The story starts from early December, when a rail strike is called by the railway union due to safety concerns. 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.
- 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 into an overworked air traffic control triggering a air crash by a 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. (See Twisted Christmas entry below.)
- 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. (See Disaster Dominoes entry above)
- Recycled Soundtrack: The film's soundtrack includes excerpts from the scores to The Shawshank Redemption, Requiem for a Dream, 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.
- 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. Arrived the airport an hour after the scheduled flight departure, only to find that the plane was delayed as well. 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.