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Threads (1984)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Threads (1984)
BBC/Network 9, BBC1 tx. 23/9/1984
110 minutes, colour
DirectorMick Jackson
ProducerMick Jackson
ScriptBarry Hines
PhotographyAndrew Dunn

Cast: Karen Meagher (Ruth Beckett); Reece Dinsdale (Jimmy Kemp); David Brierly (Mr Kemp); Rita May (Mrs Kemp); Nicholas Lane (Michael Kemp); Paul Vaughan (narrator)

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Everyday life in 1980s Sheffield is devastated by the outbreak of nuclear war and its appalling aftermath.

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One of several television dramas on nuclear issues in the 1980s, Threads is arguably the most visceral. Like Peter Watkins' The War Game (1966), finally broadcast the following year (BBC, tx. 31/7/1985), Threads dramatises a hypothetical nuclear holocaust. It drew upon research and footage from director Mick Jackson's QED documentary A Guide to Armageddon (BBC, tx. 26/7/1982), but is primarily a drama with occasional captions or voice-over to explain research.

Its domestic scenes surrounding the relationship between Jimmy and Ruth, with media reports of international tension largely ignored as background chatter, question the lack of public education in nuclear issues, but also establish the interpersonal and socio-economic 'threads' of society and create empathy with characters in everyday situations, heightening the shock when nuclear war breaks out and those 'threads' unravel.

Despite budgetary limitations, Threads convincingly depicts the horrors of nuclear attack interpersing stock footage, photographs and model shots with such memorable imagery as milk bottles melting in the heat and a urine puddle forming at the feet of a terrified woman. Harrowing themes and imagery continue in decaying post-apocalyptic Sheffield, as the pregnant Ruth faces a bleak struggle for survival. The drama then follows Ruth's daughter a decade later across a depopulated, sterile landscape. The loss of humanity and language is exemplified by the struggle of adults and children to respond to a videotaped children's television programme. When Ruth's daughter also falls pregnant, she faces the consequences of a generation of radioactivity.

Threads documented Jackson and writer Barry Hines' research into the limits of Civil Defence, but Hines insisted that it sidestepped nuclear politics. However, Threads has another political layer, given that characters' concerns before the bomb, that Ruth's unborn child would suffer in a country facing recession, are acted out in her daughter's fate. Anxiety over a future of unemployment, which echoes Hines' earlier Sheffield-set film, Looks and Smiles (d. Ken Loach, 1981), is starkly depicted in post-apocalyptic wastelands which could be read as a metaphor for social collapse in Thatcher's Britain. In place of the 'threads' described at the start - a society in which "each person's needs are fed by the skills of many others" - there is, to appropriate Thatcher's famous phrase, no such thing as society.

Threads attracted a large audience, and terrifyingly confirms one character's argument that nobody can win a nuclear war because they would only conquer the corpse of a country.

Dave Rolinson

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Video Clips
1. Jobs not bombs (2:25)
2. 'They've done it' (6:07)
3. Skeletons and skulls (3:22)
Advice to Householders (1964)
Looks and Smiles (1981)
Seven Days to Noon (1950)
Sheffield is Calling You (1954)
War Game, The (1966)
Hines, Barry (1939- )
Drama Documentary