Threads is a 1984 BAFTA award-winning British television drama, produced jointly by the BBC, Nine Network and Western-World Television Inc. Written by Barry Hines and directed by Mick Jackson, it is a docudrama account of nuclear war and its effects on the city of Sheffield in Northern England.
The primary plot centres on two families, the working-class Kemps and the middle-class Becketts, as a confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union erupts and escalates. As the United Kingdom prepares for war, the members of each family deal with their own personal crises. Meanwhile, a secondary storyline with the Chief Executive of Sheffield City Council serves to illustrate the British government's then-current continuity of government arrangements. As the nuclear exchange between NATO and the Warsaw Pact begins, the film depicts the terrible details of the characters' struggles to survive both the attacks and their aftermath. The balance of the story outlines the fate of each family as the characters face the medical, economic, social and environmental consequences of nuclear war.
Shot on a budget of £250,000–350,000, the film notably is the first of its kind to depict a nuclear winter. Certain reviewers nominated Threads as the "film which comes closest to representing the full horror of nuclear war and its aftermath, as well as the catastrophic impact that the event would have on human culture". It has been compared to the earlier programme The War Game produced in Britain in the 1960s and its contemporary The Day After, a 1983 ABC television film depicting a similar scenario in the United States.
Background on the war
The chronology of the events leading up to the war is depicted entirely via television and radio news broadcasts. An allegedly US-backed coup d'état in Iran prompts the Soviet Union to occupy the northern part of the country, ostensibly to prevent the return of a pro-Shah regime. On 8 May, the USA hints at deploying troops to Iran, to prevent the Soviets from reaching the oil fields in the south. On 11 May, the US Navy in the Indian Ocean is put on high alert when rumours begin to circulate of the disappearance of the USS Los Angeles in the Persian Gulf. The next day, a collision in the Gulf of Oman between the Soviet battlecruiser Kirov and the USS Callaghan leaves the former badly damaged. Subsequent discoveries by American and Israeli search and rescue vessels reveal debris and an oil slick from the missing Los Angeles, prompting the US President to warn the Soviets over the possibility of an "armed confrontation—with incalculable consequences for all mankind."
On 17 May, the US sends its rapid deployment force to take defensive positions around Isfahan in western Iran, hoping to deter the Soviets from making further advances to the south, with a supporting role being taken by squadrons of B-52 bombers and AWACS early warning aircraft landing at US airbases in Turkey. The Soviets respond by transporting nuclear warheads into their newly established base in Mashhad. On 20 May, the USA proposes a joint withdrawal from Iran to take effect by noon on the 22nd, while Britain sends troops to Europe amidst a build-up of Warsaw Pact troops in East Germany. The Soviets ignore the US ultimatum and, an hour after the expiry, are attacked at their base in Mashhad by B-52 bombers using conventional weapons. The Soviets defend the base with a nuclear tipped surface-to-air missile, destroying many B-52s. The battle ceases after US forces launch a battlefield nuclear weapon at the Soviet base.
The next day, fighting breaks out between the US and Soviet navies. On 24 May, amidst rioting in East Germany, the Soviets cut the road links into and out of West Berlin, whilst offering occupying NATO forces free passage to the west. The USS Kitty Hawk is sunk in the Persian Gulf, and the US blockades Cuba. Anti-Soviet riots in major US cities damage several Russian consulates. The next day, the BBC reports on the Mashhad nuclear exchange, stating that the weapons used were within the range of 50–100 kilotons, and that cities in western Pakistan are being evacuated due to the fallout.
Young Sheffield residents Ruth Beckett (Karen Meagher) and Jimmy Kemp (Reece Dinsdale) are planning to marry due to her unplanned pregnancy. Meanwhile, as tensions between the US and the Soviet Union over Iran escalate, the Home Office directs Sheffield City Council to assemble an emergency operations team, which establishes itself in a makeshift bomb shelter in the basement of the town hall. After the ignored US ultimatum to the Soviets results in a brief tactical nuclear skirmish, Britain is gripped by fear, with looting and rioting erupting. "Known subversives" (including peace activists and some trade unionists) are arrested and interned under the Emergency Powers Act.
At 8:30 a.m. GMT (3:30 in Washington, suggesting the Soviets fire first) on 26 May, the town hall office transmitter signals Attack Warning Red, and Sheffield's air raid sirens sound. Panic breaks out in the city and the Sheffield operations staff man their desks. At 8:35 a.m. a single nuclear warhead air bursts high over the North Sea, producing an electromagnetic pulse which damages or destroys communications and most electrical systems throughout the UK and northwestern Europe. Two minutes later the first missile salvos hit NATO targets, including nearby RAF Finningley 18 miles (29 km) from Sheffield. Although the city is not yet heavily damaged, the mushroom cloud from Finningley is clearly visible and chaos reigns in the streets, with Jimmy last seen running from his stalled truck in an attempt to reach Ruth. Sheffield is soon hit by a one megaton warhead launched at the Tinsley Viaduct. A title card states that strategic targets, including steel and chemical factories in the Midlands, are the primary targets, with two-thirds of all UK homes destroyed and immediate deaths ranging between 17 and 30 million. By the time the exchange is over, the resulting East-West exchange amounts to 3,000 megatons. About 210 megatons fall on the UK.
Sheffield Town Hall collapses in the attack and traps the city's emergency operations team in their shelter underneath it. From there the trapped team over the next several days attempts to coordinate the city's chaotic emergency and relief efforts through their few remaining short wave radios. Within hours, nuclear fallout from a ground burst at Crewe descends upon Sheffield on a northwesterly wind, with the badly burned Mrs Kemp soon succumbing to radiation sickness. His three children dead or missing and his wife dying, Mr Kemp sets out on a desperate search for food and water, eventually dying himself. The dangers of fallout prevent the remaining functioning civil authorities from fighting fires or rescuing those trapped under debris. Ruth leaves her (still living) parents in their basement and after walking through the devastated city eventually makes her way to the Sheffield Royal Infirmary, where there is no electricity, no running water, and no sanitation, with drugs and medical supplies having long since run out.
A month after the attack, soldiers finally dig through to the town hall basement only to find the emergency staff all dead from suffocation. Burying the dead is a waste of manpower and burning them is a waste of fuel, and this leads to an epidemic of communicable diseases such as cholera and typhoid. The government authorises the use of capital punishment and convenes special courts to sentence and execute the new class of criminals. As money no longer has any value, the only viable currency is food, given as a reward for work or withheld as punishment. The millions of tons of soot, smoke and dust now in the upper atmosphere soon leads to nuclear winter. As the narrator intones, "it starts to get dark, it starts to get cold". Ruth is later seen working on a farm in Buxton, having defied official advice by fleeing the city and eventually giving birth to a daughter in a farm out-building.
A year after the war, sunlight begins to return but food production remains poor due to the lack of proper equipment, fertilisers, and fuel. Damage to the ozone layer also means this sunlight is heavy with ultraviolet radiation, with cataracts and cancer becoming more common.
Ten years later Britain's population has fallen to medieval levels of about 4 to 11 million people. The government manages to retain some semblance of contact with this remainder through its radio broadcasts. Survivors work the fields using primitive hand-held farming tools. The few children born or raised since the attack speak a broken form of illiterate English in the wake of the collapsed education system and the breakdown of the family. Prematurely aged and blind with cataracts, Ruth collapses in the field and soon dies, survived by her 10-year-old daughter Jane (Victoria O'Keefe). By this time, the country is beginning to recover—or at least function at the most basic level—with resumption of coal mining, limited electricity production, and some steam powered mechanisation derived from 19th century technology. Yet the population continues to live in near-barbaric squalor among the ruins.
Three years after Ruth's death, Jane and two boys are caught stealing food. One boy is shot in the ensuing confusion. Jane wrestles for the food with the other boy and they have (what the script describes as) "crude intercourse". Months later, Jane finds a makeshift hospital and gives birth. The film ends just as she is about to scream in horror as she looks upon her baby.
Although Jackson initially considered casting actors from Coronation Street, he later decided to take a neorealist approach, and opted to cast relatively unknown actors in order to heighten the film's impact through the use of characters the audience could relate to.
- Reece Dinsdale as Jimmy Kemp
- David Brierley as Mr Kemp
- Rita May as Mrs Kemp
- Nicholas Lane as Michael Kemp
- Jane Hazlegrove as Alison Kemp
- Karen Meagher as Ruth Beckett
- Henry Moxon as Mr Beckett
- June Broughton as Mrs Beckett
- Harry Beety as Clive J. Sutton (Controller)
- Ashley Barker as Bob
- Paul Vaughan as the Narrator
- Victoria O'Keefe as Jane
Production and themes
Threads was first commissioned by the Director-General of the BBC Alasdair Milne, after he watched the 1965 drama-documentary The War Game, which had not been shown on the BBC when it was made, due to pressure from the Wilson government, although it had had a limited release in cinemas. Mick Jackson was hired to direct the film, as he had previously worked in the area of nuclear apocalypse in 1982, producing the BBC Q.E.D. documentary A Guide to Armageddon. This was considered a breakthrough at the time, considering the previous banning of The War Game, which BBC staff believed would have resulted in mass suicides if aired. Jackson subsequently travelled around the UK and the US, consulting leading scientists, psychologists, doctors, defence specialists and strategic experts in order to create the most realistic depiction of nuclear war possible for his next film. Jackson consulted various sources in his research, including the 1983 Science article Nuclear Winter: Global Consequences of Multiple Nuclear Explosions, penned by Carl Sagan and James B. Pollack. Details of a possible attack scenario and the extent of the damage were derived from Doomsday: A Nuclear Attack on the United Kingdom (1983), while the ineffective post-war plans of the UK government came from Duncan Campbell's 1982 exposé War Plan UK. In portraying the psychological damage suffered by survivors, Jackson took inspiration from the behaviour of the Hibakusha and Magnus Clarke's 1982 book Nuclear Destruction of Britain. Sheffield was chosen as the main location because of its "nuclear-free zone" policy, as mentioned in the article about the nickname "People's Republic of South Yorkshire".
Jackson hired Barry Hines to write the script because of his political awareness. The relationship between the two was strained on several occasions, as Hines spent much of his time on set, and apparently disliked Jackson on account of his middle class upbringing. As part of their research, the two spent a week at the Home Office training centre for "official survivors" in Easingwold which, according to Hines, showed just "how disorganised post-war reconstruction would be".
Auditions were advertised in The Star, and took place in the ballroom of Sheffield City Hall, where 1,100 candidates turned up. All extras were chosen on the basis of height and age, and were all told to look "miserable" and to wear ragged clothes. The makeup for extras playing third degree burn victims consisted of Rice Krispies and tomato ketchup. The scenes taking place six weeks after the attack were shot in the Peak District National Park, though because weather conditions were considered too fine to pass off as a nuclear winter, stage snow had to be spread around the rocks and heather, and cameramen installed light filters on their equipment to block out the sunlight.
Jackson later recalled that while BBC productions would usually be followed by phone calls of congratulations from friends or colleagues immediately after airing, no such calls came after the first screening of Threads. Jackson later "realised...that people had just sat there thinking about it, in many cases not sleeping or being able to talk." He later said that he had it on good authority that Ronald Reagan watched the film when it aired in the US. Hines himself received a letter of praise from Labour leader Neil Kinnock.
Broadcast and release history
Threads was a co-production of the BBC, Nine Network Australia and Western-World Television, Inc. It was first broadcast on BBC Two on 23 September 1984 at 9:30 pm, and achieved the highest ratings on the channel (6.9 million) of the week. It was repeated on BBC One on 1 August 1985 as part of a week of programmes marking the fortieth anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which also saw the first television screening of The War Game (which had been deemed too disturbing for television in the 20 years since it had been made). Threads was not shown again on British screens until the digital channel BBC Four broadcast it in October 2003. Threads was broadcast in the United States on cable network Superstation TBS on 13 January 1985, followed by a panel discussion on nuclear war. It was also shown in syndication to local commercial stations and, later, on many PBS stations. In Canada, Threads was broadcast on CKVU in Vancouver, while in Australia it was shown on the Nine Network on 19 June 1985. Unusually for a commercial network, it broadcast the film without commercial breaks.
Threads was originally released by BBC Video (on VHS and, for a very short period, Betamax) in 1987 in the United Kingdom. The play was re-released on both VHS and DVD in 2000 on the Revelation label, followed by a new DVD edition in 2005. Due to licensing difficulties the 1987 release replaced Chuck Berry's recording of his song "Johnny B. Goode" with an alternative recording of the song. In all cases, the original music over the opening narration was removed.
Threads was nominated for seven BAFTA awards in 1985. It won for Best Single Drama, Best Design, Best Film Cameraman and Best Film Editor. Its other nominations were for Best Costume Design, Best Make-Up, and Best Film Sound.
- Able Archer 83, NATO command post exercise that resulted in the 1983 nuclear war scare and changed thinking about nuclear war in Britain.
- List of nuclear holocaust fiction
- Nuclear weapons in popular culture
- Nuclear weapons and the United Kingdom
- Operation Square Leg a military analysis of the effects of a nuclear war on Britain.
- Protect and Survive, the 1970s British government information films on nuclear war.
- When the Wind Blows, a 1986 animated British film that shows a nuclear attack on Britain by the Soviet Union from the viewpoint of a retired couple.