Pa­trick Freyne

Deutsch­land 83is making me nos­tal­gic for the ter­rors of my youth

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FRONT PAGE -

Watch­ing Deutsch­land 83 (RTE2, Sun­day), a Cold- War spy drama set against the back­drop of po­ten­tial nu­clear ar­maged­don, I be­came nos­tal­gic/fearstal­gic for the ter­rors of my youth, and re­alised, once again, that you kids don’t even know you’re born. Look at you with your Hunger

Games and zom­bie up­ris­ings and me­teor shower-based apoc­a­lypses. When you go to mammy and daddy with th­ese fears, they tell you there’s noth­ing to worry about. When I went to adults with my fears of nu­clear an­ni­hi­la­tion, they com­forted me with the fact that, be­cause Ire­land was neu­tral, we wouldn’t be blown up im­me­di­ately but would die slowly from nu­clear fallout. (One April Fool’s morn­ing, I woke my par­ents to tell them Amer­ica had fired nu­clear war­heads at Rus­sia. It wasn’t funny).

I was raised amid peak atomic dread. Nu­clear apoc­a­lypse wasn’t, in those days, a hy­po­thet­i­cal thought ex­per­i­ment or metaphor for mil­len­nial un­ease, but an im­me­di­ate prob­a­bil­ity.

Ini­tially atomic en­ergy was, as a Dis­ney film put it, “Our Friend the Atom”, and in pop cul­ture it pro­duced not ra­di­a­tion sick­ness, can­ni­bal­ism and a scorched earth, but In­cred­i­ble Hulks in short-shorts and Ja­panese lizard mon­sters (Godzilla) who wan­dered around cities like some sort of metaphor.

Even civil de­fence ads fea­tured adorable car­toon tur­tles who sug­gested that the best de­fence against a nu­clear strike was to roll into a ball with your hands over your head. This is, frankly, how I re­spond to most crises to this day.

There were darker de­pic­tions. Ge­orge Or­well’s post-atomic war to­tal­i­tar­ian dystopia, Nine­teen Eighty-Four, now looks quaintly op­ti­mistic. Neville Shute’s ex­cel­lent 1957 novel On the Beach was bleaker. In it, the peo­ple of Mel­bourne await the ar­rival of the fallout that has killed the rest of hu­man­ity. Spoiler alert: ev­ery­one dies.

In the 1970s and 1980s, with a pol­icy of mu­tu­ally as­sured de­struc­tion solidly in place, writ­ers for young peo­ple got in on the act. Z for Zachariah by Robert C O’Brien (1974) sees a young girl face a ra­pa­cious fel­low sur­vivor. Rid­dley Walker by Rus­sell Hoban (1980) trails a Huck Finn-style scav­enger hunt around the ru­ins of the old world, while in Brother in the

Land by Robert Swindells (1984) a teenager reck­ons with post-war­fare mar­tial law, con­cen­tra­tion camps and ra­di­a­tion sick­ness.

None of this was fan­tas­ti­cal. The BBC first ap­proached the sub­ject with Peter Watkins’s docu­d­rama The War Game, made for the Wed­nes­day Play se­ries in 1965. In it, an elo­quent nar­ra­tor talks us through the af­ter­math of a nu­clear strike on Bri­tain. It de­picts forced evac­u­a­tion, the im­me­di­ate death of at least a third of the pop­u­la­tion, over­crowded hos­pi­tals filled with the ir­ra­di­ated, blind, burned and dy­ing, the es­tab­lish­ment of mar­tial law, sum­mary ex­e­cu­tions, state eu­thana­sia and mid­dle-class house­wives scrab­bling for food near the corpses of mur­dered po­lice­men.

“It is now more than pos­si­ble what you have seen will have taken place be­fore the year 1980,” says the nar­ra­tor, who frankly seems to think it’s good enough for us.

The War Game was judged by the BBC to be “too hor­ri­fy­ing” to air in 1965. In­stead, it was first broad­cast, per­fectly timed for my gen­er­a­tion, as a two-night dou­ble bill with Barry Hines’s

Threads in 1985. The lat­ter is a

Where’s the kitchen sink? David Bri­er­ley in Threads

kitchen-sink melo­drama about two fam­i­lies who are to be joined by mar­riage but are in­stead cooked, ir­ra­di­ated, scarred and then starved by the nu­clear bomb­ing of Sh­effield. Char­ac­ters die hor­ri­bly, dis­ap­pear with­out ex­pla­na­tion or scav­enge amid the ru­ins for ed­i­ble rats.

It’s quite good on the bu­reau­cracy of post-apoc­a­lyp­tic Bri­tain, with un­der­ground com­mand cen­tres giv­ing way to a nu­clear win­ter, au­to­cratic rule, ra­tioning, a pre-in­dus­trial farming so­ci­ety, feral chil­dren and, in its fi­nal scene, the birth of a mu­tant baby. It’s not at all like the re­cent Sarah Hard­ing pop sin­gle of the same name. As far as I know.

Lest, as a child of the 1980s, you re­mained un­ter­ri­fied by th­ese pro­grammes, Jimmy Mu­rakami adapted Ray­mond Briggs’s graphic novel When the

Wind Blows in 1986. In the same aes­thetic style as The Snow­man, it fol­lows an el­derly couple (based on Briggs’s ac­tual par­ents) who, with the can-do spirit of an ear­lier war, obey civil de­fence in­struc­tion, build a shel­ter, lis­ten to the ra­dio, then slowly die of ra­di­a­tion sick­ness.

Not all doom and gloom

Other de­pic­tions made nu­clear holo­caust look like great craic al­to­gether. Johnny Al­pha of John Wag­ner’s Stron­tium Dog in the comic 2000AD gained weird mu­tant pow­ers from in-utero ex­po­sure to the ra­dioac­tive iso­tope Stron­tium 90, which is a much prefer­able re­sponse to fallout than starv­ing as your hair falls out. Both Zar­doz and Planet of the

Apes sug­gested that nu­clear win­ter would be fol­lowed by ef­fete im­mor­tals liv­ing in a bub­ble or a planet run by dirty apes (spoiler alert: it was Earth all along!). Both were united in their cer­tainty that there would still be ma­cho men march­ing around in nap­pies (Sean Con­nery and Charl­ton He­ston). It was the 1970s.

Mad Max promised post-apoc­a­lyp­tic car chases.

Akira pre­dicted psy­chic bik­ers. Buck Rogers in the 25th Cen­tury sug­gested that nu­clear war in 1987 would lead even­tu­ally to a so­ci­ety of tight-fit­ting jump­suits and camp ro­bots.

In the 1990s, the Cold War was re­ced­ing into the past and so was the fear. In the fi­nale of

Di­nosaurs (1994) the pro­tag­o­nists face death in an ap­prox­i­ma­tion of nu­clear win­ter (bleak­est end­ing to an an­i­mated fam­ily sit­com ever). And The Post­man (1997) de­picts a post-apoc­a­lyp­tic Amer­ica in which Tom Petty, play­ing him­self, sur­vives a nu­clear waste­land, which seems ac­cu­rate, but in which Kevin Cost­ner be­comes a post­man, which does not (I wouldn’t trust Kevin Cost­ner with my let­ters).

In re­cent times there’s been a resur­gence of post-apoc­a­lyp­tic and dystopian fic­tion, but most of the sce­nar­ios are built on vague fears and anx­i­eties about in­di­vid­u­al­ity and con­trol, rather than real fear of a spe­cific thing that gen­uinely might hap­pen at any mo­ment (most of the new dystopias avoid the very real threat of cli­mate change).

Peo­ple aren’t scared of the nu­clear apoc­a­lypse any more (though Eric Schlosser ar­gues that we should be) so now it rarely fea­tures in pop cul­ture. Heart­en­ingly, the one ex­cep­tion is Pendle­ton Ward’s Ad­ven­ture

Time, a mag­i­cal chil­dren’s show set 1,000 years af­ter hu­man­ity’s de­struc­tion in the “the mush­room wars”.

As I watch the skulls and war­heads in the open­ing cred­its, I feel the fa­mil­iar chill of terror in my spine. It feels like com­ing home.

Nu­clear apoc­a­lypse wasn’t, in those days, a hy­po­thet­i­cal thought ex­per­i­ment or metaphor for mil­len­nial un­ease, but an im­me­di­ate prob­a­bil­ity

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