Plot Details: This opinion reveals minor details about the movie's plot.
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"Ninety nine dreams I have had
and every one a red balloon.
It's all over where I'm standing pretty
in this dust that was a city!"
99 Red Balloons- Nena *
"Threads" was a one-off BBC feature drama from the pen of Barry Hines, produced and directed by Mick Jackson, and shown in 1984. It is considered to be the most relevant British TV docu-drama of the 80's, alongside Alan Bleasdale's "Boys From the Blackstuff".
It's quite simple really- in 1980's Britain there were two major public concerns- Firstly there was the recession and industrial decline and the mass unemployment that went with it, and secondly was the Cold War between the superpowers and the threat of a nuclear strike that it spelt, which was a fear firmly lodged into the public consciousness. Whilst "Boys from the Blackstuff" tackled the unemployment issue, "Threads" tackled the other.
Karen Meagher .... Ruth Beckett
Reece Dinsdale .... Jimmy Kemp
David Brierly .... Mr. Kemp
Rita May .... Mrs. Kemp
Nicholas Lane .... Michael Kemp
Jane Hazlegrove .... Alison Kemp
Henry Moxon .... Mr. Beckett
June Broughton .... Mrs. Beckett
Sylvia Stoker .... Granny Beckett
Harry Beety .... Clive Sutton
Ruth Holden .... Marjorie Sutton
Ashley Barker .... Bob
Michael O'Hagan .... Chief Supt. Hirst
Paul Vaughan .... Narrator
"Threads" was a hypothetical portrayal of what would happen if Britain became devastated by such a nuclear war between the East and West. The action is contained to the city of Sheffield and focuses on two families- the Kemps and the Becketts who were about to be bridged by marriage between their respective eldest son Jimmy Kemp and daughter Ruth Beckett before the apocalypse hits, causing death and division to the two families.
There have indeed been many examples of presenting post-apocalypse society in TV and Cinema. In TV shows like Terry Nation's The Survivors, The Girl from Tomorrow and films like The Terminator, Mad Max and Planet of the Apes. But for my money "Threads" is the most explicit and stripped down take on the prospect of nuclear apocalypse. To call it hard hitting would be an understatement, it is devastating television, taking the viewer on a horrifying and tragic downward spiral to the very pits of despair. There are no tough guy heroes with the Mad Max-style robust punk survivor look or any science fiction plots, there are no mutants, zombies or killer robots to provide a metaphorical image of the nightmare scenario, only the very real nightmare of the situation- this is all harsh pragmatism in unpleasant naked detail.
The film begins with what can be seen as typical cliched domestic soap opera/kitchen sink drama material, with Jimmy -the eldest son of the Kemp family- getting his girlfriend Ruth pregnant and having his crabby parents come down hard on him for it. The drama goes on with reconciliation, an uncomfortable meeting between the couple's respective parents with an apparent class disparity between the families, plans of marriage and getting an apartment, some contemporary references to the recession and the poor prospects for the young couple raising a baby, while Jimmy is enticed by his workmate Bob to enjoy the few remaining nights of freedom and oats sewing with the eager lasses at the local pub. Yes this is heavily cliched stuff but that's kind of the point- this domestic material is the means by which we see the world and community at its most relateable and banal. It's a media tool with the advantages of familiarity and foundation, and its something that really does topple from its foundations when the nukes hit, with the most subversive and nightmarish effect from perverting the familiar.
It is also an underhanded way of showing that these are not special people, because it initially fools us into seeing them as soap opera role models who have been irresponsible and reckless with each other but who will eventually do the right thing, but when the death toll starts raising, we see that none of those noble characteristics is going to get them through this or make them magically infallible. It's just not that kind of film.
It's all perfectly appropriate to keep the domestic issues at the foreground, and having the TV news reports of growing tensions in the background along with the sound of overhead jets from the local RAF Base, which marks the city of Sheffield as a legitimate potential target, while occasionally interrupting with a bit of voice over narration and bytes of information typed over the screen. It's appropriate that the military engagements occurring in the Middle East between the Americans and the Russians are conveyed simply by typed information over a frame of a quiet daytime Sheffield street- because there is something surreal about living daily life in the knowledge of wars going on across the seas, whilst all that surrounds you is another ordinary day.
This push and pull of the mundane and the monumental all works wonderfully from the opening scene where the couple have driven out to the green Yorkshire outskirts and are soaking up the fresh air that's yet to become contaminated by fallout, through to Ruth's blatant moment of dramatic irony in her line about the family situation "It's not like it's the end of the world", through the moment in the pub where Jimmy starts watching the TV behind the counter indicating that the global situation is getting really serious now, and he starts getting worried but his friend Bob simply reminds him that there's nothing he can do about it except enjoy the days ahead even if they are his last, and then knocks back another pint of beer, and finally to the aftermath where the once hard nosed and emotionally cold parents are now reduced to tears in a truly heartbreaking moment.
The presentation is one of brisk scenes and edits taking us through the various locations and days of events within a few minutes- and this works because the narration and captions tell us all the information we need to know- the actual scenes don't need to introduce or educate us to anything, they are merely there to show the human side of the workings and the consequences. Even so it gives us quote a lengthy and prolongued amount of time within the safe domestic environment- it is over 45 minutes into the film before any bombs actually start dropping- drawing us carefully and intimately into the equilibrium before shattering it. This also sensibly portrays the slow stages of andante- of aggression and counter aggression that would eventually lead to nuclear war between the superpowers. The sharp editing also works in terms of presenting the aftermath of the bombing, which manages to cover thirteen years of struggle for the survivors to try and reconstruct their dead world, in a way that's brisk and juicy and yet vast and vivid enough to become truly lost in this piece of fiction. It also builds an unremittingly bleak atmosphere where moments of short lived hope are underfooted only a few minutes later by moments that plunge us right back into despair and putting more grease around the entombing well.
Please forgive the graphic nature of the following two paragraphs....
It goes without saying that the most powerful moment of the film is the actual atom bombing of Sheffield- a rather long and especially grisly sequence. The mushroom cloud hits and it immediately has a horrible appearance of dirty orange and black shadowing- a towering monstrosity. It just looks like some evil thing sent from hell to suck up the souls of all the people, and turn the dead and the living into empty shells. First there is the shattering shockwave over the whole citywide area and beyond, breaking windows and levelling buildings into rubble, and then comes the spontaneous and inescapable spread of fire. People and animals burning right in front of our eyes, corpses burnt down to the very skeleton which smoulders and cracks like charcoal, human bodies turned to puss and sometimes completely liquidised. A shocking image indeed that we are somewhat braced for by an earlier moment where a woman on the street got such a fright by her first sight of the mushroom cloud that she literally wets herself on the spot.
And the horror spectacle doesn't even end there. Among the survivors of the initial bombing, we see people, men and women alike with half of their face melted, with blood soaked bandages across their forehead, people literally coughing up their own blood and guts, and people who are physically unharmed but clearly deeply emotionally scarred by the events by their blank face and piercing vacant stare. I think, that those pitiable images of deformity and snapped sanity are particularly shocking and abnormal, particularly in this day and age of the media's heavy promotion of image consciousness, of perfect looks and intimate emotional facial expressions, portrayed close to perfection and given the close up treatment, and where no violence in an action or horror film ever dents the appealing physique of its heroes. One might say the ugly presentation dares to compromise our sympathy for these people, and maybe dares to provoke our snobbery, given how we're so used to poignancy in TV and cinema being a beautied up affair.
This is not sensationalism however, this is as accurate as a portrayal of nuclear devastation and radiation sickness ever gets. It is vivid and really lets you know what atomic war looks, feels, smells and tastes like, and for the life of me I don't think I've ever seen anything quite like it, except in my nightmares. It was a very well researched and accurate portrayal of all the various factors involved in a nuclear holocaust, from the emergency powers act to nuclear winter. As this is a docudrama rather than a typical film it does not focus on one dilemma, but instead delivers a long bullet pointed list of exactly how deeply in the sh*t we are with disease epidemics and hypothermia piled over the problem of fallout and starvation.
It is often said by older generation people that British Television was a lot more intelligent 20 years ago, and "Threads" could be considered a strong testament to that. Indeed in its day, "Threads" probably cut through a lot of the misconceptions and public ignorance about nuclear weapons, as it was intended to. It has to be remembered that when Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed back in 1945, a lot of people thought that the Atom bomb was just like any other bomb except with a larger blast radius, and in my History class I once looked at a few journalist photos taken in the ruins of Nagasaki only a few days after the bomb had hit- the journalist who took these photographs was clearly unaware of the deadly fallout that surrounded him. Although by the 80's public awareness had moved on considerably, there was still enough ignorance and misconception in the air to be able to sell the Protect and Survive manuals with their useless 'duck and cover' suggestions. Even more worrying to think back on is the war mongering politicians of the time who dared to suggest that it was actually possible to win a nuclear war.
Not only is the portrayal here of the nuclear holocaust astute and vivid and prolongued but it carries with it a wealth of pain and desperation that is insidious- it forces you to share in it. As Jimmy's father wanders aimlessly into a graveyard replete with fires still burning and he rests against a memorial monument, believing himself to be the only one of the family left alive, and knowing that he is dying himself and it's not as if he has anything left to live for anyway -an iconic image for this post apocalypse environment where the dead are left where they fall because there's not enough people to dispose of them, as well as for conveying the unspoken suggestion that the dead are the lucky ones who have at least been spared this nightmare. He clings with numb fingers to a full bottle of vodka as the only escape from this hell, and just starts drinking, and who can blame him?
Another scene which portrays this blend of cruel pragmatism and poignancy is where Ruth and a fellow survivor come across a dead sheep. It has been several weeks since the devastation hit and for the last few days they have had no luck finding any food. These are intelligent characters and they know the strongest likelihood is that the sheep is contaminated, but they also know that they have to risk eating it, since the only alternative is surely starving to death. So they take the dare. I think this is an especially British ideal of fiction that places a lot of emphasis on intelligence and mental stimulation, but when characters areconfronted with an immediate struggle for survival, they often have no time to think things through intelligently and have to rely merely on dare or die, blind choice- something that I feel has been prominent in Doctor Who and Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey . However I don't think survival had ever been portrayed in such an undignified way before, as we watch the two survivors in desperation, messily chomping away like hungry animals at every last bit of greasy flesh on the sheep's bones, and it makes a stark contrast to the earlier domestic scene of the family dinner where table manners are kept, just as much as the sight of survivors immediately spitting out their food because swallowing only emphasises the rancid metallic aftertaste of radiation sickness.
The early narrated moments of the film suggest that its central theme is about the structure of modern society and how the gluing elements that hold society together have a chokehold on the population that doesn't allow them to escape when a disaster like this strikes. It uses the city of Sheffield as an example since it is a particularly large and compact city. The fact that the NATO and RAF bases are within the city proximity makes it a likely target of Soviet attack. Added to this we are reminded that Britain as a country has a Trade agreement with America which prevents Britain from declaring neutrality in the conflict. Although the people receive advanced warning that the city could be at risk of a nuclear attack, the people who choose to evacuate are often blocked by police on the motorway in order to facilitate supply lanes into the city. The threat of the bomb leads to a public panic that sees the shops cleared of their food shelves, and the aftermath of the bomb sees the city cut off from any more food supplies. The same goes for electricity and medical supplies, and it's a ghastly sight to see the doctors and nurses having to operate on people without the use of anaesthetics, beyond giving the patient something to bite on. From there the film shows us sociologically regressing to a purely arable stage of development under a rather fascist/feudal rule.
But the issue of society imploding on itself is actually rather intermediate within the greater implication of what is basically man inflicting violence on nature and the consequences this will have for future generations. Anyone who ponders the cycle of life will know that nature is quite a miraculous thing in its ability to perpetually sustain us. Naturally warming us and providing us with the sustenance of plants and animals and a constantly recycled supply of air and water. But after the bombs fall, gradually but surely nature takes the brunt- the radiation makes the soil infertile and allows almost nothing to grow, the fallout and smoke covers the skies in cloud that blocks out the sun's rays, and even the air that we breathe becomes toxic. It is elements like this that make the film almost an eco-thriller, and when we see the survivors in agricultural labour camps trying to coax the soiled ground to give them just a little more food, it's a presentation of the sheer stupidity of man in forever ruining everything that mother nature has given them.
Of course if there is any kind of antagonist throughout all of this, then it is basically the people in power and the police and armies who serve their agendas. The unseen politicians and leaders on both sides of the Iron Curtain push belligerently for war against their respective enemy power bloc. Both sides are as bad as each other, and both sides believe the other side to be the belligerent ones. The public on the other hand have generally been protesting the manufacture and use of nuclear weapons and demanding that Britain declare itself neutral from the conflict between America and Russia. In typical fashion the authorities are not happy with this and send the riot police in to break it up, and police even visit the homes of protestors and arrest them for subversion. It is actually quite sad to see these common people making grand speeches of intelligence and rethinking the political world, to see this intellectually progressive potential for man before seeing mankind bombed back into the dark ages. People burn and melt and families die together and all we see is that the leaders of the world have done all this to us in such a cavalier way. They fight the war and we suffer the brunt of it.
But that's not all. In the aftermath of the war, a state of martial law is declared and the police and army are armed and sent in to round up the survivors for a workforce. The army appropriate food wherever they find it, taking it from the survivors. No-one is allowed to own food- they must earn it in the agricultural work camps, which means that the unskilled and exhausted will starve to death. Anyone seen looting the derelict areas is shot by the police and armies, and so are many of the leftover prisoners. This is the new fascism.
It was very common in 1980's British Television for comedy shows and gritty realism dramas to frequently demonise the police and authorities. You can see this particularly in "Not the Nine O'Clock News", "Boys From the Blackstuff", most of Alan Clarke's cinema and TV works "The Young Ones", "The Comic Strip Presents", and even the occasional episode of "The Goodies", all shows which see policemen often characterised as brutal, violent and racist. At the time the public had become aware of police violence against the public at political demonstrations and riots, and people had grown sick of being patronised by images on TV of positive and benevolent policemen throughout the 70's, which people saw as out-dated and widely out of step with reality, so by the 80's, British television had gone to the other extreme and were portraying unremittingly negative images of the police and authorities.
The difference here is that instead of being presented by mindless thugs in a uniform who will beat people up just for the sake of it, we see in the various policemen and government officials what are basically good people who have been compelled to do evil things by either orders from on high or the ruthless logic of pragmatism, and in that it makes this fascist state very believable. A very real portrayal of the authorities resorting to desperate measures. In keeping with the film's portrayal of what happens to social structure in such a disaster, we see the city-wide authority wielded by the ten men and women who are local government representatives, who were set up haphazardly in the basement of the town hall before the bombs dropped and have now become entombed there when the above ground falls. They communicate with the outside world by radio- co-ordinating information and giving orders. These are highly strung people who are inexperienced at dealing with this kind of catastrophe and they can never go home to their families and can never unwind. Bogged with information statistics about limited resources and 'dead zones', and denied the sight of the human side of this disaster, it makes sense that they would eventually feel a need to implement the most ruthless of solutions just to make the problem go away- shoot the prisoners, make the people work, abandon the dying to their fate- just like it makes sense that they would find it easier to live with their decisions if they didn't have to look at the dead and the dying.
In an unsettling way there is a reasoning behind the new fascist order that commits these evil acts on its people for the sake of a greater good. A dictatorship might be the only thing that can hold a devastated society together. Whilst the population has shrunk massively, there is still not enough food for everyone, so it makes sense not to waste food on the dying, and that without forced agricultural labour we have no future, and that the more prisoners and looters that are shot and the more people who die of food deprivation, the longer the current food supplies will last for the rest. For us that is horrifying- to reduce human lives to expendable surplus, to bring more death on a society that has already suffered too much, and to no longer sustain the dying for as long as possible, because to us everyone has the right to live to their last moment. But I think in an exotically desperate situation like this, it would be rather unfair to cast judgement.
The production values of this film are very successful for its BBC budget. The whole look and atmosphere of the ruins is very convincing indeed, and feels epic and vast and inescapeable. Director Mick Jackson fits some subtle imagery into the visuals that emphasise the undercurrent themes of forces of nature and maternalism- whether it be a scene set in an aviary, a protest march outside the Mothercare store with 'babies not bombs' written on picket signs, blurring the lines between morning sickness and radiation sickness or a choice shot in the graveyard scene of a statue of the virgin Mary. The unpredictable editing that takes us from one location or date to another very quickly gives the film a subversive quality, slightly schizophrenic and with a tendency to cut away just as one of the Kemps or Becketts discovers the dead body of a relative of theirs and we don't get to absorb their reaction. It plays curiously on the surreal early stages of emotional denial when confronted with the death of someone close, and it gives the whole film a disorientating feel of muted horror- like being in a nightmare where you're unable to scream. The film as a whole is one of the most terrifying I've ever seen- easily more scary than The Evil Dead or The Omen, though perhaps not as scary as Ringu.
The performances are marvellous and very natural. In the early scenes of the domestics they underplay the drama well without any element of melodrama and they give it an appropriate sense of buoyancy that allows the characters to remain at ease and confident before the atomic bomb crushes their spirits. The actors involved really do look like common people without any glossing up and they are aided with the kind of script that is well tuned to the Northern dialect and slang jargon which is articulated well without drawing attention to itself. The main acting chops go to Karen Meagher as Ruth. She handles the subtle and the grand acting equally well, from saying everything with a look, to doing the more teary scenes where she positively gushes with pathos and manages to convey emotions insidiously so we share in her mourning or her hysterical laughter of relief when hope occasionally shines its light. There's one scene involving child actors playing looters who are having a territorial face off with sticks, which fails to convince. Also breaking the spell of realism is some early rioting scenes that are clearly using some stock footage but that is small potatoes really.
It would be easy enough for the film to fall short when it comes to the ending. Having the city devastated by a nuclear explosion within the first fifty minutes makes it pretty impossible to create the kind of climax that could overshadow it; given the descending nature of the film's bleakness, a happy ending of any kind would be out of the question; and it would seem that loose ends could not be tied up by the end given how from beginning to end the story and its environment has become so overturned and subverted beyond recognition from the familiar domestic to the exotic post-nuclear ruins where not only is the environment alien but the people within it are alien too- a generation of mentally and emotionally stunted youth. However despite which, and despite the schizophrenic and cosmopolitan style of the film's narrative, the closing moments of the film convey a clarity about what the film has actually been about all along, and resolves it with full closure. I won't say how, you'll just have to see it for yourself.
This is an incredible film. I have rarely if ever seen anything quite as effective as "Threads". This is basically a brand of docu-drama/horror TV and Cinema in which there is no way out, and it is the kind of cinema and TV that just doesn't get made anymore. This film paints a picture so hellish and so perpetual that it really does portray death as a relief, and whilst I'm no stranger to films with that 'better off dead' message, it is the first time I've actually believed it, since I personally hold the life we have to be sacred and worth living, no matter what misfortune or torture we suffer- that there's no such thing as being better off dead- this is a film which for a moment shook my beliefs with its sheer involving vividness. There is no higher praise I can give of a film as to say that watching it made me forget half way through I was watching a film, and despite the above mentioned hiccups in the reality, that is what this film did. I don't recall at what point I actually started believing what I was seeing, but after the film ended I actually looked outside my bedroom window just to reassure myself that the street was still there and the world as I knew it was still standing (actually I did this on the first and second time I watched it). It is because the film is presented as a documentary style drama and absolutely treats the hypothetical fiction like facts, and because there is no incidental music to intrude on the effect that it works (although if the film makers ever had a band in mind to do a soundtrack to this, it damn well better have been Ultravox).
When I spoke on message boards about this film with older people who remembered the first time it was shown back in '84, they often described it as being 'too depressing' which garnered a gut reaction from me as to argue that on the contrary this is the kind of parallel universe film, along with Michael Radford's 1984 that if anything makes me feel relieved and reassured that none of this has happened and it makes me appreciate nature and the world that we live in. Of course the film does highlight the magnitude of the nuclear threat, and how truly powerless the public are at stopping the government from going to war. It also allows a voice of hope to be heard in a scene where one of the war protestors points out how unlikely it is that any imperialist power like the Soviet Union would use nuclear weapons for conquest, because all they'd be conquering is a corpse of a country.
In this day and age, even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the nuclear threat is still there, and is perhaps more volatile today than it ever was during the Cold War. In the Cold War years there were still efforts being made at diplomacy, our enemy was irreligious Communism rather than the Islamic extremism of nutters who don't care if they bring about the end of the world as long as they're going to Allah, and most importantly in the Cold War years, throughout the changing leaderships on both sides, it always seemed that one side was less belligerent than the other and was more driven towards peace and a detante of tensions, but now it's the clash of fundamentalists between Al Quaeida and the West, with both sides exhibiting a terrifying belligerence and upsetting and inciting virtually everyone. I wouldn't say that "Threads" is a fear-mongering piece of Cold War Television, but is in-fact something that poetically exorcises our fears by presenting us in full dimensions with the hypothetical horrors we've probably all dreamed about at some time. And in that it is a film that needs to be seen.
* from the album Nena- 99 Luftballons, review here
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Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: Better than Watching TV
Suitability For Children: Not suitable for Children of any age