Friday, March 29, 2013


The proliferation of YouTube and similar sites on the Internet has meant that old TV programs from one’s formative years can now be revisited: for my generation, that means UK 80s TV. Whether Mysterious Cities of Gold or Fraggle Rock or vintage 80s Dr. Who, YouTube and elsewhere on the Internet has uncovered these gems from my childhood, hitherto lost in the vaults or on VHS.
One program from this period – a one-off BBC film made just for TV called Threads, aired in 1984 – has been put up on YouTube in its two-hour entirety*, and watching it has been a revelation. It’s right there at the top of this article. Was the BBC really subversive enough to put up something like this on prime-time TV? It’s a moot point as to whether they would air something like this now, nearly thirty years on, on terrestrial BBC1 or BBC2 (it was repeated on BBC4 recently, but that sort of doesn’t count).
It’s interesting to read the comments on the YouTube page beneath the film, where many other Brits of roughly my age recount being shown the film while at school and being traumatised – not surprising, given how powerful is still is even now. I don’t recall being shown it at school myself, but you never know…it might have been aired in a GCSE module I did called Science, Technology & Society, and I’ve just forgot. Then again, it’s a pretty hard film to forget.
Threads is a work of fiction, but runs also as a simulated documentary about the impact of a nuclear bomb attack on Sheffield, narrated coolly by an anonymous English broadcasting voice while statistics (with that very early-80s large white or green pixels style) fill the screen: 3000 megatons in worldwide nuclear exchange; 210 megatons falling on the UK. The first half-an-hour zeros in on a number of ordinary citizens going about their lives in the city against a backdrop of increasing hostilities between the USA and the Soviet Union (and more broadly, NATO vs the USSR-led Warsaw Pact) in the Persian Gulf, with the UK embroiled as a supporting partner with the former. As news of impending nuclear war slowly sinks in, we see the effects it has on the general populace, as well as (in a secondary plot) a focus on the actions of the Chief Executive of Sheffield City Council, who establishes a makeshift bomb shelter in the Town Hall basement to house an emergency operations team. The latter plot ‘thread’ was meant to illustrate to the viewer the U.K. Government’s then-current continuity arrangements in case of nuclear war.
The film then shows the city being decimated in excruciating fashion by a number of nuclear blasts, the most devastating being a huge nuclear warhead detonated directly over the city. But it’s what happens afterwards that’s arguably just as searing on the mind. Slowly, the film shifts into something that could be from a Bergman film (or for more recent reference, The Road or Michael Haneke’s Time of the Wolf), in depicting the dystopian aftermath of nuclear winter, where the Sun has been blocked out from nuclear fallout and what’s left of the UK has been reduced to medieval Hell. Those who have survived toil an unyielding, sterile Earth, traumatised, while babies are born mutants from the radiation and mobs fight over food and shelter, devoid of compassion. What’s left of the barely functioning UK Government employs soldiers on the streets with guns who frisk the dead bodies of freshly shot looters for whatever they can find, while radiation sickness and rampant disease claim more lives. The bleakness and desperation fills every shot in this last segment of the film (mind you, come to think of it, none of the rest of the film is exactly fun either).
Watching the film makes it even more devastating to think that something similar was wrought to Hiroshima and Nagasaki in real life – on a smaller scale, of course, but with equally as devastating an effect for those affected. Then there’s the continuing fall-out from the nuclear reactor explosion in Chernobyl, which occurred just two years after Threads was released to an unsuspecting public. The film was released at the height of Cold War paranoia, along with record support for the CND around that time, but what’s interesting is seeing how little has changed in global geopolitics: the US is still threatening to encircle Iran, to the consternation of Russia, the inheritor of the USSR; the Middle East is still where the interests of the USA (and its allies) rub up tensely against the interests of Russia and Iran.
Channel 4’s output has attempted something daring over the last ten years of so – I’m thinking of Brass Eye and what I’ve seen of the recent Utopia, as well as the output of some cable channels (remember Monkey Dust?). But it’s hard to think of the BBC producing something as daring as this on terrestrial peak viewing time in 2013. Perhaps I’ll be proved wrong, though.

Thanks to Simon Luker for the heads-up on the film’s existence on YouTube.

* I’m assuming the copyright has expired on this (hence the fact that it hasn’t been pulled off YouTube, but maybe I'm wrong...

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