Given the way history has turned out, the Protect and Survive series should never have been released. The British government, who created the civil defense series in the late 1970s and early 1980s, had only planned to distribute the pamphlets, radio broadcasts, and public information films in the event of an absolutely imminent nuclear crisis. Not that techniques like sandbagging your stairwell were classified pieces of information, but the government believed that in the event of an international emergency, Protect and Survive would have the most impact at that moment, riding on the wave of a nation’s panic and hopefully, landing on attentive ears and civil obedience.
And impact it had! Though they were wrong about the timeline. Protect and Survive was eventually released in May of 1980, a few months after a series of articles in The Times stirred up publicity and public interest. The British government was also apparently wrong about the level of comfort and security a film created in anticipation of disaster could provide. Did you know how to make a makeshift toilet out of a seatless chair over a bag-lined bucket after? Yes. Did it matter? No, because you’ve probably already shit your pants. These movies are scary. So scary, it turns out that in a British television Channel 4 poll for a 2003 Halloween special, “The 100 Greatest Scary Moments,” Protect and Survive made the list at number 891. Yeah, yeah 89 is pretty low on the list, but still, it’s sharing company with Blue Velvet and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It beat out Dracula!
Screenwriter Jeremy Dyson added to the Channel 4 special, “You couldn’t invent something as frightening as that. Because that was it, that was literally the worst thing you could think of made horribly real.”
The sounds are the worst. If I trusted the accuracy of the Protect and Survive cartoons, I’d be fully prepared for fallout to sound like a rabid swarm of electronic locusts. And every episode opens with an image of an atomic mushroom cloud, set to the sound of an approaching hurricane, thundering in your direction. This, coupled with the grim instructions by narrator Patrick Allen, adds to the overarching fatalistic tone the series takes on. Just cue the bone chilling electronic musical score by Roger Limb (who, interestingly enough, composed music at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop for Doctor Who) and you have bona fide public information film, ready to send people packing their luggage with dirt and ripping their doors off the hinges for a fallout shelter lean-to.
Not unlike the 2D, stick-figure families, the videos’ advice is generally pretty simple. “There is danger outside,” Patrick Allen warns, “So don’t go outside.” “Water is life,” one episode covers, “save it.” Ok. So, in the event of a fallout, it’s not the time for a job downtown and you should keep enough water handy. Got it. But then there are times when the advice is just an advertisement of futility. Paint your windows white to deflect the atomic heat blast. If it’s safe, venture outside your fallout room to put out the fires that could consume your home. If there is no solid cover, lie in a ditch and frantically cover your face and hands with your clothes. Your clothes? They might as well just tell you to prepare to die, and it’s not like they’re afraid of going there. There’s an entire episode dedicated to tagging, covering, and moving dead bodies from your fallout room.
But just when it seems like they’ve thought of everything, you realize the entire series hinges on one goal and one goal alone- survive the attack. And then stretches the indeterminable blur of life after the attack and once again, the series’ advice seems frighteningly simple. “You are better off in your own home. Stay there… stay in your fallout room until you are told it is safe to come out.” What if communication systems fail? How will we know when it’s safe? Will it ever be safe? Then what? Nowhere does the film tell you to prepare your warmest clothes in the event of a nuclear winter, or how protect your skin and eyes from UV radiation if radioactive soot is hurled in the stratosphere, causing ozone depletion.
The series tells you how to survive an atomic attack and stock food and water for up to two weeks, but a major source of criticism for Protect and Survive came from protest groups such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. They rejected the idea that nuclear war could be survived at all, and believed popularizing the notion that it could made nuclear attacks more likely. This kind of logic coincides with the military strategy and security policy of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), an operating fear that could potentially be damaged if a film propagates possible survival post-nuclear warfare. MAD as a concept emerged as early as 1870 when English author Wilkie Collins wrote, "I begin to believe in only one civilizing influence—the discovery one of these days of a destructive agent so terrible that War shall mean annihilation and men's fears will force them to keep the peace" during the Franco-Prussian War2. Mutually Assured Destruction asserts that a full-scale nuclear war would result in the complete destruction of both the attacked and the attacker, as both sides would be met with retaliations of equal or greater force, resulting in a war without victory and, ultimately, complete annihilation3. Applied most heavily to the Cold War, MAD re-emerged in the 1960s as the US and the USSR quickly realized the ironic reality: that the advent of nuclear weaponry was its own greatest deterrent -- engaging in a war that could intensify to the point where nuclear weapons they could actually be used was a zero-sum game. So both sides decided to watch each other with their hands on the button, but tried not to do anything crazy.
But perhaps what is even scarier than the bone chilling opening tone of Limb’s electronic music score is the fact that, as fatalistic as the little cartoons were, they were probably very necessary. In the same year Protect and Survive was released, a report from the United Nations4 estimated that in 1980 there were around 40,000 nuclear warheads in existence that could yield a total 13,000 megatons. To put that in comparison, when the 1815 eruption of the Mount Tambora volcano led to the levels of expelled ash that turned 1816 into the “Year Without A Summer,” the explosion only carried a force of 1,000 megatons. Even scarier is the number of close calls there were. For example, early detection systems were riddled with problems. In 1979 alone there were close to 80 separate occasions when conferences were called to evaluate potential missile threats to North America. And in 1983, a detection station in the Soviet Union falsely identified five intercontinental ballistic missiles coming from the US. Station commander Stanislav Petrov correctly identified the warning as a false alarm and prevented a nuclear retaliation that could have potentially spiraled into World War III5.
If Patrick Allen tells me I’m better off in my own home and orders me to stay there, I’d be tempted to believe him. I’ve got to have some makeshift lean-to materials around here somewhere…
4 You can read the entire report at http://www.un.org/disarmament/HomePage/ODAPublications/DisarmamentStudySeries/PDF/SS-21.pdf - it details every possible outcome of nuclear attack in terms of environmental, medical, climate-related, and societal effects.
Kristen Bialik is a writer, teacher and graduate student of Journalism and Mass Communication. In her spare time, she's a baker of pies and maker of stories.