UK/Australia | 1984 | directed by Mick Jackson
Logline: The last few months before a nuclear holocaust, the attack on the industrial city of Sheffield, England, and the long-term effects of such an event.
I first watched this movie when it was originally broadcast on television, which is what it had been produced for, in the mid-80s. Watching it again more than thirty years later very little of what made it so powerful has dated. With the world in the political state that it is, it is as pertinent as ever. A third World War will leave no victors, only a wasteland of terminal-ill survivors, with the poison spreading the world over.
Although it is often referred to as the UK’s answer to The Day After, which was made the year before, also for television, although it was released in cinemas in some countries outside of the US, Threads was first commissioned by the head of the BBC after he was directly affected by watching the British docudrama The War Game (1965). Mick Jackson had already just worked on a documentary about a possible nuclear holocaust, on an episode of Living Proof, and as such he brought a certain gravitas to the production, essentially expanding on the ideas and scenarios delivered in the A Guide to Armageddon episode.
The main narrative crux of the movie focuses on two families, the middle-class Becketts and the working class Kemps, who live in the city of Sheffield, in northern England, a city whose primary industries are metal works, coal, and chemical manufacture. Ruth Beckett (Karen Meagher) is set to marry Jimmy Kemp (Reece Dinsdale). We see their courtship in the months leading up to an nuclear attack. The other storyline follows the the Home Office, and its Chief Executive (Michael O’Hagen), and the officials as they follow the escalating exchange between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, the threat of war becoming all too real, and the desperation as several nuclear warheads detonate over England land and sea.
As one would expect the consequences are catastrophic. Using the 1980 British Government exercise findings known as “Square Leg”, the filmmakers project a series of statistics which are presented as inter-titles - dramatic punctuation, if you will - depicting many things, but chiefly the level of destruction and the number of casualties. Around 17-30 million would be killed, with between 10-20 million unburned corpses left scattered around the country in the aftermath, as the survivors would not be able to dispose of them properly.
After the first month cholera, dysentery, and typhoid would be rife. Looting would be a huge problem. Food stocks and supplies would diminish rapidly. Basically, it would be a return to the Middle Ages, with no foreseeable solution to the ravaged land. The nuclear winter would continue on for decades, and Threads shows us some of the horror up until thirteen years after an attack, with Ruth’s teenage daughter Jane (Victoria O’Keefe) attempting to get by in a very dark and desolate future.
Carl Sagan, who was one of the many consultants on the production, introduced the wider public to the concept of the nuclear winter, and Threads is the first fictional drama to portray such a cataclysmic scenario. The Day After only deals, as the title says, with the immediate aftermath, and is nowhere near as harrowing as what Threads illustrates.
As the production is several years before the introduction of CGI the use of stock footage from WWII and military archives portrays the effects of nuclear devastation. We’ve seen many of these images before, but it doesn’t diminish their power. Though the exterior production values aren’t very high, but one can see how skilfully Jackson directs the scenes of panic and chaos to bring as much impact. It might seem a bit like a cross between two grungy British dramas, the veteran Coronation Street and cult post-apocalyptic The Survivors, but it’s the fact that Jackson specifically chose unknown actors for his cast, and their naturalistic performances, that brings a Ken Loach realism to the story (unlike the casting of pretty faces, Steve Guttenberg, John Lithgow, JoBeth Williams, and Jason Robards in The Day After).
Very wisely, there is no music used (unlike The Day After, which although used sparingly still jars as emotionally manipulative), however I couldn’t help but conjure the use of Sheffield electronic outfit The Human League and many of their brooding, early, experimental tracks, such as Almost Medieval, Zero as a Limit, Dreams Of Leaving, and The Black Hit of Space, which I would be curious to hear used in context.
Threads is a bitter message of hopeless grief, and one of the most stark political statements ever made.