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TV review: Inside Chernobyl and The Pandemic at No. 47

Benjie Goodhart / 25 February 2021

Ben Fogle meets the former Pripyat residents whose life was turned upside down by the Chernobyl disaster, and a new documentary looks at the impact of the pandemic on a north London community.

Inside Chernobyl with Ben Fogle, Wednesday 3rd March, 9pm, Channel 5

Every journalist dreams of their big scoop. The instant when they break a big story thanks to their investigative prowess. Their Woodward and Bernstein moment, if you will. Well, ladies and gentlemen, this is mine. Hold the front pages. I have a scandal to report. TV fakery at its worst. And involving the supposedly clean-cut and decent Ben Fogle.

In the opening monologue of Channel 5’s feature-length documentary following him as he visits Chernobyl, he recalls being 13 when the explosion happened at the power plant. I was 13, so I thought I’d look up his date of birth, to find out which one of us is older (reflecting on the unfairness of the fact that he looks about 30 while I look about 342). It turns out that he was born in November 1973. Which means that on 26 April 1986 he was… 12.

This lying to the public has gone on long enough, and must be unmasked, Fogle revealed for the fake-news-peddling charlatan that he is. I will make it my mission to ensure that he never works in the industry again.

Except I probably won’t, because I do really like his programmes, and rate him as a broadcaster. He is professional and adventurous, but also relatable and warm. And this absolutely riveting programme is one of his best yet.

We join him as he is driving into the Chernobyl exclusion zone with his government appointed minder. He is being given various devices to measure radiation levels. I must admit, in his shoes I would be contemplating my career choices at this stage, but the intrepid Mr Fogle ploughs on regardless. He’s to spend a week inside the exclusion zone, a 1000-square-mile area that was exposed to radiation levels 400-times the level of the Hiroshima bomb. As they arrive in Pripyat, the ghost-town that was home to 48,000 people in 1986, his minder advises him: “Don’t touch anything.” That’s a tall order when you’re staying somewhere for a week.

Pripyat was seen as a socialist utopia. The standard of living was higher there than almost anywhere in the Soviet Union. Watching Ben wander around the deserted classrooms of an old school, still filled with books and posters, checking out the abandoned apartments, or wandering through the iconic and much-photographed amusements park, makes for a poignant and eerie experience.

He meets former Pripyat residents, whose stories are alarming, and who live to this day with the legacy of their exposure to radiation. But they are the lucky ones. Ben visits the notorious Hospital 126, where fire fighters and plant workers were taken on the night of the explosion. To this day, the building is one of the most radioactive places in the zone. The rags used to treat the injured lie on the floor. When measured, they register a huge level of radioactivity 35 years after the day they were used. The basement of the hospital has been filled with the contaminated uniforms of the workers and sealed off.

And so it goes on. Everywhere Ben visits, he encounters ever more incomprehensibly bizarre scenarios, including the on-site hotel where he is advised to keep his boots outside the room for health reasons. (Mind you, I’ve had a few pairs of shoes I’ve had to leave outside of my room for health reasons…) Then there are the Chernobyl resettlers, residents who insisted on moving back into the exclusion zone, in spite of the risks, and the lack of a functioning community. Or there are the social media types, who risk arrest and fines, or worse, by breaking into the exclusion zone and staying there just to make videos for their followers.

Most intense of all in Ben’s visit to the Control Room of Reactor Number 4. You can sense the air of menace almost seeping through the TV screen. They are only allowed in for five minutes, so high are radiation levels in there. But it’s long enough to leave an impression that viewers are unlikely to forget.

The Pandemic at No. 47, Wednesday 3rd March, 10pm, Channel 4

There is a moment at the start of this documentary that encapsulates a lot of what lockdown has been like for many of us. Film maker Paddy Wivell asks his family what day it is. “Friday?” says his wife. “Sim card day!” replies his daughter. “Monday?” says his son. In the next scene, he is arguing with his wife Jodie. That is lockdown in a nutshell. Nobody knows what day it is, and everyone hates each other.

Almost a year ago, the first lockdown came into effect. Wivell found himself with no work, and two children to home school. So he did what any sensible man would do. He found a way to keep busy, so he could leave the hard yards of teaching to his wife.

He set up his camera and pointed it out of his living room window. Then he asked his neighbours to stop by for a chat. And that, in essence, is the documentary. Sure, sometimes he takes the camera out and speaks to people on their own doorsteps. Sometimes he turns the camera round and films his own family. But mostly, it is just filming the comings and goings past his window, and speaking to the people as they walk by.

Like many of us, Wivell only knows a few of his neighbours. At first, not many stop for a chat. People march by, collars up, heads down, going about their business. But then, one by one, they begin to talk. Responses vary. One neighbour is quite happy with the downtime. “Now I can watch MasterChef and just completely enjoy the experience.” Another laments that she has been banned from Aldi. And another, Mohammed, is terrified to leave his house, and will only talk from an upstairs window.

Mohammed emerges for a late night walk one night, and catches up with Wivell and his camera. He has kids who are severely asthmatic, and is terrified they will catch the virus. He talks about the simplicity of breathing, and how we all take it for granted. It is a quietly moving moment.

Fiona and George, a couple from a few doors down, bring a spot of light relief to proceedings. They admit to drinking more in lockdown. Join the club. “We have a Fino at six o’clock. We’re so middle class,” admits Fiona. Indeed, she appears to be so wedded to the idea of ‘a fino’ that she’s made her name an anagram of it! George spends his time planning boat trips, using charts and those funny things that look like tiny stepladders. Fiona has discovered a passion for watercolours. Both, in their own ways, are struggling. Join the club. Again.

In the local shop, Zekeriya has struggled on manfully, but is closing his doors for the first time ever. It is too dangerous, he reasons. He has lost a friend. He is scared. Mohammed spends his time looking at photos from his childhood in Kenya. Another neighbour, Dan, asks Wivell if he’s made a will. You can’t be too careful, he reasons.

And then there is Tricia, who also lives on the street. Her brother has died from the virus.

This documentary is filled with humour, sadness and fear. Much like the last year. There have been so many films over the last 12 months about the pandemic. Films made min A&E wards, or in laboratories, or in the corridors of Westminster. But this one, filmed in a quiet North London street, with a single camera pointing out of a window, is the one that has resonated the most with me. It is the one that accurately reflects the experience for those of us who have been lucky enough not to fall extremely ill.

It encapsulates the emotion and joy of the NHS claps, the creeping sense of dread that characterised so many days, and the quiet strength of communities, up and down the country, who came together to support one another in a time of fear. In its own way, this quiet masterpiece is the truest representation of COVID-19 that we have seen.

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The best… and the rest:

Saturday 27th February

Zara and Anne: Like Mother, Like Daughter, 9pm, Channel 5: Channel 5’s seemingly inexhaustible supply of royal documentaries continues with this look at the relationship between the Princess Royal and her daughter, featuring archive material and expert interviews.

Sunday 28th February

Attenborough’s Life in Colour 1/3, 7pm, BBC One: David Attenborough explores the many ways animals use colour, with cameras built specifically for this series revealing a world normally invisible to human eyes. Tonight’s programme includes the peacock’s tail and the red and blue faces of mandrill baboons.

A New Life in the Sun: Road Trip, 7pm, Channel 4: Fred Sirieix travels around Europe meeting Brits who have set up lives abroad. Tonight, he visits Southern Spain.

McDonald and Dodds 1/3, 8pm, ITV: Return of the drama about two very different police officers (played by Jason Watkins and Tala Gouveia) solving crime in Bath. This series opener tells the story of five old friends who go on a balloon trip. Only four return. An impressive list of guest stars includes Rob Brydon, Rupert Graves, Martin Kemp and Patsy Kensit.

Rich House, Poor House 1/6, 9pm, Channel 5: New series of the show that sees families of wildly different means swap homes to see how the other half live.

Monday 1st March

MasterChef 1/18, 9pm, BBC One: John and Gregg return with more pea veloutés and oyster foams than you can shake a spatula at. The main series, featuring members of the public, is generally the best of the lot, and the standards involved are frequently spectacular. Take a bib to catch the drool.

Max Clifford: The Fall of a Tabloid King, 9pm, Channel 4: This feature-length documentary looks at the life and crimes of the disgraced publicist who was jailed for multiple sex crimes. Many of the women he abused speak out about his abuse in harrowing detail.

Tuesday 2nd May

DNA Family Secrets 1/4, 9pm, BBC Two: Stacey Dooley helps people answer life-changing questions by examining their DNA. Tonight, she comes to the aid of a man trying to ascertain if the man claiming to be his father is the genuine article, and helps a woman learn the likelihood of developing her father’s terminal illness.

Why Is Covid Killing People of Colour? 9pm, BBC Two: Actor David Harewood investigates the link between high death rates in the BAME community and health inequality in modern Britain.

Wednesday 3rd March

The Terror, 9pm, BBC Two: This new thriller anthology series inspired by infamous real-life tragedies begins with a 19th century naval expedition in search of the Northwest Passage. An impressive cast includes Ciaran Hinds, Jared Harris and Tobias Menzies.

Fergie’s Killer Dresser: The Jane Andrews Story, 9pm, ITV: Documentary telling the story of the former royal dresser convicted of murdering her boyfriend Tom Cressman in 2001.

Thursday 4th March

Luxury Holiday: How to get away This Year, 8pm, Channel 4: Sabrina Grant investigates whether a proper break will be possible in 2021, and looks at some possible options at home and abroad.

Piers Morgan’s Life Stories, 9pm, ITV: Actor and presenter Rupert Everett looks back at his stellar career to date, recalling working with stars from Madonna to Julia Roberts, his affairs with men and women including Paula Yates, and the impact of the HIV pandemic on his life.

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