“In an urban society, everything connects. Each person’s needs are fed by the skills of many others. Our lives are woven together in a fabric. But the connections that make society strong also make it vulnerable”.
Threads is a 1984 British television drama, produced jointly by the BBC, Nine Network and Western-World Television Inc. Written by Barry Hines (Kes) and directed by Mick Jackson (Volcano), it is a docudrama account of nuclear war and its effects on the city of Sheffield in northern England.
The primary plot centres on two families, the Becketts and the Kemps, as an international crisis between the United States and the Soviet Union erupts and escalates, mimicking the real-life tensions but allowing the threatened Cold War to escalate beyond the hypothetical and into a fully-blown attack. As the United Kingdom prepares for war, the members of each family deal with their own personal crises, the rigors of family life, not least the unplanned pregnancy of Ruth Beckett (Karen Meagher; 28 Weeks Later) and urgent requirement for some new wallpaper not halting, as a much larger-scale danger develops. As Ruth and her boyfriend, Jimmy Kemp (Reece Dinsdale, best known for his role opposite John Thaw in the deadly dull sitcom, Home to Roost), we observe the political angle, members of Sheffield City Council, on the orders of the Home Office, setting up northern headquarters in the basement of Sheffield Town Hall, closely monitoring news reports of an American submarine going missing off the coast of Iran and the mobilisation of Russian troops on the ground.
With the Americans launching a counter-offensive, occupying Iranian oil fields, tensions in the UK begin to spill over, the populous involving themselves in demonstrations (ironically, not just pro-CND but demanding more jobs) or looting shops and businesses. Nuclear exchanges are reported near the Russians’ base in Masshad, Iran, after which a flimsy truce is declared. The civil defence arrangements become increasingly panicked and stretched as it seems the worst scenario is looking evermore likely. After an American attempt at diplomacy is rebuffed, the conflict appears to quieten, though UK civilians fruitlessly attempt to withdraw their savings and take to the roads in a bid to find safe ground, the consequence being endless traffic jams and further unrest.
At 8:30 a.m. (3:30 a.m. in Washington, D.C.) on 26 May, Attack Warning Red is transmitted, and Sheffield’s air raid sirens sound. A warhead air bursts over the North Sea, obliterating many communications systems, then another hits RAF Finningley, 20 miles away from Sheffield. Although the city is not heavily damaged, chaos breaks out. Jimmy is last seen attempting to reach Ruth. Shortly after the first strike, Sheffield is hit by a one megaton warhead over the Tinsley Viaduct, causing enormous destruction. A title card states that strategic targets, including steel and chemical factories in the Midlands, are attacked, with two-thirds of all homes being destroyed and immediate deaths ranging between 17 and 30 million.
There is chaos at the Town Hall, partially demolished in the blast with the surviving civil servants trapped beneath, armed with little, though conflicting information, dwindling supplies and inevitable communication problems. We are also reminded that they too have loved ones on ‘the outside’, their fates unknown. Having witnessed the devastation of the blast; from melting milk bottles, to fires taking hold, to fried cats, we now see the nuclear radiation and its effects on the survivors, already struggling to escape the rubble but now faced with agonising illnesses, lack of running water and medical supplies and a fractured government authorising killing squads to shoot looters and deserters on-sight.
We re-visit the affected after a month, then a year, the dead remaining unburied, the country’s infrastructure almost non-existent, disease rife and the on-set of a nuclear winter, the perpetual dusk destroying crops. Later, the sun returns but only to highlight the squalor the remaining injured must endure. With much of the ozone layer decimated, cancer and other conditions are commonplace, the search for food and shelter remaining the overriding concern.
Many years later, Britain is depicted as having returned to the Dark Ages; ragged clothing, primitive farming techniques and a mangled version of language being employed by a population reduced from 11 million people to 4. The film ends with no redemption and little hope, the future bleak for all and life forever changed.
30 years on, Threads remains one of the most shocking and affecting film shown on British television. Coming 20 years after another nuclear parable, The War Game (ironically, originally not shown on the BBC under orders from the Wilson government), Threads is far more unflinching in its assessment of a nuclear attack, using a largely unknown cast (including many who weren’t recognised actors at all), an ‘anywhere’ location and the depiction of very real fears and logistics. To compound the unremitting tension, the action is interspersed with genuine news reports, Civil Defence announcements and public information films (Protect and Survive, an upsetting watch at the best of times), are a reminder that the mid-80’s were still shrouded in Cold War tensions, Threads serving as a stark picture of a very real possibility.
Mick Jackson was hired to direct the film, as he had previously worked in the area of nuclear apocalypse in 1982, producing the BBC Q.E.D. documentary A Guide to Armageddon. By undergoing rigorous research to capture the actual plans in place should such a catastrophe take place, the documentary feel overtakes the film from the very start, though some may find the later scenes of grey ruins and uneducated survivors a little too stretched and film-like. The film was shot on a budget of £250,000–350,000, much of the budget going on a rare depiction of post-attack scenes, the majority of previous efforts only showing up to and including the dropping of the bomb. Remarkably, Jackson went on to have mainstream success as the director of Hollywood smash, The Bodyguard.
Allegedly viewed after broadcast by then-US President Ronald Reagan, as well as Party Leaders in the UK, the initial screenings in Britain, America and Australia were accompanied by studio discussions, debating the issues raised in the film. Although distinctly anti-nuclear, the events are shown as being part of a much bigger picture, the lack of preparation and planning by the Government being as damning as the hopeless brinkmanship of the Americans and Russians. Threads was also shown in British schools, both as an example of storytelling and the use of documentary-style filming. Though having been released briefly on two occasions, the use of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” has left licensing rights a huge stumbling block to the definitive release this film deserves.