Apart from being a slang term for clothing, 'Threads' was also a film about nuclear war by the BBC, broadcast in 1984 at the height of the cold war freeze that took place roughly from 1978-1986. It rode a wave of similar efforts - 'When the Wind Blows', 'The Day After' and 'Trinity' in particular - but was considerably grimmer, almost to the point of parody. Its central thesis was that society is held together by a complex web of 'threads' which can only survive so much punishment before society falls apart - the old adage that society is only a few missed meals away from anarchy. The programme was produced and directed by Mick Jackson (then famous for James Burke's 'Connections', later to direct 'A Very British Coup'), and written by Barry Hines, author of 'Kes'. The programme started off as a soap opera, following a family as they bought a new home. But, as ominous news broadcasts move from the background of the frame to the foreground, the programme took a turn for the worse, killing off most of the main cast, and indeed many other people besides.

Set in Sheffield, which at the time was Britain's industrial heartland, and home of The Human League, Cabaret Voltaire and many other gloomy electronic bands, it used a semi-documentary approach to illustrate the effects of an all-out NATO/Warsaw Pact nuclear war, from a few days before the initial strikes to ten years afterwards. It used the contemporary theory of nuclear winter and held a bleak outlook for the long-term future of humanity. Viewed in 2001 it is noteworthy that the post-apocalyptic England portrayed in the latter half of the film resembles modern-day Somalia, albeit with a stripped ozone layer taking the place of armed gangs. Threads' power, therefore, comes not so much from its portrayal of degredation - people shooting looters, eating rats and cradling dead babies seems no more extreme to viewers in the UK than the imagined conditions in most American inner cities - but from the portrayal of loss; the end of the English cuppa, cricket on the green, warm beer, John Major's England, and of science and technology and culture, albeit that these things did not save us.

'Threads' depicts a war precipitated by a Soviet invasion of Iran, the programme assuming a Soviet victory in Afghanistan; the US responds with troops, but everything escalates, and eventually 'Airstrip One' is attacked. Mick Jackson and Barry Hines were rabid lefties of a type the BBC continues to harbour, and unsurprisingly the film takes great care to hide its politics. At the time the Labour Party had adopted unilateral nuclear disarmament as a central plank of its manifesto, and in 1984 the thought that Britain might pay for the folly of the Yanks was potent amongst the Left. Threads' initial nuclear strike - the thing that most people, if they were being honest, watched the programme for - was aimed at RAF Finningley, which closed in 1996.

Despite some poor special effects, the programme was gritty and authentic in a way which British television used to get right. It gave schoolchildren nightmares for years afterwards, and was a potent CND recruiting tool. At the time the critical reaction was a mixture of admiration for its bravery, and dismay at its unrelenting and demoralising portrait of national collapse. Peter Hennessy's recent book 'The Secret State' revealed that the reality was bleaker even than 'Threads'; given the prevailing winds, a dozen h-bombs detonated along England's west coast would have rendered the entire nation uninhabitable for centuries.

Key images of the film included stillborn, mutated babies; amputations carried out with hacksaws; looters being herded by armed traffic warndens; melting milk bottles; 'Action After Warnings', one of the government's horrifyingly banal 'Protect and Survive' films; and general death, blood, despair and grimness, just the thing to cheer up a nation still emerging from recession and high unemployment. 'Johnny B. Goode' provided counterpoint at key moments.

The film was repeated in 1985 and thereafter spent a decade and a half as a nightmarish memory. It was re-released on VHS and DVD in 2000, and has developed a small cult following of late-twentysomething Britons who remember it from the first time around. Writing this in July 2001 the possibility of 'Threads' having any continued relevance to reality seemed remote; Russia owed us a lot of money and the other nuclear-armed states were on our side. All was well with the world, in July 2001.

I watched this film only recently. It was on my list of "to find and watch" movies, but I only got around to the finding part while looking for the film of Nineteen Eighty-Four on SuprNova. Having found Threads but not said film amongst the search results, I snapped it up regardless, being too cheap to pay for it and too lazy to earn the money to buy it.

I really wish I hadn't now.

I've always been somewhat a pacifist and an anti-nuclear person (I was about to say activist but then I'm hardly doing much that's active about it, besides being concerned) but referred to nukes in jest. I'd go, in general conversation "Just nuke fucking $person", to express my dissatisfaction with $person, usually a celebrity. From most of the media I had seen (aside from Greenpeace's stuff, which was too busy scaring me shitless with delightful images of mutated babies) nuclear war would be easy: drop bomb, people vaporised, fallout settles, cancer spreads, area returns to normal after a few years. Wham, bam, thank you ma'am.

Well, (and you probably saw this sentence coming a mile off, like a big cliche train which you're standing directly in front of waving a green light around) not any more. Threads, rather than viewing nuclear annihilation as a task carried out by governments and shown from their perspective, takes a more personal view, meaning we get to see the total and utter obliteration of society from the viewpoint of normal people-i.e, not people who have an underground bunker to piss off to whenever the situation calls for it. Everything is shown, regardless of how disturbing, frightening or dangerous to mental health. We get it all: melting milk bottles, glass rushing out of window frames like water, something that looks like a meerkat (On reviewing I think it's just a cat. I don't generally revel in the watching of a melting animal, so to all intents and purposes, it be a meerkat. Yes, a meerkat. In Sheffield. Yes) being burnt away, all under the shadow of fiery nuclear death. Cheerful television, it ain't.

I'm not going to fault the technical quality of the programme (after all, it was made in the 80s, and even so it's pretty damn impressive). The film crew reportedly ran into problems as they detonated a (probably fucking huge, judging by the shot we get of it) smoke bomb to produce a mushroom cloud, producing much panic for local residents, but I'm not quite sure how they managed to wangle melting milk bottles (the windows are probably easy to do, just get a window frame and pour water down it, job done).

At this point I'm rewatching the explosion bit to transcribe it for the writeup. My mental health is depleted anyway, one more bit of mind eroding suffering won't hurt. Ouch, everyone's now running away, and they're lowering some old woman into a cellar, and there's an old couple frantically building a fallout shelter from some doors...all is in chaos...and now...here it goes...ouch. Oops. Fuck. I reeeeeally wish I hadn't seen that.Woolworths collapses. BHS collapses. Part of the Government fallout collapses. Then we get a fun statistic - "Total exchange, three gigatons". How nice. What a nice nice nice nice film. Oh look, a burning hand, and a burning face. Lovely. Pass the sick bucket, please, and tell those utter, utter bastards at the BBC that I want my sanity back.

It is this display of graphic imagery that led to it only ever being shown on world television three times in 20 years. Its last showing was last year, on a channel than practically nobody watches (and it's a good thing too, for reasons I'll come to shortly). Any attempt to show it on any mainstream channel (i.e BBC One, on which it was originally screened) would probably result in a few thousand complaints to Ofcom (Note to our (mostly) friends across the Pond: Ofcom are our televisions regulators, like the FCC but less easily offended by the sounds of things). Its legacy on its first showing was insane: schoolchildren around the country were, understandably, scared witless. The Cold War was still going on, They Of The Hammer and the Sickle were still more or less up and running, and the threat of a fiery nuclear doom was very, very real-a programme depicting, in accurate detail, just how terrible such a state of affairs would be is not going to be welcome. It's probably the realism that made it so distressing: it was backed up by a lot of consultants, most of which carried the PhD Mark of Cain and did nothing to reassure the viewer that this was fiction.

I don't know. All I know is that if I ever watch this film again, it will be in the company of a bottle of Jack Daniels and a large heavy object to lob at whatever form of media I am watching it from. It is a truly horrid film to watch, engrossing but still horrid and not pleasurable by any stretch of the imagination.

That doesn't stop it from being fucking brilliant though.
Some links: here is an extremely irritating review by an American who obviously thinks it would be better done by the cast of Beverley Hills 90210. AP above was hiding a secret on his web server, an absolutely stonking page on the film, at http://www.ashleypomeroy.com/threads.html. Finally, there's a good page at http://www.geocities.com/godforgnomes/Threads with screenshots and links to DVDs and videos at Amazon, if you choose to subject yourself to what is, in effect, filmic Chinese water torture.

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