Britain Under Water, BBC1

by | Jun 10, 2008 | All, Reviews

Did we like it?

The tales of human tragedy and misery were presented mostly with dignity and restraint, but their intrigue further exacerbated the bewildering futility of fluffily-toned features that slotted into the documentary with all the ease of Pontins adverts into ITV’s coverage of a state funeral.

What was good about it?

• The stinging memory of last year’s floods were captured in the death of Mike Barnett, a 28 year old from Hull who was one of six victims of the unseasonal storms after he got his leg trapped in a grate.

• The tale was sensitively handled with accounts from his father and the medical and police teams who battled in vain to save him. The emergency services recounted their admirable ingenuity of trying to sever the grate with bolt cutters, supply the struggling Mike with oxygen from a diver’s air tank, and ultimately resolve to take the last resort of amputating his foot to free him. Sadly, as the surgeon arrived it was clear that Mike had succumbed to the terrible cold.

• The panic of residents as they described how the police had knocked on their doors at 3am to evacuate them to safety after a nearby reservoir threatened to burst its banks and engulf them.

• This episodic narrative was appositely backed up with an analysis of why Hull was flooded to such depths. The concrete base of Hull, like many cities, meant that the torrential rainwater couldn’t drain away, leaving much of it under up to eight feet of water. “The deluge was a one in a 150 year storm; Hull’s drains just couldn’t cope.”

• While Matt Allwright found himself in the filthy subterranean sewers beneath Hull, explaining how this relentless effluence was forced above land, into the streets and into full public view rather like Big Brother contestants spilling from their A-Team vans on launch night.

• Allwright also visited a town that had been almost utterly ruined by the floods, with many houses uninhabitable eight months later (though by May, the situation had improved). This was interesting because once the news crews had packed up and dissipated along with the last of the floods, we hadn’t heard of the enduring trauma of the people whose lives were effectively wrecked. Matt called on Dawn and her (very) extended family who had since been set up in the sort of caravan you see ambling down Cornish b-roads will all the dexterity of an elephant with Thora Hird’s knees.

• Thankfully, the caravans were immobile but the family were packed in tightly (although as it was Dawn’s granddaughter’s first birthday, it may have been more crowded than usual), and glumly got on with their lives until they were able to return home last month.

What was bad about it?

• The uncomfortable film of Mike Barnett’s head barely above the raging floodwaters, struggling for air. The words of the rescuers told this story vividly enough, it wasn’t necessary for these lurid shots of a doomed man.

• Without a firm narrative upon which to pin the descriptions of the flood, Nicky Campbell’s commentary became a nebulous parade of clichés that the viewer could quite easily imagined would occur during a flood – closed schools, roads brimming with waterlogged, stalled cars, old people being ferried to safety – all of this made the better parts of the documentary that focused on specific incidents less lucid and gripping.

• The filler to stretch out the duration to a vexing one hour such as Kate Humble taking an astonishingly indemonstrable aircraft flight along the gulfstream simply to tell us things that would have taken about two minutes to explain.

• And her second presentation was equally as pointless, this time exhaling wails of surprise as a river flowing “at just five miles an hour” would have been enough to sweep her downriver were she not wearing protective clothing. It’s not really a shock as the Boxing Day Tsnami showed that it’s not so much the pace of water but the weight of the following current that gives it potency and strength.

• Because floods erase the identity of towns and cities in a sea of brown liquid, the later concentration on Gloucestershire lacked the impact of the chapter on Hull. This wasn’t helped when the calamity was illustrated by the rescue of Vicky Higgins who had to be pulled to salvation by a line of firefighters, much like any misadventurous teenager who strays into deep water.

• The severity of the Gloucestershire floods was also somewhat undermined by the risible melodrama of the emergency services. Responding to what was a regional catastrophe police chief Tim Brain took charge using something termed Gold Command that “puts him in charge of 3,000 people”.

• A situation made more absurd when Chief Constable Brain lamented the floods as if he half-expected Noah to mobilise his Ark to save the vestiges of life on this planet with the rest of us damned to perish. After a water treatment plant is inundated he said: “We would not have been able to heat food. Business, industry and commerce would have failed completely!” Yes, but only in Gloucestershire, it wouldn’t be, quite literally, the end of the world.

• But now swept up in his new guise of a modern day Nostradamus, Brain couldn’t help himself relish in the impending collapse of civilisation (in Gloucestershire) when ruminating on the consequences of a power station being knocked out. “You don’t need me to tell you,” he began with that inexorable habitually authoritarian impression that he was going to tell you exactly what you didn’t need to be told, “that the combination of millions of volts of electricity and water is a potentially lethal combination.”

• Dawn’s granddaughter Stevie-Lee was celebrating her first birthday. She already has an earring.

Luke Knowles

Luke Knowles


Editor of the website and host of the podcast. A general TV obsessive. I've been running the site since 2008 and you can usually find me in front of the TV. My Favourite show of all time is Breaking Bad with Cracker coming a close second. I feel so passionately that television can change the world and I'm doing my little bit by running this site. You're Welcome!


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