What If…Blackout?

What If…Blackout?

Reading Time: 6 minutes

In February I was approached by a researcher from RawTV about a programme they were making…on Monday the programme they were making, Blackout, aired on Channel 4.


The premise: A cyber attack brings down the National Grid, plunging the country into darkness. How would we cope in a nation-wide power cut lasting 5 days?

There are parallels between this and my Anytown project, so I was interested to see how this scenario would be presented, and what messages it might provide about resilience. The few reviews that I have read have criticised the ‘lack of realism’ (mostly the apparent infinite battery life of smartphones and cameras). But I’m willing to forgive a dose of editorial license required to get this into in a prime-time slot.

The first thing which interested me is that Blackout was not presented as fiction. Although this is not the first time that’s been done – the 1938 CBS broadcast of War of the Worlds inspired by the 1926 BBC broadcast of Broadcasting from the Barricades – it adds to the sense of realism. Some clever editing to interweave footage from real events with the drama highlighted that there are typical consequences from all emergencies, and therefore the value of flexible consequence based planning.

Whilst the shaky-cam and histrionics (frankly, terrible acting by Girl in Hospital) did detract slightly I think there were a few take home messages.

Establishing the scale of the disruption

Is this a problem with your fuse box? Is it confined to a couple of houses or your street? Or is it wider than that? The programme showed people reaching for their phones; “My friend on Facebook in London say’s there’s problems there too”, #smem for the masses.

Initial reactions

Viewers were presented with the televisual equivilent of a bullet-point list of immediate consequences and the subsequent public response.

  • No lights – saw people grab for their torches and candles. What I’d have liked to have seen is more explicit reference to wind up torches and some statement on the dangers associated with candle use
  • No airport activity resulting in stranded passengers – the programme didn’t go back to Heathrow after the initial loss of power, it would have been interesting to see the point at which a ‘normal disruption’ to flights starts to have significant consequences
  • No street lights or traffic signals leading to a rise in road traffic collisions, with no ability to control traffic flows, gridlock would build very quickly
  • Problems at crowded places and planned events with resultant public order and safety considerations
  • Inability to heat food and requirement to empty food from freezers – I thought the freezer issue was considered a little bit too early, but the challenges associated with not being able to cook are significant
  • People trapped in lifts (and on the London Eye) – again, not altogether uncommon, for mechanical or localised electrical issues, but becoming a more complex problem to solve in a widespread blackout
  • Mobile phone congestion (and later, disruption) – I didn’t think the factors behind this were particularly well explained in the programme. However, reduced fixed-line telecoms and an inability to dynamically manage mobile networks, this is a definite possibility in a relatively short period of time. Increasingly important as we’ve become much more dependant on mobile phones.
  • No heating – whilst this wouldn’t be a problem in the summer months, during winter it would be unpleasant and would likely result in excess deaths in vulnerable group
  • Commercial and economic impact – as well as the macro-economic impact of this type of event, the impacts at an individual level would also be significant. An inability to pay for goods (not ATMs), combined with an inability to process payments could lead to ‘looting’ (with no fear of recompense as CCTV cameras offline)
  • Drying up fuel stocks – as people jump in their cars and head to Sheffield, they forget that refuelling without power will be problematic, and likley to result in people resorting to questionable methods. I once (legitimately) syphoned petrol from a fuel tank, it didn’t go quite to plan and I got a mouthful of unleaded. The best advice would have been to follow the government advice to “stay in”…or perhaps to travel by bicycle.

The Emergency Planners Paradox

It’s not something that I’ve seen articulated on TV before, but is something that I experience from time to time. Having planned in detail for these events, to have the opportunity to implement those arrangements does bring a degree of satisfaction. Having drained his radiators, assembled his grab-bag and purchased a generator, the middle-class prepper found himself in this situation for some time. By the fourth day however his reserves begin to wane “I thought if a situation like this came about I’d be alright, but I’m finding it quite hard”, from there quickly descending to the lowest common denominator – survival at all costs.

Confidence, Optimism, Teamwork and Fear

Whilst there was little confidence expressed in the government plan, there was an undercurrent of confidence from most characters, trusty old Dunkirk Spirit (which may or may not have exitsted). A clear sense that ‘it’ll be back on tomorrow’ would probably be highly motivating in those circumstances, even if it didn’t turn out to be the case.

There were both positive and negative examples of people working together and emergent behaviour. Naturally the positive examples (such as the family who took in their vulnerable elderly neighbour) are great, but I’m glad the producers didn’t gloss over those who exploit a situation for their own good.

Whilst innovation and improvisation was seen as a key success factor, this was tempered with some characters being highly suspicious of others.  The Telegraph identified the tagged man as a paedophile; I didn’t reach that conclusion, but it was clear that the single mother was suspicious and uncomfortable travelling with him.

In fairness, the programme only hinted at pockets of panic-behaviours, which was reassuring as evidence and expeience shows this is a relatively uncommon response.

Emergency Powers

Whilst the use of temporary emergency legislation is included as an option in the Civil Contingencies Act (2004) there has been no situation since them requiring enactment. It’s quite possible that in a national emergency these powers would be utilised to provide continuity to essential services (where possible), but it’s also likley that their use would face much opposition.


As with the documentaries and movies that go before it, Blackout ended when the lights came back on. Whilst I understand the dramtic need for this, consequences will be more pervasive and long lasting, and from my persepctive, it would have been interesting to compare the rate at which Britan descended into anarchy to the recovery and restoration of normality.

So, that was what I gleaned from Blackout, but how did social media feel? I took to twitter to find out, here’s a snapshot illustrating the range of opinion from cynical to downright confused, but first…a graph, showing that around 26,000 tweets were sent with the hashtag #blackout peaking at 700 tweets per minute around 21:30.


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