Premium

From Chernobyl to Years and Years: why dark and fearful times make for dazzling TV

Emma Thompson in the dystopian drama Years and Years, which ends tonight
Emma Thompson in the dystopian drama Years and Years, which ends tonight Credit: BBC/Red Productions

When the times are darker than the north end of a southbound bat in a coal mine, what are we all settling down to watch on telly? Something to cheer us all up and give us a laugh, right? Not quite. At least to judge by the things critics are currently raving about and viewers talking about, the dramatic masterpieces of our age make Newsnight look like a jolly rerun of It’s A Knockout.  

If you recently watched Chernobyl, about the 1986 nuclear plant disaster, you would have found yourself plunged into a meticulous recreation of the drab world of Eighties Ukraine. This six-part story opened with somebody hanging himself and then became, if anything, darker. It presented not only the human horror and agony of those afflicted with radiation poisoning, but the sclerotic contortions, the doublethink and despotism, of a Soviet system incapable of acknowledging what has happened. Here was a study not just of a disaster, but of Homo sovieticus in crisis. It couldn’t be more different from a production-line Hollywood disaster film. “Horrible,” the critics said approvingly. “Wan”, “bleak”, “hard to watch”, “a masterpiece”. And they were right.  

And if Chernobyl gave us a grim glimpse into the relatively recent past, Years and Years does the same for the relatively near future. Radiation – that reliable bedrock fear of the last half-century or so – plays a part; as do financial crisis, terrorist violence, drowning refugees, concentration camps, state-sponsored torture of homosexuals, people making grim whoopee with robots and a second Trump administration. Russell T Davies’s drama has not been without its faults – sometimes it has painted its picture of impending catastrophe in strokes that were rather too broad brush. Yet you have to admire its ambition, and the way in which it projects and intensifies the anxieties of our own age.

And you’re hardly going to look to The Handmaid’s Tale, The Man In The High Castle or Westworld to take us out of ourselves. The nearest we get to comic relief these days is Good Omens, a wry tale of... the countdown to the Biblical Apocalypse.

Could there be something going on here? We seem to be at once blessed with some very good new television – and uncomfortably aware that if anything it’s exaggerating, rather than relieving, the mire of identitarian hatred, populist sabre rattling and portents of environmental catastrophe that passes for the day-to-day news. Well, one of the things that art does well, and popular art seems to do especially well, is to respond – albeit in a slant way – to the times it emerges from. That can go one of two ways. Sometimes, dark times give us gloriously light art; but more often, they seem to give us art that's even darker.

A scene from Sky/HBO's Chernobyl

On the face of it that’s odd. It's pretty easy to understand why, for instance, audiences in the Thirties and Forties might have turned to Looney Tunes and Busby Berkeley musicals or why in the dark days of the Seventies we all fell on the simple joys of Morecambe and Wise. But why would we seek out doom on the goggle-box when we have more than enough to be going on with in real life? The principle goes back, in some sense, to Aristotle’s idea (or at least the apocryphal version of it) of catharsis: bad vibes in art work as a sort of spiritual purgative. Stephen King restated it in his Danse Macabre – the idea that you effectively swapped your real anxieties (death, senescence, sexual failure etc) for the fictional ones in his novels (vampires, demon cars, rabid St Bernards etc). “We make up horrors to help us cope with our real ones.”

And by golly does it seem to work. The terrible international funk after the First World War gave us the founding masterpieces of literary modernism – the broken testaments to a broken culture and broken people in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, Mrs Dalloway and The Waste Land – just as the Gulags gave us Solzhenitsyn. Telly is a bit less highbrow, usually, but the principle holds. The Seventies – with stagflation, paranoia and the shadow of the mushroom cloud – gave us the dour-eyed grit of spy drama Callan, and a fascist dystopia in The Donati Conspiracy. The Eighties – which saw economic bullishness and social anxiety – saw us brooding on extinction; a robot takeover in The Tripods, a reptile takeover in V, and (repurposing John Wyndham’s postwar shocker for a new age) a pot-plant takeover in The Day of the Triffids. That's not to mention mordant comedies of breadline life like Boys from the Blackstuff or glow-in-the-dark fare like Threads and Edge of Darkness.

Atomic power: the 1984 drama Threads imagined Britain after a nuclear war

And when, for the past half century, has the UK had its longest period of peace, prosperity and national self-confidence? You’d have to point to the 1997-2001 half-decade of the first Blair government – after the Cones Hotline and before the waves of Islamist terror and consequent disastrous expeditionary wars. We’d said goodbye (haha) to the “bad old days of boom and bust”, the economy was on the up, Centrist Dads were in charge of everything, the Spice Girls were in the charts, and even the Millennium Dome seemed like a forgivable folly. And the telly? Fugheddaboutit. It was all Kavanagh QC, Men Behaving Badly and Never Mind The Buzzcocks. And, of course, the very, very cursed Big Brother and all the “reality TV” nonsense that spun off from it.    

We should be grateful, or – at least – take comfort where we can get it. Remember the wise words ad-libbed into the script of The Third Man (made in the postwar horrors of 1949, so well suited to our thesis) by Orson Welles: “In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

Years and Years concludes tonight on BBC One at 9pm. The entire series is available to watch on BBC iPlayer

Chernobyl is available to watch on Now TV for 15 days