During the Cold War, the awesome power of nuclear weapons and its deadly fallout meant that every town, village and home in Britain fell under the nuclear shadow, and the threat of annihilation coloured every aspect of ordinary life.
I chat with author and fellow Cold War podcaster Julie McDowall about her new book Attack Warning Red!: How Britain Prepared for Nuclear War. We discuss how families were encouraged to construct makeshift shelters with cardboard, plastic sheets, and sandbags. Vicars and pub landlords learnt how to sound hand-wound sirens, offering four minutes to scramble to safety. The thousands who volunteered to give nuclear first aid, often consisting of breakfast tea, herbal remedies, and advice on how to die without contaminating others.
It’s a fascinating look at the government’s attempts to prepare the UK population for nuclear war while bunkers were readied for the officials and experts who would ensure in theory ensure life continued after the catastrophe.
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Previous UK Civil Defence episodes
Cold War leaflets and documents https://coldwarconversations.com/episode112/
Assigned to a government bunker https://coldwarconversations.com/episode107/
Visit to a Royal Observer Corps monitoring post and interview with the Chief Observer who served in the post https://coldwarconversations.com/episode30/
Alistair McCann who has preserved a Royal Observer Corps monitoring post as a museum in Northern Ireland. https://coldwarconversations.com/episode11/
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Julie McDowall: It does begin with a very horrifying story, but strangely, the rest of the book, there is a bit of humor in it. A dark humor, obviously, but I think it’s inevitable that the subject of preparation for nuclear war does have dark humor in it, because, one, it’s an impossible subject. You can’t properly prepare for nuclear war. But two, I suppose it’s human nature, when you’re faced with something so hideous and so consuming and so overwhelming that you have to find something in it to laugh at. So often when I’m, ah, writing about this, even when I was in the archives. I’ve been in various archives across the country. I would sit at, uh, the desk. These archives are very somber places, everyone’s there being serious and studying. I would have to often suppress not a giggle, of course, but just a bit of a laugh, because there is real absurdity in a, um, lot of Britain, in particular’s, nuclear planning. And it all comes down to the fact that with Britain it would have been useless. With huge, ah, countries like Soviet Union or America, then it would have made sense. You could have survived somewhere, somehow. Whether or not you’d have wanted to survive is different. But in cramped, overcrowded tiny little Britain, there would have been no hope. And so, yes, it is absurd. So this book brings us a mixture of absolute horror and some Monty Python type humor, I would think.
Ian Sanders: Absolutely. There’s a number of sort of iconic pieces within this, but the four minute warning is always comes up. Now, this was, in theory, the length of time the UK population would have to act if the sirens went off. So could you just explain a little bit about how that four minute warning system worked?
Julie McDowall: Certainly. The four minute warning is the thing that we, both of us of a certain age, always remember being haunted by, even today, when this strange little street cleaner which occasionally rumbles up and down our street, and it’s from a distance, on a windy day, it has a kind of wine. And even then, when I hear that for a second, I always think, that sounds like the siren. And it’s only a bloody street cleaner, but everything and anything can trigger that fear. So with Bristol, with our famous four minute warning up, uh, on the North Yorkshire moors, we had what were known as the golf balls filing Dales, which was a set of radar, which of course, were scanning the horizon, watching for any incoming Soviet missiles. So they in 3D, would have been the first to pick up an incoming attack. And, um, they would have cascaded the warning down to various different bodies, one of which would be the BBC who would have been responsible for cutting into their programs to sound the siren, a verbal message. And the siren itself, it would also have gone to there were 250 major police stations across Britain which had a big clunky device down in the basement, I suppose, called a carrier control point. And this thing looked like a big bank of telephone. There were handsets and dials and lights and switches on it. And this thing would, uh, ring and alert the duty policeman. And so he would get the message, okay, here we go, this is the warning. And he would turn a little key, which would then automatically trigger all the sirens in his area. The big clunky sirens that used to sit on top of schools, hospitals, fire stations, et cetera. There would also be a, uh, verbal message sent out to all our Royal Observer Corps, uh, who are in their little, ah, monitoring posts, of course. But those of us who are in rural areas, of course, they might not have a local siren on top of the hospital or local factory. So we wonder, how would local or, um, distant rural areas hear the siren? And that’s quite an interesting story. In order to cover rural areas, what happened was the Home Office, who were in charge of civil defense, they would seek out people of standing in the community, people who were known and recognized and trusted. And that would normally be your local GP, your local vicar, or yes, the local pub landlord. So these people would be contacted and asked if they would host a siren. So if you said yes, you would be given, uh, a little gray device, which would be stuck on the wall called the carrier receiver. And that little thing would bleep quietly all through the Cold War, just telling you, everything’s fine, no harms going on, I’m working, I’m waiting to receive a warning. But then, if that gentle bleeping ever broke out into a huge shrieking whale, then that meant four minute warning. This is it. So your little pub landlords, for example, would then have to reach under the bar, push all the crisps and pork scratching aside, reach for a handheld siren, run outside and set the thing up on its sturdy little legs and then start to wind it five, uh, quick turns, then five slow turns. And that’s how you get the rising and falling note of the siren. So he would stand outside his pub, cranking the siren, and that’s how the local villagers would be alerted to the four minute warning. So that’s how the siren would echo across Britain, the BBC, the big huge sirens on top of buildings, and these little handheld things in all our rural areas.
Ian Sanders: It’s incredible. It’s incredible. I mean, I remember the bus stop that I waited at when I went to school in the 1970s. Opposite, there was a siren on top of a pole, and I knew it was what it was for, and there was a genuine fear of nuclear war. And I think one of the stats you’ve got in here is a really interesting one, where 70, apparently in the 1980s, 70% of the population thought that nuclear war was likely. Now, it’s not something you could keep in your head all the time because you’d go mad. You’d put it to the back of your mind. But that shadow of that siren just going back to these rural sirens.
Julie McDowall: Like.
Ian Sanders: We said at the start, or you said at the start, the Monty Pythonesque moments, you’ve got a story in there of a guy, a pub landlord, who had he not got the siren delivered yet.
Julie McDowall: That’s right, yes. Um, the Home Office had obviously asked him, will you host one of these things he had said. Yes. So they had attached the carrier receiver to the wall, so he would have been alerted to the four minute warning, but they didn’t give him the siren. Of course, bureaucracy, probably. Letters and phone calls were exchanged and he was promised the siren, but it never arrived. So the BBC interviewed him, saying, okay, well, what’s your plan if this thing on the wall goes off but you have no siren, so what will you do? And, um, the landlord, uh, bless him, said he would get on his bike and cycle around the village, just shouting at the top of his voice, the Russians are coming, the Russians are coming. So that’s how his village would have received the four minute warning shouts from the landlord.
Ian Sanders: Brilliant. Brilliant. There was another little story you had about a village called Great Wakering, where the alarms went off by accident, and the people just stayed in the pub stuffing their pints, which I think is probably what I mean. What’s the point?
Julie McDowall: What’s the point? Exactly? Yeah, there’s another bit in the book where I talk about false alarms, sirens going off and what the reaction was. And, uh, there was an incident in Coventry also in the early 80s, where the siren blared for about 30 seconds, I think, and, uh, people were angry about it because a lot of people, obviously, in Coventry in the 80s would have remembered The Blitz, and Coventry’s terrible, terrible suffering under the Blitz. So they were furious that here we are, hearing that same sound, being terrified all over again, and it was all for nothing. It was all because of a silly mistake. I believe it was triggered by a local policeman, uh, phoning the speaking clock. And, um, that’s because of the same line that the siren was connected to, triggered the thing. And, um, someone wrote to The Guardian in the letters page to say that they were angry that this had happened. Some people, of course, were indifferent, or, as you said, with the guys in Great Waking and they just kept on drinking because what’s the alternative? But this person who wrote to The Guardian was angry, saying, we were terrified for no reason. But also, what is the point of telling people that they only have four minutes left to live? You may as well just allow people to die in the flash when they would only have maybe half a second consciousness of what was happening. So I do see the logic in that. What was the point of telling people you only have four minutes? But then, of course, if the government had switched off all the sirens, then we would have people complaining, saying, how dare you take away our last four minutes? Or last chance at some kind of survival so you could never please everyone. But I do see the logic, uh, from that angry letter writer in The Guardian saying, what was the point of terrifying us like that, just to say, oh, by the way, wake up from your nice, pleasant sleep. You’ve got four minutes left to live. Just let us sleep.
Ian Sanders: I think it reminds me, I think there was a US politician who was woken up in the middle of the night with a false alarm. Well, he didn’t know it was a false alarm at that point. And he decided to let his wife sleep, carry on sleeping, and then he got another call to say it was a false alarm.
Julie McDowall: Yeah, that’s an incredible story. I can’t remember the guy’s name. I think he was one of Jimmy Carter’s advisors.
Ian Sanders: Um, but yes, he I think it was Brzzynski.
Julie McDowall: But yes, he just looked across at his sleeping wife and thought, well, why? For the same reason we just talked about there. Why on earth wake her up? To say, oh, we’re about to die. So that was very noble of my thought, just to let her sleep. And hopefully if it happened, she wouldn’t even have known it had happened. But yeah, that’s absolutely horrifying. Do I face it alone or do I wake my wife up? Which is selfish, but understandable you would want someone with you for your final minutes. But yes, I was very noble and very courageous of them to think I will let her sleep. But that’s a horrifying story. Certainly been faced with thinking you have four minutes left. Um, that happened with me once, which is uh, a silly story. I almost feel embarrassed about it. But this shows how present nuclear anxiety is in my life. I was watching a couple of years ago, uh, I should be ashamed to admit this, the X Factor Honey G, who was on and part of her act was a fake news flash announcing that aliens had invaded. And for a second, when the fake news flash, which was very authentic, looking for the first 2nd or two, when it cut in maybe for about 1 second, 2 seconds, I thought, this is it, this is it. Because that’s the way my mind is tuned to see threats, particularly nuclear threat, everywhere. So I felt so silly. After about 2 seconds, I realized, of course, it’s a fake X Factor thing about aliens, but I am m so primed for nuclear horror, so obsessed with the nuclear attack, that even The X Factor were able to trick me for a second or two into thinking it was the end of the world.
Ian Sanders: Yeah, because there’s a number of videos on YouTube where people have sort of like faked BBC news in sort of like an escalation process and then the screen goes blank and it comes up with a warning message saying four minute warning, or something like that. And I can understand how you can for you just suddenly get that split second reaction to it, particularly as you’ve been immersed in this subject for quite some time now. The government believed that they can save some of the population. And I think when it was atomic weapons in the early part of the Cold War, they didn’t have the devastating power of the later hydrogen bombs. But once the hydrogen bomb is there, and as you said before, a country as small as the UK, it would only need a small number of warheads to completely devastate the country. But the government is sort of looking at this with some of the leftovers from World War II. I mean, you’ve got the Women’s Royal Volunteer Service ready to step into the breach.
Julie McDowall: Yes, they were great. They were formed back in 1938. Uh, it was a way of getting, I suppose you would say, genteel or middle class women into civil defense work. Of course, it was seen as grubby or masculine or dangerous, of course, which of course, it was dangerous civil defense work during the war. So this was seen as a way of getting this huge, untapped reserve of women into civil defense work. So the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service offered what would be seen as typically female work with the welfare side of things. When someone’s been bombed out of their homes, they will set up, uh, food kitchens in the streets, they will offer blankets, they will offer hot tea. They will try and reunite scattered families. So that was seen as a way of getting women into civil defense work, women who might otherwise have been deterred, thinking it was a man’s job. So this huge army, and they were very well, um, thought of during the Second World War. Uh, they were nicknamed the army that Hitler forgot. You could focus on the guys in uniform with the guns. But what about all these tough women back at home keeping Britain going? So after the end of the war, they continued because they were doing such good work, they were so well organized. And so when the nuclear threat arose, it was thought, okay, let’s get them back into that role. Uh. But of course, welfare work doesn’t or wouldn’t work so well after a nuclear attack. Because if you think of the Blitz, a street has been bombed or an uh area has been bombed. The Women’s Royal Voluntary Service, with their mobile canteens, will roll into the street and immediately start doing their emergency feeding and dishing out hot soups and tea. You can’t do that after a nuclear attack because, well, one, the destruction might be so vast that there will be no roads left. So how can you roll along with your mobile canteen? But secondly, because of fallout, which, of course, wasn’t a threat in the Second World War, because of fallout, that means that you can’t step outside. Uh, you will have a period of at least 48 hours after the nuclear attack where it’s not safe to be out of doors. So these women well, the role is redundant. You can’t turn up in the streets and seek to offer welfare services and help people because the street is forbidden, going outside is forbidden. So you couldn’t simply pick them up from the Blitz and transplant them into a post nuclear world. It simply wouldn’t work. But they didn’t want to hear that, and certainly the government didn’t want to admit that, because admitting that is admitting that we’re quite helpless. And the things that we relied on during the Blitz, the things which helped us win, are, uh, useless now, futile. So they carried on in the Cold War, said, we will do the same thing. Uh, and they were ridiculed for that. In the 80s, their leader gave a talk to one of their annual conferences and she said that, yes, we will continue to do the work we do now after a nuclear war. So that’s Meals on Wheels, for example, they’re quite famous for delivering Meals on Wheels to the elderly. So she insisted, we will still have Meals on Wheels after a nuclear war. And she said, and this is ridiculous, we will even have a Jigsaw on Wheels service. So all the survivors are gathered in their feeding center or the welfare center, and our tough and hearty, uh, ladies will turn up with hot tea, blankets and jigsaws for them. So there was just no concept of facing the reality of a nuclear attack there. And, uh, you might think, well, these are well meaning older ladies, perhaps genteel, middle class, maybe a bit sheltered from the reality of life. But the woman, the leader of the organization who made this comment at the time, I believe her name is Lady Pike, was a politician. And again, turning to the good old Guardian Letters page archives, someone wrote in saying they were furious with her for this silly naivety, because as a politician, she must have been aware of what the aftermath of a nuclear attack would look like. She wasn’t some nice old lady who likes to help out at, uh, the local church and helping the poor, et cetera. She was a politician. And so it’s disingenuous of her to say, well, don’t worry, we’ll still be there after a nuclear war with her meals and her jigsaws and her blankets. Because that suggests that nuclear war is survivable. And if you take it a step further, that suggests that nuclear war is something that can be risked because you can come back from it one day with the help of blankets and jigsaws. The idea should be that a nuclear war is unthinkable and we should never allow ourselves consciously to get anywhere near the thing. But the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service, whether they were well meaning or not, gave the impression that it was survivable. And yes, might just be a bit like the Blitz, which is a hideous idea.
Ian Sanders: Yeah. And these attitudes, uh, in the 1980s and earlier in the 1950s, led to the rise of organizations like the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, cnd and, uh, you have a number of stories around them. They were particularly against any preparation for nuclear war. And I know that the Royal Observer Corps had quite a problem with them, um, blockading posts during exercises and this sort of thing.
Julie McDowall: That’s right, yes. The Royal Observer Corps were quite, I suppose, vulnerable to Cnd protests because their bunkers were accessible. We have Roc, I say bunkers. Technically they’re called monitoring posts, but they are little nuclear bunkers. They were scattered all across the country. There were at one point, well over 1000 of them. So it’s not uncommon to see one in your local park or even in your local housing estate. There’s one in Dundee, I believe, in a housing estate. So their bunkers were all over the place and were relatively accessible, unlike, say, a big government bunker which might be behind barbed wire at the end of a road which is guarded or full of CCTV. The Roc were vulnerable to these, um, protests. There were a few in the early eighty s, the Cnd would turn up at the Roc posts, which would be in use for training exercises. Of course, they were never used for real. So our observers would turn up for their training exercise at the weekend or some evening and find all these Cnd activists around it. Sometimes they would, uh, put superglue in the locks. On another occasion, a lot of them turned up and lay on the ground beside the monitoring post to simulate what they called a dye in representing the dead after a nuclear war. And the Observers would often just be quite confused, thinking, well, why on earth are they targeting us? Because we wouldn’t be the ones who’d be launching the missiles. The Royal Observer Corps would simply have been monitoring the damage in order to, dare I say it, help the survivors. Cnd didn’t want to admit, uh, that of course, because they wanted to promote the idea that there’s no preparation you can make, there’s no prospect of helping anyone but the Roc. Their work could have saved some people. Um, whether you’re, as I said at the beginning, whether you want to survive or not is a different thing. But certainly by the Arrow Sea’s main target purpose during those little bunkers was to plot where the bombs had dropped and give the strength of the bombs, and then use the radiation meters to count or, uh, measure what the fallout was like outside and report all of that back to the headquarters. So that means people back in headquarters would have had a map of the region and they’d be able to say, okay, bombs have dropped here, here, and here. And we’d have guys from the May office with them who would be able to say, okay, the wind is blowing this direction, so that means fallout will be heading in this direction. So the RSC would be able to say which areas were gone, which areas were inaccessible, which areas were smothered in fallout? And, uh, on the flip side, which areas were relatively unscathed? So that allowed you to say, okay, well, let’s get supplies into this area or let’s get refugees away from that area. So yes, in theory they could have saved people, but because they were accessible and, um, all over the country, they were an easy target, I suppose, for protesters.
Ian Sanders: Yeah, because I think you visited one of these posts because a number of them are preserved around the country. Uh, so both you and I have visited these posts. And it’s interesting talking to the personnel that would have served in there, because when you ask them, if you were told to go into action, would you have turned up? The ones that I speak to say absolutely, 100%? Yes. But they also have shared doubts as to whether the whole crew turned up because that moment you get the warning. Would you want to abandon your family? At, uh, that point?
Julie McDowall: I don’t think anyone obviously I can’t speak for anyone in the Roc, but I find it hard to believe that anyone could say with 100% certainty, i, uh, will turn up when I’m given the order. Because surely none of us have been in that situation. No one has ever been in that situation. So surely you can’t possibly know until it happened. So by all means, yes, they could have said with the hand in the heart, I will go, I will do my duty. But there would have been surely some who would have given that commitment, but then thought when the horror came, as you say, I can’t leave. I can’t leave my family. And I suppose if the observer in question had perhaps a young family, young children or maybe a, ah, sick or elderly relative who was dependent upon them, then it may be harder, uh, for them to leave. I actually interviewed quite a few observers for my book and I asked that question of them would you have gone if you’d been given the order? And one of the observers I spoke to was a woman. Of course, we know that there were women in the Observer Corps. They were in the minority, but certainly there were a lot of women there. And the, ah, woman I spoke to, she had young children at the time. And of course, um, we shouldn’t hold women, just a different standard. Men and women who have kids, it should be the same. You’re both obviously committed to looking after them, to caring for them, to loving them. But whether we like it or not, women are always looked upon differently when it comes to being the caregiver. So I asked this female observer or ex observer, you had young kids at the time, so how would you have felt about leaving them? And she said, and um, I admire her honesty in saying this yes, I would have left them with their father of course not left them alone, but I would have left them and gone to do my duty at the post. Because by leaving them, I am, um, helping them. If I’m on duty down in the post doing my Royal Observer work, plotting the bomb bursts and the fallout, feeding that information back to HQ, and therefore helping them to plan rescue or evacuation or getting supplies and medical and food supplies in and out, then I, um, am indirectly helping my children. So I admire her for being brave enough to say that, yes, I believe them, because with her judgmental, uh, society these days, if she said something like that, um, on Twitter, she would no doubt have been subject to all sorts of abuse and insults. But I thought it was very admirable of her to say, yes, I would have gone, because that is my way of helping my children, making things a bit safer for them.
Ian Sanders: It’s always interesting speaking to the people who were there firsthand, which, as you know, is, uh, sort of the main remit of this podcast. I always say there’s nothing like hearing history from people who were there.
Julie McDowall: Yes, exactly.
Ian Sanders: If you’d like to learn more about the role of the Royal Observer Corps during the Cold War, then I do recommend you check out our episodes eleven and 30. Thank you. So the the government trying to make the nation survive a nuclear attack. One of their ways is to disperse various government teams around the country so that there is some semblance of government to survive a nuclear attack. And one of these teams, and this is another of your many great stories in this book, is the UK Supply Agency team. And, um, tell us the story about their Scottish branch.
Julie McDowall: Uh, the plan here was it was known as the Python Plan. And I need to give a shout out to my friend and colleague, Mike Kenner, for doing a lot of the initial research on Python. The plan was get your government and split it into tiny little groups and scatter them around the country in the hope that, uh, some of them will survive. Prior to Python, the plan was get central government, including the Prime Minister, and take them all to a huge bunker in Wiltshire, uh, known as Burlington. It went by many code names, but Burlington is the one that I’ll call it. But it was realized that well, if the Soviets find out where Burlington is, which they will do if there’s ever a false alarm or something like Cuba, for example, where we get to the brink and then fall back if we send everyone to Burlington and then everything’s all right? We’ve given away the location of Burlington, so we can only use it once. Really? Uh, and then, of course, with the hydrogen bomb, we know that Burlington, indeed, any bunker, couldn’t withstand a direct hit from a hydrogen bomb. So Python changed that concept. Instead of everyone running to one place, we will not ah, keep all our eggs in one basket. Instead we will split everyone up into little groups and they will scatter all across the country to hide in different locations, different types of buildings, bunkers, barracks, a university, a castle and in the case of the UKSA, a ferry. So the idea there was if we put them on a ferry which the government had three special ferries built with special features to make them basically act as floating nuclear bunkers. So they had blast doors to seal the deck, they had showers which could decontaminate the deck from any uh contamination. Three of these ferries were built on the government’s request but of course there was no point just keeping them in a harbor somewhere for the day they might be used. So they were given to the ferry company, Caledonian McBrain painted with their livery and they worked ah, ordinarily just as ordinary car ferries. So they were taking people around the Scottish islands, sailing from Oban to Largs, out to the islands, just doing a normal uh car ferry journey but with a secret secondary purpose as a floating nuclear bunker. So if it happened uh the party called Uksa, called the Whiskey Group would have gone up to Oban or Malay, one of those two departure points, boarded one of these nuclear ferries and sailed around the Scottish sea Loss for the duration of the emergency. Uh, of course the idea there is because you’re mobile, you’re able to evade any fallout plume that might be coming towards you. If you’re in a bunker or a castle or a barracks, you’re stuck there of course, but at least on the Eucharist ferry you could uh keep moving to avoid any fallout coming your way. So our party would be aboard this ship for well perhaps two weeks maybe. That’s the usual period that we would all be staying hunkers down and the idea was they would come back to shore, disembark when it was safe to do so and hopefully, hopefully link up with other surviving Python groups and reform to make some kind of central government. But the people aboard the ferry, the Whiskey Group, one of their main duties would be food for Britain because we currently uh as ah, with the cold during the cold War import a lot of our food. And ah, we can assume of course that after the nuclear attack we can’t import anything because how can we import it? We can assume that our uh ferry ports and our air bases et cetera will all be gone, destroyed and also who would sell the foods to us? We can assume that all our allies and friends are also in terrible straits and won’t have anything to spare. So we would have to look very carefully at uh how we supply Britain. And um, once we get supplies, how do we get them around the country with its ruined infrastructure. So that was there. The important work that had been done by the guys on the ferry, on the Whiskey Group guys. Of course the problem there is food. If you don’t have food for the surviving population then really you don’t have anything. If you think of civil defense and um, the nuclear survival scenario like a pyramid, food is ah, at the very bottom of the pyramid. Everything else is piled on top of that. If you can’t sort out the basics of making sure the survivors are fed and have clean water then you can forget everything else. You can forget all your plans for law and order, for rebuilding, for cleaning the debris, for building society back up again. You can forget it all. Unless the government can say look, we are at least able to offer you a plate of stew and a cup of water. If they’re not able to do that most basic obvious thing then how can the government expect obedience and cooperation from the population? So uh, food, the supply of food and the distribution of food was absolutely crucial. If that didn’t happen, then nothing else was going to happen.
Ian Sanders: If you are interested in visiting a former Cold War government bunker in the UK, a firm Cold War conversations favorite is the secret nuclear bunker at Hack Green near Nantwich in Cheshire. The Seabert family have built an incredible museum recreating the feel of a 1980s government bunker alongside exhibits including deactivated nuclear weapons. For more information visit hackgreen co UK one of the main burdens of civil defense planning fell on local authorities and a number of these declared. In fact Manchester, where I am at the moment, was the first one to declare themselves as a nuclear free city and tried to resist being forced into planning for something that they thought was unthinkable. Um, Sheffield was another one of these and uh, they did go ahead with planning but they made it very clear to the population uh, as to what they were trying to plan for.
Julie McDowall: That’s right. Yes. The nuclear free movement sprung up in the early eighty s and it was obviously normally left wing councils who said we uh, don’t believe nuclear war can be planned for, we don’t believe it is survivable, therefore we object to being compelled to plan for it. And they were compelled. The Home Office said, well you have to, whether you like it or not, doesn’t matter what your ideology is, it’s your legal responsibility to do civil defense planning and if you don’t do it we will send the guys up from London to do it for you and we’ll charge you for the service. Um, some ah, councils such as uh, Yorkshire as you said, they did it. They agree. They said okay we are nuclear free, we don’t agree with this at all. But basically you’re forcing your hand. You’re saying we have to make civil defense plans. So okay, we will and we will make them very, very truthful and very, very honest and very, very gruesome and blunt. Ah. So much so that the Home Office would probably have preferred that they just kept quiet. I found their, uh, civil defense plans down at the British Library, and they are i, uh, was going to say they’re very lured, but they’re not, because lurids suggest they were exaggerated. They are simply blunt and bare and honest, which is something you certainly didn’t get from, say, the Protect and Survive campaign, which is from the core Central government, which implied that nuclear war can be, as the heading suggests, as the title suggests, protected against and survived. So the Yorkshire Council, their advice was just blunt and honest, as you might expect from a Yorkshireman, the typical stereotype of being blunt. So it had details like, um, protective survivor had said, if someone dies in your house, you will need to take care of the body yourself until services can resume. So in the meantime, uh, wrap up the body and bury in the garden. But the Yorkshire Council took those details and said, well, what does that actually mean? And they told the visa what it means. They said, you will need to get black bin bags and wrap the body in these black bin bags. But don’t wrap it too tightly, they said, because gasses will start to escape from the decaying body and they will try and force themselves out through the plastic wrapping. So give the gasses from the decaying body a bit of space to breathe, basically. So that detail is horrific. And of course, protective survivors didn’t hint at any such horror. But Yorkshire, being very honest, said, this is the reality of civil Defense planning. You have to wrap your relatives in bin bags, but not too tightly. Please let your relatives gasses escape.
Ian Sanders: Unbelievable. And Protect and Survive was the British Central Government communication that would have gone out to households in the build up to a war and would have also been printed in, uh, newspapers as well. But there was a TV version, which I find particularly haunting, with the voice of Patrick Allen, who was an actor, a, uh, relatively famous actor in the UK. And he was also the voice of the Barrett Holmes ad in the UK as well. Um, and if you put the two together side by side, it’s, um, quite a contrast there.
Julie McDowall: Yeah, I can go even more observed than that. Ian. I think he also became the narrator for shooting Stars with Thick and Bob.
Ian Sanders: Wow.
Julie McDowall: Okay.
Ian Sanders: Yeah. Well, he had quite an illustrious, uh, career. I mean, I have to have asked him, um, when your agent called you and said, got a great gig for you, Patrick, what? He thought, I’m going to be the last voice to be heard across British TV if we go to war.
Julie McDowall: That’s right, yes. The whole idea of being the last voice is so horrifying, it’s a privilege, but also it’s a terrible burden on the person. But the whole idea of the BBC having a reliable and unknown and respected voice reassuring, uh, message to the nation, that also had a downside, because the idea was at some point, well, let’s get a message recorded by someone jovial and known and trusted, a Teddy Wogan type figure. And we can get him to record a message saying the war is over. Now, uh, things are difficult, but we will get through it. That type of typically British thing. But the idea was, if we have that on a tape somewhere and it’s just playing on repeats and being broadcast to people’s radios, if whenever they tune in, all we hear is that bloody Terry Wogan speech going on, and on and on. Instead of reassuring people, it might terrify them because it might give the impression there’s nothing left of London, nothing left of the BBC at all, except a little tape with Terry Wogan on it, going round and round and round. So yeah, the idea of having a message, certainly from a trusted and a soothing voice was a good idea, but you’d have to make sure it was one which changed and updated, otherwise it gives the impression there’s nothing left but a uh, recording. And so that’s why, um, a lot of bunkers across the country, government bunkers, would have had a tiny little BBC studios inside them, so that after the attack, uh, your local bunker could have broadcast advice, both national advice, but also local advice information and instructions that were unique to your area. So that would have given probably a bit of a boost to morale because you would know that people are still around. It’s not just a tape recording of someone who’s long since turned to dust.
Ian Sanders: Yeah, assuming your batteries are still running on your radio, but we’ll possibly come to that in a moment. So it’s important, I think, to comment here that in the UK versus the US and the Soviet Union, there was no public shelter program. So the Protect and Survive pamphlet was intended to tell households how to protect themselves within the home. And it was essentially take a few doors off, uh, lean them against the wall, try and pile sandbags or soil filled bags on top of them to try and protect against radiation, and then basically hide in there with a bucket for a loo, various black bin bags in case relatives expire during that period, and, uh, a bit of food. And, uh, your battery powered radio.
Julie McDowall: Yeah, that’s right. That’s exactly what Protection Survived advice was, and it was ridiculed at the time. And of course still now there’s a huge Protect and Survive poster on the wall behind me because even if people say it was ridiculous, it’s still iconic, of course, from that era. I, uh, don’t agree that the advice was totally futile because it would have helped some people if you weren’t in a target area and if you had a house which was spacious, which allowed you for a fallout room away from outside windows and exterior walls. And if it was a sturdy old stone house built in the good old days, then and, uh, you had money, of course. Money to buy supplies, medical supplies, to buy food, to buy, uh, construction materials to board the place up, to pile sandbags high. If you had all of that money space, a, uh, big house in a rural area, then, uh, yes, the advice from protective survive could well have saved you. So it wasn’t completely ridiculous. And also I have a bit of sympathy for the government, which is a sentence I never thought I’d say, but in a way they had to issue Protect and Survive or they had to give that impression that you could do something to save yourself. Because if they had been blunt, like our friends in Yorkshire and said, it’s going to be hideous, it’s going to be horrific, there’s nothing you can do. Really, then we might have had mass panic. We might have had a huge surge in support for nuclear disarmament, which, of course, the government in Britain wouldn’t have wanted, because the Cold War. So I really do think the government didn’t have much choice but to I think of it almost as a white lie that you can do this to protect yourself. There’s also another benefit of protecting survive is if it had been distributed, and lots of people have a false memory that it came through the door, it never did. I see you’re nodding there and you must have heard this a million times. It was never distributed. You could buy the thing if you wanted, but it was never distributed to homes en masse, simply because the moment never arrived when that was deemed necessary. So if it had been distributed to homes in a time of terrible tension, terrible anxiety to be hopefully not soon patronizing here, but it would have kept some people busy rather than just panicking running about like headless chickens as the cliche, the instructions and Protect and Survive would have given people some physical labor to do some work. To do busy work, I suppose, but something to do nonetheless, which would have distracted them, occupied them, and perhaps lifted morale by making them feel I am doing something useful. These actions I’m carrying out, some people might laugh at them, but I feel that by doing them, I’m protecting my family. So it would have, I think, helped morale, kept people busy, kept people occupied, made people think they were doing something useful. And of course, arguably it wasn’t useful. But the alternative m then would have been to sit and do nothing and just wait for the bomb to drop. So arguably it’s better to be occupied and busy and think that you’re doing something useful than just sit and imagine what it’s going to be when the bomb bursts and your eyeballs liquefy and you turn to a shadow.
Ian Sanders: I get that. I think there’s a line you’ve got in the book from journalist Duncan Campbell where he estimated that if the whole of Hull had sandbags sufficient to build their fallout shelter in their house, that would have used up the entire national supply of sand.
Julie McDowall: Um, yes, that just proves how how proves, of course, that you can’t properly prepare for nuclear war, so physically you can’t prepare for it. But I think Survivor would have helped people cycle logically prepare for it, even though it would have been futile all along. It’s better than just saying, we’re all done for, we’re doing the government couldn’t do that, of course. Whether people say they should have been honest, they couldn’t have been honest in that respect. They couldn’t have said, we are all going to die because mass panic. And the government, of course, don’t want that. So I think they didn’t really have much alternative but to go ahead and give this impression that, uh, it can be survived. And that’s why it’s good to have protected survives, balanced out by people like Cnd, who were shouting from the other side of the spectrum saying, you can’t survive, that this thing is useless.
Ian Sanders: Yeah. Because the government was quite resistant to the public actually getting hold of the booklet, not about distributing it in time of war, but actually seeing it. It was only really released to local councils and was in their war planning folders. I think in the end, they did bow to pressure and you could buy it and get a copy. And I think that’s when I got my copy in the 1980s.
Julie McDowall: Right, yeah. They were reluctant to distribute it, but it wasn’t because of any kind of devious plan to mislead us or to keep it all secret. Uh, they didn’t distribute it, uh, as we’ve discussed, because the moment when it was deemed necessary thankfully never arrived. Uh, and also if they had distributed it in a time of relative peace, when everyone was quite relaxed, then I can imagine the protective survival leaflet going the same way as the local pizza, uh, menus. You just say, well, what’s this junk? And shove it to the back of the kitchen drawer. So it would have lost its impact if it had been distributed in a relatively peaceful time. So they had to wait for the right moment to distribute it to every household. And thankfully, that moment never came. But there was no great conspiracy to keep us all in ignorance of it. Um, the government simply didn’t want to waste it, if you like, by dishing it out when it wasn’t needed. And perhaps they were also fearful of ridicule, which of course, did come in bucket loads.
Ian Sanders: Oh, yeah, well, a number of people actually tried it out, didn’t they? Living like that in the fallout shelter is probably too complimentary, uh, a word, but, um, in the space under the lean to of, uh, a couple of doors. And, um, you’ve got some great accounts in there. I mean, we won’t talk about them now, but there’s one guy who, uh, built, uh, one of the DIY ones outside, which involves him discovering a fat white worm in his clothing, um, after being in there for about a week or so. But, uh, uh, I’ll leave that for, uh, the listener, uh, to find when they go and get the book. Now, there’s a number of companies now out there in the 80s that are trying to sell these private shelters. And that spawns probably one of the strangest magazines I’ve seen. A magazine called Protect and Survive Monthly.
Julie McDowall: I love that magazine. Yes, I’ve been you’d still be a subscriber.
Ian Sanders: Now.
Julie McDowall: Obviously, it’s quite hard to find these days because it was never a huge, popular magazine. Uh, a very niche topic, of course. But, uh, I’ve seen all copies of it down in the British Library and they are just spectacular protective, I must say. Was a civil defense magazine, basically, uh, about how to protect yourself against nuclear attack. Much of it was adverts, of course, uh, from companies which were selling nuclear shelters for your back garden or ration packs, radiation meters, that type of thing. But there were lots of articles in it, very loaded, very horrifying articles about the reality of nuclear war and to be fair, to Protect and Survive Monthly, even though it’s seen as a bit of a cranks magazine now, uh, a lot of their articles didn’t shy away from the horror of nuclear war. If anything, they pushed it because they said this thing will be horrific. And that’s why you need to buy all these, uh, products for advertising to try and protect yourself. But, um, there are some fascinating articles in it. Um, one of my favorites is about, ah, wild animals. And it said that after a nuclear war for a zoo or a safari park, for example, if they haven’t been able to safely contain or evacuate the animals, and if the gates have been blasted apart, then it’s not impossible to think that you will be lying there in the rubble, injured, and a tiger will come strolling down the street, because all these wild animals will now be loose. And also they will be hungry. And added to that, uh, they will be literally smelling bloods because of all the horrific injuries. Now, that situation is so absurd. If I saw that in a Hollywood film, a guy’s trapped in the rubble, and here comes a tiger or a lion, it would be again, Monty Python. It would be ridiculous. And yet it’s not impossible if you think that it happened during the Blitz. Said there were some escapees from London Zoo during the Blitz, say not tigers, thankfully. But I think it was a zebra. I think a zebra strolled out of the gates. And the newspaper reports implied he was heading to Camden, as if he was going to sample the nightlife in Camden. Uh, and London Zoo, of course, had specially trained marksmen who were poised during air raids in case any of the scary animals get out. So, yes, protective survived monday brought very horrific things like that to us. So what are you going to do after the nuclear war? You’ve got enough on your plate with your arm being blown off and your kids dying of radiation sickness, and now here comes a lion. It’s just again, I’m laughing not at the horrible that is. I’m laughing at the observance of it. That is potentially what a nuclear war could have brought to the nice, calm, quiet streets of business.
Ian Sanders: Incredible. Incredible. And um, I mean, we, we talked earlier about the, the government bunkers. So there were these, um, regional seats of government. And uh, my local one is Hat Green, which is handily signpost, uh, as the secret nuclear bunker. Now, the people who were assigned to these bunkers, how were they selected or noted? Did they know in advance that they were going to be part of this or not?
Julie McDowall: Well, I do cover this in my book. We see that, ah, you would have drawn up a list or someone at the very top of the chain would have drawn up a list of who to invite to the bunker. And there would have been two criteria. One is are, uh, your scales of use. So they’d have had to have people from, um, people looking after food supply, people looking after the medical aspects of rebuilding society, fire, police, et cetera. Scientific advisors would have to be there. You would have a whole range of advisors, experts. You would have, of course, BBC staff there to run the little studio. You’d also need catering staff there to feed and look after the inhabitants because you would be down there for perhaps 30 days. So a list would have been drawn up of the relevant experts, but you would have to ignore all, uh, equality and discrimination legislation and cross out any names of people who were, uh, disabled. Of course, because, well, obviously it would be difficult to get into a bunker and to exist in that space with a disability, you would have to cross off anyone from the list who, like me, suffers from extreme anxiety and claustrophobia. So you would need to discard quite a lot of names. You might wish to disregard to discard people who had young children for the reason we discussed earlier. Are they going to turn up on the day if they’re faced with crying, terrified kids, saying, daddy, Daddy, don’t go? So that might leave you with quite a small core of people. You would need them. People who were physically fit, had no emotions, basically, and no family. So some very, uh, stern, unpleasant, lonely people. They wouldn’t be told they were on this list because of course the whole thing was secret, you didn’t want people blabbing about it. The idea was that again, on the day when the government gives the word, that okay, we’re now proceeding to the next stage in our preparation for nuclear war. A letter would be handed to the chosen people on the list and they would be told, you’re going to go to a secret location. Um, I’m um, referring to central government here. Obviously local councils would have had different letters, different wording, but with central government you’d be given a letter saying you will be going to a secret location. Wartime headquarters. Please go home and pack a bag. And the letter said and again this is quite sweet in a way. Uh, I believe it said opportunities for entertainment. Uh, at the HQ they didn’t call it the Bunker will be limited. So please bring a book or something and bring some biscuits, bring some chocolate. So I liken it in the book to like uh a nightmare m school trip, you know, go home, pack your bag, get your pocket money, get your pat lunch, get a little book to keep you busy and then come back to the office. At which point they would have been taken to uh, Kensington Olympia Station. This is back when they would all have been going to the West Country. To Burlington, we will go to Kensington Olympia and from there a special train will take us out to the West Country. So that’s how that would have been revealed to those from central government prior to the present plan who were going to this uh, on the wartime duty. They were also told, and again this dates it to the 1960s ah, we can assume it was mainly men who’d have been going here. So they were told, if you want to withdraw an advance on your salary and hand it to the little women so she can buy groceries, then you can do that. So they were able to take an advance in salary, hand it over to the wife and that was obviously perhaps useless because if she has this advance in salary, are the shops going to be still stopped with food? Because by this point perhaps there will be panic buying and the shops will be empty. So is this advance in salary going to buy anything? And then of course after the war, after the attack, the salary, the money in her hand will be useless. Of course money will cease to mean anything, will just be paper and metal. So that was mainly just I think a psychological um, prop to keep the courage up. Don’t, don’t worry, you’re still able to look after your wife and kids even if you leave them. We can redirect your salary towards the wife even though the salary would probably be useless. So I think it was psychological mainly, yeah.
Ian Sanders: I mean, it does remind me of the story of Harold m. Macmillan, the, uh, british prime minister that, um, his driver had to keep some small change with him so that if the four minute warning did go off the Prime Minister could go to a pay phone and call headquarters and get in contact with them, which is just endless Monty Python esque movements.
Julie McDowall: It certainly is, yeah. It’s just ridiculous. It just shows we can laugh at them for that. Harold McMillan must always keep some spare change or get some from his chauffeur. But at the same time, if you’d ask the civil servants if you could speak to them now, they would have shrugged and said, well, what do you expect of us? We don’t have mobile phones. What do you expect? We have to drop Harold off our, uh, phone box because there’s no alternative.
Ian Sanders: Yeah. Uh, incredible. Incredible. We have an interview with somebody who was assigned to one of these government bunkers in our episode 107. Now, we can’t sort of finish without talking about where you began with this fascination with nuclear war. And it starts with a film, doesn’t it? It starts with threads.
Julie McDowall: That’s right. Um, threads for those. I assume most of your listeners will have seen it, Ian, as it’s so crucial, it’s such an important film. It’s a highly realistic drama about nuclear, uh, war. An all out nuclear war, full horror, set in Sheffield. So it’s not set in, uh, London, Moscow, New York, the seats of power and influence and glamour. It’s set in forgive me, Sheffielders. Grubby down at heels. 1980 Sheffield. So this film went out in September of 1984 on BBC Two. It’s not as if it was X rays and only available on video. It went out on BBC Two, nine o’clock, I believe I was three at the time. And I watched it. Obviously, I shouldn’t have been watching it. My dad was watching it and no doubt my mom was away for the night. I don’t know what happened. He’d probably been told, put that child to bed, please, at a sensible hour, be a responsible father. But he thought, I can’t be bothered. So he sat down to watch the Reds and I was just kneeling in front of the TV with my toys, I suppose I can’t remember. And dad probably thought she wouldn’t understand what’s going on, she wouldn’t take it in. So there’s no harm in just leaving the poor kids in front of the TV with nuclear war in front of her. But, um, I did take it in. I didn’t understand what I was seeing, of course. I didn’t understand about nuclear war, the Cold War, the power imbalance, et cetera. I didn’t understand any of, uh, that. I took in a feeling, I took in an absolute feeling of total dread. And I remember certain images from the film. I remember when the bomb goes off and we see milk bottles on the doorstep because a lot of. Thread is about domestic scenes, ordinary, humdrum life. We see milk quite a lot in the film because I suppose that represents domesticity. A cup of tea, preparing the table for dinner, ordinary life. So there’s a point where we see, with the heat flash of the bomb, milk bottles on a doorstep, and they melt in the heat. And I always remember seeing that I didn’t understand that. How can glass melt? How can a milk bottle melt? And there’s another scene which always stuck in my head, again, probably because I was a child at the time, we see an Et doll in the rubble outside, and again, it’s caught in the flames of the firestorm, and you see the Et flickering in the flames. So these horrific images stayed with me. And some people don’t believe, but how could you have watched that as a three year old? Because some people, after hearing about it on my podcast, they’ll contact me and say, oh, I’m 52 and I’m still too scared to watch it. Or I saw it when I was 40 and I was terrified, and I was watching it as a three year old, but it stuck with me forever. The film never loses its power. I’ve probably seen it a thousand times. There’s a series on my podcast called Four Minutes with Threads, where I scrutinize the film in impossible detail, four minutes at a time. That’s how obsessed I am with it. So I’ve looked at it in such detail. I’ve interviewed the director, talked about it endlessly, and it never loses any of its power. And I recommend it to all of your listeners who haven’t yet seen it. It’s an incredible film. And out in 1984, the year before that, the Americans released their own version of it, uh, called The Day After, which, um, has received a lot of ridicule for being a kind of Hollywood version of nuclear war. It has Steve Gutenberg in it, and he maintains his nice smile and his white teeth throughout. There’s no realism in it. There’s none of the absolute dread, the absolute horror that we see in Threads. And I think it’s because it was a low budget British film. I think with all the money thrown at The Day After in America, loads of money, big Hollywood names a soundtrack that just removes you from the horror of it, whereas Threads grabs you by the collar and thrusts you right into the center of it. And if you see it as a three year old like me, you are scarred for life.
Ian Sanders: Yeah, I think with Threads, I mean, they used unknown actors. So it brought that realism, that documentary feel. But prior to Threads, a film was commissioned by the BBC, uh, to be made by a director called Peter Watkins, who’d previously made documentaries. He’d done one on the Budapest uprising, and, uh, he’d done one on the Battle of Culloden as well. And so he produced this film which the BBC found too shocking to broadcast.
Julie McDowall: Yes, uh, that’s correct. It was a huge scandal at the time. Uh, a very difficult subject. They recruited this young director, Peter Watkins, and he was a bit of a bit of a rebel, a bit of a firebrand. Very, very feisty and very, very committed to his own vision of what a film should be. And that was the main thing he wanted to have in his documentary, was realism. So he, as you said, made a film about the Hungarian uprising. He then made one about Culloden, which is I have no interest at all in that type of history, military history. But I watched Culloden, and I could see where his later nuclear war film came from, because it’s so brutal. It’s set on the battlefield with a guy. It’s almost as if the cameraman is running about on the battlefield, in amongst the soldiers, dodging the cannon fire, et cetera, and the camera is thrust right into people’s faces, the soldiers faces, um, almost, how do you feel? You’ve had your leg blown off. How did you get here? How did this situation happen? So he wanted to take that same approach, that same brutal, unflinching stare right into the reality of war and turn it to nuclear war. Now, his bosses at the BBC were a bit nervous because of course, that would be obviously horrific, but there was also the restless. It would be a bit it would displease the government. So they very tentatively gave him permission. The film, which was called The War Game, proceeded in baby steps. Okay, you’ve got permission to research it? Okay? You’ve got permission to start filming? Okay, let us have a look at the thing first. It all moved very, very slowly, and when the finished article was ready, it was shown to, uh, the bosses of the BBC, who said there were no doubt of its artistic merit. But they worried, of course, on the surface, they worried about us. If we show this, how will ordinary people react? There was talk of suicides. There could be mass suicides if we show this. What about the little old lady who’s watching at home alone at night? And what about people who survived the Blitz and remember the horror of living under aerial bombardment? What if we show them this? So it’s very patronizing, of course, they were saying, oh, you little people can’t deal with drifts, can’t deal with this. So the BBC made the decision, terrible decision, of asking the government for their helpful advice. So they invited some uh, important men in from Whitehall to come and view the film. And um, the important men watched it and then gave their advice. They weren’t bold enough or silly enough to say, we ban this, we forbid the BBC, because of course, the government shouldn’t be doing that. But they politely made their concerns known and politely suggested that m, this could be a bit troublesome. So the BBC made the decision not to show the film. So it was never banned. It was shown in cinemas. If you wanted to see it back in those days, you could seek it out at uh, film societies or art house cinemas, but it was not shown on the BBC. The director of course, was furious. He felt he’d been betrayed and uh, he resigned in protest. The film, which was shown overseas, went on to win best documentary at the Oscars the very next year. So everyone else was able to watch it and appreciate it. But the BBC, under pressure from the government here, tried to smother um, the thing. Now of course that was shameful because the BBC is supposed to be independent, but here they were basically taking instruction from the government and suppressing the truths about what a nuclear attack would look like and how futile Civil Defense was. So the film remained um, hidden away, not banned. A lot of people say it was banned. It was never banned. It just, it wasn’t broadcast to a mass audience on the BBC. Uh, and then 20 years later, Mick Jackson, who would go on to direct Threads, joined the BBC and was very interested in the topic. And he was aware, I interviewed him on my podcast. He said when he joined the BBC he was aware of the, I believe he called it a stain, the stain that the scandal had left on the BBC. And he being the early eighty S, and he being uh, a young uh, family man at the time, thinking, what’s going to happen to my kids? He was quite interested, or very interested in the topic of nuclear war. But you thought, but it’s like there’s a curse on the topic with the war game curse from the BBC. No one’s allowed to talk about nuclear war because of what happened back in the 60s, back in that terrible era when they, when they tried to suppress the war game. So he very gently tried to push at that, try and lift the curse. So he did that by directing a short documentary for the old Qed documentary series. And it was called A Guide to Armageddon. And it was done as a kind of tongue in cheek consumer program saying there’s a threat of nuclear attack. Here are the shelters you could buy, here are the precautions you could take, but are they of any use? So it was almost like um, watchdog or something. If you buy this and if you follow these instructions, will it do you any good? And there was a great sarcastic tone to the narration. It would say things like here are a couple who live in Shepherd’s Bush and they have bought X, Y and Z and they have followed the instructions. So if the bomb drops above St. Paul’s, what will happen? And the narration says, I uh, think they’re called join Eric Joy and Eric would survive for about 14 seconds. And then, of course, the blast wave comes, and then, of course, you die horribly. So Mick Jackson was able to get that on the BBC. So that was the first big honest look at, ah, nuclear war. Uh, so that was his first step at lifting the curses of the war game. And he managed to lift the curse and get this past the BBC bosses by saying, it’s going to be done in the style of a consumer program. It’s going to be totally based on science and physics of a nuclear explosion and statistics. We’re not going to be secret lefties trying to, uh, convince everyone to join Cnd. It’s simply, here is what a nuclear blast would do, here is what your, uh, protection is. That’s all we’re going to do. It’s purely science and facts. And it worked. He managed to lift the curse of the War game. He got nuclear war back on primetime BBC. And then after that, having won the first round of the battle and having amassed so much information about nuclear war, he thought, I want to take this further. And so he thought, my half hour documentary, again to Armageddon looked at the physical impact of a nuclear attack. I now want to look at the psychological impact, the social impact, what will it do to society? And the best way to do that is through a drama. And that’s how Threads was born, and that’s how Threads lifted the Curse of the War Game. And then one year after Threads was broadcast, ah, we were now, in 1985, of course, a big anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. BBC marched the occasion by rebroadcasting Threads and finally broadcasting the war game. And so the curse had been lifted.
Ian Sanders: With The War Game. The first time I saw it was at a Campaign for Nuclear disarmament meeting, because that was one of the only places you could see it. Cnd were using it as a recruiting tool throughout the 1980s. And you have a lovely little, um, story around the broadcasting of a guy to Armageddon that it was delayed. Now, why was it delayed, Julie?
Julie McDowall: Obviously, we know that the broadcast of a guide to Armageddon had to be handled very carefully because it was, as we said, nick Jackson’s first attempt at lifting the curse of the war game. So the BBC had given permission for it to go ahead. But yes, it was being handled very carefully. Now, the film opens with, um, the imagined scenario of a nuclear bomb bursting above the dome of St. Paul’s. And we’re shown the Dome of St. Paul’s, and we’re shown the huge bronze cross at the top. And we’re told by the narrator that the blast would melt the cross and cause the metal to run down the building, which is a horrible, very blunt image. So we’re focused very much on horror on St. Paul’s. Now, the day it was scheduled for broadcast. There was a, uh, Falklands war, ah, commemoration ceremony being held at St. Paul’s, and, um, the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, was going to be there. And so it was thought to perhaps be maybe pushing their luck a bit too far if they showed this scene of horror at St. Paul’s whilst she, whilst Maggie was there. So they withdrew it from the schedule, but they simply moved it ahead for one more week. So they withdrew it, but immediately rescheduled it. So there was a bit of a wobble when it was taken off the schedule, but they immediately rectified it and put it back on. But I suppose they were just being very careful given what had happened in the 60s with the war game.
Ian Sanders: The book is called Attack warning. Red, how Britain prepared? I’ll let it that bit out. Hang on. The book is called Attack Warning. Red how Britain prepared for nuclear war. It will be published by the time this, uh, podcast goes out. Where can people find you online, Julie?
Julie McDowall: I’m on Twitter under my own name, Julie A. McDowell. Uh, I’m on Facebook under Nuclear Britain, and you can find my podcast, which is called Atomic Hobo. And of course, your listeners know very well how easy it is to access pods. So please do check it out if you’re interested in the topic. It’s called atomic hobo. And as I said earlier, one of my recurring series on that pod is, uh, scrutinizing every single moment of threads. Like the obsessive weirdo that I am.
Ian Sanders: I do recommend that people listen to, uh, Atomic Hobo. It does 100% come cold War Conversations recommended. It’s rare to have a conversation with a fellow Cold War podcaster, and I’m delighted that we’re able to, through Cold War conversations, support Julie with the book and, uh, also to share her podcast, uh, with our audience. So, Julie, thank you so much for coming on. Cold war conversations. I’ve really enjoyed this chat today.
Julie McDowall: It’s been a pleasure. Thank you for asking me.
Ian Sanders: If you want to buy the book, please use the links in the episode notes as they will help to support Cold War conversations. Don’t miss the episode extras such as videos, photos and other content. Just look for the link in the podcast information. The podcast wouldn’t exist without the generous support of our financial supporters. And I’d like to thank one and all of them, um, for keeping the podcast on the road. If you’d like to help the project, just go to coldwarconversations.com donate. The Cold War conversation continues in, um, our Facebook discussion group. Just search for Cold War conversations in Facebook. Thanks very much for listening and see you next week.