|Directed by||Mick Jackson|
|Written by||Barry Hines|
|23 September 1984|
Threads is a 1984 BAFTA award-winning British television drama, produced jointly by the BBC, Nine Network and Western-World Television Inc. Written by Barry Hines and directed by Mick Jackson, 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 working-class Kemps and the middle-class Becketts, as a confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union erupts and escalates. As the United Kingdom prepares for war, the members of each family deal with their own personal crises. Meanwhile, a secondary plot centred upon the Chief Executive of Sheffield City Council serves to illustrate the British government's then-current continuity of government arrangements. As nuclear exchanges between NATO and the Warsaw Pact begin, the harrowing details of the characters' struggle to survive the attacks and their aftermath is dramatically depicted. The balance of the story details the fate of each family as the characters face the medical, economic, social and environmental consequences of nuclear war.
Shot on a budget of £250,000–350,000, the film was notable in being the first of its kind to depict a nuclear winter. Certain reviewers have nominated Threads as the "film which comes closest to representing the full horror of nuclear war and its aftermath, as well as the catastrophic impact that the event would have on human culture". It has been compared to the earlier programme The War Game produced in Britain in the 1960s and its contemporary The Day After, a 1983 ABC television film depicting a similar scenario in the United States.
Background on the war
The chronology of the events leading up to the war is depicted entirely via television and radio news broadcasts. An allegedly US-backed coup d'état in Iran prompts the Soviet Union to occupy the northern part of the country, ostensibly to prevent the return of a pro-Shah regime. On 8 May, the USA hints at deploying troops to Iran, to prevent the Soviets from reaching the oil fields in the south. On 11 May, the US Navy in the Indian Ocean is put on high alert when rumours begin abounding of the disappearance of the USS Los Angeles in the Persian Gulf. The next day, a collision in the Gulf of Oman between the Soviet battlecruiser Kirov and the USS Callaghan leaves the former badly damaged. Subsequent discoveries by American and Israeli search and rescue vessels reveal debris and an oil slick from the missing Los Angeles, prompting the US President to warn the Soviets over the possibility of an "armed confrontation – with incalculable consequences for all mankind."
On the 17th, the US sends its rapid deployment force to take defensive positions around Isfahan in western Iran, hoping to deter the Soviets from making further advances to the south, with a supporting role being taken by squadrons of B-52 bombers and AWACS early warning aircraft landing at US airbases in Turkey. The Soviets respond by transporting nuclear warheads into their newly established base in Mashhad. On 20 May, the USA proposes a joint withdrawal from Iran to take effect by noon on the 22nd, while Britain sends troops to Europe amidst a build-up of Warsaw Pact troops in East Germany. The Soviets ignore the US ultimatum and, an hour after the expiry, are attacked at their base in Mashhad by B-52 bombers using conventional weapons. The Soviets defend the base with a nuclear warhead, delivered by a surface-to-air missile, destroying many B-52s. The battle ceases after US forces destroy the base with a battlefield nuclear weapon.
The next day, fighting breaks out between the US and Soviet navies. On 24 May, amidst rioting in East Germany, the Soviets cut the road links into and out of West Berlin, whilst offering occupying NATO forces free passage to the west. The USS Kitty Hawk is sunk in the Persian Gulf, and the USA blockades Cuba. Severe damage to Russian consulates ensues during anti-Soviet riots in major US cities. The next day, the BBC reports on the Mashhad nuclear exchange, stating that the weapons used were within the range of 50–100 kilotons, and that cities in western Pakistan are being evacuated due to the fallout.
On 26 May, at 8:35 a.m. GMT, the Soviets detonate a warhead high above the North Sea, producing an electromagnetic pulse which damages communications throughout the UK and Northwestern Europe. Two minutes later, the first missile salvoes begin hitting NATO targets. Overall, the resulting East-West exchanges amount to 3000 megatons, with 210 falling on the UK.
Young Sheffield residents Ruth Beckett (Karen Meagher) and Jimmy Kemp (Reece Dinsdale) decide to marry due to an unplanned pregnancy. Meanwhile, as tensions between the US and the Soviet Union over Iran escalate, the Home Office directs Sheffield City Council to assemble an emergency operations team, which establishes itself in a makeshift bomb shelter in the basement of the Town Hall. After an ignored US ultimatum to the Soviets results in a brief tactical nuclear skirmish, Britain is gripped by fear, with looting and rioting erupting. "Known subversives" (including peace activists and some trade unionists) are arrested and interned under the Emergency Powers Act.
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, then another hits RAF Finningley 20 miles (32 km) 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.
Town Hall collapses, trapping the Sheffield emergency operations team under it. Within hours, nuclear fallout from a ground burst at Crewe begins descending upon Sheffield, with the surviving Kemps succumbing to radiation sickness. Fallout keeps rescuers from fighting fires or rescuing those trapped under the debris. Ruth goes to the Sheffield Royal Infirmary, where there is no electricity, no running water and no sanitation, with drugs and medical supplies having long since run out.
A month after the attack, soldiers dig into the Town Hall basement and find that the emergency operations staff have all died of suffocation. No efforts are made to bury the dead, as the surviving population is too weak for manual labour. Burning the bodies is considered a waste of fuel and so millions are left unburied, leading to an outbreak of diseases such as cholera and typhoid. The government authorises the use of capital punishment and special courts are authorised to shoot prisoners. As money no longer has any value, the only viable currency is food, given as a reward for work or withheld as punishment. Due to the millions of tons of soot, smoke and dust that have been blown into the upper atmosphere, a nuclear winter develops. Ruth is later seen working on a farm in Buxton, having defied official advice and fled the city, eventually giving birth to a daughter in a farm out-building.
A year after the war, sunlight begins to return but food production is poor due to the lack of proper equipment, fertilisers and fuel. Damage to the ozone layer also means this sunlight is heavy with ultraviolet radiation, with cataracts and cancer becoming more common.
Ten years later, Britain's population has fallen to medieval levels of around 4 to 11 million people. Survivors work in fields using primitive farming tools, and children born since the attack are educationally stunted, speaking a broken form of English. Prematurely aged and blind with cataracts, Ruth dies, survived by her 10-year-old daughter Jane (Victoria O'Keefe). By this time, the country has recovered slightly, with some resumption of manual coal mining, limited electricity, and some mechanisation from traction engines. However, the population continues to live in squalid conditions among the ruins.
Three years after Ruth's death, Jane and two boys are caught stealing food. One boy is shot in the ensuing confusion; Jane wrestles for the food with the other boy and they have (what the script describes as) "crude intercourse". Months later, and full term, Jane finds a makeshift hospital and gives birth. The film ends as she is about to scream in horror as she looks upon the baby she has just given birth to.
Although Jackson initially considered casting actors from Coronation Street, he later decided to take a neorealist approach, and opted to cast relatively unknown actors in order to heighten the film's impact through the use of characters the audience could relate to.
- Reece Dinsdale as Jimmy Kemp
- David Brierley as Mr Kemp
- Rita May as Mrs Kemp
- Nicholas Lane as Michael Kemp
- Jane Hazlegrove as Alison Kemp
- Karen Meagher as Ruth Beckett
- Henry Moxon as Mr Beckett
- June Broughton as Mrs Beckett
- Harry Beety as Clive J. Sutton (Controller)
- Ashley Barker as Bob
- Paul Vaughan as the Narrator
- Victoria O'Keefe as Jane
Production and themes
|“||Our intention in making Threads was to step aside from the politics and – I hope convincingly – show the actual effects on either side should our best endeavours to prevent nuclear war fail.||”|
—Screenwriter Barry Hines
Threads was first commissioned by the Director-General of the BBC Alasdair Milne, after he watched the 1965 documentary The War Game, which had not been shown on the BBC when it was made, due to pressure from the Wilson government, although it had had a limited release in cinemas. 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. This was considered a breakthrough at the time, considering the previous banning of The War Game, which BBC staff believed would have resulted in mass suicides if aired. Jackson subsequently travelled around the UK and the US, consulting leading scientists, psychologists, doctors, defence specialists and strategic experts in order to create the most realistic depiction of nuclear war possible for his next film. Jackson consulted various sources in his research, including the 1983 Science article Nuclear Winter: Global Consequences of Multiple Nuclear Explosions, penned by Carl Sagan and James B. Pollack. Details on a possible attack scenario and the extent of the damage were derived from Doomsday: A Nuclear Attack on the United Kingdom (1983), while the ineffective post-war plans of the UK government came from Duncan Campbell's 1982 exposé War Plan UK. In portraying the psychological damage suffered by survivors, Jackson took inspiration from the behaviour of the Hibakusha and Magnus Clarke's 1982 book Nuclear Destruction of Britain. Sheffield was chosen as the main location because of its "Nuclear Free Zone" policy.
Jackson hired Barry Hines to write the script because of his political awareness. The relationship between the two was strained on several occasions, as Hines spent much of his time on set, and apparently disliked Jackson on account of his middle class upbringing. As part of their research, the two spent a week at the Home Office training centre for 'official survivors' in Easingwold which, according to Hines, showed just 'how disorganised post-war reconstruction would be'.
Auditions were advertised in The Star, and took place in the ballroom of Sheffield City Hall, where 1,100 candidates turned up. All extras were chosen on the basis of height and age, and were all told to look 'miserable' and to wear raggedy clothes. The makeup for extras playing third degree burn victims consisted of Rice Krispies and tomato ketchup. The scenes taking place six weeks after the attack were shot in the Peak District National Park, though because weather conditions were considered too fine to pass off as a nuclear winter, stage snow had to be spread around the rocks and heather, and cameramen installed light filters on their equipment to block out the sunlight.
Jackson later recalled that while BBC productions would usually be followed by phone calls of congratulations from friends or colleagues immediately after airing, no such calls came after the first screening of Threads. Jackson later "realised... that people had just sat there thinking about it, in many cases not sleeping or being able to talk." He later said that he had it on good authority that Ronald Reagan watched the film when it aired in the US. Hines himself received a letter of praise from Labour leader Neil Kinnock.
Broadcast and release history
|“||Threads works on the viewer with a peculiar power: one finds oneself horrified, fascinated, numbed, provoked, unsettled, made restless. Its power may be the effect of its oscillation between form and content being so heavily weighted toward the pole of content—in this case, that threat of nuclear destruction which cannot help but feel "real"--so that we are unable to relax into Threads as "just" a movie, as we do when watching, say, Terminator II: Judgment Day (1991).||”|
Threads was a co-production of the BBC, Nine Network Australia and Western-World Television, Inc. It was first broadcast on BBC Two on 23 September 1984 at 9:30 pm, and achieved the highest ratings (6.9 million) of the week. It was repeated on BBC One on 1 August 1985 as part of a week of programmes marking the fortieth anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which also saw the first television screening of The War Game (which had been deemed too disturbing for television in the 20 years since it had been made). Threads was not shown again on British screens until the digital channel BBC Four broadcast it in October 2003. Threads was broadcast in the United States on cable network Superstation TBS on 13 January 1985, followed by a panel discussion on nuclear war. It was also shown in syndication to local commercial stations and, later, on many PBS stations. Threads was broadcast in Australia on the Nine Network on 19 June 1985. Unusually for a commercial network, it broadcast the film without commercial breaks.
Threads was originally released by BBC Video (on VHS and, for a very short period, Betamax) in 1987 in the United Kingdom. The play was re-released on both VHS and DVD in 2000 on the Revelation label, followed by a new DVD edition in 2005. Due to licensing difficulties the 1987 release replaced Chuck Berry's recording of his song "Johnny B. Goode" with an alternative recording of the song.
Threads was nominated for seven BAFTA awards in 1985. It won for Best Single Drama, Best Design, Best Film Cameraman and Best Film Editor. Its other nominations were for Best Costume Design, Best Make-Up, and Best Film Sound.
- Able Archer 83, NATO command post exercise that resulted in the 1983 nuclear war scare and changed thinking about nuclear war in Britain.
- List of nuclear holocaust fiction
- Nuclear weapons in popular culture
- Nuclear weapons and the United Kingdom
- Operation Square Leg a military analysis of the effects of a nuclear war on Britain.
- Protect and Survive, the 1970s British government information films on nuclear war.
- When the Wind Blows, a 1986 animated British film that shows a nuclear attack on Britain by the Soviet Union from the viewpoint of a retired couple.
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