The Void

Kevin Donnelly on Threads

First published February 2002

Threads first aired on September 1984 on BBC2.

It is an apocalyptic drama based on the premise that a Soviet invasion of Iran triggers a US counter incursion. Events begin to spiral, and naval war breaks out, followed by blockades of Cuba and Berlin, while troops mass on the West German border. Then out leaks the news that the US and Soviets have already exploded nuclear devices in Iran. The world takes up the black art of civil defence. – for a day. Alongside this is the romance and engagement of a young Sheffield couple, Ruth and Jimmy. The film follows their lives as the crisis deepens.

Someone wrote that this is the sort of drama you can only watch once. I disagree. As a pessimist with millenarian tendencies I have enjoyed Threads upwards of 15 times since May. Since 11 September 2001 many Threads type phrases have found a new place in the media: “Ground Zero”; “air attack”; “fallout”; “blast zone” and so on. The fear of nuclear attack may to some extent have receded but the language lives on as we voice perhaps subconsciously the residue of our upbringings.

The first point usually made, that Threads is a product of the deteriorating US/Soviet relationship in the early ’80s, and of the Thatcher government’s warlike policies, needs to be supplemented. Thursday 26 May is much, much more. What began in August 1914 is now complete, with the decimated population spewing into their handkerchiefs from their inner refuges. The Great and the Super Powers have been destroyed. Threads is therefore the end of the era of madness and the Age of Extremes. Its characters are the last players in the 20th century drama. You thought it was over, with your life to lead: and here it is again, the curse of the age, to destroy it utterly. The sweep of history is embedded in this local drama of relationships and melting milk bottles. It is also the ripple effect of consequences, and how life spirals out of control, through the volatility of conscious existence itself (how the shadowed other so tortures the world it destroys itself) until it embraces the void.

This void is more poetic than real: there are survivors of this ending. Life manages to continue more as living death than anything after the war. It is tragic and laughable to compare World War II with World War III, no more so than in the aftermaths of both wars. The progress we believed we were making since the 19th century is smashed and here we are – where do I get food in a hostile environment? How do I keep clean? How do I keep warm? There are no answers and Threads attacks our ignorant lives in its depiction of the survivors smashing open tins on rocks to get at some food. We have lost our ability to survive; it brought us to cataclysm and it cannot help us in the days or weeks after.

Yes, when I was a little boy, at the time of Threads people really did think the Russians and the Americans might blow us all to bits. But did they really think it or was it just there; behind the affluent glitter, and behind the space race too – Kennedy is not so different from Reagan? Look at our rockets. What will they do to you with a 20MT warhead on the top of them?

Nuclear war is the ultimate fear of the post 1945 generation of course; but Threads plays on fear itself. To face Threads is as much to face the power of your imagination as it is to watch TV. Its geographical and temporal claustrophobia squeezes your thought into a nugget of fear – and there you have it, whatever your fear is, Threads, through its relentless ordinariness will find it for you. Jon Pertwee always said that an alien invasion of Tooting Bec was more frightening than events taking place on another world: and the savage intrusion into life – real life – of this monster of the imagination is the most unsettling thing about the drama. The mirror it holds up is too clear for comfort; clearer by far than the unrecognisable images from The Day After.

To watch Threads clearly you need to be without your political prejudices. It is not an anti-Tory tract, although clearly it is sceptical of the arms race. Blame is somehow absent from the morality of the film. As if in the words of the hand-wringing C of E clergyman, “we are all to blame”. Perhaps blame is too bourgeois a concept for this: that it has happened is the one and only fact that is important. However, the futility of the whole CND proposition is that US and Soviet war strategy involves NATO invasion – or destruction – of non nuclear capable states in pre-emptive strikes. Armed or not Britain, it may safely be said, would have to go. The CND campaigner in the drama/documentary struggles to communicate the true scale of nuclear devastation to an unbelieving public, for words will not do anymore. Even pictures, not being real, will not do. In some ways the wretched Public Information Films, as low budget cartoons, are the closest to the fear in their plainness. They, more than anything, tell it like it is: mushroom clouds, bodybags, fallout, the inner refuge.

Our friend the television is the harbinger of war in this drama. If you like, the final act of state control is the repeated playing of PIFs on all channels. The goggle box now says things like “If anyone dies while you are kept in your fallout room, move the body to another room in the house.” Can you imagine it? Can you?

I doubt it. From Hollyoaks to that PIF is many steps too far. And Threads sends you there so quickly you are as baffled as the poor actors in the last act of the C20. I understand it no better than Jimmy’s dad (“Hope you’ve turned the gas off … we don’t want the whole street blowing up while you’re away”), which is the point of course.

“Skeletons and skulls … of different creatures.” Television returns after 10 years, as one of the indicators of a reviving society. All there is are some scratchy videotapes of Words and Pictures with which to educate a radiation damaged youth. In this post apocalyptic world, there is only the vaguest nation state, but the same politicians on the radio (do we learn nothing – even from our own extermination?). There are the mediaeval conditions of life and work, but none of the mediaeval mind’s hope in salvation. There is no sign of salvation; the final image of the film is the summation of its central themes: death is implied if not actually stated by birth, with or without atomic war, but especially with it. Ruth’s daughter gives birth herself, to a stillborn, mutilated child. Birth is the worst thing that can happen, death only the second.

But in fact, critical niceties do not do justice to the scale of the end. If you watch Threads as an academic, as I have partly done here, then you are failing in your duty to yourself. But I am as much a product of my past as the world of Threads, and I try to hide behind my tinkertoy symmetries and romantic ideas. It is harder to put those away than it seems.

Threads demands access above all to your fears. I have tried to refuse: but have finally found myself with end-soaked dreams and the persistent sense that the legacy of 2001 is unfinished.