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'Threads' and Nuclear War

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The award-winning British drama documentary, Threads, pulls no punches in tackling the subject of nuclear war. Set in the industrial city of Sheffield, it depicts the holocaust through the eyes of Ruth Beckett (Karen Meagher) and her fiancé Jimmy Kemp (Reece Dinsdale) from two months before, to 13 years after, the holocaust.

We are treated to a graphically disturbing portrayal of the medieval conditions that might prevail after such a conflict, including starvation, nuclear winter, disease, psychological trauma, illiteracy and both mental and physical mutation.

Director Mick Jackson makes very clever use of stills, on-screen narratives and voice-overs to give the whole movie a documentary feel; as if we are taking a fly-on-the-wall peek into post-apocalyptic Britain. Sometimes, it feels as though some of the inhabitants of this devastated world (especially those in the stills) are staring back at us with envy and pleading for us to end their suffering.

Of course, the world has changed since this film was made, and the Cold War politics of the film's era are now consigned to the history books. Nevertheless, with over 20,000 nuclear weapons still in existence at the time of writing, Threads is as poignant and relevant now as it was then.

The title, incidentally, refers to the interdependency of the various elements that hold society together and the ease with which those intricate links could be destroyed. In the words of the narrator, 'the connections that make society strong also make it vulnerable'.

A Synopsis

Wednesday 5 March

We are introduced to the characters of Jimmy Kemp and his girlfriend Ruth Beckett. They are sitting on a hill above the city of Sheffield. On the radio, we hear Johnny B Goode.

Thursday 5 May - Thursday 12 May

Ruth finds out that she is pregnant, and tells Jimmy. On the TV we see a news report about a Soviet invasion of Iran, that the USA and NATO condemn.

A few days later we see Jimmy telling his parents that Ruth is pregnant and during the argument that follows, we hear on the news that the Soviets are placing more troops and armour into Iran. Three days after this, the scene switches to Ruth's parents' house, where her parents are waiting to meet Jimmy's. On a news report we hear that an American missile submarine (The USS Los Angeles) has gone missing.

The following day there is a naval battle in the Gulf, resulting in damage to a Soviet ship, The Kirov. We then hear about the Emergency Powers Act that the British Government would use in times of crisis. This, in the event of war, would devolve power to local city executives. We also find out that Ruth and Jimmy have bought a flat together.

Tuesday 17 May

The USA sends in the rapid deployment force into Iran. Sheffield's Chief Executive receives a memo from the Home Office telling him to prepare for war. This involves informing various civil servants of their emergency powers. The next day, we see that the government has started stockpiling food and blankets.

Saturday 21 May

The USA delivers an ultimatum to the Soviets, demanding that they withdraw from Iran by midday the following day. The government takes control of British Airways in order to move troops to their front line positions in Germany. The Royal Navy starts guarding the North Sea oil rigs.

Sunday 22 May

At midday, the USA's ultimatum deadline passes. The Americans launch a B-52 strike on the Soviet airbase at Moshad, and the Soviets defend with a single nuclear tipped air-defence missile. Americans respond with a single tactical nuclear strike on the Soviet airbase. The exchange stops. There is a shortage of food in the shops due to panic buying. Soviet and US naval forces battle in the Gulf. The British Parliament passes the Emergency Powers Act.

Tuesday 24 May

The Emergency Powers Act comes into force. This involves clearing hospitals of non-essential cases, motorways and essential trunk roads are closed to all but government traffic. Petrol stations are closed, and known and potential subversives are arrested.

Wednesday 25 May

TV and radio stations constantly play public information films also all public service vehicles, such as fire engines, ambulances and buses, are moved to safe locations.

Thursday 26 May

  • 8:32am - The four minute warning sounds, and there is widespread panic. We see Jimmy taking cover under a van. Ruth takes cover in her family shelter.

  • 8:35am - A single, large-yield warhead explodes high over the North Sea, causing a massive electro-magnetic pulse. This knocks out most electrical and electronic components in Britain and the rest of northern Europe.

  • 8:37am - The first salvo hits NATO targets. The first wave totals 80MT landing on Britain, mostly hitting military targets. The nearest missile in this wave lands about 5 miles from Sheffield; windows are broken but little over-pressure damage. We see Jimmy leave the safety of his cover and start running for Ruth's. We never see him again.

The exchange escalates; secondary targets include areas of population and industry as well as communication centres. At least two weapons detonate over Sheffield causing large-scale damage. We see Jimmy's family; his father survives with minor injuries, but his mother has third or fourth degree burns. His brother is killed by the blast wave. In the second wave, 130MT are dropped on the UK, making a grand total of 210MT. The Britain that we know is destroyed, the world as we see it has now gone.

One Week after Attack

People start leaving their makeshift shelters. There is still some government control, but this is failing fast, as just about all communications are destroyed. The local authorities have little or no food to give to people; people are dying from the effects of radiation sickness and disease.

From One Week to Two Months after Attack

Government control is failing, as they have no food to give people. People are forced into labour to try and recover what little of the harvest remains. Radiation sickness and disease are at their high points. It is a dirty, sickened world, temperature has dropped as Nuclear winter sets in. Ruth has searched for Jimmy, but has not found him.

From Two Months after Attack Onwards

We see the people struggling to live in a world full of rubble. Society is reduced to the level of pre-industrial Britain; the population is reduced to that of the Middle Ages.


Unlike many films of this genre, Threads chooses not to tip-toe around the consequences of nuclear war. Indeed, it tackles them head on. The message - if there is one - that seems to run through the story is that mankind would probably survive in some form or another, but it wouldn't be pretty. To find out more, either buy or rent the film, or nag the BBC to put it on again.

For the children of the '60s, '70s, and '80s, nuclear war was a real threat. It was something that may not have been thought about every single day, but it was something that always was there lurking in the corner of people's minds, to come out in the darkness of night when dreams turned into nightmares, and with every plane that flew over too fast or too low, with every news bulletin on television.

Remember this: the toys may be put away, but the toy box can never be closed.

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