Threads is a 1984 BBC television play depicting the effects of a nuclear war on the United Kingdom and its aftermath. Written by Barry Hines and directed by Mick Jackson, Threads was filmed in late 1983 and early 1984. The premise of Threads was to hypothesise the effects of a nuclear war on the United Kingdom after an exchange between the Soviet Union and the United States escalates to include the UK.
The story begins nearly three months before the attack, which happens on Thursday, 26 May, though the year is unspecified. We watch two families' reactions — the Kemps and the Becketts — first as fighting erupts and escalates, then as the UK places itself on a war footing, and eventually as strategic bombing commences. We then follow family members as they face and eventually die of the medical, economic, social, and environmental consequences of a nuclear war. The play concludes thirteen years after the attack, as civilisation rebuilds to a stage like the early Industrial Era, with children barely able to correctly enunciate English. Both the plot and the atmosphere of the play are extremely bleak.
The story begins with the two families becoming linked by the engagement of young Ruth Beckett and Jimmy Kemp due to an unplanned pregnancy. The couple buy a flat and Jimmy argues with his parents over having a baby during the recession. In the background, ignored by the characters at first, the Soviet Union has invaded Iran following a coup, and the United States military, with British support, has intervened. A third plot thread follows the chief executive of Sheffield City Council, who is directed to create a local team who would run the area in the event of a nuclear attack. The team establishes itself in a makeshift bomb shelter in the basement of the Town Hall, and goes about making what preparations it can for the city — actions, which are in essence, transitions to war. The international tension escalates with several military clashes, Warsaw Pact troops on the border between East and West Germany, the government taking control of British Airways and motorways for military purposes, and large protests against British involvement in the crisis. Soon Britain is gripped by fear, with panic buying and a mass exodus from the city as reports come in of tactical nuclear weapons being used in Iran. Protect and Survive films about how to cope with a nuclear attack are now being broadcast daily and repeatedly, normal schedules having evidently been cleared due to the crisis.
The first nuclear weapons of the conflict are used when a squadron of American B-52s bomb a Soviet airbase in Iran with conventional weapons, but then the Soviets use a nuclear-tipped warhead on a surface-to-air missile to destroy the bombers. The Americans respond to this by detonating a nuclear missile over the airbase. From here the scope of the conflict escalates.
On 26 May, at 8:30 A.M. BST — 3:30 A.M. in Washington, DC — Sheffield is going about its normal business. The narrator informs us that this moment is advantageous for a Soviet first strike given that the U.S. President and his chief advisors would have had little rest over the previous several days and thus are likely asleep, meaning that the Western response will be at its slowest. Jimmy and his mate Bob are at work, arguing with people trying to buy emergency building supplies to make shelters. At home with her family, Ruth complains that she feels too ill from morning sickness to go to work; when Mrs Beckett tries to phone her daughter's workplace, she fails to get through because all non-essential phone-lines have been cut. The Kemps are arguing over taking down doors to use for an improvised fallout shelter. The chief executive's team is discussing the ongoing problems they're having locating and securing all of the supplies that will be needed by the city in the aftermath of an attack.
Suddenly, the four-minute warning sounds and Sheffield erupts into panic. At 8:35, a warhead detonates over the North Sea, creating an electromagnetic pulse that disables vehicles and communications. Jimmy and Bob duck under a pickup truck, while the Kemps rush to take down doors to finish their shelter. At 8:37, a second missile strike hits RAF Finningley, a NATO base near Sheffield, shattering windows and increasing panic. Jimmy and Bob emerge from under the truck to see a mushroom cloud rising over the city. Jimmy then flees through Sheffield to try to reach Ruth. (This is the last we see of him, save for a later flashback.) Ruth and her family hurry to their basement with Ruth's frail grandmother, leaving their cat outside, while Jimmy's parents quickly prepare a woefully inadequate shelter out of mattresses, bags and doors. Ruth rushes outside, but her father catches her and brings her back just before a direct strike hits Sheffield city centre.
The city is devastated with most of it set ablaze. Jimmy is presumably killed and his mother severely burned and partially blinded by the heat. The body of her younger son Michael is later found under the rubble of the aviary where Jimmy kept his exotic finches. Their daughter Alison, having gone to the shops beforehand, is not seen during the attack scene, but she does survive. One of the chief executive's team dies from falling rubble in the bunker. The emergency planners soon realize that they are trapped beneath the rubble of the Town Hall, and they are only able to communicate with the other surviving government agencies in the city by radio. On-screen text tells us that 210 megatons have fallen on the United Kingdom (with 3,000 megatons total falling around the world), that two-thirds of houses are in fire zones, and that immediate deaths are between 17 and 30 million. In addition, the threat from fallout means no attempt is made to fight the fires or rescue those trapped by the flames. Accompanying these grim statistics is a sequence which not only shows milk bottles melting in the heat, but also human corpses burning and the Becketts' cat dying.
Within an hour and 25 minutes after the bombs explode (10:00), radioactive fallout begins to fall on Sheffield from the groundburst at Crewe. Both of the families suffer from immediate radiation sickness, though the Becketts suffer less due to being outside a fire zone. Ruth, however, fears the radiation she has been exposed to will leave her unborn child "ugly and deformed." Ruth's mother tries to convince her that Jimmy might still be alive, but Ruth says she knows Jimmy is dead. Ruth later leaves the cellar and wanders through the devastated city, finding the remaining hospitals inundated with the injured and dying. (In a particularly gruesome scene, we see a man having his leg amputated with only a rag in his mouth for succour.) Jimmy's mother eventually dies from radiation sickness, and her husband leaves their shelter. Ruth goes to the Kemp home, finds Jimmy's mother and takes one of Jimmy's books from the ruins of the home as a keepsake. Ruth's grandmother dies in her sleep, and her parents are murdered by looters, who are then caught by soldiers; one of the looters is shot dead. Jimmy's father joins the fight to get food from a nearby warehouse - which isn't to be distributed for two weeks — but the soldiers use tear gas and eventually gun down any who try to break in.
Tensions rise among the chief executive's team as it becomes increasingly clear that they are not going to be rescued and that the situation outside the bunker is beyond repair. Although they are in radio contact with survivors in other cities, none can send aid to the others given the dire situation throughout the entire country.
Jimmy's father is seen with another man swapping cigarettes for alcohol, but he quickly vomits it up. He then turns on Michael's hand-held video game, which, though damaged, still works. Jimmy's father is then seen in a still black-and-white photograph as one among the countless dead presumably of radiation sickness. A caption states that no efforts are made to bury the dead as the majority of the surviving population is too weak for physical labour. Burning the bodies is considered a waste of what little fuel remains, as is using fuel to power bulldozers in order to dig mass graves. Thus, millions of bodies are left unburied throughout the UK, which leads to the outbreak of diseases such as cholera and typhus. Alison Kemp, Jimmy's sister, is the last survivor of the Kemp family, although she is only seen briefly through the fence of a tennis court being used as a detention centre. (The government authorises the use of firing squads to execute looters without a fair trial, and presumably Alison is shot for that offence.) When authorities realise that food stocks are dwindling, they cut rations to 1,000 calories per day for those who can work and 500 calories per day for those who cannot. In essence, those who work get more food, and the more people die, the more food there is for the living. Yet after four weeks, when the Town Hall rubble is finally moved to allow rescue workers to enter the bunker, all members of the team are found dead, presumably of asphyxiation.
Meanwhile, due to the millions of tons of soot, smoke, and dust that have been blown into the upper atmosphere by the blasts, a world-wide 'nuclear winter' develops. In Britain, sunlight remains at twilight level even at midday. The nation's crops, already threatened by radioactive fallout, are also damaged by the lack of sunlight, a problem further exacerbated by the fact that the war happened in spring, when plants are just beginning to grow. Two months after the war, a radio message is issued saying that Britain must become agricultural in order to rebuild. The narrator informs us, however, that temperatures in the central United States and Soviet Union have fallen to 25 degrees below normal. Also, materials needed for modern farming - chemicals, fertiliser and fuel - are in short supply. Only those who work in the rebuilding will receive food. Ruth and other refugees are relocated by the authorities to a house in nearby Buxton, which was undamaged by the attack. The owner of the house, forced to take them in, soon throws her out. Ruth soon finds Jimmy's friend Bob. They find a dead sheep and eat it raw, despite it having died from radiation. Soon, like the rest of the able-bodied population, Ruth is put to work in the farming effort, where workers are provided barely enough nutrition to survive. (Ruth is seen stealing and buying rats to supplement her diet.) Eventually, Ruth gives birth alone in a stable, having been prevented from reaching the nearby farmhouse by the Alsatian tied up in the yard as a guard dog. The child (a girl) is neither stillborn nor obviously deformed, but Ruth has to cut the umbilical cord by biting it. She is seen later, staring vacantly as the baby cries, with a group of people around a fire on Christmas Day. Aside from a caption giving the date, the only thing to suggest it's Christmas day is that the shot being set up as a grim parody of a nativity tableau. The day passes without celebration.
One year after the war, sunlight begins to return, but the Earth's protective ozone layer has been severely depleted by the nuclear exchange, letting in much more ultraviolet light and prompting harvesters to don protective clothing. Subsequent harvests produce even lesser returns due to the lack of proper equipment. The few remaining survivors are weakened from illness and hunger, and so severely traumatized that virtually no one is ever heard to speak, which may partly explain the poor verbal skills of the children born after the war. Even more die with the onset of winter due to the shortage of shelter, proper clothing, and heating fuel.
Three to eight years after the war, Britain's population has fallen to medieval levels of some 4 to 11 million. The country has managed to re-industrialise itself to some degree, although only to a relatively primitive level. We see depictions of a steam engine, mill workers, and civilians cleaning up rubble by hand are shown. Electricity service has been re-established on a small scale. The survivors, including Ruth and her daughter, are at work the fields ten years after the war. Ruth collapses. In their living space, Ruth, prematurely aged and with severe cataracts, finally dies. Her unnamed daughter (sometimes credited as Jane by the producers) tries to rouse her mother and reveals her lack of language skills. Ruth's daughter seems unfazed by her mother's death and leaves her, as well as Jimmy's book, behind. Symbolically, perhaps, she takes her mother's hairbrush and headscarf.
The post-war generation are emotionally and mentally stunted. They speak in a distorted, simplified version of English, using simple telegraphic sentences years after pre-war children are capable of forming more complete sentences. This is a problem because when the older pre-war generation dies, the current generation will be responsible for re-establishing Britain as a fully functioning nation, and if they are not able to speak and comprehend proper English, all efforts of reconstruction will be rendered futile and useless. Their "education" seems to consist of watching a damaged videotape of the BBC children's programme Words and Pictures as their teacher mouths along with the presenter's dialogue; it is not clear whether the damage to the tape is due to the effects of the war or simple over-use. In perhaps the most telling scene in the film, young girls like Ruth's daughter are put to work salvaging threads from old clothing.
Three years after Ruth's death, Ruth's daughter and two boys her age are caught stealing food. When they try to escape, one boy is shot dead. She and the other boy fight for the food; she is then overpowered, and presumably raped, by the boy. Later, she is seen stumbling through the rubble of a city, pregnant. She finds a makeshift hospital which has basic electricity. The movie ends with Ruth's daughter giving birth to a stillborn and presumably deformed baby. The film freezes just as she is about to scream in horror.
Like The War Game, which dealt with similar subject matter, Threads mixes conventional narrative with documentary-style text screens and narration by BBC journalist Paul Vaughan. One of the key elements of the play is that much of the reportage of world events leading up to the war is in the background, with few people paying attention until it becomes clear that war is imminent
A common theme is the importance of interdependence in society, and how a nuclear war can unravel these connections. The play opens with alternating shots of a spider weaving its web and of powerlines running over Sheffield, as the narrator points out how interconnected humans' lives are in modern urban society (thus the title of the play). In the initial salvo of the war we see command and control centres disrupted, followed by the destruction of cities as more missiles hit. Law and order breaks down, then people apparently stop caring for each other. Eventually, even language, the fundamental building block of human interaction, is degraded beyond something we can recognise.
Threads is also unique in that it was (and remains) the only nuclear apocalypse film to depict a nuclear winter, which was a very new theory at the time of its making.
Threads was first broadcast on BBC Two on 23 September 1984. It was repeated on BBC One on 1 August 1985 as part of a week of programmes marking the fortieth anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which also saw the first screening of The War Game. Threads was not shown again on British screens until digital channel BBC Four broadcast it on 29 October 2003, and repeated two days later.
Threads was also broadcast in the USA. In 1985, it was shown on PBS stations as part of fund raising drives. It was also syndicated in the US to commercial television stations, as well as Superstation TBS; the latter followed the play with a panel discussion on nuclear war.
Threads was originally released by BBC Video on VHS in 1987 (catalogue number BBCV4071) in the UK but soon went out of print and became a much sought-after item in the 1990s.
A DVD release appeared in the UK in 2000 on the Revelation label followed by a re-release in 2005.