Today we’re going to discuss a 1984 BBC movie called Threads, about nuclear war. It’s strong stuff, so please do take that as a warning. Spoilers follow.
Threads never leaves you. No film has ever affected me as deeply, or for anything like as long. I remember vividly the first time I watched it. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Days later, I still felt depressed by what I’d seen. This was about six or seven years ago, two decades after the Berlin Wall came down and an event like this stopped seeming inevitable.
I’m 34, so I can remember the last years of the Cold War, but I was only two when Threads was made, and it’s only been seen on British TV rarely since. I saw it first on YouTube or Vimeo (I forget), its impact dulled only slightly by the grainy image. And frankly, there were times in the firestorm scenes where I was grateful for not being able to see the images of charred corpses in total clarity.
Let’s back up. Threads was written by Barry Hinds, who also wrote A Kestrel for a Knave (which Ken Loach made into Kes), and was co-produced by the BBC, Australia’s Channel Nine and Western-World TV. Its director was Mick Jackson, who’d go on to make, of all things, The Bodyguard.
It’s essentially a docudrama, showing the effects of a nuclear exchange on the UK city of Sheffield, a target for its steel and mining industries, as well as for having a nearby US air base. It’s a small miracle of film-making. It was produced on a budget of about a quarter of a million pounds (far less than its US counterpart, The Day After), yet tells an ambitious story over a roughly 10-year period. It shows an entirely city being destroyed, and the pathetic attempts of civilisation to reassert itself during the resultant nuclear winter. By the time it’s finished, every character we see at the beginning of the film is dead.
The bombs don’t start falling until 45 minutes in, yet the early scenes are full of foreboding. Ruth and Jimmy are a young couple. She’s pregnant, and the pair decide to get married and move in together. Scenes of their families meeting, and of Ruth and Jimmy working on their new house, play out as TVs and radios in the background give updates on an escalating crisis situation in the Middle East, with Russia refusing to acknowledge US ultimatums. Eventually missiles are exchanged over the North Sea, and Sheffield is destroyed.
The film is unsparing in its depiction of what happens next. Jimmy is at work when it happens and he never sees Ruth again. We last see him running through the streets to try to get to her, 51 minutes into the 2-hour film. His fate is left unknown to us. (As a viewer in 2016, this is even more surprising as Reece Dinsdale, the actor who played Jimmy, is the most familiar face on screen – he’d go on to star in ITV sitcom Home to Roost with John Thaw, and was in Coronation Street for a couple of years, too.)
Ruth, meanwhile, survives the blast, in the cellar of her parents’ house. But days after the attack, she leaves the house to look for Jimmy. Later she returns, and her parents are dead in the cellar. We don’t see them, merely hearing the flies and scuttling of rats as she opens the door down to the cellar. Threads is, as I say, unsparing.
Ruth survives 10 years of nuclear winter, long enough to have her daughter, Jane, and to grow blind (cataracts) and prematurely aged from radiation poisoning. Jane grows up near mute (there is no system of education so language decays to a bare minimum of words needed to facilitate survival; order is maintained by the essentially totalitarian government witholding food from those unwilling to work) and the film ends with Jane screaming at the sight of her own stillborn baby.
This rough outline of the plot doesn’t come close to capturing the full horror. It’s the sheer relentlessness of Threads that’s so harrowing. Throughout the film, we frequently cut away to title cards giving updates on plot elements that happen off-screen or that give some indication of the nationwide picture. One such particularly brutal cut comes during the firestorm scene. After seeing several shots of buildings (shops, offices and terraced houses) destroyed by the blast wave, a title card tells us that two-thirds of houses in Britain are in the possible fire zone. We cut back to a shot of a whole city on fire, with everything that wasn’t already flattened burning.
That’s what remains so shocking about Threads. It’s not one individual thing. It’s not the burning bodies, the corpses in the wreckage, the scenes of survivors eating rats, or radioactive sheep; it’s not the soldiers gunning down looters, the council’s disaster response team all dying of suffocation in their shelter before they can be dug out, or the stillborn babies. It’s everything. It’s the total lack of pretense from Hinds and Jackson that an event like this could be survivable and anything like life as we know it could continue after. Some on the right have decried the film as propaganda, but Jackson was hired because he’d worked on the BBC’s QED programme A Guide to Armageddon, and Hinds and Jackson spent a week in a Home Office training centre for “official” survivors who’d need to help with the reconstruction effort.Hinds used sources such as Nuclear Winter: Global Consequences of Multiple Nuclear Explosions, an article that Carl Sagan and James Pollack wrote for Scientist to determine realistic scenarios. From the vantage point of 2016, it’s amazing that it was ever broadcast. Neil Kinnock, then leader of the Labour party, sent a letter of congratulations to Hinds. Ronald Reagan reportedly requested a screening of it.
I’m not ashamed to say Threads changed my stance on nuclear disarmament, pushing me far further towards unilateral disarmament that I’d been before. The idea that we’d spend another penny on weapons that can do this rather than education and welfare makes me boilingly angry. I honestly couldn’t recommend you watch Threads – it really is tremendously disturbing, it’s in no way enjoyable, and if you do watch it, I doubt you’ll ever be able to forget what you see. But I’m glad that I have seen it, however uncomfortable it was to watch.