A back corner of Leeds became a grisly scene of forensic tents, trenches filled with body bags and makeshift morgues in the horrifying aftermath of a killer disease outbreak.
But the sinister-looking set-up was down to a Leeds-based production company filming a dramatisation as part of a documentary to be screened on Channel 4 this Sunday.
‘Return of the Black Death: Secret History’ explores new findings about the outbreak in 1348-49, when the Bubonic Plague - or the Pneumonic Plague as current evidence may suggest - killed millions.
Leeds-based True North productions was tasked with creating a scenario if a plague swept the nation on the same scale today.
The company chose a piece of wasteland near its office on Marshall Street to get to work on the deathly scene - recruiting help from all corners for Yorkshire.
Production executive Samantha Stamp said the site was ideal: “It worked great for us. We were right in the city centre, with this great extended backdrop of a factory, railway line and tower blocks. It was the perfect film set which wrapped the site we were building.”
York-based re-enactment company Battle Group North, donated Army-style tents for autopsies and body identifications and University of Huddersfield forensic science students took part on the day of the shoot, helping to make behaviours realistic. Morley’s Abbey House Vets also donated its pet micro-chipping machine after it was decided bodies would most likely be chipped with their identities - and the bags given bar codes.
Production staff spent hours creating the ‘body’ shapes from taping up double duvets, with ‘necks’ and ‘ankles’ to put in the bags. Samantha said passers by regularly stopped to ask what was happening and passengers on the nearby railway line would have had a good view.
“We looked quite a sight - all these people in white suits and masks.”
She said it was interesting to note the similarities between dealing with the aftermath of a plague in the 1300s and now.
“Nothing much has changed. Technology’s come along, but at the end of the day, you dig a trench and respectfully line up the body bags and you bury them. And the technology on sites would vary, depending on what was available to the people.”
She added: “I’ve never worked on anything quite as factual as this. It was interesting to try and re-create something that’s happened in the past - and could happen to us. I think everyone involved thoroughly enjoyed themselves - in a weird way.”
*** Return of the Black Death: Secret History is screened on Sunday at 8pm on Channel 4.
It details new research questioning whether the Black Death was down to Bubonic Plague, spread by fleas on infected rates, or rather Pneumonic Plague, a more virulent and infectious form of the disease - passed on through infected breath.
It also features a mass burial site in central London, uncovered last March by engineers on the Crossrail tunnelling project. Twenty-five corpses were found close to Smithfield Market buried in neat rows, which scientists have been testing.