‘Threads’: How I Learned to Start Worrying and Hate the Bomb

In 1984, BBC2 broadcast the most terrifying film ever made: ‘Threads’.

 “At eight years old I knew that nuclear annihilation was a bit of a bad thing from the countless video hires of stuff like Mad Max 2 and The New Barbarians. Yeah, it looked tough but at the same time, kind of fun driving round in those cool cars shooting at each other with crossbows and flame throwers. Threads changed that.”

Picture shows: Jane (VICTORIA O’KEEFE) WARNING: This image may only be used for publicity purposes in connection with the broadcast of the programme as licensed by BBC Worldwide Ltd & must carry the shown copyright legend. It may not be used for any commercial purpose without a licence from the BBC. © BBC 1984

Do you remember the nineteen eighties? They were great, weren’t they? Do you remember BMXing? Top Of The Pops on a Thursday night after you had your tea? Do you remember Live Aid? That was great wasn’t it? Brought the world together! Do you remember leg warmers? Breakdancing competitions? What was all that about! Golden Cup bars? Can’t get them anymore! Do you remember living under the threat of nuclear annihilation, having nightmares about a blinding white light that would incinerate your family and house and your dog and if you were lucky to get through that you would have to suffer through radiation sickness in a blasted-out crater that used to be a swing park under nuclear winter that was going to bang on for the next century or so? Good times!

Growing up in the eighties was hard to do. There were only four channels on the telly and half the time you didn’t know if you would be getting a new episode of Terrahawks or one of those public information films warning you about getting blown to bits when you tried to get your frisbee back climbing up a massive electric pylon. Or this…

Remember to brush off that fall out dust before getting back in the house.

This was an ever-present spectre, always lurking around for the best part of that decade. News reports from bare boned news studios showed us footage of CND marches in the capital, of tank and lorry convoys rolling around Europe with hundreds of missiles stacked up on their trailers, one following after the other after the other and after the other and all the others after that. This was so constant it became easy to ignore, but it had to be ignored! The alternative to stop and pay attention would have you opening your wrists with your teeth. Freddy Krueger made his debut on the silver screen in 1984 slashing up sleepy teenagers. Back then that was practically escapism, the real hard stuff was on BBC1 at Six O’ Clock every night. Then on Sunday 23rd September, 1984, BBC2 broadcast the most terrifying film ever made. Threads.

I don’t remember how I saw it but I know I did. Looking up its broadcast history you can see that it was repeated in 1985 at the height of the summer holidays. At eight years old I knew that nuclear annihilation was a bit of a bad thing from the countless video hires of stuff like Mad Max 2 and The New Barbarians (God bless small town video libraries who weren’t bothered about lending out certificate 18 videos to young kids, as long as they were not the ones on the top shelf in the left corner; you know? Those ones?) Yeah, it looked tough but at the same time, kind of fun driving round in those cool cars shooting at each other with crossbows and flame throwers. Threads changed that.

Imagine not paying attention to the television, there’s something on that is set in England, somewhere that everyone sounds like the soaps your granny watches. There’s a young man with a girlfriend, he’s got a birdhouse or something, he goes to the pub a lot. Being eight years old you’re not really paying attention to this. It might as well be the news or something with the way it keeps flashing messages up every now and again.

And then the sirens start.

It just gets worse from here but that sequence alone seared itself onto the imagination for those unlucky enough who were not prepared for it. This was my nightmare fuel for the next decade. The word nuclear itself was enough to shut me up and ponder how long we as a species had left and whether it was worth it. Fighter jets screamed deafeningly low across the sky on training missions over the village where I lived every day, (such a terrifying pain in the arse.) It also did not help growing up just down the road from Dounreay, a nuclear power station which I learnt in my first week of high school in Modern Studies was a prime target for Russian missiles. Growing up with all that in your head just made Threads feel like a pre-emptive documentary.

America had The Day After, which was broadcast a year before Threads in May 1983. Directed by Nicholas Meyer, coming hot off Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, it was broadcast on ABC to record breaking numbers, mentally scarring our American cousins the way Threads did for us. This is a sombre affair and had such an effect on President Ronald Reagan that it changed his stance on nuclear war, writing in his diary that it “was very effective and left me greatly depressed.” However, when compared to Threads it comes across a bit like the most depressing disaster movie ever made. To be fair though most things suffer just on general exposure to Threads.

Threads director Mick Jackson, who would later go on to direct The Bodyguard (!) also claimed, on first hand authority, that Reagan watched Threads in 1985. If The Day After gave him pause Threads must have sealed the deal.

Looking back, it’s easy to say that things started calming down on the world stage after this. Less and less video cases on the shelves seemed to be offering post-apocalyptic playgrounds for straight to video stars to drive around with flamethrowers in. However as one last warning there was the serious sucker punch of When The Wind Blows. More than one family were fooled by the prospect of another Raymond Briggs cartoon. “It’s like The Snowman, but about Armageddon! This will be good!” It was good, if you can stomach the intensely sad story of nice old people slowly dying of radiation sickness. It also seemed to be the post script, one last shared mental scar for my generation to forever warn us.

And then it all seemed to be over. Gradually it faded away, finally vanquished once and for all by David Hasselhoff jumping and singing all over the Berlin Wall, he might as well have been telling us he won the Cold War himself. Fine by us, just as long as we didn’t have to put up with the end of the world as we knew it anymore. Sleepless nights and nightmares became few and far between.

But then we come to the present day. The eighties revival has taken a troubling turn with the threat of nuclear war rearing its head again, and in these days of bigger and better we face threats on at least four sides now! Digital technology has also given us the chance to revisit Threads in a sparklingly restored two-disc DVD edition. This is the depressing side of HD, you can really feel and see that fall-out dust as it rests on the melting milk bottles. It more than holds up on re-watching; its power to disturb, scare and depress has not diminished at all. Here’s hoping that Threads gains a new audience. Hopefully the right people in the right place will see it again. Sure, there are shots where the BBC’s small budget shows up in a model shot here and there but these serve as relief that it hasn’t actually happened. Yet.


Released on DVD 9th April 2018. RRP: £19.99/ Certificate: 15.  Run Time: 175 mins approx. on 2 discs. We Are Cult are pleased to be able to offer our readers a special discount code to get 10% OFF all Simply Media titles available on their website, including ‘Threads’! Apply the discount code CULT10 to get 10% off all orders on the website www.simplyhe.com. If you apply the code at checkout you will get 10% off.

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