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Movie Review: Threads (1984, Jackson)

A film in keeping with THE THING’s relentless nihilism, Mick Jackson and Barry Hines THREADS is perhaps the bleakest and most harrowing piece of TV ever commissioned by the BBC. Hines is best known for the wonderful KES, a screenplay he adapted from his own novel ‘A Kestrel For A Knave’, and it is his utterly genuine portrayal of working class Northern England that gives THREADS its emotional power. 

THREADS is a drama-cum-documentary detailing a speculative apocalyptic scenario in the city of Sheffield. Opening with typical kitchen sink Britishness unfolding under the shadow of escalating tensions in the Middle East, things get serious when an exchange of fire between American and Russian troops results in the whole of Europe being annihilated in a huge barrage of nuclear weapons. 

What follows is an hour of the most difficult to watch TV ever made. Beginning with the initial blast and its burnt, mangled victims, THREADS charts in detail the futile struggles of radiation sickened survivors for the next 15 years. From the brutal shooting of looters to the out-of-their-depth citizen council appointed to distribute food and aid to the surrounding area, Jackson offers viewers absolutely no hope for mankind.

What separates THREADS from other apocalyptic dramas such as THE DAY AFTER and ON THE BEACH are its all too frighteningly real documentary scenes. Paul Vaughan had one of the most recognizable voices in 80s British TV due to his work on the BBC’s flagship science program Horizon, and his choice as narrator lends these chilling and sombre scenes the utmost credibility.

When Vaughan isn’t narrating, the documentary scenes make use of computer generated text overlaying genuine disaster photography. These sections are totally silent, Jackson letting the words do all the talking. The text relays a mix of information and statistics, providing the difficult truth behind the ongoing family drama the narrative portions follow during the post-apocalyptic period.

The incredible hardship faced by the small group of survivors (and later their children) on whom the story focuses is brought sharply into focus during these moments: this is being experienced by millions of UK inhabitants. The text states deaths within a year of at least seventeen million, with nowhere left unscathed. At that’s just the UK, the nuclear conflict affected at least the rest of Europe.

One of the most interesting elements of the film is the ignorance displayed by the working class Sheffield residents we are introduced to in the first half hour. Reports about the mounting tension in Iran are ever-present throughout this portion, but they are rarely if ever acknowledged by those present. The radio will be warning of trouble ahead while a family are arguing over dinner.

This is perhaps the most cautionary note Jackson strikes; that vague, shapeless fears (terrorism, the spread of Islam) tend to be widely prevalent, and tend to disguise the truth.

There were the Government issue pamphlets which feature prominently in the film, and advice on the radio about building shelters, but nuclear war remained a nebulous fear that people on the whole seemed too preoccupied to think about. It is of vital importance that THREADS never shows us any of the people involved in the war itself. These decision makers are faceless and therefore blameless; it is the weapons themselves that are the true villain of the piece. How could feeble man ever hope to control such power?

The citizen council is the closest thing to authority we see

The cold, believable documentary portions tell a terrifying story of their own, but Barry Hines’ authentic and heartbreaking script (done justice by the largely amateur cast) shows us the human element of this tragedy with tortured clarity. Jackson’s filmmaking is versatile enough to manage the two different styles admirably, meshing shots where the camera is literally bumping shoulders with survivors in a line waiting to be housed with some gorgeously composed wide angled images of moorland frozen in a nuclear winter.

It is the juxtaposition of these disparate elements that make THREADS so successful, and so frightening. Along with THE DAY AFTER and 1988’s animated WHEN THE WIND BLOWS, it stands as one of the best anti-nuclear statements on film.

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