Proper Gander: Left In The Dark

Would a few days without electricity turn you into a hysterical, paranoid, petrol-siphoning looter? Perhaps, if Blackout (Channel 4) is as realistic as it hopes to be. This one-off docudrama imagines what would happen if the National Grid was shut down for a week by a terrorist ‘cyber attack’. Footage from real riots and protests is mixed with actors improvising what their characters film on mobile phones. This gives the programme a scary amount of verisimilitude, if you ignore how implausibly long-lasting the batteries in their phones must be. Through the blurry, wobbly camerawork we follow a couple of lary lads on a looting spree and a woman with her comatose boyfriend in a hospital with its backup power dwindling. There are a few examples of individuals helping strangers, but the show focuses more on how relationships would be strained further. For instance, the character who starts out smug about having his own generator cracks under the pressure of keeping it from would-be thieves while struggling to provide for his family.

The shakily-filmed action is broken up with sombre captions giving some less-than-reassuring statistics. Emergency lighting in most public buildings usually lasts no more than three hours, apparently, while if you’re relying on a life support machine, then you’d have around five days before its back-up batteries are prioritised elsewhere. Like its grim forerunners about pandemics and nuclear war, Blackout points out that society’s current infrastructure would collapse within days of a serious catastrophe. However, the loss of electric power isn’t shown to lead to a loss of state power. Defending itself through the Civil Contingencies Act 2004, the state would bring in temporary courts, armed forces on the streets and ‘Emergency Relief Centres’, which in the drama turn out to be empty. A lack of decent contingency planning is to be expected in our society, focused on protecting the interests of the few and making the cheapest cutbacks for the rest of us. So, if the programme is right about this, would its predictions about chaos on the streets also be proved right? Such a bleak view ignores how groups of people have worked together to get through worse disasters in real life. The show would have been more interesting if it had explored how we could co-operate, but in that respect it leaves us in the dark.

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