Masters of Disaster

One British production company has excelled at turning fictional global catastrophes into compelling prime-time television.

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, the devastation didn’t surprise the people at Wall to Wall, a British television production company. Months before, they’d created Oil Storm, a docudrama depicting an oil crisis sparked by–yes–a hurricane striking Louisiana. It’s one of a series of Wall to Wall disaster films that use fake news footage and expert interviews to achieve the look and feel of a Frontline documentary. “We do a huge amount of research and journalism to build these scenarios,” says executive producer Leanne Klein. Here’s a look at these cinematic cataclysms.


Oil Storm

First aired: FX, June 2005

Plotline: On Labor Day 2005, Hurricane Julia hits New Orleans, disrupting oil supplies. As Saudi Arabia boosts production to help the United States, it’s hit by terrorist attacks. Gas reaches $8 a gallon, pumps run dry, and thousands of Americans die due to heating-oil shortages the following winter.

Killer quote: “How did this happen? Why did we decide to give oil such power over our lives?”

Nightmare index: Katrina proved the producers’ prescience, but it also showed how many dominoes would have to fall to turn rising fuel prices into a true crisis.

Smallpox 2002: Silent Weapon

First aired: BBC2, February 2002

Plotline: On April 1, 2002, a terrorist who has infected himself with smallpox stolen from a Russian lab wanders the streets and subways of New York. The disease spreads rapidly, and within months it has become a global pandemic that kills 60 million people.


Killer quote: “A new biological weapon based on smallpox would be the most powerful and effective weapon ever created to eliminate human life.”Nightmare index: By the end of this film, you’ll be reconsidering Michael Jackson’s surgical mask as a smart fashion statement.

The Man Who Broke Britain

First aired: BBC2, December 2004

Plotline: An apparent Saudi terrorist trades contracts that will cause his British investment house to lose billions if oil hits $75 a barrel. When terrorists attack a Saudi oil terminal, crude spikes, the trader commits suicide, and Britain enters a deep recession.

Killer quote: “[What] any central banker fears is a total collapse of the system. That a small group of people could engineer it was, to me, beyond comprehension.”

Nightmare index: After the fall of Barings and the crisis at Long-Term Capital Management, one hopes banks have stronger controls.

The Day Britain Stopped

First aired: BBC2, May 2003


Plotline: A rail strike and a series of car accidents cause an eight-hour jam on a major highway outside of London. The traffic keeps personnel from getting to Heathrow, causing an air-traffic controller to work overtime. Her mistake leads two planes to collide, killing 87.

Killer quote: “[This] was something that was gonna happen, it was just a question of which two planes.”

Nightmare index: Despite the weak causal link–a railroad strike leads to a plane crash?–it’s still disturbing. Note to self: Schedule all future flights in the middle of air-traffic controllers’ workdays.