Well that was a deeply disturbing hour of television.
BBC’s amiable Rent-a-Doc Michael Mosley was given unprecedented access to the UK’s most secret and controversial weapons facility. Porton Down in Wiltshire was established in WWI as a response to the gas attacks the Germans launched in the trenches. Scientists based there had to work very quickly to develop gas masks for the troops and began testing ways to launch similar gas attacks against the Germans. Because the best defence is a good offence, and a cataclysmic scaling up of hostilities always ends well.
The cameras watched as two friendly-looking chemists in their extremely secure laboratory showed Michael samples of terrible and innocuous looking liquids sitting in an anaerobic chamber. These silly little vials of liquid that have been used as horrifying weapons of war.
“Why? Why are you making them?!” we yelled at the tv.
We then saw the appalling effects of nerve gas on a rabbit from footage recorded in the 1950s. And the testing of anthrax gas on sheep on a remote Scottish island that then had to be cordoned off for 40 years. You think the sheep got it bad? How about 20 year old Leading Aircraftman Ronald Maddison who was unlawfully killed in sarin experiments. His death was covered up for decades and the truth of it kept from his grieving family. It took 50 years for the government to accept responsibility and give his family any compensation. Safe to say the history of Porton Down is checkered to say the least.
One of the most disturbing scenes was rows and rows of rusty bombs filled with mustard gas, or chlorine, or sarin sitting in what looked like a shed, some inside stackable plastic boxes you can get from Wilkinsons for your DVDs and old tapes. They’re in a queue awaiting safe disposal, which fortunately looks reassuringly high-tech.
Such over-the-top and needlessly painful ways of killing people were eventually banned by UN treaty but wilfully ignored by Saddam Hussain in Iraq in the 1980s and by unbelievably-still-President Assad in the Syrian Civil War just three years ago.
So Porton Down is still busy – responding to new threats, disposing of old bombs, alongside testing protective equipment like masks soldiers currently use in the field. They are also checking out seriously nasty potential biological threats like ebola and working out whether the bad guys could weaponise it.
I knew it wasn’t going to be warm and snuggly television but hoped it might be more reassuring. It was properly frightening, even Michael’s brief exposure to tear gas was awful which is quite mild considering what else is on the Porton Down menu. It will probably stay with me for quite some time.
Inside Porton Down is available on iPlayer for 25 days. Don’t have nightmares.