Twenty eight years after its broadcast, this grimy, grainy, BBC production has yet to be eclipsed as one of the most grueling viewing experiences made for mainstream television.
A fervent and unforgiving anti-nuclear film, Threads was Britain 's equivalent to The Day After (1984), the American TV movie that similarly dealt with the survivors of a nuclear blast after the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. lost their cool and sent nuclear payloads to targeted cities.
Written by Barry Hines, Threads has three simple acts: normalcy before the blast, the blast itself, and an increasingly anthropological chronology of a post-nuclear Britain as its transformed into one of those pathetic post-apocalyptic societies from pulpy seventies sci-fi films.
In the first scenes we have families, language, societal interaction, people with a daily sense of purpose, and love; by the end of Threads, the world of Sheffield has been reduced to a sepia impression of what a city used to be, minus an educated populace, a rich language, and a reason to exist.
People are neo primates wearing rags of a world long dead, and with the older population practically dead, the knowledge archive of humanity is evaporating, leaving hardly anyone who one will remember how to rebuild the world using the skills and technology that made food grow against natural pestilence, heal using the miracles of medicine, and rebuild an industrial infrastructure so the vestiges of humanity no longer live in burnt-out shells of decaying buildings.
It's the most nihilistic depiction of life after the bomb, and it will probably continue to be a topical work because it's not really country specific. Like Peter Watkins' The War Game (1965), Threads draws from government policies on surviving a bomb attack, as well as real scientific data that plainly states how the physical environment and its living creatures (like us) would die, suffer, or survive in dribs and drabs, leaving a populace going back to Middle Ages density.
Watkins' War Game is a heavy influence on the film's style and tone because, while it does focus on a roughly drawn set of characters – not quite archetypes, but functional everymen and everywomen from recognizable positions in a city's social stratum – it follows Watkins' same three acts, but extends the post-bomb blast section and follows the rapid disintegration of Britain as its civilization is reduced to a sick, starving, dying, fighting, filthy race who will never see the pre-1984 world ever again. It's been obliterated for good, and writer Barry Hines just piles on the crude indignities to illustrate how a self-inflicted bullet in the head is more preferable than enduring 15 years of blight before the sun returns and a whole new set of horrors have to be met.
Director Mick Jackson (A Very British Coup) and writer Hines raised the benchmark in the British Bleak sub-genre by maintaining a straight, unwavering eye on bloody, bile-drenched minutia, and offering no hope for any character, as well as drawing on Watkins' prior research and dramatized scenes.
What's starkly ironic is how Threads is far bloodier and more traumatic (not to mention twice as long) than The War Game. What Watkins was forced to allude to, Jackson filmed. Elements trimmed by Watkins to appease a frightened BBC back in 1965 were shot in colour by Jackson, and given more screen time: cutaways to burning bodies, dying cats, and vomiting victims are basically abstract visuals and sonics that linger just long enough for viewer reactions to progress from curiosity to horrifying shock, but the traumas don't linger because the context of these images are tied to the more potent reactions of the wandering, puking survivors, and whether the world they stuck in will ever become a livable shadow of the past.
By drawing from The War Game , Jackson and Hines perhaps freed Watkins' film from oblivion, because Threads is a far bloodier production, making the BBC's original ban on Watkins' film redundant. A year after Threads was broadcast, the twenty year ban on The War Game ended, and Watkins' film was finally seen on TV, although there remains a clear difference in tone between the two dramas.
Threads builds on present-day conflicts, and Hines has the two super-powers battling over oil resources in Iran; in The War Game, Watkins uses the East-West standoff in Berlin to ignite nuclear aggression.
Watkins' tone was more acidic: government rhetoric and disinformation were contrasted by dramatizations of what scientists felt would happen to people from every walk of life; the focus, as is common to Watkins' work, was on ordinary people wrecked by governmental idiocies. Hines and Jackson aren't so overtly critical and political: the nuclear war happens because of existing frictions, and England , as an ally, is dragged into the mess because of U.S. bases near Sheffield and its own massive need for oil.
What's striking about Threads is how the Middle East is the new ‘ Berlin ' because of its oil resources, and not because of ideological or religious extremism. The filmmakers' explanation for the pre-existing crisis is a bit muddy (most of the news reports are hunks of details presented without context for viewers), but it also makes it more contemporary because like both Gulf Wars, the invasion, incursion, and occupation of Iran's land in Threads is to ensure the control of a massive oil resource. The only new shocker to this fictional conflict is that Iran now has its own nuclear program, but it doesn't change the message of Threads : if you use the bomb, the planet becomes a rotting corpse.
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan