Envying the dead
A UK region 2 DVD review of THREADS by Slarek
 
"But doesn't it scare you, what it might lead to?"
"I know it bloody scares me but there's nowt we can do about it is there."

 

People, young people especially, no longer seem scared by the concept of nuclear war. It's not that they have developed a new found confidence in atomic weaponry, it's just that we've recently been given new things to worry about. Nowadays we are encouraged to be paranoid about terrorism and shoe bombs and chemical weapons and rogue governments and religious mania. This has effectively steered public attention away from the fact that several of the world's major powers still have a considerable stockpile of nuclear weapons, and that just one of these weapons could lay waste to millions. As western governments get twitchy about the nuclear intentions of North Korea and Iran, the issue looks likely to move back to centre stage in the months to come, especially if, as seems highly possible, George W. Bush tries to reverse his popularity slide following the New Orleans disaster with some noisy international sabre rattling. Funny, though, how it's only governments that Britain and America disapprove of who build 'weapons of mass destruction', while those who point the finger have a 'strategic defence initiative'.

I can't help wondering what Peter Watkins made of Threads, or at least the BBC's decision to fund and screen it. Having commissioned his harrowing The War Game back in 1965, the corporation then refused to show it on the grounds that it was propagandist. It's Oscar win for Best Documentary did little to change their view, and to this day it has only received a single, almost token TV screening on 31st July 1985, a full 20 years after it was made. That Threads, which covers the same subject from a similarly documentary-influenced viewpoint and with equally shocking results, was screened to widespread acclaim is one thing, but to have the BBC fund and show it while the unofficial ban on Watkins' earlier work was still in place must have been galling in the extreme. It was to be another ten months before The War Game was to receive its belated TV premiere.

There is little doubt that The War Game was a major influence on Threads, which takes a very sobering and sometimes harrowing look at the effects of a nuclear war on the people of Sheffield. Though open from the start about its status as drama, it nonetheless utilises many of the codes and conventions of documentary to ground the action in a very persuasive reality. Memorable incidents from Watkins' film are recreated here – the enforced post-war billeting of homeless survivors with uncooperative house owners, the shooting of looters, the shell-shocked faces of the injured and traumatised, even the extracts from the government's Protect and Survive information film – but this is hardly surprising given that they were working from largely the same source material and with the same purpose in mind. It is in its dramatic core that Threads differs most obviously from The War Game, building the narrative around how the war and its aftermath affect one family, connecting us to the events on a personal level and providing a consistent point for audience identification.

The intricate and informed script was the work of Barry Hines, who had previously adapted his own novel A Kestrel for a Knave for Ken Loach's Kes and also worked with Loach on The Gamekeeper (1980), Looks and Smiles (1981), The Navigators (2001)* and The Price of Coal (1977). Hines writes almost exclusively from a working-class perspective, and this is carried over into the structure and characters of Threads. Those who start the war, who launch the missiles, who attempt to organise what remains in the aftermath are never shown on screen, as Hines concentrates exclusively on the effects on ordinary people. The only officials shown are those of the local emergency committee, themselves common folk who quickly discover that they are out of their depth.

This is very effectively illustrated in the build-up, with information on the impending conflict caught in brief glimpses of newspaper headlines and radio and TV broadcasts as a kitchen-sink family drama plays out in the foreground. This inevitably recals Hines' work with Ken Loach, emphasised by the use of actor Phil Askham in a supporting role, so memorable in The Gamekeeper and Looks and Smiles. Like The War Game, Threads also delivers a string of sobering facts and figures through on-screen graphics and voice-over, its ace-in-the-hole here being narrator Paul Vaughan, whose voice was at the time of orginal broadcast familiar to the viewing public through his extensive work on the BBC's prestigious scientific documentary series Horizon.

Where Threads and The War Game walk hand-in-hand is in their sheer power as persuasive film-making. If Hines provides the structural foundations, then they are built on to extraordinary effect by director Mick Jackson, a man who has since been swallowed up by Hollywood,** but who was once one of British TV's most crucial talents, directing the breezily seductive A Very British Coup in 1988 and Life Story in 1987, a film we at Outsider regard as the finest TV movie ever made. Never wasting a shot, Jackson's potent but economical use of imagery and sometimes razor-sharp editing (courtesy of Jim Latham and Donna Bickerstaff, the latter of whom was in the year above me at film school) communicating the very real horror of the events as much through suggestion as direct exposure. Individual images linger long after the film has ended – the nuclear explosion seen from the streets of Sheffield, the woman who wets herself in the street in terror, the screaming panic that is cut off halfway by a second blast, the body of a loved one left upstairs to rot, the shell-shocked girl staring directly at the camera cuddling a teddy bear in place of the baby she has presumably lost, the stark gloom of the nuclear winter that follows.

The final third is as dark as any television drama I can readily recall, as the population is reduced to medieval numbers and the absolute basics of existence, with even language itself mutating into a localised but limited collection of short, monosyllabic survival phrases. A brief flicker of hope towards the end soon fades, grimly upturned in a chillingly suggestive finale that cuts to black just before a scream of horror not just for personal loss, but for the very future of mankind, if indeed it has one. You are left stunned, as you should be, and if the years have distanced us a little from a time when the events described here seemed frighteningly possible, the film still contains, tucked away in those half-caught broadcasts in the first half, an all-too pertinent warning. Here the flashpoint for nuclear annihilation is not the Cold War favourite of Berlin, but Iran, the very country that American and British politicians are at this moment issuing guarded warnings to regarding their nuclear programme. The Berlin wall may have fallen, but in too many other respects the world is still too ready for war.

sound and vision

Shot on 16mm for TV in the early 1980s, the picture was never likely to be pristine, but the transfer here still disappoints somewhat. Sharpness is not at all bad, but contrast varies from shot to shot, strong in places, washed out in others. Compression artefacts come and go, but when they appear they can be very prominent, not least on the inter-titles, areas of what should be black mutated into a dance of digital noise. Occasionally there is the sort of faint banding that suggests that a tape master was used for this transfer. The bitrate is low throughout.

The mono soundtrack is adequate, free of pops and noise but lacking sparkle, it nevertheless showcases the film's sometimes bone-chilling use of ambient sound well enough. As with The War Game, there is no incidental music.

extra features

Not a sausage. A missed opportunity.

summary

A still overpowering piece of apocalyptic political drama, Threads is a showcase for 1980s British television at its most provocative and powerful, a tightly constructed, breathlessly directed and for the most part persuasively performed horror for the nuclear age, and a worthy successor to Peter Watkins' groundbreaking The War Game, to which it is obviously indebted.

Though it's great to see the film available on DVD it's a shame a little more care could not have been taken with the transfer and something offered in the way of extras. The film should absolutely be seen, but it may be a case of waiting for the sales to see if the price drops a bit. If the BBC do Life Story (and somebody should) then please, please take some time and get it right.



* As script supervisor.

** It started well, with the briskly paced and inventive L.A. Story, but by the mid-nineties Jackson was helming lowbrow action nonsense like Volcano.

Threads

UK 1984
110 mins
director
Mick Jackson
starring
Karen Meagher
Reece Dinsdale
David Brierly
Rita May
Nicholas Lane

DVD details
Region 2
video
1.33:1
sound
Dolby 1.0 mono
languages
English
subtitles
English
extras
none
distributor
BBC
review posted
21 September 2005