Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Armageddon Will Not Be Televised

There has been a flurry of online interest in the surfacing of the fabled 'doomsday' tape from the vaults of the Cable News Network.

Ted Turner, founder of the first dedicated news channel in the US, famously claimed on the launch of his channel in 1980, that
"We gonna go on air June 1, and we gonna stay on until the end of the world. When that time comes, we'll cover it, play 'Nearer, My God, to Thee,' and sign off."
Now, a former CNN intern has proven that this was indeed Turner's plan. Hunting through the famous news network's video archives, Michael Ballaban found the clip that is only to be played upon confirmation of the end of the world. Thankfully it isn't specified what form that confirmation will take.

Created during the 1980s, with the Cold War ever at risk of going hot, we shouldn't question the merit of creating an emergency broadcast for use in the likelihood of worldwide Armageddon. We might question the choice of music, which was rumoured to be the final song played by the band on RMS Titanic.

What is surprising is, well, the surprise this discovery is being met with. Perhaps, being British, I have a more phlegmatic attitude towards "We interrupt this broadcast...", as the BBC and the British Government's plans have long been well known. In 2005, the media was discussing recently declassified files detailing planned broadcasts should a nuclear attack on the United Kingdom be confirmed, drawn up as early as the immediate post-War period.

Such a broadcast was laconically referred to as the "four minute warning", so named for the brief period between confirmation of inbound missiles and their impact on target within England. This in fact was the maximum possible time for British-based detection systems, and it could have been even less time.
On confirmation, the Wartime Broadcasting Service would have been activated, overriding all existing BBC transmissions to inform in classical, RP tones, the grave news.

Delivered by familiar BBC Radio Four continuity announcer Peter Donaldson, part of the broadcast has been spliced, aptly enough, into the song Four Minute Warning by Radiohead. Peter also briefly discusses recording the automated warning on this clip from The Culture Show.

These painfully real-world examples are chilling, but far more people are familiar with the fictional portrayals of nuclear devastation in England. The leading example must be Threads, the BAFTA-award winning drama produced in 1984 and broadcast to record viewing numbers for the week.

Set within the northern English city of Sheffield, it explores the true reality of nuclear war on a very personal level, introducing us to characters and their lives which are unfortunately being led in the vicinity of a high-priority strike target. Below is an amateur trailer of this powerful and eye-opening show.

The following year, Threads was shown again on the fortieth anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. In conjunction was the first ever showing of The War Game, a documentary from the 1960s that had been banned by the BBC. Although they have never stated precisely why, the bleak nature of the psuedo-documentary style would no doubt have swung a great deal of opinion against the nuclear arms race.

The War Game does indeed make for disturbing viewing. To show it in the Eighties, when nuclear weapons had become even more powerful than the cruder atomic bombs of the post-War period that featured in the production, must have been even more disturbing.

Or perhaps people were numb to the dangers of nuclear warfare? Perhaps they'd become accustomed to the reality of annihilation, delivered so calmly by familiar BBC voices ever since the end of the Second World War?

This is why I regard the surprise and fascination surrounding the CNN tape with some bemusement. I don't doubt every network has such an ominous pre-recorded piece, for such a dire emergency. We've had ours for quite some time.

The Hiroshima Peace Memorial
Taken by Aiden on November 24, 2006.

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