Threads, 34 years on – A Guest Review by Spencer Hackett
I remember a nightmare I had a few months back. It started out as many nightmares do, completely mundane. I was trying get a bunch of friends to a party, or something along those lines. However, by the end of the dream I was stood in an apartment building, presumably my home in this dreamscape. Without warning a blinding light filled the room, followed by an all mighty rumble. As the light dimmed I looked out to see a huge fiery mushroom cloud reaching up to the now blackened, smoke filled sky. Moments later I had startled awake in bed. It soon dawned on me that this nightmare felt out of time, that whilst political tensions of today are certainly high strung, and the threat of nuclear war has never gone away, especially given the blithering tangerine idiot in power in the States, we don’t fear it on a day to day basis. Notably, this felt like a nightmare ripped from the height of the cold war. I can’t help but think I somehow shared the nightmare of many a BBC television viewer from the 23rd of September 1984, when Threads was first broadcast.
For the uninitiated, Threads was a made for TV movie predominantly touted as being from writer Barry Hines (Kes) and was directed by Mick Jackson. It tells the story of a ensemble cast throughout the build up to, during and aftermath of a nuclear attack on the British City of Sheffield. Whilst ostensibly a drama, the film has an almost documentary quality thanks to it’s narration by Paul Vaughan and use of inter-titles. These are often used to display facts, such as the number of megatons dropped, the death rate, and other updates on the situation. The film makes for odd viewing outside of it’s original airing 34 years ago, especially for someone like myself who wasn’t alive at the time. Yet it still gripped me, and I won’t lie, gave me an incredibly troubled nights sleep.
I think to explain how the film works so well, it’s best to split the film into it’s three acts. This isn’t a typical beginning middle and end, but more a before during and after. So lets start where the film starts. The key principal players are set up, Ruth Beckett (Karen Meagher) and Jimmy Kemp (Reece Dinsdale) are a newly pregnant couple, and along with them we get to meet their immediate family. We are also introduced to Clive Sutton (Harry Beety), who will be given emergency powers of government in the case the bombs fall. We do deviate to other characters briefly, such as some anti war protests, but it’s mainly the story of these groups. We mainly watch as the cast get on with day today living, work, going to the pub, gardening etc. But even these scenes are under pinned by a sense of encroaching dread, notably due to inter-cut use of BBC news anchors Lesley Judd and Colin Ward-Lewis, along with fighter planes screaming over head and the use of real preparation for nuclear war PSA’s often heard in the background. The film brilliantly builds this sense of paranoia and tension that makes you feel sick to your stomach.
And then the bombs fall. The sirens ring out, and within the minute the first bomb has hit Sheffield. The sheer realism that this film displays the moment of the bomb dropping cannot be understated. This is not a glamorous or softened depiction. Pedestrians stampede, a character wets themselves in fright, central character’s including children are burned alive. The mushroom cloud reaches up just like that image from my nightmare, made even more imposing by the 4:3 aspect ratio. Even the powers that be, deep underground are not safe, ceilings collapsing in as panicked communication is attempted. I feel I shouldn’t dwell on this section, its a horror that has to be seen to be believed. How the BBC felt they could commission and show this is beyond belief, given their lack of real bite these days.
But whilst the shock of seeing such devastation on screen may well have been enough for most audience to stomach, the world of the “post apocalypse” for lack of a better word is truly distressing. The calm narration from Vaughan frequently updates on the effects of radiation sickness, the dwindling food stocks and how government facilities are running is unnerving, delivered as fact, not prediction. This is not the nuclear wasteland of Mad Max or Fallout, which look leisurely by comparison. Certain characters fates are never learnt, a cold reality of this level of devastation. But those we do follow give way to some of the most striking images I can think of. Workers calmly placing a colleague’s corpse into a bin bag, a woman cradling the shared remains of an infant and the now iconic traffic warden, face bandaged, armed with an assault rifle. At this point the film begins to jump forward in time, showing us the evolving landscape of post bomb Britain, jumping to around 11 years from the bomb if not further. Whilst I think narratively this hurts the film, it does make for brilliantly dreary watching. I won’t spoil some of the later reveals, but Hines and Jackson are definitely out to test their audience.
The performances here are absolutely top notch. I was really pleasantly surprised by how well the cast do in staying believable in what must have been a surreal filming situation. The heavy accents may be off-putting especially for foreign audiences, although this didn’t stop Threads being the most watched basic cable program in the history of American telly at the time (at least according to the back of the Blu Ray case). With most of the cast being from soaps and other bits of British telly, I worried the performances would let down the serious tone of the film. I love classic Doctor Who, but if you think of that around this time in its run, it was marred by less than stellar acting and set design, so for the BBC to churn this out was a pleasant surprise. The destroyed cityscapes look as real as is to be expected, and apart from some wonky looking stock footage that doesn’t gel completely, and some obvious matt paintings, the set design holds up nicely, better than some modern TV to be honest.
I’ll say it again, I can’t believe the BBC would show something like this, when this was at the heart of the nation’s fears. It was a test even for me, someone who thinks Martyrs (2008, Laugier) and Cannibal Holocaust (1980, Deodato) are some of the best films ever. To be honest, those films feel like ideal bedfellows for Threads. This great, nihilistic feeling permeates all these films, to allow for the most brilliantly, un-compromised, haunting images you can think of. It’s the clear research that went into this portrayal of nuclear Armageddon that makes it so Harrowing. Hines used “Square Leg”, a British Government project, to inform the scale of the devastation and the effects it would have on the nation. A lot of credit should also be given to Directors of Photography Andrew Dunn and Paul Morris, who shoot the film with this real gritty, natural style. This is most likely due to restrictions but it works so effortlessly. I’m sure the film would be awful if shot now on 4K ultra HD. It’s the tactility of the 16mm footage that lends the film that documentary feel, much in the way of something like Cannibal Holocaust. Similarly the use of scan line covered computerised text, whilst may seem outdated now, has this unsettling power. The film uses still photography for some moments, bringing up images of La Jetee (1962, Marker) in the mind, but without any pretence of either ham or art. This is journalism for a future that thankfully hasn’t come to pass. I urge anyone who can get hold of a copy of this film to watch it. I’ll personally vouch for the Severin re release which is what I watched, and it has bags of extra features. Watch it in the dark, alone if you can, and I’m sure by the end you’ll have your mattress pressed up against the window in paranoid fear.