non-dramatised documentary, or at least a tighter, more polished version, would have got the message across more powerfully. There’s a deliciously giddy air about mocked-up news and documentary footage (“surreal” would be the cliché to use here, and in a nice touch, several of the characters in the programme duly trotted it out in lieu of any more adequate description) which boosts pure drama and satirical comedy no end when done well, but in a programme like this, with sober points to make, can be as much a hindrance. As it was, the sagging structure and holes in the mock-doc veneer ended up detracting from the programme’s case as much as helping it – you began fighting the makers at every step (“oh, come on!”) instead of being swept up.

The lasting image I was left with was not of the (well-staged) disaster scenes, or the (often nicely understated) “human” dramatic elements such as the silent ATC-room footage at the moment of impact, but the end captions telling of how the National Air Traffic Services had commissioned a report in 1993 which predicted that a collision like the one depicted would occur at Heathrow, if current practices remained unchanged, once every 25 years, but had been dismissed, with stunning ignorance of the laws of probability, because nothing of the sort had happened in Heathrow’s 50 years of operation thus far. Such blithe dismissal of the cumulative weight of decades of inaction and making-do by the authorities was the programme’s main point, and it deserved to be made more strongly.


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