The Night Britain Didn't Sleep
by Dean Newman
That was what the next day’s newspapers proclaimed the day after the BBC production of Threads (1984) blasted onto TV screens.
Panic buying, food shortages, a sense of growing dread and people being told that everything will be okay and to carry on with their everyday lives…until it is too late.
It’s easy to read anything through the prism of Covid-19 in 2020, but this is Sheffield in 1984. Welcome to the seminal nuclear apocalyptic drama, Threads (Mick Jackson).
You’d be perhaps forgiven for thinking that the power that this single drama holds, written by Kes author Barry Hinds, might have diminished over the years; if anything it has multiplied. It’s quite possibly the only programme I watched when I was younger that gets more terrifying when you watch it when you are older.
The threat of war and nuclear Armageddon hung over us in the 1980s like it hadn’t since the 1960s, and this was reflective in some of the film and television at the time, from War Games (John Badham, 1983) to the dark and powerful Edge of Darkness (Martin Campbell, 1985) and the disturbing When The Wind Blows (Jimmy Murakami, 1986). And then things went nuclear with Chernobyl.
The US was the first to make a pre-emptive strike (typically) with its television offering in 1983, The Day After (Nicholas Meyer). But, that didn’t nuclear blast a scar on the consciousness like Threads did when it was first shown on BBC2 in 1984.
It’s a working-class drama told in a documentary style, punctuated with facts and voiceover, underlining key evidence and information about why Sheffield could be caught up in a nuclear attack. The drama unfolds from our point of view; the characters could be us, or our family. Everything is realised in our world, there are no scenes featuring experts or politicians, this is no Hollywood disaster movie that is for sure. It’s about ordinary people and what happens to them, and it is that focus on the human factor that makes Threads all the more terrifying.
We are introduced to a young couple, Jimmy and Ruth, sat in a car. They’ve just learnt they are expecting a baby and decide that the right thing to do is get married. From the off, there is a real sense of building dread, this couple’s life punctuated by roaring jets from the nearby NATO base. It’s an omen of things to come as, with increasing frequency, the ‘noise’ of military escalation interjects the normal world. At first, we are presented with snatches of radio broadcasts, newspaper headlines and TV news reports showing the rising tension between the US and Russia, footage of rolling tanks juxtaposed with the mundane. Boiling peas.
It’s some of the simple shots that say so much, such as a silent single shot of artwork being removed from the walls of an art gallery or emergency blankets being delivered to a school during busy school playtime.
Finally, it culminates in air raid sirens and panic in the city centre of Sheffield as a mushroom cloud rises in the sky, children sob, dogs bark and – perhaps most memorably – a woman wets herself through fear. Jimmy is caught up in the unfolding terror. Until now he has been one of the main protagonists, we figure we’ll follow his journey back to his fiancé. That doesn’t happen, we don’t see him again. We don’t even see him die. He’s swallowed up in the maelstrom. And that is exactly what our lives hang by, Threads.
You are actively willing those you’ve been introduced to escape, this isn’t a Hollywood disaster movie, everyone’s card is marked. The message is clear, there is no escape. None. The blast sequence escalates over its six minutes sequence, it somehow seems longer. The sister of one character pops to the shops and is never seen again, a younger brother crushed in rubble, the dad caught by the blast while sat on the loo. The images of burning people, melting milk bottles, an alight E.T. toy and a man’s body stuck up a tree – just some of the visuals burn into your psyche.
The blast in many ways is just the beginning, it comes halfway through. Even by that point, you are exhausted, but we follow the slow demise of the characters we have all met – it is a series of one distressing scene after another, from looters being shot on sight to a makeshift hospital that looks like something out of the dark ages. It certainly gives new meaning to the old, unfair adage that it’s grim up north.
All the while, the film is interspersed with facts about the ever-worsening situation, it isn’t until five or six weeks after the attack that radiation deaths reach their peak. Bodies which litter the streets as there is no fuel for bulldozers or to burn the bodies, and no energy for digging trenches. It’s estimated there will be 21 million corpses.
There’s still pockets of humour to be found, such as when one of the neighbours packs up the car to go to Lincolnshire as it is ‘safer’. They are asked if they have turned the gas off. He adds: ‘ hope so, we don’t want the whole street blowing up whilst you are away.’ It doesn’t get any more darkly prescient than that, as later the street will be blown to smithereens in the blast.
In one scene a family take their living room door off its hinges to act as a barrier, as highlighted in the duck and cover leaflet; the mum telling everyone to be careful as it has been ‘newly painted.’
Even in the nuclear winter, we get dark glimpses of humour, with survivors in front of a huge advertising billboard for life insurance proclaiming ‘Standard Life for all your life’ while those in front of it survive by eating rats.
The one constant through the story is Ruth. 13 years after the blast she finally draws her last breath. It’s almost a relief in many ways, we feel exhausted by her journey; it’s hard to call it survival. The mantle is passed to her daughter, a daughter who becomes pregnant. A pregnancy that ends in a final sorrowful shot, bloodied and swathed in blankets.
Threads leaves the viewer drained and numb by the end, the titles run silent, but so is the room you are watching it in.
The effect was profound. Director Mick Jackson had been expecting a flurry of congratulatory phone calls post-screening, but he was met with silence. Not because people didn’t think it was good, they were simply too stunned to pick up the phone. They had turned off their televisions, lost in thought and went to bed. Asleep, but awake to the nuclear nightmare thanks to its still indelible images.
There was a period where perhaps we all felt the danger had passed us by. Unfortunately today, it is absolutely relevant and still very much terrifying.
Ellis Reed reviews The Thing That Ate the Birds – free to watch online through the Alter platform – and interviews the filmmakers, Sophie Mair and Dan Gitsham…