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.