By the 1980s, we’d become so blasé about nuclear war, it barely seemed to matter anymore. It was coming, we all assured ourselves, and there was bugger all we could do about it, so best let the head-bangers just get on with it, an attitude summed up perfectly by Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s era-defining, Reagan-baiting slab of doom disco, “Two Tribes”. While we waited helplessly for oblivion, we entertained ourselves with visions of the sort of post-nuclear society that might emerge as a result of our leaders’ hubristic willy-waving: Mad Max, Blade Runner, The Terminator and similarly optimistic fare. It was a great time for movies; it was just a damn shame nobody would be around to remember them in thirty years’ time.
Not everybody was so relaxed however; I was utterly petrified. Part of the problem was that, close to where I grew up, there was a thirty foot pole, standing casually on a corner like it was any other piece of street furniture, atop which sat an air-raid siren. I used to regard this pole and the strange brick-red object at its summit with morbid fascination and not a little dread. To my younger self, the siren was a more potent reminder of the horror and futility of nuclear war than any amount of “Protect and Survive” public information films could ever hope to match. It just stood there in imposing silence, mute but always threatening. Not quite mute actually, because it was tested from time to time, and it was bloody loud. Which, I imagine, was the point.
Threads emerged in the midst of a glut of films and television dramas with a strong anti-nuclear message that appeared during the mid-1980s. Just a year previously, ABC’s The Day After – to which Threads is often compared – caused a stir on both sides of the Atlantic, while in February 1984, a few months prior toThreads, the BBC transmitted its adaptation of Robert C. O’Brien’s classic post-apocalyptic novel Z for Zachariah as part of its Play For Today strand. A year or so after Threads, just when we were beginning to cheer up a little, an animated adaptation of Raymond Briggs’ bleak graphic novel When the Wind Blows appeared and brought us all down again. Through the prism of time, we see the 1980s as a decade of hedonism, conspicuous consumption and fashions that fiercely pitted bold, intrusive fluorescent colours against more restrained pastels and paisley (often in the same ensemble, as ably demonstrated by Colin Baker’s outfit inDoctor Who). But, underneath the self-deluding, self-confident bluster, these were anxious times. Sometimes it would all get too much for me and I’d escape into videogames, some of which had gung-ho titles like Raid Over Moscow, Green Beret and Rush ‘n’ Attack. (So, not really much of an escape at all. But at least it kept me away from the telly. I mean, that was some really scary shit.)
When Threads has been repeated on television since, it has often been shown alongside The War Game, another BBC drama-doc which, although made in 1965, wasn’t actually shown on TV until 1985 because the government of the day considered it to be too pessimistic and, worried that it might have a detrimental effect on the population’s mental health (not to mention public opinion regarding nuclear arms), quietly persuaded the BBC not to show it. Although it was transmitted in other countries, and was occasionally shown in British cinemas, The War Game was effectively banned from British television for twenty years. By the time it had been deemed suitable for broadcast, it was so hilariously out of date, it was little more than an historic TV curio. But it is still interesting to watch, simply to see the dramatic change in attitudes between the mid-60s and the mid-80s.
The War Game, as bleak is it was, was positively optimistic compared to Threads. The War Game was built largely on the supposition – promoted and encouraged by successive British governments and their benevolent allies across the pond – that some semblance of “normal” life, albeit limited, could go on; government, the police, and the whole civic machine would, somehow, continue to tick over. But then in 1965, World War II was still fresh in the mind, and British people still imagined that the old blitz spirit could get them through anything. The War Game is almost cosy, despite being in its own way quite horrific. Threads carries a much more stark and frightening message. Not only does it dramatize the events leading up to and immediately following a nuclear attack, but it also projects the likely consequences up to a decade-and-a-half later, made all the more chilling by the matter-of-fact tones of the dispassionate narrator, who coldly relays a succession of gloomy statistics, all of which were thoroughly researched by Mick Jackson, who sought the opinions and predictions of a number of academics and social commentators before shooting began.
It is relentlessly bleak viewing, and really has only one message: there is no hope. Death is seen as preferable to survival, as those who survive merely exist in a living hell. With currency worthless, no fuel or power available and any semblance of a cohesive society extinguished, the unlucky survivors revert to an almost medieval lifestyle, working for food in a full-on Darwinian dystopia. It’s hard-hitting stuff, and knowingly employs the fear factor, but in a very restrained, low-key way, helped considerably by the frugal BBC production values, which if anything make Threads all the more horrifying and realistic. When you compare it with its big-budget American counterpart, The Day After, there really is no contest as to which one gets the message across more effectively. In this case, the gloss of The Day After takes away some of its impact, whereas the grainy, often badly-lit, cornflakes-and-ketchup approach of Threads gives it a more naturalistic, believable look.
It is through its distortion of the familiar that Threads really gets its message across. Although it was inevitably dismissed in some quarters as alarmist left-wing propaganda, it really is more subtle than that. If Threads had merely been propaganda, its message would have been diluted and simplified by the need to be spectacular. Propaganda relies largely on promoting the familiar in order to make the alien seem more, well, alien. Threads works almost in reverse. In projecting the likely consequences for the survivors, from the more obvious things like fall-out, nuclear winter and strictly-enforced martial law, to showing pathetic pockets of near-feral survivors a decade down the line trying to grow food in contaminated soil and communicating in a truncated dialect, all traces of personality long gone, it inevitably leads the viewer to question their own stance and place themselves in the position of the survivors. Suddenly, instantaneous vaporisation doesn’t seem quite so bad a fate after all.
It’s funny, but before I saw Threads, I never really thought about nuclear war in any serious way. Afterwards, I thought about little else. It wasn’t so much the actual threat that scared me, it was more the realization that my fate was in the hands of unhinged people like Thatcher and Reagan which, as scary thoughts go, is enough to keep you on the toilet for weeks. While I wouldn’t exactly call it a political awakening (I was only twelve, for heaven’s sake), I did at least begin paying attention to what was going on in the wider world: things I frequently saw on the news, like CND marches or the Greenham Common protesters, finally began to make some sort of sense to me. I also began to see that the media was being less-than-honest in its routine depiction of such people – people whose only crime was to care enough about something to take to the streets in protest – as middle-class hippies with too much time on their hands. It planted a seed in me, one of cynicism and distrust towards any kind of authority or power, particularly politicians and those who promote them and their strange ideas.
Back in 1984, as a piece of controversial, in-your-face, scare-the-living-crap-out-of-you drama, Threads succeeded brilliantly, not only because it relayed its message simply, clearly and without hyperbole, but also because it genuinely made people think, and anything that makes people think can only be a good thing. Post-Threads, those who were ambivalent about nuclear weapons, or even might have found themselves being seduced by that nice Mr Reagan’s claim that a limited nuclear war was not only possible, but somehow “winnable”, began to actually pay attention to what was, at the time, an important worldwide issue. That doesn’t mean that everyone who saw Threads suddenly turned into an ardent CND evangelist, that would be silly. But it did perhaps succeed in persuading people who had previously not given the issue much thought that there was a lot more to surviving nuclear war than simply avoiding the bombs.