The Threat of Nuclear War in Britain | Threads (Jackson,1984) and 80s TV.

- An extract from letter sent to the BBC in 1984 

Threads 1984

I first became aware of Threads (Mick Jackson, 1984) when at College. Studying media it seemed perfectly acceptable to watch old Screenwipe and Newswipe episodes on a loop via Youtube, where Charlie Brooker would frequently mention this TV drama when discussing how television utilises various scaremongering tactics. For some reason I decided to watch it at University, and again last year just before the release of Fallout 4 (it seemed appropriate). While I'd like to think that years of playing violent videogames and watching horror films would desensitise me to pretty much any grim apocalyptic nastiness on TV, no other single piece of media has ever left me quite as miserable as this film.

Threads, written by Barry Hines - the author of A Kestrel for a Knave follows the lives of a small group of people living in Sheffield during a period of tension between the US and Soviet powers, dramatising over the course of two hours the gradual build up and aftermath of a nuclear warhead exploding over the city. We see this mainly through the eyes of a young adult called Ruth Beckett who, recently pregnant has decided to move into a new house with her boyfriend Jimmy Kemp. Their families meet, drink down the pub, argue at the table, do the gardening - perform every day things that we all
take for granted.  

The sub-plot involves a group of government workers in a bunker underneath the town hall. The 'continuity of government' principle means that these people are tasked with co-ordinating the relief efforts and pointlessly trying to re-build society.  But like the rest of the country they have absolutely no idea how to effectively cope with the effects of nuclear war. These people have been plucked from their day jobs and as the voice over reveals they've been given as little as three days to prepare. They're constantly bickering and become trapped after the town hall falls on their bunker. Eventually succumbing to suffocation after presumably doing very little to actually help those above ground. 

None of the actors chosen for Threads were professional, ensuring a much more realistic and relatable experience for audiences; it's also realistic that the conflict is somewhat shunned and put at the back of the minds of the families in the first few minutes - it's seen as something that has nothing to do with the UK. The long and drawn out set-up is put to good use by the filmmakers as they're able to foreshadow character actions which are later re-incorporated very effectively (more on this later).

This slow burn means we, like the characters are caught off guard when the siren eventually rings, the sheer horror when the words 'attack warning red' emit from the bunker radio is shared as much by the audience as it is by the panic stricken government workers who initially question whether it's a drill or not. The Beckett's hastily make it to their basement of their home while the working class Kemp's can only scramble together a makeshift shelter by propping doors up against their wall. Panic stricken civilians out shopping scream, run around the streets and are blinded by the intense light. Jimmy sets off to find Ruth, never to be seen again. It all culminates in a montage of shots where buildings explode, people writhe as they are set on fire and Sheffield is reduced to an inferno that resembles a literal hell. (Which Charlie Brooker said actually improved the architecture of the city).

"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" - Paul Vaughan, Threads

And yet, we are not even up to what I consider to be the most traumatic part of the film. As this introductory quote suggests, there is now absolutely nothing now holding the fabrics of the country together. No electricity, communications, sunlight, medical care, education, sanitation, fuel or even manpower to dig graves. What about about food? Well as soon as the food stocks run out, farming is the one crucial 'thread' that keeps the survivors together... and if you don't want to eat crops that have been grown in soil riddled with radiation then the only alternative is a rat or a sheep I'm afraid. The more Threads goes on (and it does go on, 13 years in fact) - the more the characters envy those who passed away in the initial explosion.

Ruth and Michael (Jimmy's father) soon become the last surviving members of the characters introduced at the start. This is where some of the aforementioned foreshadowing comes into play. Ruth slightly berates Jimmy at one point because he wants to build an aviary in their new flat, only seeming to care about birds. But after the bomb drops, she constantly carries around a book on birds that she managed to salvage from his home even though it provides her with no practical use in the desperate post apocalyptic times. The last we ever see of Michael is him as a weak, hungry man slowly succumbing to radiation poisoning as he clutches a hand held gaming system that we saw his youngest son playing with at the dinner table earlier on. Agriculture, something we saw Michael performing in peace time on his allotment with the greatest of ease is now something becoming increasingly ineffective due to the climate. There are plenty other examples of this, and they all serve to show us the juxtaposition between the conditions of peace time and war time, as well as a reflection on the personal losses of these two individuals.

As in any post-apocalyptic work of fiction like The Road, The Walking Dead or The Last of Us we see the horrible lengths that humans go to in order to survive, and like in these other works they soon become as much of a threat as the event that caused the apocalypse in the first place. Humans behave in brutal ways towards their fellow man and the punishment that follows is equally swift - looters are shot on site by 'authority figures' who no doubt take advantage of the fact that they are the only ones armed to take food for themselves by force. Even in peace time we see the morality of individuals starting to collapse, as shopkeepers exploit panic buyers by bumping up the prices of tinned food while a man even flogs tin openers at a CND rally. Where as the general perception of the Blitz was that the country carried on with stoicism, dignity and unity after bombing, nothing here resembles law, order or any sense of community spirit. Most people in the world are law abiding citizens, but this climate transforms them into thieves and murderers - it's survival of the fittest and food is the new currency.

With no education systems in place, Ruth's child (Jane) and those in her generation are born incredibly stunted. They can't even form sentences. At one point they watch an educational film in a derelict building, where the narrator pronounces words like 'cat' and 'bird' - but even if they had the mental capacity to make sense of it all, would there be any use if the film is describing a objects from a world that these children couldn't ever picture existing? They're clearly emotionally distant too, it's unclear whether this is an effect of fallout or because they've grown up in such a harsh world, but Jane appears to show absolutely no anguish when her mother dies, she only tries to wake her up by saying the words 'Ruth.Work.Up.Work'. The repetition of the activities she's forced to undertake every single day means that these words form a large percentage of her vocabulary.

Threads features title cards with dismally grim facts and
statistics on the status of the country after the bomb hits
Although 'subtle' is a strange word to use when describing an anti war film that's as overt as it gets, it does employ some very effective 'less is more' strategies that leaves the audience filling in the blanks. At one point Ruth returns to her family home after running off for few days to try and find Jimmy, unbeknownst to her both parents were killed and left by looters. She arrives to the top of the stairs to her basement where she last saw her parents alive and simply stares downwards, the audience doesn't see what she sees - we can only hear what's down there: hundreds and hundreds of flies.

Then there is the whole question of what has happened the the rest of the country, or even the world. We only ever see Sheffield and the effect that a single bomb has on one city. Was there a bombing in retaliation? There are no relief efforts being conducted by other countries so can we assume that our allies America were hit too? It all brings to mind Kubrick's 1964 film Dr Strangelove: Or How I Learnt To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, wherein the Russian doomsday deterrent causes a complete destruction of earth because the leaders don't understand that 1. A deterrent is only useful if the other side is aware of its existence and 2. World powers getting trapped in a circle of tit-for-tat bombings wont leave any 'winners'. 

Finally of course there is the ending, when June stares down at her stillborn baby and screams in horror. But we don't hear her scream, we don't need to. The film freezes on her face and ends because we don't need to be told any more. Threads finishes on the bleakest of all possible conclusions, establishing that the effects of radiation has rendered humans unable to reproduce, and it's impossible for the world to recover.

"It seemed to me that people weren't able to visualise the unthinkable, especially politicians," says Jackson. "So I thought that if I acted this out for them as a television drama – not as a spectacle or disaster movie – that would give them a workable visual vocabulary for thinking about the unthinkable." - Mick Jackson, The Scotsman, 2009

The original transmission date, the 23th September 1984 is both important and incredibly depressing, because it meant it was sandwiched between several different documentary programmes commissioned by the BBC with the same theme. If Threads wasn't forthright enough, then why not an episode of Panorama taking a look at what non existent plans the UK civil defence department had implemented at that moment in time, presented by non other than Jeremy Paxman - the Newsnight presenter unsurprisingly lacking optimism in these 'arrangements'. If The Bomb Drops offers absolutely no reassurance, going so far as to say there is no point even preparing for the aftermath. This is just as well because the interviews conducted with people on the street reveal that they either 1. Wouldn't know what actions to take if the siren sounded or 2. Wouldn't even bother trying to save themselves as there is 'no point crying over spilled milk' as one man aptly puts it. Experts in the field say that the costs of the implementation of a shelter policy would be impossible for the government to afford, and in the incredibly optimistic scenario that the country is given 4 weeks notice ahead of an attack - the famous Protect and Survive pamphlets wouldn't even be able to be printed and distributed in time. 

Panorama: When the Bomb Drops (BBC, 1980)

The second programme of note was a QED special called A Guide to Armageddon, very much a precursor to Threads, with Mick Jackson producing both. The narrator helpfully details how awesomely devastating one nuclear bomb would be if detonated over London, only bloody to say later on that it's more likely that if attacked, it would be with thirty warheads exploding over the capital city. It critiques the safety measures that have been suggested by the government, breaking down each home made shelter and offering an honest opinion of how effective they really would be (and no - sitting in your cupboard under the stairs doesn't protect you). Although on the flip side it does say that all the do-it-yourself shelters would make a lifesaving difference against the fatal effects of fallout dust if the inhabitant was a good distance away from the effects of the blast itself. But as for those living close to the impact zone, the only effective forms of protection from blast and subsequent radiation involve under ground bunkers with filter systems that were far-out of reach for all but the very rich. 

QED: A Guide to Armageddon (BBC, 1982)

If all of that wasn't enough - a 1965 feature called The War Game (Peter Watkins) was premiered in 1985. A quasi documentary resembling a news report that features actors, voice over and title cards much like the ones in Threads. So why was it shown twenty years after completion? Well, it was considered dark. So dark in fact that after being discussed in the house of commons was deemed 'too horrifying for the medium of broadcasting' according to this transcript. It's a fictional piece but like all else discussed in this blog post its very safe to assume that it is grounded very much in reality. Yet again, it shows ill-informed authority figures completely incapable of foreseeing the realities of post-nuclear restrictions; the most ridiculous example being the menu prepared by the welfare section of the civil defence core, apparently it was suggested and actually believed possible to be able to source steak, carrots, sprouts, roast potatoes, mash potatoes, apple pie and custard for a meal! It's shot in black and white, but this doesn't shield us from the horror, the bombing scene in my opinion is actually worst than Threads and on a purely technical level is an impressive feat considering the limitations of the time. The War Game makes a conscious effort to touch on the psychological effects of the bomb; the ptsd and the shock that the civilians would experience seeing the carnage unfold around is viewed as an equal threat as the injuries. It gets darker than that I'm afraid, the injured are separated into categories and medicine is not wasted on those deemed beyond saving, instead they're put into 'holding areas' or are euthanised. As expected, medical care is in chaos and voice over tells us that the best case scenario is that there is one doctor for every 300 people. It makes a frightening comment on the social climate of the time too, with a woman shunning her billeting duties by proclaiming that she would not accept certain ethnic groups to take refuge in her house.

Basically what I'm saying is, I'm not jealous of people who had to watch this all in the 80s.

"In the present version of the Civil Defence pamphlet listing the various items to be taken into a refuge room for life in a post nuclear attack Britain are the following words: ... and a box containing birth and marriage certificates, savings bank books and National Health Medical Cards" - Title card, The War Game

protect and survive pamphlet So, what would the country have done if the unthinkable had happened? Luckily there were the aforementioned Protect and Survive pamphlets which along with the now iconic public service broadcasts solved all of these problems... by advising you to find a ditch to lie in should the four minute warning sound while you were outside. Now obviously its a sad fact that some of the information relayed in this series was put in not because it would save a persons life, but simply to try and stop to the populace from panicking beforehand. For this reason its easy to be simultaneously terrified but morbidly humoured by these films, they're emotionless both visually and aurally (except for that last, horrible distinctive tone at the end of every video) and as we've seen, they may as well not have existed. But to their credit they are presented in a way that makes it extremely easy to remember the essential facts, they're simple and concise with not a second wasted on pointless information. It's easy to imagine that would something similar ever be required to be made today that they'd be much more emotive and distracting for a viewer. They were never actually shown on TV thankfully, as they were intended for broadcast only if a nuclear attack was imminent, but it's incredibly scary to think that there was at one point the need to even make them. 

Other than being maybe the most effective horror film ever made, Threads might well be one of the most important too. Ronald Reagan once watched the harrowing but comparatively more up-beat American equivalent called The Day After (Nicholas Meyer, 1983) and said that it depressed him, writing in his diary that he wanted to 'see that there was no nuclear war'. Maybe he or others in authority within the UK also watched Threads and came to the exact same conclusion. It took the hypothetical questions raised in A Guide to Armageddon, The War Game and When the Bomb Drops and turned them all into a reality. So to conclude, I'd recommend watching this film... but only if you're ready - and I actually feel an obligation to apologise if you did go ahead with it, because it's actually exhausting to watch. So make sure you've got a Curb boxset or something on hand to cheer yourself up afterwards (seriously). 

Protect and Survive: Life under Fallout Conditions