The story starts from early December, when a rail strike is called by the railway union due to an accident at Waverley railway station in Edinburgh. The rest of the film focuses on how the events manifest on a particular day (19 December). The rail strike forces more cargo and people on the roads than usual, with the Christmas rush not helping matters. An accident occurs on the M25 motorway outside of London, with traffic rapidly backing up. Due to other mismanagements within the traffic and police authorities, what was supposed to be a usual annoyance for motorists results in the dominoes starting to tip, the traffic jam extending to the whole of London, and eventually grinding the whole of Britain to a halt.
The events unfold in chronological order, as presented from various people involved, including a monitoring officer for one of the motorways, several people stranded in the traffic jams, and a politician from the transport ministry. Drama is further added with news footage which describes the unfolding events (e.g., Sky News, Channel 4 News, France's TF1), real-life footage (from a train crash site, a speech by Prime Minister Tony Blair, and various stock footage of British traffic congestion), and several cameo roles by well-known British personalities.
Tropes used for this work:
- 20 Minutes into the Future: First aired on 13 May 2003, the story is set in December of that year, placed 18 months after the 2002 Potters Bar accident.
- Artistic License Sports: One of the reasons why the traffic gets so bad is an international friendly between England and Turkey at Old Trafford. However, international friendlies do not take place during the Christmas period (when even Premier League sides are known to play up to four times in ten days), and the two sides would not play a friendly so soon after facing each other in the qualifiers for Euro 2004. Also, at that time international fixtures weren't played on Friday nights.
- Death from Above: Following the mid-air collision, pieces of both planes fall on Hounslow, flattening streets and setting areas of the town ablaze.
- Disaster Dominoes: The whole premise of the show demonstrates how a failing infrastructure, along with poor political leadership in planning/maintaining said infrastructure can cause the following scenario: A seemingly usual traffic jam can severely disrupt the operations of numerous people that keeps a nation going, and results in an overworked air traffic controller triggering a midair crash by human error.
- Finagle's Law: Whatever can happen to make the situation worse will happen. This is arguably the point, in order to demonstrate that what may seem like a minor issue that isn't worth addressing can, under the right circumstances, snowball into complete disaster.
- The Grinch: Dramatically deconstructed with the rail unions. While we don't really see the union's side of the story, it is quite clear that - intentionally or otherwise - the rail workers' union and their decision to go on strike was the trigger for this documentary.
- Hope Spot: One poor woman spends hours trying to contact the authorities to learn whether her husband was on the plane that crashed, and learns that his flight was a completely different one... only to receive a call moments afterwards informing her that he had transferred onto the one that crashed after all.
- Mockumentary: The whole premise of the show.
- Mundanger: The whole point shows how failing infrastructure, poor politics, and poor planning can severely cripple a nation.
- My God, What Have I Done?: The overworked air traffic controller feels this way when she accidentally guides two planes onto the same runway and they collide in mid-air.
- Poor Communication Kills: Since many utilities are privatized, the companies in charge of them usually don't communicate when work is being done on things such as water mains. This becomes a serious problem when the police try to keep traffic flowing on the M25, only to come across road work they had no idea about. They try to divert the traffic to an alternate route to Kent, only to run into traffic coming out of Kent that also had to be diverted, which they chose to do to the M25.
- Recycled Soundtrack: The film's soundtrack includes excerpts from the scores to The Shawshank Redemption, Heat, Requiem for a Dream, 28 Days Later, and The Sum of All Fears.
- Ripped from the Headlines: The catalyst for the rail strike was a train wreck caused by sloppy maintenance and cost-cutting by the new private consortium that had taken over after rail privatisation, much like the one at Hatfield a few years earlier.
- The Scapegoat: The overworked air traffic controller who was monitoring the planes that eventually crashed seems to be being set up to take the fall. Subverted, however, when an air-crash investigator notes the resemblance between this case and an earlier incident which allows the defence to clearly demonstrate unaddressed systemic failures and faults.
- Sensor Suspense: The plane crash is first shown on a radar screen.
- Shoot the Shaggy Dog: The Galt family (barring the father), being stranded on the M25 motorway on their way to Heathrow Airport, decides at the last moment to walk the last one kilometre to Heathrow Airport. Those who chose to leave reach the airport an hour after the scheduled flight departure, only to find that the plane was delayed as well, so they ultimately make their flight. Cue Airplane crashes, everybody dies.
- Title Drop: A newscaster mentions that the public has started referring to the day's events as "the day Britain stopped."
- Twisted Christmas: By the morning of 20 December, we have a disaster consisting of:
- A daughter who died en route to hospital (from an accident on the M25), due to the ambulance being stuck in traffic.
- 87 deaths from a two-plane collision over London, and
- Numerous motorists who ended up being stranded overnight, with 8 people dying from hypothermia.
- And the above is just the events that happened on the particular day in Britain. It's probably not unreasonable to think that the disruptions lasted beyond Christmas and even beyond New Years Day.
- Unwitting Instigator of Doom: Many motorists, after making it out of traffic they'd been stuck in for hours, speed away as fast as they can, especially those who have deadlines they need to meet, but many of them end up crashing and clogging up free-flowing arteries. One particular example is a tanker driver who speeds up to meet his client, only for his truck to jackknife and crash, spilling chemicals everywhere and forcing the M25 to be closed.