Last night I watched THREADS, possibly the bleakest thing ever to be shown on television (and we gave the world Eastenders).
I watched this when it was first broadcast in 1984. I was 11 years old and obsessed with the impending threat of nuclear holocaust. I was a happy, normal kid most of the time, but the idea that we could be wiped out on the whim of leaders in the US and the Soviet Union did tend to make one a little jumpy. I recall sitting in class at Middle school when a siren – one very similar to the four minute warning siren – went off in the middle of a lesson. Everyone froze, even the teacher… till she remembered that some buildings nearby were being demolished and this was a detonation warning. Still, nothing like the cold chill of imminent annihilation to clear the mind for double maths.
So, would THREADS stand-up after all these years? Emphatically, yes. Written by Barry Hines, author of the magnificent novel A KESTREL FOR A KNAVE, THREADS is combination of documentary style and Ken Loach realism. Based on the findings of Operation Square Leg, a report into the effects of a nuclear war, this seems as relevant now as it did then. Chillingly, the whole conflict is sparked by a Russian incursion into Iran, so not a million miles from today’s headlines.
There’s an ensemble cast, but for much of the story you follow Ruth (played by Karen Meagher) who has the bad luck to fall pregnant by Reece Dinsdale just days before the attack. You see the devastating aftermath of the attack on her family, the birth of her baby into an apocalyptic Sheffield, and then jump to 13 years later where society has descended into a new medieval dark age, where feral teens communicate in half-fogotten English (insert your own just-like-my-town-centre-on-a-Saturday-night joke here).
But the bit that everyone talks about is the attack itself. If you’d asked me what I remembered about the film before I watched it again, I would have said the mushroom cloud hanging over Sheffield, the woman weeing herself in the high street as everyone around her panicked, and the silent flashes of white hot light incinerating everything in its path. All incredibly powerful and quickly recalled over 30 years later.
Considering the budget and VFX available at the time, this is still an incredibly effective depiction of a nuclear attack. And the clever use of still photography works with the documentary style while also giving a scale to the destruction.
But upon viewing again, the real reason this works is it takes time to establish the characters in the real world. The Ken Loach style of realism makes you care for these people as the armageddon hots up around them (though this was directed by Mick Jackson, who later gave us Whitney Houston in THE BODYGUARD). There’s also a wry recognition of the hapless local councillors who, with very little training, try and control the chaos before falling out with each other and then suffocating in their own bunker.
Of course, this wasn’t the only 80s nuke drama. Oh no, I watched them all, including the big-budget THE DAY AFTER. Directed by Nicholas Meyer, this was like an episode of Dynasty where everyone gets vaporised. The effects were impressive at the time, but curiously don’t seem to have dated as well as the simple VFX of THREADS.
But my favourite, if one can have a favourite nuke drama, was WHEN THE WIND BLOWS. Based on the Raymond Briggs comic book, this animated film followed poor Hilda and Jim, two pensioners who put all their faith in the official government survival pamphlets. Voiced by John Mills and Peggy Ashcroft, it has to be the most moving and affecting of all of these. It also has a cracking score by Roger Waters and David Bowie.
These days, movie apocalypses are brought to us by zombie and viruses, but the nuclear threat is still there, and with stockpiles of weapons piling up in places like North Korea there’s probably a greater chance of a limited nuclear conflict than ever before. So why has the nuke drama fallen out of fashion? Is it a case of been there, nuked that? Or do we just not want to think about it? Sorry if I’ve ruined your day 😉