Chernobyl (Sky Atlantic)

It may have landed in a bank holiday week, but it was clear from the start that Chernobyl is no popcorn-friendly disaster movie. Rather, Sky/HBO’s new miniseries about the catastrophic 1986 Soviet nuclear power plant explosion is a harrowing, gripping descent into the belching furnace of Hell.

With extensive location filming at Chernobyl’s sister station in Lithuania, there’s a chilling authenticity to the production, director Johan Renck rendering Iron Curtain-era Ukraine as an ashen grey, concrete dystopia whose only spots of colour are the vivid red burns and blisters of stricken plant workers and fire crews. In the city of Pripyat, meanwhile, locals watched the strange light show in wonder, and children literally danced in the radioactive dust as it fell like snow.

All this is harrowing enough, but Craig Mazin’s excellent script finds just as much horror in the implacable, granite face of the Soviet Union itself. A cabal of ruthless, fear-driven apparatchiks less concerned with saving lives than saving face, they initially refused to believe such a thing could even have happened in what was officially called the V.I. Lenin Nuclear Power Station; as if the accident was an affront to the father of the Revolution himself. 

And even as the scale of the disaster became clear, their instinct was to suppress the truth and begin compiling lists of the ‘accountable’. Desperate to bury their dirty secret at all costs, they ordered Pripyat to be sealed - its population still trapped inside - and the phone lines cut, while terrified scientists were marched at gunpoint back into the raging belly of the beast.

It’s a horribly compelling watch, with Mazin skilfully weaving human mini-dramas into the wider unfolding apocalypse. (Jessie Buckley excels as the wife of a first responder fireman, while future episodes will focus on the battle of wills between two nuclear physicists, played Jared Harris and Emily Watson, and the Communist Party machine, represented by Stellan Skarsgard.) It’s also a timely study of the battle between truth and lies, and a salutary reminder of what happens when you combine the power of gods with the frailties of men.

TV extra:


Line of Duty (BBC One)

So, Ted Hastings is innocent. Or is he? With Line of Duty series six already in the works, closure on the identity of the mysterious ‘H’ was always a long shot. In fact, I found the wrap-up to this otherwise electrifying fifth run a bit scrappy and confusing. But it was worth the admission price for that glorious, extended interview room stand-off between Adrian Dunbar’s Ted and Anna Maxwell Martin’s steely DCS Carmichael. I’m already excited for the rematch.


The South Bank Show (Sky Arts)

Jed Mercurio has made a career of ‘slicing into British institutions’, said Melvyn Bragg, kicking off a new South Bank Show series with a profile of the Line of Duty creator. The working-class son of Italian immigrants, Mercurio qualified as a doctor and an RAF pilot before switching to telly with hospital drama Cardiac Arrest. And he owes it all, he told Bragg, to seeing a medical student compete on 80s teatime quiz Blockbusters. I’ll have an H, please, Bob…

Published in Waitrose Weekend, May 9, 2019

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