Fear and fever
Documentary-maker Andrew Thompson explains why the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic holds lessons for today
“The events of 1918 teach us just how bad another pandemic could be”
Pandemic TV BBC Two scheduled for September
One hundred years ago, as Spanish flu spread like wildfire across Britain, Doctor James Niven jumped into action. While Britain’s government remained reticent to deal with the threat head on, Niven tirelessly distributed public health leaflets across Manchester and campaigned for the closure of the city’s businesses and schools.
Niven’s story is just one of many featured in Pandemic, a new BBC documentary that brings the 1918–19 outbreak to life through the eyes of those who experienced it first-hand.
Through his forward-thinking use of preventative measures, “Niven probably saved more lives than anyone else in the UK”, says Andrew Thompson, the programme’s director and producer, “but he was fighting a losing battle”. Whitehall memoranda to prevent the spread of infection were shelved as they were deemed to threaten the war effort, while after the disruption of the conflict, people were keen to return to their normal routines, unencumbered by inconvenient public health precautions.
By the time the Spanish flu had finally subsided, the estimated global death toll stood at 100 million – more than both world wars combined. Yet despite this staggering statistic, Thompson argues that the catastrophic event is often forgotten in narratives of the 20th century. “It’s an enormously important moment in history, but it’s somewhat under-reported, probably because it was overshadowed by the First World War,” he says.
And 100 years on, the story is just as important as ever. According to Thompson, the show is “not just another history lesson. Understanding what happened back in 1918 is of direct relevance for surviving a future pandemic. Speaking to virologists, it becomes very clear that there will be another one sooner or later, and the events of 1918 teach us just how bad it could be.” It’s an ominous thought, but one that clearly made an impression on the programme makers. “Talking to the experts was surprisingly scary,” Thompson recalls. “By the end of the film, all the crew felt like going out to make our last will and testaments.”
Pandemic is part of a wider series of BBC programmes looking back on the Spanish flu. On Radio 4, The Last Enemy (September) shares more stories of those caught up in the outbreak.
A man douses the top of a bus with anti-flu spray during the Spanish flu pandemic. A new documentary reveals that more could have been done to prevent the disease spreading