End of the world revisited: BBC's Threads is 25 years old

FOR VIEWERS OF A CERTAIN VIN– tage, the world ended 25 years ago, on 23 September 1984, at 9:30pm. That was when the BBC first broadcast Threads, an unremittingly harrowing docu-drama about nuclear Armageddon. I know very few people of my age – mid-thirties – who aren't haunted by its images of burning cats, melting milk bottles and scorched, shell-shocked mothers cradling something in their arms. Putting aside the question of what parents in 1984 were doing letting their kids watch a terri

Even with today's terrorist threats, the world isn't nearly as panicked as it was in 1984, when the US altered its nuclear strategy from the long-standing notion of MAD – mutually assured destruction – to the insane belief that a nuclear war was winnable. As the relationship between East and West grew chillier, the Home Office began distributing leaflets offering almost laughably optimistic advice on how to "protect and survive" in the event of nuclear attack. The BBC went so far as to pre-record a four-minute warning as well as organising an emergency radio channel which, aside from issuing advice, would broadcast hours of reassuring comedy programmes such as I'm Sorry, I Haven't a Clue.

In 1982 the BBC had commissioned a provocative documentary called A Guide to Armageddon for its then new QED strand. Explaining what would happen if a nuclear bomb exploded over London, it was produced and directed by Mick Jackson, who would go on to make Threads.

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Naturally, the programme attracted a great deal of attention. A previous BBC effort to show the after-effects of a nuclear attack, 1965's The War Game, had never been broadcast. "They were literally afraid that viewers would commit suicide," recalls Jackson, "that people would be so frightened by it they would go out and throw themselves under a bus. And the political repercussions of questioning the British policy on nuclear deterrence meant that it was a no-go area at the BBC."

Jackson's QED changed the BBC's minds. "It gave them courage to let me do some more on that subject," he recalls. So he then spent a year "wandering the US and the UK researching this. I talked to most leading scientists, psychologists, doctors, defence specialists, strategic experts. I was totally up to speed on everything about nuclear war." That painstaking research is evident throughout Threads, which employs a chilly documentary-style narration and sobering on-screen facts and statistics. Its gruelling depiction of a world devastated by nuclear war – in which the threads that bind society are instantaneously unravelled – appears all too plausible.

Jackson realised that in order to heighten the impact of his warning, he needed to view it through the eyes of characters that viewers could relate to. "I wanted something of the social-realism of things like Cathy Come Home," he says. There was even a plan to use the cast of Coronation Street, which fell through for contractual reasons. Ironically, the then unknown Reece Dinsdale, who plays Jimmy in Threads, would later become a Weatherfield regular.

"It seemed to me that people weren't able to visualise the unthinkable, especially politicians," says Jackson. "So I thought that if I acted this out for them as a television drama – not as a spectacle or disaster movie – that would give them a workable visual vocabulary for thinking about the unthinkable."

So Jackson enlisted writer Barry Hines, a Yorkshireman renowned for works such as A Kestrel for a Knave, famously adapted into the film Kes by Ken Loach. Hines concentrated his depiction of Armageddon around two Sheffield families – a location chosen because of the likelihood that it would be attacked due to its proximity to an RAF base.

Sadly, Hines now suffers from Alzheimer's, meaning that virtually all of his memories of Threads have vanished. "Barry was a very politically aware person in every respect, and followed nuclear developments, but he was mainly concerned with class politics, inequality and injustices on a more domestic level. This is why Mick was so brilliant to insist on him writing it," says Eleanor, his partner.

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Despite the effectiveness of the finished film, the working relationship between writer and director wasn't always smooth. "Barry spent quite a lot of time on set and, overall, it made Mick furious," Eleanor recalls. "He was used to working with Ken Loach, and he deplored everything Mick did and looked down on it. He even disliked Mick for being middle-class and for wearing white shoes, but of course Mick knew exactly what he was doing, and was ahead of his time. Barry did admit that he was wrong, later, but he used to come off that set swearing!"

Jackson concurs: "We had some quite passionate arguments, but they were essential to the process and actually quite useful." Both men were united, however, in their determination to produce a film so frightening and so completely bereft of hope, that no-one watching would ever again contemplate the notion of a winnable nuclear war. Jackson says: "I wanted everybody to see it. There's a tradition at the BBC whenever you make something, the phone starts ringing immediately afterwards and it's your friends and colleagues saying well done and so on, but Threads went out and there was nothing. I realised afterwards that people had just sat there thinking about it, in many cases not sleeping or being able to talk."

In light of concerns at the time, it's unsurprising that the heavily promoted Threads received BBC2's highest ratings of the week. Hines even received a letter of support from Neil Kinnock, while Jackson has it on first-hand authority that President Reagan watched it when it was shown in the US, and likes to imagine it may have had an influence on his subsequently less bellicose attitude towards nuclear deterrence.

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Realised with tremendous skill on a minuscule BBC budget, Threads continues to resonate today, not only because of its nauseatingly convincing depiction of nuclear apocalypse, but also because the possibility still exists that It Could Actually Happen.

"When I was listening to the news yesterday there was a report of two Russian nuclear subs off the coast of the US," says Jackson. "Recently the Russians moved their heavy bomber fighters up to the edges of western territory. It's just posturing and manoeuvring but for somebody who lived through all that in the 1980s, it doesn't half make you worry. Despite the treaties and the cuts there are still enough nuclear weapons to do huge damage to the world."