Written by Barry Hines
Directed by Mick Jackson
If you’ve spent any amount of time perusing YouTube for the 1970s/80s British Public Service Announcements, then you know they are some of the most horrific content produced for television. They are unflinchingly direct and severe in how they communicate warnings. It was that this sense of not holding information back that led to the BBC commissioning the filming of Threads. Mick Jackson had done a short film about Armageddon and the result of a nuclear war a couple of years earlier, but the BBC wanted a full-length feature to air on their network.
Threads centers around the British industrial city of Sheffield, specifically Ruth and Jack, two young people dealing with an unplanned pregnancy. Through their eyes and their families, we see the story with cuts to Sheffield’s city leaders who are part of the regional government plan in case of a nuclear disaster. The first third of the picture is “slice of life” content, seeing these people as they work and live. Always in the background, ignored by most are news reports of an increasingly dangerous conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union in Iran. Once the weight of the news really hits, and people start to see the military mobilizing while resources are locked up behind secured walls.
Then the first bomb hits, and things descend into complete chaos. Director Jackson barely holds back, showing the real horror of what a nuclear attack would look like. You get the evident sense that if the bomb dropped, you basically don’t have a chance. People look towards the sound and are instantly blinded. Anyone on the street is roasted alive. Even people in their homes aren’t protected if they didn’t prepare a fallout room in advance. Those people don’t die instantly. Instead, they suffer radiation burns and sickness, slowly rotting away over weeks.
What is even more damning is how quickly the regional government collapses. They lose contact with a more significant county hub and become stuck in their basement headquarters after a cave-in. The pressure of trying to build back some modicum of society while trapped in a hole causes the infighting to explode between them all. Problems arise in the ventilation system that takes a chunk of the government to spend their day trying to clear the blockage. Food supplies dwindle. This leaves the police and military to violently defend resources from those who survived or barely survived.
The horror worsens as Jackson lets the timeline move on from this point, showing England’s decline into an eventual return to medieval feudalism after a couple of decades post-attack. This is compounded by a nuclear winter followed by ultraviolet blasts from above when the clouds finally clear years later. The soil is in poor condition and so the crops that can be harvested yield very little. At one point, two characters discover a dead sheep and wonder if it is contaminated. That doesn’t last long before they tear into it and begin eating the raw meat straight from the animal’s belly like a couple of wolves.
Threads was an exhaustively researched film, intended to give the most accurate picture of what a post-nuclear attack British society would resemble. It’s framed in a very neutral documentary fashion with very pointed moments where emotion is allowed to take over. We watch infrastructure quickly decline, which leads to the absence of any sort of formalized education so that the very next generation is born and grows up with a highly degraded sense of language and communication. Existence is centered around the very basic tenets of survival, and so people behave closer to animals than anything considered “civilized.” Any idea of what is happening outside of the region evaporates with the bomb as communication is completely cut off. So these people now live a shrinking society, thrown back a millennia. This is a type of picture we don’t get very often, a sobering honest piece of art that refuses to soften the blow. It’s a dark reminder of how perilously our world floats in the universe and how quickly every comfort and happiness can be taken away.