Traumatising TV: Dystopian Shows and Hoaxes That Scarred the UK

TV

There have already been several hundred complaints to Ofcom over Gregg Wallace’s “documentary” The British Miracle Meat, which aired on Channel 4 in July, and introduced the nation to the supposed rise in lab-grown meat derived from human flesh.

This groundbreaking satire was an instant viral hit, but seemed to divide the nation between those who thought it was a genius piece of television, and those who were disturbed, disgusted, or even duped. 

But this is far from the first time that British television has controversially traumatised the nation: The British Miracle Meat is merely the latest in this country’s rich tradition of using dystopian TV shows and hoaxes to permanently scar the public. Let’s take a look (if you dare) at this particularly bleak area of British TV history, most of which you’ve probably long-since wiped from your memory (sorry):

The War Game (1966)

So horrifying was this pseudo-documentary about British nuclear war and its aftermath that the BBC actually refused to broadcast it when it first came out in the sixties, and it was almost 20 years before it was eventually televised in 1985. It certainly pulls zero punches: we see a panicked nation, desperately ill-prepared for nuclear war, and watch as the bombs begin to detonate, with families hopelessly exposed to their deadly effects. Due to The War Games fake news report style, we hear the narrator gravely describing injuries like “melting eyeballs”, armed police shooting victims who have been left to die, and there being far too many dead to bury. The film is the work of Peter Watkins, who created other harrowing pseudo-documentaries like Punishment Park and The Journey. The War Game’s hyper realistic style has helped it endure through the decades, and it’s still utterly terrifying.

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Alternative Three (1977)

This is the perfect example of an April Fool’s Day TV prank gone wrong. Back in the seventies, ITV broadcast a respected series of documentaries called Science Report, presented by Tory MP Tim Brinton. One episode called Alternative Three, due to air on 1st April, was produced as a special prank documentary investigating a number of scientists who were mysteriously going missing, with the documentary makers eventually “discovering” they’d been kidnapped by the government and forced to work on a secret plan to colonise Mars due to the impending end of the world. The problem was, strike action meant the programme could no longer be aired in its original 1st April slot, so it wasn’t broadcast until 20th June 1977. This resulted in hundreds of panicked calls to Anglia television from viewers who thought it was a real documentary, with a reaction that has been described as similar to that provoked by the infamous 1938 Orson Welles radio broadcast.

ITN news interruption (1977)

Later that year, large parts of southern England were subject to another alarming hoax, when the ITN evening news programme was interrupted by the broadcast of a voice claiming to be “Vrillon, a representative of the Ashtar Galactic Command”. For a full six minutes, this supposedly alien interruption addresses Southern Television’s viewers with a message urging humanity to give up its weapons so it can pass to “higher realms of spiritual evolution” before it’s too late. Strangely enough, no one ever claimed responsibility for the prank, leading some to believe it was a genuine extra-terrestrial broadcast, but you can read the full transcript and decide for yourselves…

The Mad Death (1983)

This nightmarish three-part series explored the effects of a fictional outbreak of rabies in the UK, beginning with some of the creepiest opening credits of all time, as a childlike voice whispers the lyrics to All Things Bright and Beautiful over a montage of animal faces distorted by rippling water, signifying the hydrophobia experienced in the final, fatal stages of rabies. The outbreak begins when a French woman smuggles her cat along on a visit to Scotland – an important detail, as around this time there were public fears around the possibility of the new Channel Tunnel becoming a conduit for rabid animals – and this kickstarts a rapid spread of the disease among the local wildlife. The result is widespread terror among the general public who keep being attacked by giant rabid dogs, (with adorable children making up most of the targets), but nevertheless a load of defiant idiots do things like hiding obviously rabid pets from authorities and taking their ferrets to the pub. Despite the ketchup-based gore, it’s a disturbing watch, and we’d especially dissuade dog lovers from watching (spoiler alert: there are some particularly traumatising culling scenes).

Threads (1984)

It seems strange that Meta’s Twitterish social media alternative decided to name itself after the most distressing TV programme of all time, but there’s no accounting for taste. Apocalyptic drama Threads explores the horrific potential scenario of nuclear war in Britain, focussing specifically on two families in Sheffield, who endure a nuclear attack that kills up to 30 million people, and the ensuing destruction and grim after-effects, as survivors struggle to cope with the serious health risks, dwindling food supplies and deformed and malnourished future generations of children. Yep, it’s cheery stuff. The unrelenting visceral horror of Threads makes it a truly formidable drama that has been giving us nightmares for almost 40 years, and it remains just as terrifyingly relevant as ever.

Ghostwatch (1992)

Ghostwatch is probably the most infamous TV hoax of all time, causing 30,000 angry calls to the BBC, as viewers watched a cleverly disguised pre-recorded show presented as a live Halloween broadcast purportedly looking for concrete proof of supernatural activity. Its credibility was aided by using well-known TV personalities as Ghostwatch hosts, including Michael Parkinson, Sarah Greene and Red Dwarf star Craig Charles, who present from both a makeshift studio and the house of a London family who claim they’re being haunted by a poltergeist named Mr Pipes. What starts as harmless fun gradually deteriorates into increasingly dangerous ghostly activity, with Pipes eventually possessing several people (including poor Parky himself), and Sarah Greene being dragged screaming through the cellar doors. Ghostwatch reportedly led to one death by suicide and several diagnoses of PTSD among younger viewers, and has never been broadcast again. 

The Day Britain Stopped (2003)

This pseudo-documentary was broadcast in May 2003 and depicted events “in the near future”, exploring how a train strike sets off a chain reaction of events that lead to a meltdown of Britain’s travel system, including a fatal plane crash. It features a cast of talking heads – among them Prue Clarke (Black Mirror), Steve North (Doctor Who) and Jonathan Linsley (Last of the Summer Wine) – playing various figures in the disaster, from police workers to politicians and victims of the disaster, and also uses real-life archive footage including a train crash and a speech by then-PM Tony Blair. It’s eerily realistic, with convincing, emotional performances from the cast, and the way the narrative barrels towards the disaster leaves viewers with a genuine sense of sick dread. 

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Inside No. 9: Dead Line (2018)

Like Ghostwatch in 1992, this Inside No 9 episode was billed as a live Halloween special, with creators Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton laying a devilishly crafted trap, including planted newspaper stories, press releases and pre-broadcast interviews, which only added to the final effect. The supposedly live billed episode first suffers from some spooky “technical issues”, then appears to be subject to a very sinister ghostly takeover, which ends up taking a very dark turn indeed. Those watching live were suitably spooked, but even watching it back now on BBC iPlayer gets your spine a-tingling. 

Inside No. 9: 3 By 3 (2023)

WARNING: the below video contains BIG spoilers for Inside No. 9 episode “3 by 3”

Inside No. 9 fooled us once again earlier this year, when – after months of build-up to an On The Buses-themed episode, including press images, and a clip in the series eight trailer – viewers were told by the continuity announcer that the billed episode of Inside No. 9 was being replaced by a new quiz show, 3 by 3. The fact that the show’s title adds up to 9 didn’t give the game away for many viewers, who either switched off entirely, or were left puzzled by Lee Mack presenting a rather pedestrian gameshow. But the episode gradually and cleverly became increasingly unsettling, and – as the dramatic finale above shows (if you haven’t seen the full episode yet, watch it on BBC iPlayer) – it ends with a typically gruesome Inside No. 9 twist. 

The British Miracle Meat (2023)

Channel 4’s groundbreaking mockumentary hoax was a contemporary take on Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, the eighteenth-century satirical essay suggesting that impoverished Irish families should make money by selling their children as food for the rich. Like Ghostwatch, it used a familiar face in Gregg Wallace (who presents similarly cheery documentary series Inside the Factory), to elongate the con, and its easy-viewing style meant that, depending on how much attention you were paying, it might have taken several minutes to catch on to the ruse. We see Wallace touring a factory, learning how they’re using innovative techniques to grow meat from human tissue, and then discover this tissue is being sourced from struggling families who can’t afford food during the cost of living crisis, so are taking the drastic measure of selling their own flesh. The final part of the mockumentary takes a truly sickening turn as we see the factory’s new range of “premium” meat being sourced from children, painful “extraction” process and all, and learn that the government has given the scheme its enthusiastic backing. We haven’t seen political satire this brutal for a long time.

The British Miracle Meat is available to stream on Channel 4

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