The year is 1984, and anxieties surrounding nuclear annihilation, sparked by the ongoing Cold War, are at an all-time high. On the 23rd of September, a Sunday evening that would later be branded ‘The Night When Nobody Slept’, families across Britain would be glued to their televisions in horror. They were watching Threads; a straight-to-television film depicting the nightmarish consequences of nuclear war in England, premiering for the first time on BBC Two. Combining a faux documentary style with methods of the typical British kitchen sink drama, Threads plunged viewers into a relentlessly bleak vision of a post-apocalyptic world. And today, Threads maintains its potency. A stark reminder of the catastrophic consequences of nuclear conflict, Threads is no less important in the current global context where nuclear tensions persist.
Threads introduces us, in deceptively mundane fashion, to the day-to-day life of Jimmy (Reece Dinsdale), Ruth (Karen Meagher) and their families in Sheffield. Ruth has discovered that she is pregnant, and the young couple plan to marry. Preparations for the baby are underway. Together, they strip the ‘old-fashioned’ wallpaper from their new shared apartment whilst Ruth’s Mother knits baby clothes. Jimmy drinks with his friend in a local pub, capitalising on his last days as a ‘free man’. The irony is palpable. All seems normal in this naturalistic illustration of working class Britain, if you can ignore the news reports which indicate, with increasing severity, the looming threat of nuclear war. And when the bombs drop, no-one will be spared.
Threads is the love child of phenomenal English writer Barry Hines and renowned director Mick Jackson. Barry Hines, known for his exploration of the socio-economic struggles of northern working class England, lent to the film’s script a disturbing realism that would quite literally traumatise a generation. Authentic dialogue ensures his characters feel like real people, reacting to the events of the film in a way which is true to their background and environment. When a mushroom cloud rises in the distance, Jimmy’s friend Bob (Ashley Barker) exclaims ‘Jesus Christ! They’ve done it… They’ve done it!’, whilst Ruth’s Father (David Brierley) simply shouts ‘Bloody hell!’ These genuine British reactions to a nuclear bomb drop are disturbingly effective in their simplicity and colloquialism.
Such realism is only enhanced by the direction of Jackson. Threads was shot on location in Sheffield using, for the majority of the film, handheld cameras and natural lighting; techniques which created a terrifying sense of immediacy and visual authenticity. Prior to shooting Threads, Jackson worked alongside famous American and British scientists to ensure his film would be as accurate as possible in depicting the aftermath of nuclear war. Thus, under the deft direction of Hines and Jackson, Threads was able to blend scientific exactness with believable drama.
Threads vividly depicts the indomitable spirit of ordinary people confronted by an impending nuclear attack; families who, despite their best efforts, will be wrenched from the domestic comfort of their homes and torn apart. To a contemporary audience, Threads offers a brutal reminder of just how close the story contained in this film came to being a reality during the Cold War. In 1983, just one year prior to the release of Threads on the BBC, the Soviet Union’s nuclear warning system reported the launch of missiles from the United States. If it were not for engineer Stanislav Petrov’s decision to wait before issuing a retaliatory nuclear strike, the Soviet system’s ‘false alarm’ would have likely led to full scale nuclear war. This example is just one of many that brings home the oppressive sense of dread that permeated the lives of those growing up during the 70s and 80s, and explains in part the disturbed testimony of those who watched Threads when it first aired on television.
One IMDB user recalls watching the film in 1984, when they were just 12 years old; ‘I wanted to look away, but couldn’t. I wanted to run from the room in fright, but couldn’t. For better or worse, this film showed in full, unflinching, uncompromising detail exactly what it would be like if your home town got nuked, and gave us graphic realism in spades’. But Threads was not the only film of its time to play on contemporaneous fears and anxieties. Body horror films like David Cronenberg’s 1986 masterpiece The Fly is said to have represented fears regarding the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, whilst technological paranoia found its expression in seminal films like 1984’s The Terminator. So what makes Threads special? Where Threads stands out from other films of its time is in its refusal to engage in the conventions of fictional, Hollywoodised filmmaking. Threads does not set out to entertain; it was created, as Jackson stated, to provide politicians with a ‘workable visual vocabulary for thinking about the unthinkable’.
And though modern viewers likely do not hold the same deep-rooted fears of nuclear annihilation, Threads retains its impact. This is not only because of the impressive verisimilitude that Jackson and Hines achieved on such a low budget. Threads’ portrayal of a world brought to the brink of destruction addresses current fears surrounding global warming and environmental degradation, with its focus on the breakdown of society after a catastrophic event hitting all too close to home. The COVID-19 pandemic will be fresh in the minds of viewers today, and with those memories comes a renewed fear when watching Threads; we observe the fragility of modern civilization with alarm. Whether it is the feeling of close proximity to the characters in the first half of the film conveyed by Jackson’s use of the handheld camera, or the practical effects depicting the gruesome onslaught of radiation poisoning, Threads stands the test of time and possesses the ability to strike terror in the hearts of viewers even today.
The build up to the bomb drop in Threads is uncomfortably akin to global reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic. Most readers will remember with vague amusement the panic buying of toilet paper during the early days of the Lockdown Era, but Threads reminds us that in the moment we were genuinely afraid; and perhaps we had cause to be. In supermarkets across Sheffield, panic buying ensues as families desperately seek to stockpile goods for their homes. Articles in newspapers explain how people can best protect themselves against a strike, with Jimmy’s Father painstakingly following instructions to build a makeshift shelter out of mattresses and the kitchen door. Even the most optimistic of viewers knows his endeavour is a pointless one. At 8:30am in England, disinterested documentary-style narration declares a nuclear detonation over the North Sea, damaging communications across Britain. A second attack wipes out military targets, and the third and final attack confirms the instant death of 12-30 million people in the UK. Here, the true horrors of Threads ensue.
As depressing a watch as Threads may be, director Mick Jackson’s attempts to ‘visualise the unthinkable’ are as successful today as they were 40 years ago. Threads does not only set out to shock with gruesome depictions of radiation poisoning; it displays, in grim docudrama fashion, the long-term breakdown of British society. Ruth is, from the two large families we connect to at the start of the film, the only survivor of the initial bomb strikes. Stumbling out of her family home into the rubble that Sheffield has been reduced to, she walks past people made unrecognisable by radiation. The camera’s unsympathetic gaze observes a woman with her face burnt off clutching the corpse of her dead baby. We are reminded of Ruth’s own pregnancy, and the hopelessness of her situation. Considering our current cinematic landscape, littered as it is with dystopian heroines like Katniss Everdeen, it is important for contemporary viewers to recognise that Ruth’s post-apocalyptic existence is not confined to fiction. Wrapped in grey rags and dusty with nuclear fallout, Ruth may be reminiscent of the hero of a dystopian survival film, but Threads makes it clear that nuclear war is not something any of us would want to live through.
The second half of the film is sparse in dialogue, relying on intermittent title cards that document how much time has passed since the strikes, as well as information about the ongoing struggles the survivors face. Here, the powerful imagery of director Mick Jackson and the understated yet dynamic performance of Karen Meagher as Ruth shines through. Created with a budget of just £250,000 and shot over the course of 17 days, Threads is truly one of a kind. Combining archive footage with staged shots, Jackson blurs the lines between reality and drama to extraordinary effect.
Utilising miniatures and hand-painted backgrounds, Jackson was able to portray nuclear devastation in excruciating detail. Long shots depict cremated British countryside and towns and cities fallen into irreparable ruin. As society breaks down, we see Ruth give birth alone in a shack. Her daughter will grow up in a world that is unrecognisable. As nuclear winter sets in, she must barter for rats to eat. It is in stark contrast to the cosy life she enjoyed with her middle class family that we observe, with despair, Ruth’s relentless drive for survival in a world without hope.
The ending of Threads adheres to the same unremitting hopelessness that persists throughout the film’s second half. Hines refuses to provide viewers with catharsis, and instead ramps up the film’s horror in the final scene where Ruth’s young daughter Jane stumbles into a crude hospital, reminiscent of a cattle shed from the 14th century, to give birth. Threads ends on a freeze frame as, handed the deformed body of her stillborn child, Jane looks upon her baby with confusion, then opens her mouth in a silent scream. The message here requires no deciphering; society has regressed back to medieval times, and the long-term effects of nuclear radiation will be suffered by generations to come. Life as we know it is fragile, and the delicate threads that hold society together easily torn apart. Here, we are reminded of the first shot of the film; documentary-like footage of a spider spinning a web.
The bold ending that Threads delivers appears almost like a challenge to its viewers: ‘I have shown you what will happen if we enter into a nuclear war; do you want this?’ For anyone who has made it through the film’s two-hour runtime, the answer will be a resounding no. And whilst Jackson almost certainly anticipated such a response, he could not perhaps have anticipated the enduring legacy of Threads; his unflinching portrayal of a post-apocalyptic hellscape remains crucial today as a timeless cautionary tale about the devastating impact of nuclear weapons on humanity. As Vladimir Putin famously stated, there can be no winners in a nuclear war.
Written by Eleanor Wise
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