Whilst browsing through a recent edition of Empire magazine, I came across a review for a DVD release of a programme I haven’t seen in over thirty years since its original broadcast, but which is still seared into my brain all these decades later and capable of making my blood run cold at the memory of it.
I’m talking about Threads, a BBC television drama depicting what the impact of a nuclear war would be on the United Kingdom, and in particular on Sheffield, the South Yorkshire city barely and hour’s drive from my home town of Bradford.
Perhaps that’s why it had such a chilling effect on me. This wasn’t some glossy, special effects laden disaster movie starring a Hollywood legend or two set in a place far, far away, and it sure as hell didn’t have a happy ending either.
Instead, it portrayed the lives of down to earth, ordinary people, who talked (a bit) like me, and lived in streets (a bit) like mine.
The characters were instantly identifiable, not by the fame of the actors who played them, as there weren’t any famous faces in it, they were like the people I knew and was in the midst of growing up around.
I was still an impressionable teenager at the time, I was 18 in 1984 when this programme was shown, and the East/West tensions and prospects of nuclear war seemed much more real than they have for a long time since (until perhaps more recently, as history has a habit of repeating itself). The feared Soviet Union was still in existence and the USA had President Ronald Reagan at its helm, an ageing former movie star who wasn’t averse to a bit of sabre-rattling, having referred to the USSR as the ‘evil empire’ and embarked on a program of building up America’s nuclear arsenal.
So the scene was well and truly set for a drama which began by showing us these normal, everyday folk, going about their normal, everyday lives, just like us, with the sights and sounds of TV and radio news bulletins recounting the escalation of hostilities in lands far away to a generally distracted populace.
I can recall the mundanity of it. That’s not a criticism of the drama, it is a mark its realism.
It could never actually happen, could it? Common sense would always prevail in the end. That’s what used to go through our heads back then, quite frequently too, in order to persuade ourselves that although the super powers definitely possessed the means to inflict a global nuclear armageddon on us all, they’d never be so insane as to push the button and kill us all.
But in Threads, the button is pressed, the balloon does go up, and the mushroom clouds start to appear over some very recognisable British skylines, and we as an audience (some 6.9 million watched this on BBC Two on 23 September 1984 at 9:30 pm) sat gripped in horror, watching what happens next.
The makeshift shelters, doors taken off hinges and propped up against internal walls and covered with bedding and blankets (sounds ridiculous I know, but this was the kind of information that appeared in the genuine ‘Protect & Survive‘ government information campaign literature), proved hopelessly – and unsurprisingly – inadequate to the explosion of a nuclear bomb, and the catastrophe unfolds slowly and unflinchingly in its horror as death, disease, civil disorder, hopelessness and despair ensue.
There is absolutely no let up in the narrative. No salvation, no resolution, not even the faintest glimmer of hope. The threads of our society and of our humanity are blasted apart and they may never come together again.
It was one of the most uncomfortable, yet compelling pieces of television I have ever sat through. I remember vividly wanting it to stop, to be able to get up off the sofa, to walk away from the screen, have a cup of tea, anything to return to the comforting normality that was all around me, but it was impossible. I just could not move, I could not take my eyes off it. When the final credits did roll, even then I could barely move. I felt numbed by the experience.
It is an utterly brilliant piece of television. Once seen, never forgotten, but I know, even thirty years on, I could never sit through it again.