When Sheffield saw a nuclear holocaust

Threads depicted the aftermath of a nearby nuclear blast in the city of Sheffield, using many non-actors to add realism. It was written by Barry Hines, author of Kes. Middle, from left, Victoria O'Keefe as Jane and David Brierley as Mr Kemp.
Threads depicted the aftermath of a nearby nuclear blast in the city of Sheffield, using many non-actors to add realism. It was written by Barry Hines, author of Kes. Middle, from left, Victoria O'Keefe as Jane and David Brierley as Mr Kemp.
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It is 30 years since a film about a nuclear attack on Sheffield first terrified the nation. Daniel Dylan Wray looks back at the 
impact of Threads.

WATCHING Threads is an experience that doesn’t leave you quickly or easily. Looking out my window as I write this article, an overwhelming bright grey burns my eyes as I stare out of it.

Of course it is nothing more than the sun trying to squeeze through a thick blanket of clouds on a grim Sheffield afternoon, yet in the context of recently re-watching Threads it takes on much more sinister presence or possibility.

Originally aired on September 23, 1984, the BBC-commissioned docu-drama on the effects of a nuclear fall-out sent tidal waves of fear through a nation already riddled with anxiety over what appeared to be an imminent nuclear threat. Thirty years on, such an imminent danger may have disintegrated – or altered – somewhat but the lingering effects of the film still resonate fiercely.

Sheffield’s Sensoria Festival is commemorating the film’s thirtieth anniversary by screening it at an amphitheatre on a 40-ft screen overlooking the city’s skyline on October 3.

Sensoria’s Festival director, Jo Wingate, like many, remembers the first time she saw it with striking detail, “I saw Threads as a Sheffield school kid at Gleadless Valley comprehensive,” she tells me.

“It was quite a TV event nationally – it really did feel that it sent shockwaves across the UK and was all over the news, with Sheffield being the focal point.”

The film was the project of director/producer Mick Jackson and Sheffield-based writer Barry Hines and, speaking from LA, Jackson says: “I was very scared during the Cold War, in a way it’s hard to understand now. To many of us, the threat of nuclear annihilation was imminent and very real. It was a shadow over our lives. It made people like me very anxious about the future of the world into which their children, the next generation, were being born. That anxiety was the genesis of Threads.”

Jackson had previous experience on the subject, working on the 1982 BBC nuclear bomb documentary A Guide to Armageddon, but he sought the hand of Hines as writer for the project. “Barry Hines, to my mind one of Sheffield’s most gifted sons, seemed like an obvious choice to write it. I had greatly admired his screenplay for Kes and his compassionate and unsentimental ear for the real and authentic.

“I approached him and suggested a collaboration. He was initially reluctant. ‘I write about what I know’, I remember him saying, “and I don’t know about this stuff”. I think I managed to persuade him that that was the point – nor would his characters.”

Much of Hines’s personal Threads-related work and memorabilia is located at the special collections section of Sheffield University’s Western Park Library and is a valuable insight into his craft and the painstaking research and work put 
into the project.

Sadly, Hines is now too ill to discuss Threads today but his publisher, Mark Hodkinson of Pomona Publishing, also remembers the brutality of the film and has more of a relationship to it than simply via his professional proximity to the author.

“The film was an absolute distillation of the horribly bleak mood that prevailed at the time. There was a real sense of inevitability about nuclear war, which, mercifully, later subsided. I still have a residual anger that as I was growing up into the world it felt as if it – my life, the world – might be taken away at any point, and in such horrific circumstances. This sounds like a ridiculous over-statement now but that was exactly how it felt.”

The film’s success, and ultimately its severity, perhaps lies in the deadly combination of being both accurate and easy to relate to. The science used in the film was meticulously researched, thereby avoiding the overblown sensationalist approach of many “disaster” films; Jackson spent 
a year researching across the globe while feeding back to Hines as he worked on the script.

Yet perhaps the most potent element came via the use of non-actors, essentially “regular” folk, and by using the city of Sheffield as a base.

Jackson looks back on this decision. “The idea was to set it somewhere ‘bang in the middle’ of Britain, away from the centres of power and any sense of having some kind of overview or ‘God’s-eye-view’ of these terrible events. The characters would merely experience them, moment-to-moment, in all their awful manifestations, and somehow cope. Or not. Sheffield is more-or-less at the geographical heart of Britain and, at the time, had enough military and industrial facilities close by to make it a plausible target in a large-scale attack. It also had a great no-nonsense attitude to life embedded in its culture and its citizens. It would be a very relatable and very believable place to set the story.”

Indeed, for Jo Wingate, it made her re-imagine her immediate and familiar surroundings in the city, “I think there were certain scenes that ingrained themselves – for many locals it was the panic scenes on The Moor [a shopping area in the city] but I do sometimes catch myself, if there are several planes in the sky overhead, and still think ‘Threads’ – this was our generation’s reality TV. “

Mick Jackson recalls the mood on set making the film and what was put into the shoots from some of the performers to make it what it was. “I think the main thing – especially in the case of Karen Meagher, who pretty much carries the bulk of the film – was that there was a complete absence of personal vanity.

“She, in particular, would do anything that was necessary for the grittiest realism without a question – be dirty, windblown and unkempt, even give birth in a barn and bite through the umbilical cord while being barked at by an Alsatian”.

Meagher, a young political campaigner at the time, was desperate to be part of the film as she tells me. “During the audition I said I just want to be a part of this in anyway. The script was amazing, for Barry to translate such a massive subject and make it available to every ordinary Joe was nothing short of remarkable. It really took a huge subject and plonked it right on the sofa in-between Mum and Dad and the two point whatever children and that is amazing.”

Used to receiving congratulatory phone calls once his projects had aired, Jackson’s phone stayed quiet that night thirty years ago, “After Threads went out, there was nothing. Not a single call. I was a little despondent, thinking, ‘Oh God, it must have been awful. I’ve really blown it.’

“It was only the next day that I realised that people had switched off their TVs and just sat quietly thinking, in some cases too troubled to go to sleep or maybe not wanting to risk bad dreams. Some people, half jokingly, called it ‘the night Britain didn’t sleep’.”

However, while it would be easy to become submerged in the assiduously harrowing content of the film, this anniversary also marks some real positives about the impact Threads has left.

Not only was it a cinematic landmark, critically and commercially successful, taking home six of the seven BAFTAs it was nominated for, but it also won praise from the scientific and political communities (letters of praise from Labour leader Neil Kinnock and scientist Carl Sagan are in the University archive too) and it also reinforced a fight that many of us are still fighting today, projecting the talents, power and relevance of the North of England.

As Jo Wingate rightly points out: “I do still believe that everyone should see this film, even if it’s just once.”