Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Watching the 1989 Jerry Lee Lewis biopic Great Balls of Fire on television a couple of Saturdays ago, it was striking to see Winona Ryder, as Lewis's teenage bride, staring wistfully at the skies and worrying that the bomb was about to drop - the implication evidently being that rock 'n' roll and underage marriage are a natural reaction to the immediate threat of nuclear war. That sort of scene looks oddly dated now. Certainly, nuclear war may be as likely as it was at the height of the Cold War; but with the absurdities of "Mutually Assured Destruction" gone, the imminent end of the world has slipped a few places down the anxiety list, and old- style Domesday nuclear paranoia can seem a rather quaint commodity.

One of the virtues of "Reaping the Whirlwind", a sequence of programmes broadcast on Saturday night to commemorate the anniversary of the Hiroshima bomb, was that it brought home just how real and powerful, and how justified, fear of the Bomb was in the years after the war.

It's easy when thinking of Hiroshima to be trapped by the comparatively simple algebra of death - x Japanese lives lost, weighed against y Allied soldiers saved. "Reaping the Whirlwind" embodied those appalling equations brilliantly in two programmes: Listening to Incense, Arata Osada's compilation of children's recollections of the day the bomb dropped; and Path to Salvation, in which elderly men who had been in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps talked about what Hiroshima meant to them. It was a disturbing pairing, offering you two viewpoints persuasive on their own terms but utterly reconcilable. On the one hand, you had a child describing somebody trying to quench the flames eating at somebody else's flesh with blood spouting from his own wounds; and on the other, a man who had seen his friends take three years to die telling you that they would have welcomed the atom bomb as a merciful release. You feel that they can't both be telling the truth, but you know that they are.

The strength of the evening was that it gave those sorts of contradictions a context. The first programme, The Birth of the Bomb, looked at the part that Britain played in the building of the atom bomb, and the doubts that plagued the scientists involved. Later programmes demonstrated neatly how far the mere existence of the atom bomb skewed history, and individual lives: an edition of What If...? asked what would have happened if the bomb had been used on Germany in 1945; Aldermaston Days recalled the first anti-nuclear protests; and Bunker Mentality surveyed British civil defence preparations over the last 50 years.

The last two programmes rather lost their way: Cold War Games was a routine selection of memories of former British squaddies stationed in Germany during the Cold War; and On the Brink was a thorough, and intermittently gripping, account of the Cuban missile crisis which was far too bogged down in political minutiae, and seemed to have little to do with the rest of the evening.

Overall, though, "Reaping the Whirlwind" made a brave stab at doing something more than just mourning Hiroshima: it reminded you that, one way or another, the bomb is here to stay; and the least we can do is try to understand it.