Chernobyl

Wormwood, the Traverse, 1996:
Liam Brennan and Ann Marie Timoney .
If you haven't been watching Chernobyl, the TV series - the fifth and final episode was last night on Sky Atlantic - you must. If you're a writer or a would-be writer or, let's face it,  a human being - you have to find a way of watching it. It is  the best television drama I have seen for years, decades, possibly for ever.

I'm not exaggerating.


Everything about it is perfect: the performances, the camerawork, the authenticity, but above all, the incomparable writing. I've been enthusing about it on social media ever since it started, five weeks ago, and people keep saying to me 'but I don't have Sky' and I keep saying, 'well get it. Or find somebody who does. Or find a way to catch up with it. But whatever you do, just watch it.'

Every minute of every episode counted. Every line of the script was both subtle and meaningful. Nothing was superfluous but nothing was over dramatized either. Craig Mazin didn't need to over dramatize. The subject matter was dramatic enough. Instead, the writer needed to be in control, and Mazin was. There are moments in this series that are more genuinely terrifying than anything I have ever seen in any kind of media in my whole life. And all the better for being oddly low key as well. Just like the truth of horrific events.

'Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth,' said one of the characters last night. 'Sooner or later, that debt is paid.' Since the character was a scientist, a real person, these may have been his own words. But practically every line of ever scene counted in this way. Every scene had a dozen lessons to teach us about political lies, about a commonplace but disastrous inability to admit to the truth, about the way in which sooner or later, our complacency will lead nature to teach us a terrible lesson by doing exactly what it does, without reference to us, and certainly without regard or pity.

This production was close to my heart for various reasons. I was in the early stages of pregnancy in 1986 when the disaster happened. Fortuitously (although it didn't seem so at the time) I had flu. Genuine, full blown, horrible flu. I had been in the Canaries where my husband was working aboard a charter yacht at the time, and had flown home to Scotland on my own while he sailed the yacht back. I may well have contracted it on the plane. Fortunately, my parents lived close by and I went to their house, so that they could look after me. I stayed indoors for several weeks, and those weeks just happened to coincide with the weeks when the Chernobyl cloud passed over the UK. Flu is pretty dangerous during pregnancy, but I was OK. Maybe I'd have been fine anyway. But it was reassuring to know that I hadn't been outside at all.

Ten years later, my play Wormwood, about the Chernobyl disaster, was developed and given a full scale and incredibly well reviewed production at Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre, with Philip Howard directing. Later, the play was one of the recommended texts for the Scottish Higher Drama syllabus, so I still meet quite a lot of people who studied it at school. It was published, first of all in an anthology called Scotland Plays, and then as an individual eBook text, Wormwood, both of which are still available, if you fancy reading it. Wormwood is another name for the plant artemisia after which Chernobyl is named, because it grows in profusion in the region. It is, coincidentally, mentioned in the bible in connection with a terrible disaster.

My father, a distinguished biochemist, had actually spent two years on secondment to the Atomic Energy Commission in Vienna in the early 80s, so he was able to help me with the science. And of course, with ten years having elapsed, there was considerably more material 'out there'. All the same, watching Mazin's outstanding production, I did find myself wondering how much I might have got wrong. As it turns out I had got it pretty much right, except that, of course, time, political changes and expert analysis had added more precise details.

I would love to read the scripts. For now, though, I can only repeat. If you haven't already seen the television series - do, please, move heaven and earth to watch it. You'll be frightened and moved and saddened, but you won't be disappointed.




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