Threads (1984 film)
|Written by||Barry Hines|
|Directed by||Mick Jackson|
|Country of origin|
|Executive producers||Graham Massey|
|Running time||112 minutes|
|Original release||23 September 1984|
Threads is a 1984 British-Australian apocalyptic war drama television film jointly produced by the BBC, Nine Network and Western-World Television Inc. Written by Barry Hines and directed and produced by Mick Jackson, it is a dramatic account of nuclear war and its effects on the city of Sheffield in Northern England. The plot centres on two families as a confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union erupts. As the nuclear exchange between NATO and the Warsaw Pact begins, the film depicts the medical, economic, social and environmental consequences of nuclear war.
Shot on a budget of £400,000, the film was the first of its kind to depict a nuclear winter. It has been called "a 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 Academy Award-winning programme The War Game produced in Britain two decades prior and its contemporary counterpart The Day After, a 1983 ABC television film depicting a similar scenario in the United States. It was nominated for seven BAFTA awards in 1985 and won for Best Single Drama, Best Design, Best Film Cameraman and Best Film Editor.
Background on the War
The chronology of the events leading up to the war is depicted entirely via television and radio news broadcasts, as well as a few newspaper reports. On 5 March 1983, a radio broadcast comments on an ongoing civil war in Iran. The film skips ahead two months to 5 May, where news anchors reveal that the Soviet Union has occupied northern Iran in response to a coup d'état which occurred a week prior. Ostensibly to prevent the return of a pro-Shah regime, the intervention is defended by Soviet foreign minister Gromyko, who claims that it was in response to appeals by legitimate government forces and blames US covert activity for causing the crisis.
The USA subsequently hints at deploying troops to Iran, in order 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 to circulate 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 17 May, 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 E3 Sentries 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 tipped surface-to-air missile, destroying many B-52s. The battle ceases after US forces launch a battlefield nuclear weapon at the Soviet base.
On 23 May, 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 US blockades Cuba. Anti-Soviet riots in major US cities damage several Russian consulates. 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. Fire engines in the UK are soon deployed away from cities to avoid potential damage of equipment.
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 salvos 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) intend to marry due to her unplanned pregnancy. Meanwhile, as hostilities between the United States and the Soviet Union escalate, the Home Office directs Sheffield City Council to assemble an emergency operations team, which settles in a makeshift bomb shelter beneath the town hall. After a brief nuclear skirmish between the Americans and the Soviets in Iran, the people of Britain fly into a panic, resulting in riots and looting. "Subversives" (mainly consisting of peace activists and trade unionists) are arrested under the Emergency Powers Act.
At 8:30am in Britain, Attack Warning Red is transmitted as a nuclear warhead air bursts over the North Sea, then another at nearby RAF Finningley. In the ensuing chaos, Jimmy disappears as he tries to find Ruth. Jimmy’s younger sister goes missing after going to the shops, and his parents retreat to their inner shelter after receiving severe burns from a subsequent explosion on the Tinsley Viaduct. Jimmy’s younger brother is killed by falling rubble in the street. Strategic targets, including steel and chemical factories in the Midlands, are also attacked, destroying two-thirds of all British homes and immediately killing 12 to 30 million people. The nuclear fallout prevents the remaining functioning civil authorities from fighting fires or rescuing those trapped under debris. Sheffield's emergency team is trapped under the destroyed town hall, and rescue is impossible due to the high levels of radioactivity and destruction of all surrounding roads. A few hours later, fallout descends upon Sheffield, fatally contaminating Jimmy's parents. Jimmy’s mother dies from a combination of radiation poisoning and the rapidly dropping temperatures. Searching for Jimmy, Ruth leaves her parents’ cellar shelter and goes to the Sheffield Royal Infirmary, where she realizes there is no longer electricity, running water or medicine. Ruth’s parents are subsequently beaten to death by looters for their stored food.
A month after the attack, a makeshift internment camp is shown in operation in a derelict tennis court, where Jimmy’s sister is last seen. Meanwhile soldiers enter the ruins of the town hall, where they find the emergency staff have suffocated. Without the manpower or fuel to bury or burn the dead, an epidemic of communicable diseases spreads. The government authorizes capital punishment, and special courts execute criminals. The only viable currency becomes food, given as a reward for work or withheld as punishment. Jimmy’s father succumbs to his radiation sickness. The millions of tons of soot, smoke and dust in the upper atmosphere trigger a nuclear winter, lowering temperatures and preventing crop growth. Ruth flees to the Buxton countryside, where she gives birth to a daughter. A year after the war, sunlight begins to return, but crop cultivation remains poor due to the lack of equipment, fertilizers, and fuel. Damage to the ozone layer intensifies ultraviolet radiation, causing an increase in cataracts and cancer. Military and civil authorities dissolve in the face of depleted resources.
A decade later, Britain's population has dropped to medieval levels of about 4 to 11 million people. Survivors work in the fields with primitive tools, and children born after the war are intellectually underdeveloped and speak a stunted form of English. Prematurely aged and blind with cataracts, Ruth dies in bed, survived by her 10-year-old daughter Jane. Sometime later, industry returns with limited electricity and steam powered technology, but the population continues to live in barbaric squalor. Three years after Ruth's death, Jane and two boys are caught stealing food. One of the boys is killed, and Jane and the other boy engage in a struggle for the food that degenerates into "crude intercourse". Months later, Jane gives birth in a makeshift hospital, and she screams at the sight of her deformed baby.
- Paul Vaughan as the Narrator
- Karen Meagher as Ruth Beckett
- Reece Dinsdale as Jimmy Kemp
- David Brierley as Mr Bill Kemp
- Rita May as Mrs Rita Kemp
- Nicholas Lane as Michael Kemp
- Jane Hazlegrove as Alison Kemp
- Phil Rose as Doctor Talbot
- Henry Moxon as Mr Beckett
- June Broughton as Mrs Beckett
- Sylvia Stoker as Granny Beckett
- Harry Beety as Clive J. Sutton (Controller)
- Ruth Holden as Marjorie Sutton
- Ashley Barker as Bob
- Michael O'Hagan as Chief Superintendent Hirst
- Phil Askham as Mr Stothard
- Anna Seymour as Mrs Stothard
- Fiona Rook as Carol Stothard
- Steve Halliwell as Information Officer
- Joe Holmes as Mr Langley
- Victoria O'Keefe as Jane
- Lesley Judd as TV newsreader
- Lee Daley as Spike
- Marcus Lund as Gaz
- Ian Parkinson & Tony Grant as Radio Announcers
Production and themes
Screenwriter Barry Hines
Threads was first commissioned (under the working title Beyond Armageddon) by the Director-General of the BBC Alasdair Milne, after he watched the 1965 drama-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 of a possible attack scenario and the extent of the damage were derived from Doomsday, Britain after Nuclear Attack (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 partly because of its "nuclear-free zone" policy that made the council sympathetic to the local filming and partly because it seemed likely that the USSR would strike an industrial city in the centre of the country.
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. They also disagreed about Paul Vaughan's narration, which Hines felt was detrimental to the drama. 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. Extras were chosen on the basis of height and age, and were all told to look "miserable" and to wear ragged clothes; the majority were CND supporters. 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 at Curbar Edge in the Peak District National Park; 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. Although Jackson initially considered casting actors from Granada Television's 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.
In order for the horror of Threads to work, Jackson made an effort to leave some things unseen: "to let images and emotion happen in people’s minds, or rather in the extensions of their imaginations." He 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 stated that he had it on good authority that Ronald Reagan watched the film when it aired in the US. Along with Hines, Jackson also received a letter of praise from Labour leader Neil Kinnock, stating "the dangers of complacency are much greater than any risks of knowledge."
Broadcast and release history
Threads was a co-production of the BBC, Nine Network 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 on the channel (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. It was also shown on UKTV Documentary in September 2004 and was repeated in April 2005.
Threads was broadcast in the United States on cable network Superstation TBS on 13 January 1985, with Ted Turner presenting the introduction. This was followed by a panel discussion on nuclear war. It was also shown in syndication to local commercial stations and, later, on many PBS stations. In Canada, Threads was broadcast on Citytv in Toronto, CKVU in Vancouver and CKND in Winnipeg, while in Australia it was shown on the Nine Network on 19 June 1985. Unusually for a commercial network, it broadcast the film without commercial breaks; many commercial outlets in the United States and Canada that broadcast the film also did so without commercial interruption, or interrupting only for disclaimers or promos. In January 2018, journalist Julie McDowall led a distributed viewing of the film, encouraging the audience to share their reactions on Twitter under the hashtag #threaddread, as part of a campaign to ask the BBC to show the movie for the first time since 2003.
Threads was originally released by BBC Video (on VHS and, for a very short period, Betamax) in 1987 in the United Kingdom. The film 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. In all these cases, the original music over the opening narration was removed, again due to licensing problems; this was an extract from the Alpine Symphony by Richard Strauss, performed by the Dresden State Opera Orchestra, conducted by Rudolf Kempe (HMV ASD 3173).
On 13 February 2018, Threads was released by Severin Films on Blu-ray in the United States. The programme was scanned in 2K from a broadcast print for this release, including extras such as an audio commentary with Director Mick Jackson and interviews with actress Karen Meagher, Director Of Photography Andrew Dunn, Production Designer Christopher Robilliard and film writer Stephen Thrower. This is also the first home video release in which the extract from the Alpine Symphony remains intact.
On 9 April 2018, Simply Media released a Special Edition DVD in the UK, featuring a different 2K scan, restored and remastered from the original BBC 16mm CRI prints, which Severin did not have access to. This also featured all the original music, for the first time on home video in the UK. Whereas the previous releases had no extra features, the Special Edition included commentaries and associated documentaries.
Threads was not widely reviewed, but the critics who reviewed it gave generally positive reviews. John J. O'Connor of The New York Times wrote that the film "is not a balanced discussion about the pros and cons of nuclear armaments. It is a candidly biased warning. And it is, as calculated, unsettlingly powerful." Rick Groen of The Globe and Mail wrote that "[t]he British crew here, headed by writer Barry Hines and producer/director Mick Jackson, accomplish what would seem to be an impossible task: depicting the carnage without distancing the viewer, without once letting him retreat behind the safe wall of fictitious play. Formidable and foreboding, Threads leaves nothing to our imagination, and Nothingness to our conscience." In his movie guide, Leonard Maltin gave the film a rating of three stars (out of a possible four). He called Threads "Britain's answer to The Day After" and wrote that the film was "unrelentingly graphic and grim, sobering, and shattering, as it should be."
Retrospective reviews have been very positive. On Metacritic, the film has a score of 92 based on 5 reviews, indicating "universal acclaim", whilst it has a Rotten Tomatoes score of 100% based on 11 reviews (with an average score of 8.75/10). The critical consensus reads: "An urgent warning against nuclear conflict, Threads is a chilling hypothetical that achieves visceral horror with its matter-of-fact presentation of an apocalypse." Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian called it a "masterpiece", writing: "It wasn’t until I saw Threads that I found that something on screen could make me break out in a cold, shivering sweat and keep me in that condition for 20 minutes, followed by weeks of depression and anxiety." Sam Toy of Empire gave the film a perfect score, writing that "this British work of (technically) science fiction teaches an unforgettable lesson in true horror" and went on to praise its ability "to create an almost impossible illusion on clearly paltry funds." Jonathan Hatfull of SciFiNow gave a perfect score to the remastered DVD of the film. "No one ever forgets the experience of watching Threads. [...It] is arguably the most devastating piece of television ever produced. It’s perfectly crafted, totally human and so completely harrowing you’ll think that you’ll probably never want to watch it again." He praised the pacing and Hines' "impeccable" screenplay and described its portrayal of the "immediate effects" of the bombing as "jaw-dropping [...] watching the survivors in the days and weeks to come is heart-breaking." Both Little White Lies and The A.V. Club have emphasized the film's contemporary relevance, especially in light of political events such as Brexit. According to the former, the film paints a "nightmarish picture of a Britain woefully unprepared for what is coming, and reduced, when it does come, to isolation, collapse and medieval regression, with a failed health service, very little food being harvested, mass homelessness, and the pound and the penny losing all value."
Awards and nominations
The film 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
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- on YouTube
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- WTBS introduction Threads 1985
- Threads on CKVU 1984
- CKND - Introduction to Threads (1985)
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