Review: ‘Resistance’ on BBC Radio 4

Posted on March 3, 2017   by Benjamin Thompson

Today, BBC Radio 4 broadcast the first episode of Resistance – a three-part drama series written by Val McDermid and developed through the ‘Experimental Stories’ collaboration between the BBC and the Wellcome Trust.

© digicomphoto/Thinkstock

Here, we post a mini-review of the episode but beware, this will contain spoilers. We also got the thoughts of Professor Laura Bowater from the University of East Anglia.

The episode opens with a rather chilling portent of things to come, with the central character, Zoe Meadows, declaring that: “We had no idea at the time that this was where the end began…”

Zoe is a jaded, rather frustrated journalist sent to cover the Northumberland Solstice music festival in the north east of England. It’s not a gig she particularly wants – spending a weekend away from her family with 100,000 strangers in the driving rain. For Zoe, things are going to get much worse.

As the rain continues to pour, the festival site further deteriorates, and by the morning of the second day scores of people are coming down with an unknown illness, which we’re led to believe is linked to a food van. It’s tempting to say that the setup feels like the start of a zombie movie, but having sat in quagmires watching bands, and seen friends horribly laid up by eating poorly cooked burgers, the whole thing doesn’t feel a million miles from the truth.

The infected people seem to recover, but after a couple of days succumb to a seemingly separate disease with a distinct set of symptoms, including a purple rash. These symptoms are also seen in festival artists who have flown abroad (foreshadowing an international breakout), and even in those who didn’t attend the festival. Quickly, people start dying.

What I couldn’t work out is the identity of the mystery microbe. The rash immediately suggested that the people had some form of bacterial meningitis (a very serious disease), but the rest of the symptoms didn’t chime with this.

“The people seem to be dying of some sort of septicaemia [blood poisoning], which can give purple blotches under the skin,” Laura explains. “But if you’ve got septicaemia you’re unlikely to be sitting in a doctor’s waiting room – as people were in this episode. You’re genuinely at death’s door.”

While this may be a dramatised bacterium, there is a lot of solid microbiology in there, with talk about how norovirus and Salmonella typically spread. There was a surprising amount of subtle public health messages in a 45-minute show.

One thing that I don’t think I heard at all in this first episode is a mention of antibiotic resistance. We know it’s coming – both in the show and sadly in real life – so I’ll be interested to see how quickly it has to be introduced, given that the series only has three episodes.

This is something that Laura agrees with: “Unless you already knew this was going to be about antibiotic resistance, I doubt you’d pick it up from episode one. I think listeners will get that it’s about a particularly nasty microbe, but whether it’s a bacterium or a virus is impossible to know at this point.

“What I will say is that the writer has pulled in a lot of the key problems related to antibiotic resistance: their use in farming, the importance of good epidemiology, and the fact that people can pick up microbes from food and the environment. I’m intrigued, and I definitely want to see how the series plays out.”

We’ve seen what a dystopian world of resistant bacteria looks like in comic book-form in our recent video about Surgeon X, so I’m looking forward to seeing how it’s described on the radio. There are also a host of sub-plots to be resolved. Sadly, I think Zoe Meadows is going to have a lot to write about – hopefully there’ll be someone left alive to read it.

If you’re in the UK you can hear part one of Resistance here.