Sunday 19 April 2020

London is Drowning

London is Drowning concerns itself with an unprecedented disaster that even human ingenuity is unable to stem the tide of. It is, however, far removed from the very real disaster that coronavirus is. But there are still aspects of London is Drowning which chime with a disturbing prescience.

A member of the Play for Today stable, London is Drowning aired on BBC1 in October 1981. Scripting the play was Graham Williams, best known for producing three series of Tom Baker's tenure as Doctor Who in the late 1970s. And it was a play for which the transmission date made the content all the more enthralling. Centering, as you can imagine, on a scenario where London floods, it taps into the environmental movement of the 1970s. More pertinently, London is Drowning aired roughly a year before the launch of the Thames Barrier.

I can't remember when I first heard of London is Drowning. I certainly didn't watch it upon its single transmission due to my recurring inability to have been born. And I delve through so many texts regarding archive television that they all blur into an amalgam of red, green, blue and Radio Times covers. Nonetheless, I read about it somewhere and it sounded intriguing. The few mentions I could find of the series online referred to it as a docudrama on a flooded London. This got my pulse racing. It sounded like Threads, but wetter. And, eventually, I managed to watch a copy.

The play focuses upon two concurrent storylines which are vaguely connected to each other thanks to good old fashioned infidelity. Opening during a presentation on the importance of the soon to be launched Thames Barrier, London is Drowning first introduces us to the perceptive Dodds (David Neal). And Dodds is not happy that the Thames Barrier is not already active. But due to his position, the head of an unnamed flood control board, he can't exactly grouse in public about this. So this is where Pieter (George Roubicek) comes into play. With first hand experience of devastating floods in his Dutch homeland, Pieter chastises London's lack of flood drills and preparation.

And it's Pieter who connects the first storyline with the second. In between discourses on the importance of flood control he is conducting an affair with Clare (Susan Tracy). A graphic designer, currently tasked with designing posters warning about the impact of floods, Clare comes from a large family in Bermondsey. However, family matters are far from rosy for Clare. Following her divorce she has become estranged from her family. This estrangement, mostly empowered by her mother (Elizabeth Bradley), stems from the fact she hadn't informed her family she was married. And this is why the only way she can keep in touch with her beloved father (Arthur Whybrow) is via post.

Clare's parents and siblings are positioned in the play as proponents of normality. And, in all honesty, they are the victims of matters unfolding at a much higher level. Arthur (Colin Prockter) is a reliable staff member of the London Underground with a penchant for model trains. Joyce (Veronica Doran), still living at home, is heavily pregnant. Gerry (Anthony Heaton) is a sharp-suited car dealer with a stream of stolen Granadas and Cavaliers coming through his doors. And, finally, there's Frank (Douglas McFerran), a well-meaning son who is struggling with unemployment brought on by the global slump.

With strong gales and weather conditions combining to create rising sea levels, Dodds is becoming increasingly concerned by tidal predictions. He has, of course, voiced his concerns to the government before, but Dodds' department has been the victim of numerous cuts. With predictions spelling disaster for the Thames, a Flood Control Centre is established shortly before warning sirens begin sounding. As Clare's family begin to take shelter, however, Gerry decides to take advantage of the situation and hatches a plan to shift two of his hottest motors - a Rolls Royce and a Lotus - out of London with the help of Frank. But water is already beginning to rise up from the drains.

So, what's London is Drowning like? Well, first off, I have to report that it's nothing like Threads. And it's far from a docudrama, it's pure drama. What the two plays do have in common though is their initial structure. Both commence with only the gentlest of burbles that disaster is on the horizon. And this simmering discord is pushed to the background as more political and domestic matters take centre stage. Threads, of course, takes in the beginning, the middle and the aftermath of a massive catastrophe, but London is Drowning comes to a close just as disaster strikes. And this is a shame as it's an absorbing and powerful play.

Graham Williams worked mostly as a producer and script editor, but London is Drowning showcases his skills as a writer. Mixing satire and fierce drama, it's a play that demands your attention without the need for action packed set pieces or hysterical plots. Instead the inevitable, and the title alone is enough to indicate where it's heading, denouement builds with a pleasing pace. Dodds' scenes, mostly spent observing tide measuring devices and making predictions, are sedate affairs, but they gently crank up the urgency of the narrative. The same can be said for the domestic scenes which, at first, appear to be little more than an essay on the minutiae of familial affairs. But, in fact, they're laying the groundwork for both family reunions and family disasters.

The script is also keen to criticise both political models and the human condition. Vast swathes of Dodds' narrative are given over to directly attacking government cuts. Something to minimise the flood could have been put in place, but, to win votes, ministers cut Dodds' budgets to implement anything effective. Parliament, of course, demands answers from Dodds, but they are far from receptive to his reasoning. Likewise, Jerry takes advantage of the unfolding disaster to line his pockets, but it's an exercise of greed and dishonesty which is only matched by its failure. Eerily, the play reflects many of the contemporary matters of the coronavirus age. Admittedly, this could be said of almost any disaster narrative, but it feels all the more real at the moment.

Acting wise, there are strong performances throughout which epitomise the Play for Today model. David Neal, George Roubicek and Anthony Heaton are the pick of the bunch, an accolade which is made all the more possible by their three dimensional characters. A number of the other characters, Joyce and Frank for example, add little to the play and act mostly as shadows to the others. That's not to undermine their ability, it's more a negative result of cramming so many characters into a 70-minute play. A longer script, perhaps one which examined the aftermath, could have provided more for these peripheral characters. But, in reality, the prospect of filming a drowning London would have been restricted by both budgets and effects of the day.

As with the vast majority of the Play for Today catalogue, London is Drowning is likely to remain forgotten as it collects dust in the BBC's archives. But it's an absorbing watch that contains important lessons which, as a society, we appear unable to take control of and learn from. In the mean time, stay safe and, just in case, keep your armbands handy.


  1. Is this where the Clash got the 'London is drowning and I live by the river' line in London Calling?

    1. No, they wrote that about two years before the play aired.

  2. Thanks for this post! It's disgusting that we can't see treasures like this, that they're just "gathering dust".

  3. I'm pretty sure that this was written by a different Graham Williams than the Doctor Who one (or the Spitting Image/ Tales Of The Unexpected one, come to that). IMDB only supplies one additional credit for *this* Graham Williams.

    For me, the great strength of 'London Is Drowning' is the thoroughness with which it presents the viewer with the logistics of disaster planning, rather than the (rather unmemorable) characterization.

    1. IMDB isn't always that accurate, so I just checked the BFI database but that, unfortunately, doesn't differentiate between individuals with the same name.

  4. The Nancy Banks-Smith review of this is magnificent -

  5. One of my first acting roles!
    I was the young boy digging for worms on the bank of the river Thames (I recall they had a hidden hose to show the hole filling with water as I was digging. Where can I view this to show my children?

  6. It was written by the same Graham Williams who produced Dr Who during the Tom Baker years. That was my Dad!