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Directed by Mick Jackson
Produced by Mick Jackson,
Graham Massey,
John Purdie,
Peter Wolfes
Written by Barry Hines
Starring Karen Meagher,
Reece Dinsdale
Distributed by BBC
Release date(s) 1984
Running time 110 minutes
Language English

Threads is a 1984 BBC television play set in the city of Sheffield in Yorkshire, depicting the effects of a nuclear war and its aftermath on the United Kingdom. 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 primary plot centres on two families: the Kemps and the Becketts—as an international crisis erupts and escalates. As NATO and the UK prepare for war, the members of each family deal with their own personal crises. Meanwhile, a secondary plot centered upon Clive J. Sutton, the Chief Executive of Sheffield City Council serves to illustrate for the viewer the UK Government's then-current continuity of government arrangements. As open warfare between NATO and the USSR-led Warsaw Pact begins, the harrowing details of the characters' struggle to survive the attacks is dramatically depicted. The balance of the film details the fate of each family as the characters face the medical, economic, social, and environmental consequences of a nuclear war. Both the plot and the atmosphere of the play are extremely bleak.



The main plot introduces young lovers Ruth Beckett and Jimmy Kemp who decide to marry due to an unplanned pregnancy. As they and their family are presented, news reports indicate that the Soviet Union has invaded Iran following a coup, and that the United States military, with British support, has intervened. Sheffield City Council is directed by the Home Office to assemble an emergency operations team which establishes itself in a makeshift bomb shelter in the basement of the Town Hall.

The Soviets use a nuclear-tipped warhead on a surface-to-air missile to destroy American bombers attacking a Soviet airbase in Iran; the Americans respond by detonating a nuclear missile over the airbase. Britain is gripped by fear. As stocks of commodities run low some retailers resort to profiteering, and sporadic looting and rioting breaks out. "Known subversives" (including peace activists and some trade unionists) are arrested and interned.

Attack Warning Red is transmitted, sending the emergency team into frantic action. The city's air raid sirens sound and Sheffield erupts into panic. A warhead detonates over the North Sea, creating an electromagnetic pulse that disrupts power and communications. Minutes later a nuclear attack strikes RAF Finningley, a NATO base 20 miles (32 km) from Sheffield. Despite the distance the flash, mushroom cloud and subsequent blast effects from this groundburst are visible in Sheffield adding to the panic. Jimmy flees through the chaos of Sheffield to try to reach Ruth. The Becketts hurry to their basement while Jimmy's parents desperately rush to finish a shelter they were preparing out of mattresses, bags and doors.

As the exchanges escalate Sheffield itself and nearby Rotherham are struck by nuclear weapons. In total, 210 megatons fall on the United Kingdom, out of 3,000 megatons total falling around the world. Two-thirds of homes are destroyed and immediate deaths are between 17 and 30 million. The threat from nuclear fallout means no attempt is made to fight the fires or rescue those trapped by the flames. A sequence shows milk bottles melting in the heat and human corpses burning. The emergency planners are trapped beneath the rubble of the Town Hall.

Fallout begins to fall on Sheffield. As their severely damaged home offers little protection The Kemps suffer from immediate radiation sickness. Ruth leaves the cellar and wanders through the devastated city, going to a hospital inundated with the injured and dying. There is a lack of hospital drugs and equipment. Footage shows severely injured people screaming while being operated on without anesthetic. Members of the Kemp and Beckett families die from radiation sickness, burns, and shock, or are murdered by looters.

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. Millions of bodies are left unburied throughout the UK, which leads to the outbreak of diseases such as cholera and typhus. The government authorizes the use of capital punishment and courts are given wide-ranging powers. The image of a wounded and armed traffic warden used for crowd control was deemed controversial at the time. As food stocks dwindle, rations are reduced. Those who work get more food than those who do not.

Due to the millions of tons of soot, smoke, and dust that have been blown into the upper atmosphere by the explosions, a global 'nuclear winter' develops. Ruth is found later working on a farm (having defied official advice and fled the city), eventually giving birth alone in a farm out-building to her daughter, Jane.

One year after the war sunlight begins to return, but harvests produce few returns due to the lack of proper equipment, fertilizers and fuel. Damage to the ozone layer means this sunlight is heavy with ultra violet radiation adding to the agricultural problems and hazards to survivors health. The few remaining survivors are weakened from illness and hunger. Even more die with the onset of winter due to the shortage of food, shelter, warm clothing, and heating.

A few more years later, Britain's population falls to medieval levels and numbers an estimated four to eleven million. The country has managed only very little recovery; survivors, including Ruth and her daughter work in the fields. Ruth, prematurely aged and blind with cataracts, dies.

Three years after Ruth's death, Jane is overpowered by a thirteen year old boy, and they have what the script calls "crude intercourse"[1]. She is later seen stumbling through the rubble of a city, heavily pregnant. Finding a makeshift hospital she attempts to get help. The play ends as Jane gives birth to a stillborn, deformed baby, freezing just as she opens her mouth to scream.


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 power lines 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, probably due to large-scale posttraumatic stress at what they have endured. Eventually, even language, a fundamental building block of human interaction, is barely recognisable.

The play has been compared to The Day After, a film depicting a similar scenario in the United States. [2][3]

Broadcast and release history



Threads was first broadcast on BBC Two on 23 September 1984[4]. 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.

Video and DVD releases

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. Some Video and DVD versions of the play omitted Chuck Berry's song "Johnny B. Goode" for copyright reasons.

A DVD release appeared in the UK in 2000 on the Revelation label followed by a re-release in 2005.

See also


  1. ^ Threads and Other Sheffield Plays (Sheffield Academic Press, 1990), Page 234
  2. ^ 'Threads': Nightmare After the Holocaust, Chicago Tribune
  3. ^ CNN, WTBS plan nuclear Blitz this month, L.A. Times
  4. ^ The TV Room Plus

External links


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