The post-apocalyptic aftermath of nuclear war devastates Sheffield, England in “Threads”

By on August 9, 2019

Everyday life in the industrial working class city of Sheffield, England, is devastated by the outbreak of nuclear war and its appalling post-apocalyptic aftermath in director Mick Jackson’s unrelentingly bleak Threads, a television docudrama made specifically for the BBC, who aired it to shocked and stunned tens of millions of UK viewers in September of 1984.

Watch Threads — one of the films collected in our Severin Films section — on Night Flight Plus.

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Threads — which the UK’s Guardian called “the most terrifying and honest portrayal of nuclear war ever filmed” — imagines a fictionalized scenario taking place in the summer of 1984.

The conflict between the Soviet Union, Iran, the United States, Great Britain escalates into the unimaginable holocaust of World War III after the Soviets drop several nuclear-tipped ICBMs on England.

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Two of the bombs hit Sheffield, a city in the county of South Yorkshire, located in the centrally-located heart of the country, annihilating most of its inhabitants (Threads was filmed entirely on location in Sheffield, and many citizens took part in the film as extras).

Sheffield was chosen by the producers of the film because it is home to a major R.A.F. base, as well as representing the communications nerve center of the country and a major city that wasn’t London, the county’s capital.

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The title — the original working title was Beyond Armageddon – considers how the fabric of society could unravel if the various individual threads holding it all together were to be tested for strength.

The film begins with Jackson showing us an intricate spider’s web, obviously a metaphor for just how tenuous everything in life really is.

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In particular, we see how this wholly-unexpected act of violence against one country is seen through the eyes of two middle class families.

“Ruth Beckett” (Karen Meagher) and “Jimmy Kemp” (Reece Dinsdale) are in the midst of planning upcoming marriage, dealing with her unexpected pregnancy and what will be the birth of their first child.

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During the film, they struggle with the lack of electricity, not to mention lack of food and clean water (they’re forced to eat tainted meats and drink radioactive water).

Whether or not they will survive this ordeal is based on how they react to everything that happens to them.

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The nuclear attack arrives about midway into the film, with the second hour devoted to showing the very slow decline of civilization dealing with medical, economic, social and environmental consequences of the nuclear fallout.

Jackson uses captions onscreen to mark the passage of time over a thirteen-year period, as well as visually showing what we now know are the permanent climate changes caused by “nuclear winter.”

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By the end of this darkly dramatic story, we see how society returns to a medieval state just thirteen years after the bomb is dropped, with families torn apart despite the best efforts of everyone to remain a cohesive whole.

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Threads aired for the first time on BBC2 in 1984, nearly a full year after two similarly-themed made-for-TV movies first aired in the U.S. The Day After had premiered on ABC two weeks after Testament had been produced for PBS but given theatrical distribution in November 1983.

Four months after its initial UK airing, Threads was given its own U.S. premiere on the TBS, heavily promoted by cable mogul Ted Turner, becoming the most-watched basic cable TV program in history up to that point.

Read more about Threads below (featured photo illustration comes from here).

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Mick Jackson

Mick Jackson — wanting to make a film that reflected what he felt was the pessimism and hopelessness of the mid-Eighties during the Cold War — personally requested that politically-aware novelist/playwright Barry Hines write a teleplay about a bomb being dropped on Sheffield and its horrid aftermath.

At the time, Ronald Reagan’s and Margaret Thatcher’s Cold War policies against the Soviet Union were already beginning to unravel many of the threads of Britain’s liberal post-war consensus.

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During his research, Hines attended an official survivors’ center in Easingwold, Yorkshire, England, where participants rehearsed their various exercises in such an orderly fashion that Hines has said he was put off by what he saw.

Hines imagined, instead, that the true result would be utter chaos and confusion as the citizenry tries to continue living in what has become an awful barren, radioactive homeland.

Jackson and Hines also consulted scientists like Carl Sagan (he’s acknowledged in the end credits), who informed them that certainly one of the major cumulative effects of nukes being dropped on Sheffield would be all of the massive fires burning out of control.

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They learned that the smoke from the fires would lower the temperature over the land masses so drastically that a widespread period of frost would be the result.

The immediate effect, however, would be such that the summery countryside of England would be reduced to a wasteland while the climate is permanently changed by the radical drop in temperature forever.

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It’s significant to note that Threads was first aired nearly twenty years after the BBC had previously decided not to air Peter Watkin’s docudrama The War Game, a similarly-themed film about a nuclear attack, at the time citing their fears that viewers would be so frightened by Watkins’ film that they would commit suicide.

The success of Threads — ultimately nominated for seven BAFTA Awards — led to the first televised screening of The War Game a year later, in 1985.

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Watch Threads and other excellent titles from our friends at Severin Films on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.