Tuesday, 23 September 2014

An anniversary nobody wants to remember

It's grim oop North.
(Pic : followingthenerd.com)

1984 was the peak of nuclear paranoia in the UK due to a frosting of relations between the US and Soviet Union. I was born around exactly the same time Ronald Reagan made his "Legislation to outlaw Russia" quip, and Two Tribes was UK number one. What would've been the regional command centre for South Wales is also about a 5 minute walk away from me.

Today marks the 30th anniversary of the first broadcast of Threads, which should probably be regarded as one of the most important productions in the BBC's history, and provided the best ever entry on IMDB.

Created by Barry Hines (Kes) and Mike Jackson (A Very British Coup, LA Story, The Bodyguard), it tells the story of an all-out nuclear war from the perspective of two Sheffield families – the working-class Kemps and the more middle-class Becketts ,who are brought together due to an unplanned pregnancy.

In the Threads universe, this is how World War Three starts and ends : The Soviet Union invades Iran following a coup, which makes the Americans nervous. After the US loses contact with a ship in the Indian Ocean, they put their forces on alert. It's later revealed that the US ship was destroyed, with the Soviets blamed.

The US sends troops into Iran, issuing an ultimatum to the Soviets to withdraw – which is ignored. The US uses conventional weapons to attack Soviet positions, but the Soviets defend themselves with a tactical nuclear weapon.

All hell breaks loose, and in the UK, troops are sent to Europe and emergency powers are passed by Parliament. Everything grinds to a halt, normal activities are suspended (including TV and radio programmes, which are replaced with Protect and Survive public information films around the clock), subversives are detained and there's the obligatory general strike from trade unions.

More clashes take place between American and Soviet forces, while the final emergency preparations are made in Sheffield – the last thing being the evacuation of fire engines from the city.

A day or so later, the Soviets and Americans launch a nuclear holocaust at around 8am UK time (to catch Americans off guard as it'll be ~4am in Washington)....

Threads is often compared to The Day After and the gut-wrenching animated film When The Wind Blows.

The makers of Threads must've seen The Day After and thought, "What a bunch of wimps! Let's gore this up a little!" because it makes The Day After look positively chipper, and is arguably the most realistic portrayal of a nuclear war ever produced - going as far as citing academic research from the likes of Carl Sagan.

The Day After stops after the attack, with people emerging from the wreckage with the hope of rebuilding. The hint's in the title.

Threads keeps going.

This is what the UK Government believes would protect you
and your family from 100 megatons of atomic doom.
(Pic : atomica.co.uk)

The official government advice to protect yourself from nuclear attack – as shown in Protect and Survive – is to take doors off hinges and hide behind them (piling furniture, pillows etc. against them) with enough provisions to last up to two weeks. Sort of like one of those Japanese pod hotels turned microwave.

Not only does Threads display, in quite candid fashion, how useless that advice would've been, it also underlines how a nuclear war could never be won and what happens when things you take for granted stop working - whether that's the taps, electricity, the shops or a political blogger at his wits end.

The impact it made is perhaps best dramatically illustrated by the fact it wasn't shown again on UK television until 2003 – a gap of some 19 years. There's a pretty good reason why. And there's probably a good reason why it's not being shown again tonight, even if tucked away on BBC4 at the very least (as it was in 2003).

When you talk disaster films (Threads would probably qualify as such), we're all fairly used to the target being a big city like London, Tokyo or New York. Cities like Sheffield (and presumably, Cardiff, Swansea and Port Talbot) will have been targeted (and probably still are) for fairly innocuous reasons like having a steelworks and a military base.

Threads and The Day After finally made the powers that be realise that a nuclear war couldn't be survived by some DIY and a WWII-style "Blitz spirit". It's not a surprise that firmer commitments towards nuclear disarmament were made fairly quickly afterwards.

School, Mad Max style.
(Pic : via Blogger)

Returning to the plot, by the end, what's left of the UK – and probably a lot of the Western world – becomes a totalitarian military dictatorship where justice is administered at the end of a rope or gun barrel; where people are tilling the fields in collective farms; there's not much in the way of electricity or social structures like education and health – children reduced to grunting basic words and phrases from a battered copy of Words and Pictures; and if you don't work you don't eat.

So the cruellest irony is that the West becomes everything it built nuclear weapons to destroy....but worse.

The whole thing is available here.