Threads (1984)

Threads first published by Little White Lies, as entry 55 in my Cinema Psychotronicum column

Threads first dropped on BBC2 on the 23 September 1984, and had much the same – albeit vicarious – impact of instant and lasting trauma on its millions of viewers (6.9 million, to be precise) as a megatonne bomb hitting a major city. Mick Jackson’s telemovie opens as a sort of soap opera of ordinary Sheffield lives – with South Yorkshire chosen as the telemovie’s focus because of its nuclear-free policy at the time under local Labour governance – and then traces the ramifying, radial effects of a massive nuclear strike against England (and the rest of the world) from the devastating moment of the initial blasts through 13 subsequent years of degeneration and despair. 

During the Eighties, even pre-apocalyptic Sheffield, with its industry ravaged by Thatcherism, already looked a little bit post-apocalyptic. The on-set friction reported to have broken out between middle-class director Jackson (A Guide to Armageddon, 1982) and his working-class screenwriter Barry Hines (Kes, 1969) is reflected in the visibly different social backgrounds of young couple Jimmy Kemp (Reece Dinsdale) and Ruth Beckett (Karen Meagher), suddenly facing marriage after Ruth accidentally falls pregnant. Once the bombs have dropped, the class conflict continues. Ruth’s relatively well-to-do parents have the advantage of an actual basement in their home into which they can retreat, and come off rather better than the Kemps (precursors to the hopeless couple from Jimmy T. Murakami’s 1986 film When The Wind Blows) in the initial blast – although post-nuclear death proves to have a funny way of failing to discriminate between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. There are also divisions drawn between civilians stripped of all civil structures and the ever more authoritarian authorities, shooting looters only to requisition the spoils for themselves.

Of course, the tropes of imagined atomic apocalypse have history. The immediate antecedent for Threads was The Day After, which similarly presented a bleakly realist dramatisation of the build-up to and fallout from a widescale nuclear attack (on America) from the ground up, and which had screened on the ABC television network the year before. From this Threads borrows the idea of allowing the global events leading to the airstrikes to be mediated through television and radio reports in the background. It is even more indebted to Peter Watkins’ The War Game, which was intended to be screened on the BBC in 1965, but pulled from the schedule because of fears that it might provoke panic or depression on a national scale – but still screened abroad, and won the Best Documentary Feature Oscar in 1966 (The War Game had its first ever BBC screening two decades later in 1985, the day before a repeat screening of Threads leading up to the fortieth anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing). Watkins’ paradoxical faux-documentary style is here appropriated, as events are punctuated not only by cold facts and statistics presented in text form on screen, but also by a clipped ‘voice of authority’, familiar from any number of information campaigns, offering narrative exposition as though the disaster unravelling on screen were a nature documentary or anthropological transmission from the Open University. Threads purports to be a documentary that cannot, given the cessation of all television with the explosion of the bombs, exist – but its formatting as reportage anchors the film’s fictions to data drawn very much from the real world.

If The War Game ended, one year after the bombs fall, with a heavily ironised Christmas scene stripped of all hope, Threads includes a similar Nativity tableau, but then marks its departure from Watkins’ film by going on, over a decade into the future, as it follows Ruth’s barely articulate young daughter Jane (Victoria O’Keefe), now orphaned, on her own journey into grim motherhood in an agrarian semi-society of the shell-shocked, the thievish, the rape-happy and the cancerous. Threads also distinguishes itself from all its predecessors by being the first film to portray a nuclear winter.

Threads vividly conjures the very worst anxieties of the Cold War – and that Cold War, viewed now when a still-nuclear Britain is once more engaged in escalating tit-for-tat reprisals with an equally still-nuclear Russia, seems not entirely to have lost its currency. This, however, is not the film’s only contemporary resonance. For it also paints its 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. In other words, seen through the prism of the present, it also plays out all the nation’s deepest fears about the impending Brexit apocalypse. In this regard, note especially the scene in which a union leader calling for a national strike is shown trying to get on side with the angry crowd at an ironically bellicose peace rally by appealing to his own nationalism. “Listen, mate, there’s nobody more patriotic than I am,” he says, “I’ve been trying to get us out of the common market for bloody years.” This is just one ‘thread’ of British – or, more specifically, of English – anti-European identity that can be traced from the Seventies to its explosion in our own times.

© Anton Bitel