Asa child of the 80s, and an anxious one at that, the nuclear threat loomed large in my ever-present inner turmoil. What if I was at school when the four-minute warning went off? I knew that even at my fastest I couldn’t run home in that time, and I was likely to be slowed by panic and crowds, too. Was Catford close enough to central London to ensure that we would be killed instantly when the first strikes came, or would we survive to endure radiation sickness and all the other horrors detailed in books such as Brother in the Land and Z for Zachariah? Mum promised me there would be enough signs that nuclear war was imminent for her to be sure to keep me home and that we would all die together, and with that scant comfort I went about my days.
Gradually, the threat has receded and adulthood – the last glorious half decade or so of it particularly – has yielded a rich crop of new choking fears to take its place. But that, of course, is true only for the most fortunate among us. For those who remain more proximate to the threat, such as the citizens of Hawaii, whose home is also the nerve center for command control operations in the Pacific and an immediate target in the event of an attack on the US, there has never been that luxury. In On the Morning You Wake (to the End of the World), the latest edition of long-running documentary strand Storyville (BBC Four), we are taken in almost real time through the 38 minutes during which the entire island believed a nuclear strike was incoming and prepared en masse for the unthinkable.
On Saturday 13 January 2018 at 8.07am every person on the island received a text message from the country’s emergency management agency that read: “Ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawai’i. Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill.”
It is an untraditional documentary. The story unfolds via audio interviews with recipients of the message alongside impressionistic CGI-rendered scenes, inspired by atomic structures, designed to evoke their experiences. So pictures fragment and dissolve along mathematically patterned lines, lights dance and gather like electrons, and so on. The film is divided into three parts, each framed by the narration of the long prose poem from which the program takes its title, performed by its author, Dr Jamaica Heolimeleikalani Osorio.
Tastes will differ, but for me the visual element of this multi-layered storytelling excursion added the least and maybe even detracted from the power of the piece. The affectlessness of the smooth, unrealistic figures in their virtual landscape seemed to dilute the deep, warm humanity of the poem and the eyewitness testimonies – and detach you from the horror rather than immerse you further. This was most obvious, perhaps, when the account of Hiroshima survivor Mitsuko Heidtke – and her decision not to seek shelter because she didn’t want to experience again what she saw and suffered as a child – was accompanied by an unconvincing avatar of an old Japanese woman in her house with the animation undulating as she recalled the blast wave hitting the city while she was on her way to school.
The power and fascination of any documentary about people who find themselves caught up in extraordinary historical events – be they natural or human-made – resides in the words the people themselves find to talk about them, to convey the seemingly impossible, to encapsulate the unimaginable for us. If they struggle and fail, that still tells us more than a sad-faced aggregation of pixels. The incredulity still in the voice of Cynthia Lazaroff as she remembers seeing parents shoving their children down storm drains against their will, and wondering how you could ever explain to a child how we have come to live in the world where this had to be done, is worth a thousand pictures.
But the voices and the poem – so fiercely delivered by Osorio that it thrums in the blood long after the film has ended – are enough. They bring alive those 38 dreadful minutes and with them the knowledge that we live not without the nuclear threat but with one that has become so huge, so constant, so much part of our world that we do not consciously realize how it shapes us, our lives, our mental burdens. Until a text is sent by mistake and wakes us up once more. And the only possible comfort still is the hope that, given the immediate and unstoppable global escalation there would be in the wake of a single strike, we can all die together.