The five-part dystopian radio drama First World Problems takes some of the more disturbing developments reflected in present-day news stories from around the world and imagines them unfolding in a near-future Britain that is coming apart at the seams, wracked by civil war and ethnic cleansing.
Like most successful disaster fiction, this serial (part of BBC Radio 4’s 2018 Dangerous Visions season) refracts its story of a national catastrophe through the lens of a single, extended family, whose experiences illuminate the calamity afflicting the whole country.
Living in Manchester, the Fletchers are a far-from-perfect nuclear family. Relations between husband and wife Dave and Ruth are strained, as the pair try to manage the demands of their challenging autistic son Johnny and of the upcoming nuptials of their somewhat precocious daughter Helena. Dave is trying to extricate himself from an affair with Johnny’s care assistant Tricia, while his mother-in-law and Fletcher matriarch Maggie keeps a close and critical eye on the activities of all branches of the family tree.
When simmering economic, political and social tensions explode, the UK splits asunder. As the shops empty and wages go unpaid, prices soar and the digital economy collapses. When shortages become acute, hoarding, bartering and stealing replace shopping. Sectarian militias displace the police; street mobs enact summary justice; rival paramilitary groups carry out tit-for-tat terror attacks on neighbouring communities. Scotland seals its border, while the “Greater England” government based in London battles with an alliance of northern counties that have ceded from the control of the “illegitimate” Westminster parliament.
It’s a tough, and well realised, scenario, and scriptwriter Martin Jameson evokes a potent sense of the fragility of civilisation.
As the Fletchers suffer personal tragedies and scatter, lose their home, and are forced onto the road as refugees, they encounter both heartlessness and generosity in the responses of those they meet. Keeping the story on the move, director Panting brings an impressive sense of scale to events and continues to highlight issues that come to the fore when states fail: refugee camps, tribalism, insurgent gangs and warlords, demilitarized and contaminated territories, wrecked civil infrastructure and the corrosion of hope. The long list of academic, political and healthcare professionals credited as providing guidance for the series is a good indicator of how much the production team have sought to root their story in realism.
It’s not hard to see what the producers intend by the drama’s bitterly sarcastic title. The terrible events which unfold in First World Problems are everyday realities in many of the most unstable parts of the world. Listening to those horrors unfold on the streets of Britain is something of an unsettling experience, as the evolving plotline questions comfortable received wisdom about the nature of social cohesion. That might make it sound like an off-putting educational documentary, rather than the taut and unpredictable thriller it is; albeit a powerfully socially aware one.
With an excellent ensemble cast, great sound design and an intelligent and plausible storyline, First World Problems is a more than convincing entry in the canon of bleak ‘what if’ audio fiction, made all the more compelling by the way its plot mirrors stories that will make tomorrow morning’s headlines in countries across the planet.
FIRST WORLD PROBLEMS / DIRECTOR: JONQUIL PANTING / WRITER: MARTIN JAMESON / STARRING: JEREMY SWIFT, MAUREEN BEATTIE, ELIZABETH COUNSELL, SAM BARNARD, ELINOR COLEMAN / FIRST BROADCAST: JUNE 2018 / AVAILABLE ON IPLAYER