The China Syndrome – tape 39

We’re bouncing back and forth through time with these tapes. Here’s a really early one, with an absolutely brilliant movie, The China Syndrome.

Jane Fonda plays a TV journalist who longs for something more than puff pieces to cover. Her position in the station is shown right at the start, as we see a TV camera’s point of view as she’s fixing her hair and makeup, and we hear two men speaking.

“The red hair was a good idea.”
“We talked about cutting it.”
“What did she say?”
“We haven’t talked to her about it but she’ll do what we tell her.”

Jane Fonda

After a short piece on singing telegrams, she’s told to go to the Ventana Nuclear Power Plant, for part of a special she’s filming about energy, accompanied by cameraman Michael Douglas (who’s also the film’s producer).

Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas

While they’re in the observation gallery for the control room, there’s an event, like a small earthquake. Then we see the action in the control room as Jack Lemmon, the man in charge, tries to deal with the problem. What starts as a routine ‘turbine trip’ goes horribly wrong, as an indicator of reactor water level is stuck showing high water, leading Lemmon to dump water, meaning the nuclear core is almost exposed. They spot the problem just in time, and with some quick thinking, the danger is averted.

This is a great scene. The performances by all the technicians (including Wilford Brimley as a rare old-timer) are great, and they all come across as people who know what they’re doing. It rings very true.

Annoyingly, the end of the scene is slightly marred by LWT mixing to an ad break just as we’re being shown computer printouts telling us it’s all over. Very poor judgement by presentation.

Douglas was filming the whole event from the gallery, but when they get back to the TV station, their boss tells them they can’t run the film. Fonda caves, as she wants to keep her job, rubbish though it currently is. Douglas is angry.

The company that runs the plant is seeking approval for a new plant elsewhere, so it’s rather keen to keep the story under wraps.  Wilford Brimley is worried that he’s going to be made a scapegoat for the event. Lemmon asks him “What makes you think they’re looking for a scapegoat?” “Tradition”

Wilford Brimley 2

Fonda meets Lemmon at the plant’s local bar when she’s looking for Douglas, and they talk about the accident. Lemmon doesn’t agree it was an accident. “The system worked” he tells her. But he’s still worried enough to inspect the pumps around the plant, and finds a small leak.

Douglas, meanwhile, is found at the safety hearings for the new power plant. I think here, the film really tips its political position, as a group of mothers hold up pictures of their small children and ask the panel to think about the children.

Douglas is there to show the film to an expert. His opinion: “You’re probably lucky to be alive. For that matter I think we might say the same for the rest of Southern California”

Lemmon digs deeper, and when he checks the welding x-rays, supposed to show the construction of the plant is good, he notices that a large number of the x-rays have simple been copied, meaning many of the welds have never been checked. When he confronts the inspector who signed off on the reports, he threatens to set his company security on him.

He offers to supply Fonda with samples of the falsified x-rays, so that an expert can use them to testify at the safety hearings, but Fond’a editor, who is taking them to the hearing, is run off the road. Lemmon drives to the hearing, but is followed by some shifty looking fellows, so he pulls off the highway and heads to the power plant to evade them.

He’s horrified that they’re going to run the reactor at full speed, but nobody will listen to him, even Wilford Brimley. So in desperation he grabs the gun of the security guard and tells everyone in the control room t get out. Then he demands to see Fonda, so he can make a broadcast and tell the world what’s going on.

Meanwhile, the executives of the power plant, personified by Richard Herd, who always seems to be cast as the evil management guy, try to think of ways to stop the broadcast happening.

Richard Herd

It becomes a tense race between the TV broadcast starting, and a swat team preparing to enter the control room when the plant technicians scram the reactor to distract Lemmon.

This being the 70s, there’s no happy ending for Lemmon, but after the reactor is finally made stable, outside the plant, the plant’s publicity manager is painting Lemmon as a lunatic. “Yes, I did hear a report that he had been drinking.”

So when he wheels on Brimley to attest to the safety of the plant, Fonda asks him what happened, At first he’s monosyllabic. “I don’t know. It’s not my place to say.” But he finally find his courage to speak.

                Jack Godell was my best friend. I mean these guys 
                are painting him as some kind of loony. He wasn't 
                a loony. He was the sanest man I ever knew in my life.
                And he had reason to believe this plant was not safe?
                Yeah. I mean he wouldn;t have done what he did if 
                there wasn't something to it, I mean Jack Godell 
                he wasn't that kind of guy. I didn't know all the 
                particulars, He told me a few things. There's 
                going to be an investigation this time, and the 
                truth'll come out and people will know my friend 
                Jack Godell wasn't a lunatic. He was a hero. 
                Jack Godell was a hero.

This is a great movie, even if you’re uncomfortable with its very strong anti-nuclear position. Well worth watching if you come across it.

After the movie, there’s a trailer for Bonnie and Clyde. Then recording stops and underneath, there’s some kind of drama with Sam Neill. Some IMDb spelunking suggests it’s The Country Girls.

Then, there’s a bit of a treat, with an episode of Who Dares Wins – well, it’s actually The Unrepeatable Who Dares Wins so it might be a compilation. I don’t have much Who Dares Wins in my collection, so it’s nice to find another.

There’s a song called ‘The Welsh are Appalling’ from Philip Pope.

Philip Pope 2

There’s a guest appearance by Frankie Howerd, playing a Frankie Howerd lookalike.

Frankie Howerd

Rory McGrath even uses my home town, Hemel Hempstead, as the punchline to a joke. It’s a good comedy name, Hemel Hempstead.

the tape ends just after this.


  • trail: Giro City
  • Allied Sale
  • Safeway
  • trail: Ready Steady Go
  • Hertz
  • Heroin Screws You Up
  • Poly Hi-Lights
  • Quattro
  • trail: Swank – a fashion show presented by Dawn French, and featuring Alison Moyet and Helen Terry


  1. “The China Syndrome” wasn’t planned to have no underscore – Michael Small was hired to score the movie, but James Bridges kept taking out more and more cues until he finally decided to pull it all. (Fortunately, Intrada put out an album decades later.)

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