ThreadsBy Nick Wilson
17th Jun 2009
The film Threads follows a family in Sheffield through all-out nuclear war.
I first saw it when it was broadcast in 1984, when I was 14. Later, when I was a student in Sheffield, I realised that my local pub was the same one where the doomed family watch the TV countdown to war. Ruth and Jimmy are expecting a baby. For weeks, the news reports Cold War tension, peace activists are detained, and the government runs its chilling Protect and Survive adverts. But it’s all a bit distant, until one breakfast time…‘Jesus Christ, they’ve gone and done it!’ Fallout from a one Megaton nuclear bomb would make much of the UK radioactive.
The screen flashes ‘East-West exchange 3000 Megatons. 210 Megatons total fall on UK’. Jimmy vanishes. We go through panic, vaporising heat, incredible blast, firestorm, untreatable burns, radiation sickness, bodies, exodus, Traffic Wardens with guns, executions and killing for food. Ruth eats rats and gives birth alone in a barn amid nuclear winter. When the skies clear, the damaged atmosphere causes cataracts.
And when Ruth dies, her teenage daughter, whose generation can barely form sentences, has a baby deformed by radiation. With only four TV channels in 1984, Threads was seen by huge numbers. And at a time when the government was still implying that Blitz Spirit would get us through, it showed how nuclear war would actually unravel the most basic threads of civilisation.
The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament’s membership peaked - my Dad and I joined up together. Threads was also shown in the US, with a two-minute warning for viewers. Almost the time Europeans would have had to prepare for an actual nuclear attack. UK TV also showed the US equivalent, The Day After. Set in Kansas, it didn’t include nuclear winter – partly to preserve survivors for plot purposes.
But it still left President Ronald Reagan ‘greatly depressed’. In 1987, when he eventually signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with what he had previously called the Russian ‘Evil Empire’, he wrote to the director: 'Don't think your movie didn't have any part of this’. Revelations have since shown how close we came to the brink.
1983 NATO exercise Able Archer mimicked a surprise attack so well that the Russians went to full nuclear alert. And in the very week that Threads was shown, Russian systems detected an incoming nuclear attack. Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov decided to wait for the impact, which never came. If he had sounded the alert Russia would probably have launched its missiles, prompting a NATO counter-attack.
To date there have been hundreds of near misses, false alarms, accidents and dozens of lost bombs.
The Cold War has ended. But Russia, the USA and others still have 27,000 nuclear weapons, despite agreeing to scrap them in the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. As long as they remain, and nuclear power stations exist to produce weapons-grade material, there will be a steady spread of nuclear weapons to other states and radical groups, with an ever-increasing likelihood of accidents, sabotage, deliberate use or suicide attacks. In some ways the risk is greater now than in 1984.