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Olivia Williams says new drama shows 'human side' of A-bomb scientists

Actress Olivia Williams said her new drama Manhattan would show the "human side" of the scientists who manufactured the world's first atomic bombs.

She stars as Dr Liza Winter, the wife of the leader of a group of scientists working on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, New Mexico, in a race to create an nuclear bomb before Germany during the Second World War.

The acclaimed drama is based on the testimonies of the scientists whose work eventually led to the nuclear bombing of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 and who lived with their families on a government base so isolated and secret that the birth certificates of babies born there stated just a post office box.

Williams said: "The truth of Los Alamos and the first atomic weapon is so bizarre and crazy that if you proposed it as a sci-fi people would say don't be ridiculous, and the only reason it's not the stupidest thing the Americans ever did is because it actually worked."

But she said the idea was not to tell the historical story: " It's to tell the human side, not the big stars of the piece, not Roosevelt and Einstein and Oppenheimer, but these obsessive physicists, many of whom were profoundly shocked and permanently f*****-up by the fact what they had built was dropped on civilians without warning.

"They never recovered from the truth of what they had done."

She said she was drawn to the "agony" of playing the show's "Cassandra figure" - a biologist and woman with a history of mental illness who "has the power of prophecy to tell you what's going to happen but the curse of never being believed".

John Benjamin Hickey stars as her husband Frank, alongside Ashley Zuckerman, House of Cards's Rachel Brosnahan and British actor Harry Lloyd.

Far from being a period piece, Williams believes the story of the project still has cautionary political parallels today.

She said: "One of the wonderful modern parallels is the WMD fiasco that Tony Blair got involved in, with this belief that Hitler was about to build an atomic weapon and we had to build ours first.

"Why we all went to war in the first place in the Middle East is because we led to believe we were under immediate threat of WMDs and that's exactly what they told the scientists in Los Alamos."

Williams, who was a supporter of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) in her youth, said she struggled to reconcile herself with the conviction that dropping the bombs was the right decision.

She said: "There's a massive moral issue if you go the Los Alamos now. Anyone who shows you round the Bradbury Science Museum will say this is the bomb that brought us 50 years of peace, they so believe in mutually assured destruction as a form of deterrence and if you have any other view, they really can't hear it.

"I really don't know what the answer is, maybe the reason I do get to live in a nice house in relative peace is because of nuclear deterrents, I don't know. But I struggle with it."

:: Manhattan airs in the UK on BT's AMC on Tuesdays at 9pm.

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