In the last year tensions between the USA and North Korea have escalated massively with a big stand-off between the leaders of these two countries and them both playing a game of “who can p**s the highest”. But I think that they should both be locked in a room, made to sit in front of a TV and watch “Threads” from start to finish in the hope that it makes them think twice about pressing the red button that will take us not just to the brink of annihilation, but to total annihilation.
So what is “Threads”? Well, back in the 1970’s and 1980’s the world was in the grip of the Cold War, with the threat of nuclear war breaking out between the East and the West (USA and the USSR) being almost as high as during the Cuban Missile Crisis in the 1960’s. Nuclear War was everywhere – from the government’s rudimentary efforts to tell us how to build a makeshift nuclear fallout shelter in our homes by taking the doors off their hinges and propping mattresses up against them in their “Protect and Survive” series of public information films to nuclear war being the topic of comedies and comedians. The Only Fools and Horses episode “The Russians Are Coming” focuses on Del Boy and Rodney trying to build a nuclear fallout shelter and then get to it from their high rise flat in Peckham in 4 minutes or less as per the infamous “4-minute warning”, while stand-up comedian Jasper Carrott makes fun of “Protect and Survive” and the advice contained within it in his stand-up comedy series “Carrott’s Lib”. Then there was “When The Wind Blows” from 1996, a cartoon style film depicting the effect that nuclear war would have on an old couple who lived in the countryside with a soundtrack that featured a contribution from the late great David Bowie. And of course we mustn’t forget the 1960’s documentary “The War Games”, which was almost 50 minutes of pure terror that depicted to the lead up and aftermath of a thermo-nuclear war, and focused on a missile going astray and landing close to Rochester rather than its intended target.
Mick Jackson, who went on to direct “Threads”, was commissioned by the BBC to make an edition of the then popular factual series QED called “A Guide to Armageddon”, which followed a normal couple as they transform their home into a makeshift nuclear fallout shelter following the advice given in “Protect and Survive” and showing the reality of what would happen and happen to them in the event of nuclear war. A Thames Television “Thames Reports” edition entitled “Nuclear War: Would You Survive The Bomb” followed and in 1980 an edition of the BBC’s news programme Panorama focused on nuclear war. Called “If the Bomb Drops”, a young Jeremy Paxman interviewed several leading politicians and scientists of the time to assess just how severe the risk of nuclear war was to the British public. Nuclear War, it seemed, was not just a bit of a risk, it was an inevitability.
It wasn’t long before the USA got in on the act by releasing a full-length feature film called “The Day After” on what would happen there in the event of a nuclear attack, but this heavily sanitised Hollywood-style film did not even begin to do the horror of nuclear war justice. “War Games” followed starring Matthew Broderick, a saccharine-filled 80’s portrayal of a young kid who managed to hack into the Pentagon’s mainframe and bring the USA dangerously close to Armageddon. Err…yeah…okay then!
Then, in 1984, came “Threads”.
Written by Barry Hines, who was famous for his book “A Kestrel for a Nave”, Threads was more frightening and scarier than any horror film made before the year 1984 and in my mind any horror film made since to this day. “Threads” depicted what would happen should nuclear war break out in the UK and focused on the city of Sheffield, which at the time was a central location for steel production, economic output and industry and therefore would be a very likely target in the event of a nuclear war.
The film focuses on two main characters called Jimmy and Ruth played by Reese Dinsdale and Karen Meagher respectively, who are a young couple just starting a relationship and their families. Ruth comes from an affluent middle-class background and lives in a large Victorian house with her parents, while Jimmy comes from a working-class background and lives with his parents, brother and sister all crowed into a terrace house. I think this is particularly significant in terms of the kind of house that is more likely to survive a nuclear blast, and as we see in the film when the bomb has dropped, one type of house survives it more than the other.
When Ruth finds out she is pregnant unexpectedly she and Jimmy hastily get engaged and plan to marry, and the escalating tensions between the USA and the USSR play out via BBC News reports being read out by newscaster Lesley Judd while Jimmy and Ruth buy a flat, start to renovate it and prepare for their forthcoming wedding and the arrival of their baby.
Another part of the film focuses on the Chief Executive of Sheffield City Council, who during war becomes the Wartime Controller for the area, when in peace time he is the Chief Executive. You see him being notified of his new role and getting out the “war book” volumes from a drawer in his desk, contacting all the city councillors and asking them to report to the council offices so they can be given their new roles in the event of war, such as Food Controller, Law Enforcement Officer and Homelessness Officer. These people would try to ensure that government continues and that some semblance of society is kept in place in the event of the outbreak of nuclear war from a secure underground nuclear bunker.
When all else fails in terms of diplomatic resolutions from the President of the USA who says, “I have to tell the Soviets, in the clearest possible terms, that they risk taking us to the brink of an armed confrontation, with incalculable consequences for all mankind” to a US ultimatum to the USSR expiring and thus triggering the first use of weapons, it is clear that nuclear war is imminent. The public information films “Protect and Survive” are broadcast on TV and the public start to either try to escape to the countryside (impossible as the government have made all major roads essential service routes for emergency vehicles) or stay put and follow the advice on “Protect and Survive” to construct a makeshift shelter in their homes.
At 8.30am on Thursday 26 May, the “Attack Warning Red” siren sounds. We see the ensuing panic as everyone tries to rush to safety, but a nuclear warhead missile explodes high above the North Sea, triggering an electro-magnetic pulse that disrupts all communications. Jimmy is at work but tries to find Ruth to no avail as 80 megatons of nuclear bombs falls on the UK, Sheffield in particular is hit because of it’s links to industry including steel and chemicals, and he is in the open when the first bomb explodes. Ruth and her family manage to take shelter in their underground cellar.
But this is where the real horror begins.
The rest of the film is a chilling depiction of what life is likely to be like following the blasts, and what we see is likely to be the VERY best case scenario, I imagine that in the event of a real nuclear attack, the aftermath and life beyond it would be much worse. Fall out is imminent, radiation sickness takes its toll and with food and water practically non-existent it really does become a “survival of the fittest”. The scene where Ruth leaves her home and walks through her street with bodies and corpses burning and devastation all around her is one that will haunt me forever, especially when the camera focuses on a woman holding her burnt and blackened dead baby in her arms, her eyes wide with grief.
Ruth’s Grandmother and parents soon perish as a result of radiation sickness, and it is assumed that Jimmy has also perished as he was out in the open when the first nuclear bomb exploded as we do not see him again in the film, apart from the occasional flashback. What lies in Ruth’s future is a world of desolation, one where there is no NHS to help or tend to the sick and wounded and doctors cannot practice their skills with any real effect, one where the only currency is food, one where Ruth is forced to give birth to her baby (a girl) without any midwife assistance or pain relief and bite through the umbilical cord with her own teeth, and one where there is no hope at all for the future. Ruth is driven to eating the flesh of a dead sheep, but the sheep has died from radiation poisoning, and to prostitution where her payment is a dead rat to eat, just to stay alive.
As the film progresses we see Ruth and her daughter Jane ten years after the attack, with Ruth aged well beyond her years from strong ultraviolet rays and radiation with straw-like grey hair and cataracts. They are working in the fields when Ruth collapses, and she dies when her daughter Jane tries to wake her by saying just a few words such as “Ruth” “work” and “up”. It is clear that English as a spoken language has all but gone, and only a handful of words remain.
Now an orphan, Jane and some other children who have grown up knowing nothing about the world before the nuclear war are able to watch some old episodes of the children’s programme “Words and Pictures”, as some electricity has been restored, and they strip blankets into threads to make clothes and other garments. Some small semblance of life from before the attack starts to return, but only very slightly.
Jane and two other teenage boys steal some bread but one of them gets shot and killed. She and the other boy take refuge in a disused barn, where she is brutally raped. She subsequently falls pregnant and when the time comes for her to give birth to her own baby she does so in a makeshift primitive hospital. When Jane is handed her baby, she looks at it and screams, but we do not hear the scream, and the picture goes black. This is where the film ends, and it is assumed that Jane’s baby has been horribly mutated by radiation and is stillborn.
Although “Threads” tried to depict the worst case scenario for what would happen to civilisation in the event of a nuclear war I’m sure that the outcome should it happen today would be far worse. I am as petrified of nuclear war now as I was as a teenager when I was made to watch Threads at school for the first time, and I’ve seen it a few times since then. I was convinced then that the world would end because of a nuclear war and that nagging fear has never left me. Sadly, due to recent hostilities between the USA and North Korea, and the fact that tensions between the West and Russia are also increasing, that fear is with me again ten-fold. Reese Dinsdale and Ruth Meagher both played excellent roles in the film and portrayed the young couple Jimmy and Ruth perfectly, little did they know at the time when the film was made just how important it would be, and how much they would contribute to British culture and film history.
So as a round up, here are the top ten moments from “Threads” that have stayed with me to this day:
- The scene where Ruth walks through her street and sees the death, devastation, burning corpses and a woman holding the burnt corpse of her dead baby.
- Jimmy’s Dad Mr Kemp gets shot and killed when he tries to get food from a local storage centre, and what struck me about this scene was the depiction of how quickly law and order had broken down and how those with ordinary roles such as traffic wardens were suddenly given the power to shoot a person on sight just because they tried to grab a bit of food to survive.
- The anguish on Mrs Kemp’s face when she realises her son Michael is missing just before the flash of the first nuclear bomb happens, as he is in his aviary scared to death of what is to come.
- The scene where Ruth and other survivors go to a hospital and she sees patients have limbs cut off with only a rag in their mouths and no sedation, with blood and squalor pouring all over the floors of the hospital.
- The scene where Ruth eats a dead sheep to stay alive knowing it has died from radiation poisoning.
- The scene where the Sheffield City Councillors are trying to maintain some semblance of society and law and order from their underground bunker, but eventually they too perish.
- The scene where Ruth gives birth to her baby and has to bite the umbilical cord herself, followed by a group of survivors and Ruth all huddled together on Christmas Day around a fire in what looks like something out of the bible or dark ages.
- The scene that shows the first winter that claims the lives of the very young and the very old, wiping out the population to the lowest in the UK since medieval times.
- Ruth passing away from leukaemia and her daughter having only a limited vocabulary of words like “Ruth” “Work” and “Up”.
- Ruth’s daughter is raped, and she gives birth to a stillborn baby – the film ends with the silent scream from Jane as she is handed her baby and realises it is mutated and dead.
Having undertaken a lot of research about “Threads” on the internet, it seems I am not alone in thinking it is the scariest and most chilling film ever made to date – there are countless articles and reviews of it. The fact I am writing this review now, something I have been planning to do for some time, is quite timely as tomorrow night – Tuesday 2 January 2018 – there is going to be a Threads “Tweetalong” on Twitter at 8.00pm.
Author Julie McDowall is researching and writing a book on Nuclear War, and has instigated the “Threads Tweetalong” so that others can watch it and press “play” to do so at 8pm tomorrow night, and use the hashtag #ThreadDread to talk about their memories of the film. Julie tweeted to her followers: She tweeted this request for her followers to rewatch the show along with her:
Julie, I will join you at 8pm tomorrow night and press “play” at that time to rewatch “Threads” in its entirety. If anyone reading this is also interested in taking part, you can watch “Threads” on Vimeo via this link – https://vimeo.com/18781528 – and join the “Threads Tweetathon” at 8pm tomorrow night. I have “Threads” on DVD but I will watch it via my tablet and/or phone for convenience, and rumour has it that “Threads” is going to be released on Blu-Ray during this month remastered so we can see the nuclear bomb explode in all its glory.
I would love to know what your thoughts are about “Threads”, and whether you think that the current situation between the USA and North Korea will lead us down the path of nuclear war and thus total annihilation. Just this morning the leader of North Korea announced that a nuclear launch button is “always on his table”, so how worried should we be? And if it does happen, where do you want to be when the bomb drops? Do you think you can survive it? And furthermore, would you actually WANT to survive it?
I hope, I just hope beyond hope, that “Threads” is the closest we will EVER get to nuclear war…..
Links to the programmes referenced in this blog post are below:
Panorama: If The Bomb Drops (1980)
Thames Report: Nuclear Attack – Would You Survive The Bomb?
QED: A Guide To Armageddon
Protect and Survive: UK Government Public Information Films
The War Games
Jasper Carrott on Carrott’s Lib: Nuclear War Sketch