Bomb base

As part of a new Channel 4 documentary series, film-maker Leslie Whitehead found out how the citizens of Los Alamos, birthplace of the nuclear age, learned to stop worrying and love the bomb. Jim White reports

Spotting the half-dozen long-haired, middle-aged beardies hanging around in down-town Los Alamos, the film-maker Leslie Woodhead assumed they were peaceniks. Los Alamos is, after all, the birth-place of the bomb, Nuke City, the town where if you are careless with a barbecue you could incinerate the entire planet. So it seemed sensible to imagine these were a bunch of hippies, there to protest against Armaggedon. He was, therefore, somewhat taken aback when one of them, a Vietnam veteran in a big metallic neck-brace, announced that the group had gathered to mark the anniversary of Pearl Harbor.

So they weren't there, in the place where the first big bang was manufactured in Robert Oppenheimer's kitchen, to pay silent witness to the victims of Hiroshima? "Hell, no, the Japs started the war with their sneaky attack on Pearl Harbor, and all we did was finish it," said the man, from behind a strangely unnerving combination of facial hair and spinal support. "Remember, don't mess with the US."

That's the thing Woodhead discovered about Bomb Country: nothing is quite as you expect. Those delightful, snow-tipped mountains over there? They house most of the United States nuclear arsenal, buried in the sandstone. That bland suburban street? It's where the scientists, who discovered how to blow up the world using only the contents of the garden shed, lived. The soliders who have their fingers permanently poised over the trigger? As nice a bunch of guys as you could meet.

"When you meet the military, the guys who will, in the event of conflict, flick the switch, it's an unexpected thing," says Woodhead. "They are the most charming, cultured, educated, liberal, intelligent people. As a sad old leftie ban-the-bomber, I found that reassuring."

Woodhead went deep into the heart of the thermonuclear mid-West with Reggie Nadelson, the New York-based wit, to film the opening piece for a new series on Channel 4, Travels with My Camera. He took with him only a Hi-8 camera, a sort of super home video, no bigger than a paperback. For Woodhead, this was a liberating experience. Used to lugging endless quantities of equipment and technicians around the globe, he found that when he was wandering around with no more kit than a tourist might take on holiday, the people he met opened up in a way he had not experienced before. And, despite the majesty of the landscape, and the scale of the weaponry, it is the people that make Bomb Country the most bizarre territory this side of Bognor during the annual Birdman contest.

Woodhead, a veteran of ITV's Disappearing World, initially thought that, what with the end of the cold war and the start of the peace dividend, he would be making another film about a threatened environment, a culture in decline. He found instead a community poised indelicately between serving a military about to be bolstered by the rightward surge in American politics, and rapidly becoming part of the heritage trail. At Trinity Site, the place where, after the first atomic explosion on 16 July 1945, the desert sand instantly transmogrified into glass, he filmed picnickers toasting each other with warm fizz. "Is the glass glowing yet?" asks one giggling holiday-maker.

He filmed, too, a man who bought all the equipment used by the Manhattan Project and now sells it to Hollywood sci-fi movie-makers from a jam-packed warehouse. "Hey," says the man, lovingly handling what appears to be a wholesale-sized hair-drier. "This is the first ever Geiger counter." And he filmed Edward Teller, the original Dr Strangelove, who can list at the top of his extensive scientific CV that he invented the thermonuclear bomb, and who is now repentant that the bomb was dropped.

"I told them," says Teller in his best Peter Sellers voice. "Just explode the bomb in the atmosphere three miles above Tokyo Bay. The Emperor would have seen the flash and stopped the war immediately. But hey, they never listened to me."

Woodhead also takes his camera inside some of the bases where warheads sufficient to blow up the entire world several thousand times over lie ready and primed. This was not by dint of a fancy piece of investigative journalistic camerawork, smuggling his mini-camera under the wire. It was because the military let him in.

"They have this unusual job description which says, 'If we haven't had to work today we have done our job'," Woodhead says. "They are rather proud of their record and they let you in to share it."

Not, of course, that you can believe everything they tell you. Down at Trinity Site, Woodhead's mini-camera records a military public relations woman explaining that nuclear fall-out is no real threat to life or limb.

"Listen, there is radioactivity in everything," she says. "There is even radioactivity in a passionate embrace." So that's what they meant by kissing your ass goodbye.

'Travels with My Camera: Adventures in Bomb Country', Mon 9pm C4

Arts and Entertainment
Kristin Scott Thomas outside the Royal Opera House before the ceremony (Getty)
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Channel 4's Indian Summers
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West found himself at the centre of a critical storm over the weekend after he apparently claimed to be “the next Mandela” during a radio interview
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig and Rory Kinnear film Spectre in London
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003
    Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

    Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

    Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

    Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor