The closest you’ll ever want to come to nuclear war

Posted: March 4, 2015 in Film, Media, Politics, Science and Technology, Television, War

What is hopelessness? There can be numerous answers to this, but people who have seen Threads are likely to all give the same one.

It’s amazing to think a television drama as bleak and terrifying as Threads was ever broadcast. Written by Barry Hines (best known for writing the book and then script of Ken Loach’s Kes) and directed by Mick Jackson, it is, to put it bluntly, a depiction of what happens during a nuclear bombing. But that is just the basic premise. The entire 110 minutes of it is far more than about an act of war.

In Cold War terms, the 1980s is known for its escalation of tensions after the election of Ronald Reagan as US president, with his administration seeking to build up the Soviet Union as a serious threat once again after a decade of détente. Paranoia about nuclear attacks, which had been a feature of the 1950s, returned with a vengeance, but it was now nearly 40 years since the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which somehow felt distant.

In 1982, Jackson directed a 30-minute episode for the BBC’s documentary Q.E.D. series called A Guide to Armageddon. Narrated by the uber-serious Ludovic Kennedy, its overriding theme was that, for all the advice given by the government in terms of preparation for nuclear attacks such as in building shelters or whitewashing windows, there was nothing members of the public to genuinely prepare yourself for a nuclear holocaust; it would be entirely futile. Even if you were to spend a five-figure sum in building a shelter that could somehow withstand the triple threat of hazards from nuclear explosions – fire, blast and fall-out – the reality is you’ll largely be left on your own in a world that bares no resemblance to the one we live in.

While the programme had enormous gravitas, there’s a constant undertone of irony within it, pointing out how ludicrous much of the advice given out actually was – most of the recommended techniques and shelters were completely useless, essentially implying that the matter of life or death was out of the hands of the vast majority of the population.

After his work on this, Jackson was commissioned to make Threads two years later, and again there are similar themes. Combined with the writing of Hines, it makes for a brutally honest portrayal of events through the lives of ordinary working class characters in the city of Sheffield, deemed a likely target due to the proximity of the nearby RAF Finningley (now Robin Hood Airport). The plot and details were based on considerable research conducted in the years prior to this on what might happen in the event of a nuclear holocaust, with a real effort being made to create an accurate representation in film.

This had been tried once before, but 1965’s The War Game, made for the BBC’s The Wednesday Play series of high-quality television dramas, was deemed so unsettling that it was locked away and never broadcast for fear of causing a sizeable chunk of the population to take their own lives (and I’m not even joking here). Nearly 20 years on and the climate was slightly different; indeed, the critical and popular success of Threads led to The War Game finally being broadcast on the BBC in 1985.

The plot of Threads itself is fairly basic. The first 45 minutes is scene-setting, establishing the characters of the two families at the centre of the story connected by Ruth and Jimmy’s relationship, amidst the backdrop of escalating tensions between the USA and the Soviet Union over conflict in Iran. This slowly builds to a crescendo 45 minutes in, when the Soviets launch a surprise nuclear attack on various NATO targets. The next six minutes is spent on the horrifying realisation that attacks are happening, and eventually the bombing of Sheffield itself.

But while this isn’t necessarily ground-breaking itself, the remaining hour is uncharted territory for television, as viewers get all the gory details of the days, weeks, months and years after the attack, including the effects of a nuclear winter and the total breakdown of society. Britain’s population declines to medieval numbers, the education system collapses, and the country is governed by a faceless totalitarian police state.

Those ordinary people all die. Nearly all the main characters either die in the blast or in the weeks after from radiation poisoning or, in one case, murder by looters. Only the heavily-pregnant Ruth survives the first few months, and eventually gives birth to a daughter, Jane. Ruth does eventually succumb, though, having aged prematurely and been blinded by cataracts caused by the breakdown of the o-zone layer. In the second half of the film, she barely says a word, like most of the characters – those who lived through the blast are left numb by the experience, with a harrowing lack of dialogue portrayed only by magnificent acting. By the end, you’re left wondering whether it might be worth surviving at all. Western civilisation is finished.

A lot is left to the imagination. We don’t see who ‘wins’ the war, because it’s largely irrelevant, and we get no clue about who governs the survivors beyond that it’s effectively a dictatorship. Barry Hines said that the intention was to ‘step aside from the politics’, to point out that there can be no winners in a war that leads to the destruction of human society. Sheffield, and Britain as a whole, is collateral in a war started and ended by anonymous politicians and bureaucrats.

It is the stylistic features make the film so effective, though. Hines and Jackson opted for social realism, depicting how this would effect ordinary people. For this, they chose relatively unknown actors and actresses to depict the characters, to limit preconceptions. The first half sees them go about their largely mundane lives, or at least try to beneath the threat of impending conflict.

The attack scenes then demonstrate the dislocation, as within a matter of seconds you see the panic and terror develop – in one of the most famous scenes, a woman urinates herself in the street after seeing a mushroom cloud from the bombing of RAF Finningley; she is credited on IMDB as the character Woman Who Urinates on Herself. Scenes are rapidly cut between and there is no music for added effect.

The film is largely shot from the ground, so that it is from the point of view of the people involved, and it rarely leaves Sheffield. We never get to see how the war affects other cities, which in some ways is more effective, in the sense that this is just one city being obliterated by one single megaton bomb. We are told in stark captions, another chilling feature of the programme, that 210 megatons of nuclear weaponry is dropped on Britain, with an overall total of 3000 megatons exchanged between both sides – if one megaton did this much damage…

Brand names are common, but they are used for effect rather than for product placement. We see Woolworths and British Home Stores being blown to pieces, and a few notable logos survive the carnage to emphasise the destruction of society, such as the tin of Bachelor’s soup and the ruined Standard Life advertisement. Later, we also see an episode from the BBC’s Words and Pictures series, a damaged but surviving fragment of the ruined education system.

The disaster film or programme has become commonplace in the years since, from Roland Emmerich’s portrayals of various forms of apocalypse to BBC dramas like The Day Britain Stopped, Supervolcano and the End Day series. Many of these use similar techniques to Threads, emphasising central characters within a wider disaster and providing cultural reference points for audiences.

All play on fears of various unlikely doomsday scenarios, but they usually emphasise drama over realism. The most effective aspect of Threads is that this was a realistic scenario at the time – nuclear war seemed (and technically still could be) a real possibility, and this was based on considerable scientific research. The use of objective facts in those cold blue captions gives it an air of objectivity – no one knows what will happen if there is to be a nuclear conflict, but at the very least this is a pretty educated guess.

This is what makes it so frightening: it’s unremittingly bleak, but not for the sake of it, because this is probably what would happen. And as mentioned earlier, this is just one city. Not only would Sheffield end up like this, but also Cardiff, Bristol, Manchester, Coventry, Glasgow, Liverpool, Plymouth, Leicester, Birmingham, Newcastle, London and anywhere near a key military base; basically, the entire country, and probably most of the Western world, would be bombed back to the fourteenth century, along with the key cities of Soviet Union and its allies. Millions would perish; the survivors would live out a nightmarish post-apocalyptic existence unable to talk. It would be hopeless.

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