In April 1986, Jared Harris was 25 years old, not long graduated from his Duke University arts degree, and back in the UK starting out in the acting world. When news of the disaster at Ukraine’s Chernobyl nuclear power plant first arrived, Harris remembers it well. “I remember the cloud,” he tells journalists at a press day for Sky Atlantic/HBO drama Chernobyl, in which he plays Soviet chemist Valery Legasov.
“Once that cloud passed over, they stopped talking about it but what you realise is that it was churning that stuff out into the atmosphere for months and months and months.” He recalls being told not to go outside if it rains, not to drink milk … Acknowledging the silliness of the recollection in the light of such a serious event, he tells us “there was a period when you couldn’t eat Welsh lamb any longer, anything that was grazing on the grass, they wouldn’t let you touch that.”
“There was a weird conspiracy theory about Nostradamus,” says Harris. “Something to do with ‘Wormwood’. Apparently it translated into Russian somehow and [Nostradamus] predicted it. People come up with all sorts of crazy things when things like that happen.”
Emily Watson, a second year student in her English degree at Bristol University at the time remembers the shock of the news. A friend was spending a year in Kiev, which brought the event closer to home. She recalls it being “a cataclysmic, shocking event but also feeling quite far away.” Most noticeable for Watson, who plays nuclear physicist Ulyana Khomyuk, was “the difference between how it was being reported in the Western media and how it was being reported in the Soviet Union.”
Stellan Skarsgard, who was 35 at the time of the disaster, with an already established acting career in Sweden, remembers “The first news we got was that there was some radiation detected at a power plant in Sweden, everybody started thinking uh-oh, Three Mile Island, but quickly they discovered that it came from a kind of fuel that the Soviet Union was using.”
“The information you got was, of course, from Western sources, because the Soviet Union didn’t let out any information and the information they let out was always downplaying the catastrophe, says Skarsgard, who plays Soviet politician Boris Scherbina in the miniseries. “The rationale behind that is that it’s a perfect system, which is always troublesome.”
Five-part series Chernobyl starts tonight on Sky Atlantic at 9pm.