Made in 1984, Threads is a dramatisation of the effects of a nuclear strike in Britain. Set in then-contemporary Sheffield, Ruth (Karen Meagher) is the central character, and most of the story is seen through her eyes. We begin with Ruth and her boyfriend Jimmy (Reece Dinsdale), in his car, when she tells him she’s pregnant. Meanwhile, tensions mount in the Middle East as American intervention in Iran creates a standoff between them and the Russians. At first the news is something that’s half-heard in the background, on a car radio, on a television in a noisy pub. But eventually it becomes impossible to ignore, as the situation escalates into all-out nuclear war.
To watch Threads in 2005 is to go back to a time which is at once long ago and somehow up to the minute. What we think of as decades don’t often fit neatly into calendar definitions, and there’s a case to be made that what we will think of as the Nineteen-Nineties actually lasted twelve years. It began with the fall of the Soviet Union and the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe in 1989 and ended on 11 September 2001. In between there were wars and conflicts, but not one Big Scary Threat that was obvious to most of the population. Then it was the Soviet bloc; now, it’s extremist Muslim terrorism. It’s eerily prescient that the fictional conflict in Threads, although its details are kept vague, is fought over Middle-Eastern oilfields. Back in the early to mid Eighties, nuclear war was a major fear of the Western World, as it had been since the 1950s, and it was inevitable that popular entertainment media would address that fear sooner or later. The year before Threads, the Americans had produced The Day After, which attracted massive audiences, however (if memory serves) it tended towards a Hollywood gloss and was not without sentimentality. Threads, on the other hand, pulls no punches and allows no room for sentimentality. It’s in a long tradition of British TV drama (the Sixties Wednesday Plays, which became Play for Today in the Seventies) which took topics of current concern and shaped them into compelling drama that had no qualms about provoking and disturbing its audience. And back in those days, there were only four channels in the UK, so a drama like this was more of an event – and more of a simultaneous event, as video recorders were far less widespread and more people watched it as it was broadcast. I was one of those.
Another forerunner of Threads is Peter Watkins’s The War Game (available on DVD from the BFI), which was made in 1965 and famously banned by the BBC. When Threads was broadcast, that ban was still in place. (It would receive its so far only TV showing the following year, as part of a series of programmes commemorating the fortieth anniversary of the Hiroshima bomb.) The War Game may be dated in its facts and figures (and by being in black and white), but it has lost none of its impact. Threads certainly doesn’t replace it or supersede it. Instead it’s best seen as a companion piece, which builds on its predecessor with twenty years’ worth of knowledge and twenty years’ worth of advances in filmmaking resources. I wouldn’t be in the least bit surprised if director Mick Jackson and scriptwriter Barry Hines had seen The War Game as there are notable similarities. And some notable differences.
While both films combine drama with documentary, The War Game is further in the latter direction. Watkins’s film is an overtly political work that has no “characters” (the actors were all non-professionals and none are credited). Threads roots itself in a story of human characters we can identify with. On the other hand, it does use some of the same documentary techniques: a narrator (Peter Vaughan), some still photographs and captions that flash information and statistics on screen. Watkins and Jackson/Hines come to many of the same conclusions: the disintegration of society (the breaking of the “threads” of the title), imposition of martial law, diminishing food, water and fuel stocks. Neither film reassures us that we will necessarily act nobly in a crisis: some will, but others won’t and looting is rife. There’s a scene in both films where someone refuses to put up strangers in spare rooms in their house. Even our central character, Ruth, is virtually catatonic from shock in the immediate aftermath of the blast. On the other hand, Jackson and Hines go further than Watkins in exploring the effects of the nuclear winter. The film ends with an epilogue, some years afterwards, involving Ruth’s daughter and the limited society that has survived (speaking a “devolved” form of English, perhaps influenced by Russell Hoban’s then-recent Booker-nominated novel Riddley Walker). But this ending, seemingly optimistic in the face of what has gone before, has a nasty sting in its tail.
Threads is brilliantly made, and it’s no surprise that Jackson and his DP Andrew Dunn have since moved on to cinema features. Jackson doesn’t linger on the horrors – mostly we just glimpse them, allowing our imagination to fill in the rest. His direction of smaller, more intimate scenes (such as those near the beginning) and larger-scale ones with crowds works perfectly. Precision editing (by Jim Latham and Donna Bickerstaff) and a busy soundtrack add to the effect. Particularly noticeable are some scenes where the sound drops away to silence. Jackson and Dunn conjure up many images that will stick in your mind for long afterwards. Some of them are still there from my first viewing, twenty-one years ago. The cast is mostly made up of unknowns, though there are a few character actors you’ll recognise from other television productions of the time. This isn’t really an actor’s film, but the only real false note might be Lesley Judd as a newsreader, and that would only apply to those old enough to remember her as a Blue Peter presenter. (That’s the late Ed Bishop, uncredited, as the voice of the US President.)
This is a harrowing but compelling film which no doubt many will find distressing. It’s certainly not for children. But it’s as timely as it ever was, and only dated in superficial ways. Essential if gruelling viewing.
Threads is released by 2 Entertain, the company recently set up to distribute the BBC’s productions on DVD. The disc is encoded for Regions 2 and 4. This is the complete version of Threads: a cut version is sometimes shown on cable and satellite. Details of what is missing can be found on the Internet Movie Database.
The film was shot in 16mm, and is transferred to DVD in its original 4:3 ratio, as you would expect for a 1980s television production. The picture is a little soft and there’s a noticeable – though not excessive – grain. However, this transfer does show how good professional 16mm shooting could look at the time. After the bomb falls, Dunn’s photography is dominated by greys and browns and an intentional lack of bright colours, and there’s frequently smoke and dust blowing, but the transfer copes well with it. There’s some minor edge enhancement in places, and artefacting in darker scenes, but nothing too obtrusive. This is a production that seems to have been kept in good condition in the archive, and has been transferred well to DVD.
Threads was a little early for Nicam Stereo (which would have resulted in a Dolby Surround track), so the sound here is the original mono. It’s very effective, as I say above. There’s no doubt that if this were made today it would have a 5.1 mix, which would have no doubt been highly immersive and devastating in its effects. But that’s not the way that this film was made, and fortunately the DVD producers have respected that. It works perfectly well in its own way, the result of the filmmakers pushing the resources they had available to their limits. Subtitles are available for the hard of hearing, and reveal two “fucks” I didn’t remember from first time round – 1984 was pretty early for strong language in a prime-time BBC1 production. There are eighteen chapter stops.
Unfortunately, there are no extras at all, which is as a missed opportunity. If a commentary wasn’t possible, could there not have been some background information on the film’s making? Even a booklet like the ones supplied with other recent 2 Entertain DVDs would be welcome.
Threads is a fine example of the Awful Warning subgenre of science fiction, and stands up very well twenty-one years later. It’s a superbly made film which is hard to forget. The lack of extras is a shame, but at least the DVD presents the film itself well.