Threads: 15 Horrifying Moments From The Nuclear Drama


Threads was a 1984 BBC2 drama/documentary which tried to predict what would happen to Britain if nuclear war broke out and follows the path taken by Ruth Kemp and her family. It's a show which is regularly feted as one of the most bleak, disturbing and realistic pieces of drama to ever air not just on British TV, but in the history of the entire planet's televisual output. And, no matter how many times I watch it, the unflinching honesty of Threads leaves me feeling incredibly disconsolate, but completely engrossed.

It's a rare TV show that can tap into all our fears with such brutal realism, but it's rarer that a narrative has such a searing emotional intensity that it removes us from the confines of comfortable viewing due its proximity to our worst fears. And that's why I decided it was time to detail what I considered the 15 most horrifying moments from Threads in order to re-iterate the show's position as a disturbing, but masterful exercise in emotional TV.

1. Warning Sirens


With political tensions and the threat of war increasing rapidly by the day, the first third of Threads lays down a foundation of anxiety for the troubled citizens of the UK. However, it's not until the warning sirens sound that the immediacy of the threat becomes truly apparent and the panic stricken public are forced to flee and find shelter from the approaching armageddon.

2. Mushroom Cloud Over Sheffield


Flat caps and whippets are a common sight in Sheffield, but you don't expect to see a nuclear mushroom cloud looming menacingly on the horizon. However, with the first wave of nuclear onslaught now initiated, it's a terrifying slice of reality and as the toxic flames rise high into the atmosphere, Britain's history has changed forever as a new dawn of destruction and desolation has arrived.

3. Woman Who Urinates On Herself


Poor old Anne Sellors, she only ever managed to secure one acting credit which would be recognised by IMDB and it's the unfortunately titled 'Woman Who Urinates On Herself'. Terrible credit aside, it's a pivotal moment in Threads and the loss of control over the smooth muscles of the bladder highlight the intense sense of fear and helplessness that the nuclear attack generates.

4. A Mother's Horror


As the nuclear exchanges escalate, Mrs Kemp frantically arranges a government endorsed makeshift shelter comprised of old doors and mattresses - unlikely to withstand a strong gale let alone a nuclear blast. However, what's even more terrifying is when she suddenly realises that she's missing her son, Michael, who is cowering in his beloved aviary. The resulting maternal anguish is a disturbing sight and captures the true horror of the situation as megaton after megaton of nuclear energy pounds Britain.

5. Melting ET Doll


All ET wanted to do was phone home and get back to his people, but in Threads he comes to a particularly sticky end. Well, it's not the ET, it's just an ET toy but it's a symbolic image and as molten plastic drips down ET's face it communicates the loss of innocence the world has just suffered.

6. Michael's Trainer


Following the nuclear blasts, Michael's severely burned parents stumble out into what's left of their yard to search for their son. After frantically digging through the rubble of what remains of Michael's aviary, his parents' worst fears are confirmed as they're confronted by Michael's lifeless leg sticking out of the debris. It's a disturbing image which hits home hard and underlines the emotional havoc that a nuclear attack could wreak.

7. Menacing Food Control Officer



A week after the bombs have landed, what's left of the government is trying to slowly piece together some sense of law and order. Food, naturally, needs to be governed carefully, so specialist stockpiles are set which are guarded by menacing, armed officers all clad in black. It's a sinister uniform which strips them of all sense of soul and reflects the nihilistic air which is now infecting society in a similar manner to the falling radiation

8. Charred Corpse


As pregnant Ruth finally emerges from the rubble of her family home, she's confronted by death at every turn. Where her street had once been populated by the social hustle bustle of families trying to make their way in the world, it's now been robbed of all its humanity. The street now serves as an unexpected graveyard for the unlucky souls exposed to the full effects of the nuclear blasts with charred corpses littering the street. And one corpse in particular still has the gnarled fear and terror of death etched into its unidentifiable face.

9. Feasting Upon Contaminated Sheep


Dirty, cold, homeless and hungry, Ruth finds herself on the moors where a dead sheep is the only available source of sustenance. Despite appearing to offer some brief salvation and the chance to satisfy her aching stomach, Ruth knows, deep down, that the sheep has died from radiation poisoning and munching down on it is only going to cause her severe health problems in the future. Such is her predicament, though, there's no point planning for an uncertain future and she has to force down the raw, contaminated meat.

10. Ruth Gives Birth


With the NHS consigned to the status of a relic from before the bombs dropped, medical care is virtually non-existent. And this leads to Ruth going through a primeval labour process without any of the sophisticated techniques on hand to aid the birth or relieve her pain. Despite these distressing restrictions, Ruth's resilience sees her through and there's even time for a brief smile of joy before the reality of the situation returns and she has to savagely bite through the umbilical cord.

11. First Winter


The first winter following the attacks is a harrowing season where hypothermia and radiation sickness combine to obliterate the young and old as their thin skin offers little protection. As a result, we're shown an unsettling montage of corpses littering the snowy landscape which hammers home the 'survival of the fittest' set of rules now in place. And, over the course of the next few winters, the young and the old gradually disappear and become rare sights in what's left of society.

12. Rats For Dinner


Where rats were once symbolic of filth and disease, a year after the attacks they represent the meagre food choices on offer in Britain. A rambling street seller offers this fare up to the desperate and starving people still staggering around the streets. Ruth takes a number of these vermin away in a tatty Gateway bag to put together a depressing meal which will provide barely any of the essential nutrients her body craves.

13. Ruth's Death


10 years on from the nuclear blasts and Britain is still struggling to rebuild any semblance of organised society. Ruth and her daughter, Jane, tend the land under the intense ultraviolet rays generated by the damaged atmosphere, but the journey for Ruth is finally at an end as she collapses to the floor and dies. Despite only being in her 30s at this point, the hardships of radiation, the harsh elements and intense mental stress have aged her by several decades leaving her with pale skin, cataracts and lifeless, straw like hair.

14. Theft and Rape


With Jane now an orphan, she struggles to survive in an uncertain landscape of ruined cities and harsh living. Forced into stealing food with similarly displaced youngsters, one particular food theft has tragic consequences as one of the young men is shot dead whilst the other rapes Jane in a desolate barn as they fight over food. It's made all the more disturbing by the fractured, damaged dialect which has arisen as language falls by the wayside in a broken society.

15. Stillbirth


There's no happy ending to Threads and it ends on a particularly bleak note with Jane going through a traumatic labour. Sadly, due to the fact that she herself was born into an era of intense radiation poisoning, Jane's baby is born stillborn. The final shot is a freeze frame of Jane screaming as she's handed her lifeless, silent baby and sums up the true horror of the nuclear aftermath.

So, what else do you consider to be nightmare inducing from Threads? And for those of you who watched it when it aired, what do you remember about that initial viewing? Please let me know in the comments below!

CONVERSATION

11 comments:

  1. The reason I joined CND. Threads was so terrifying that Charlie Brooker rightly came up with a new word to describe its fear inducing, trouser soiling nature; 'shittifying'

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    1. I can't even begin to comprehend how terrifying it must have been to watch during the Cold War. Thankfully, at the time, I was rolling round in a nappy and soiling myself for much more innocent reasons.

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  2. When the Council employees are discovered dead. That's what stays with me.

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    1. Ah, yes! And they've all suffocated whilst entombed in the rubble of their 'safe' shelter. Horrifying.

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  3. I'm from Sheffield so have watched Threads a few times.There is abit of dark humour in it,like the bomb going off when Mr Kemp is sat on the toilet!

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    1. I have to admit, that famous publicity still of the traffic warden with the bandaged face makes me giggle, as it reminds me of Mr. Smith from 'Blackadder Goes Forth'.

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    2. Yes, he does! Excellent spot!

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  4. Without question, the scariest film that I've ever seen. It's the focus on these
    quotidian details that makes it so terrifying - What if that branch of BHS that you've walked past hundreds of times was blown to pieces by a nuclear shockwave? What if that bottle of milk on the doorstep just melted in the heat of a radioactive blast? What if a video of that BBC Schools programme were the one thing that post-apocalyptic society had in order to retrieve the merest shred of civil communication?

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  5. 'Twas definitely a strange omission from Channel 4's '100 Scariest Moments' in 2003, especially as those 'Protect & Survive' PIFs and 1965's 'The War Game' (which had been suppressed at the time and only saw a public release in the wake of 'Threads') made the list.

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  7. I am from the States, but saw this in 1985 when it aired twice that year, once on the national PBS stations, and once on Ted Turner's network stations -- no one would sponsor it or want their adverts on it so Turner just paid for the whole thing himself, because he knew the film was that important, and devastating. Needless to say, it devastated everyone who watched it, very much including 16 year old me. It was indeed absolutely horrifying to watch during those years, that real peak of the Cold War with Reagan, Thatcher, and Andropov (AND Chernenko AND finally Gorbachev, God bless his jelly-stained head!). Threads literally sickened me, on first viewing, and yet I couldn't look away. For days afterwards I felt like I was in a daze, anxious, ill. I could not sleep, or sleep very long, without vivid nightmares of my own family enduring those same scenes of catastrophe, and in fact for many years after those dreams would pop up now and again, as if to remind me that we're never really out of the woods when it comes to nuclear weapons and fallible leaders on a round, finite little globe. The second time I watched it was a few months later, because I forced myself to face it again, and I am glad I did. It actually helped me put things in perspective and started my ever-since devotion to finding some lasting peace in this world. Also, bizarrely, I actually (on second viewing) found myself so identifying with Jane (Ruth and Jimmy's daughter) that I quite honestly fell head over heels for her (call me a nutcase, what can I say? 16 is a volatile age!). Many years later I found that the actress who played her, Victoria O'Keefe, had died some years after Threads was made, in a motorway car crash, and even after the decades since I'd seen it, I felt a deep, heavy grief of loss and sorrow for a life cut so short. But back in 1985, it was indeed an absolutely terrifying film, and even as I was wretching the very first time I saw it, I was thinking about how incredibly important it is, and what an achievement it had been in film, especially TV films. I have ever since believed that every newly seated world leader should be made to watch it in their first month in office. It's that moving, and that important. Bless you Mick Jackson, thank you Barry Hines... and rest in peace, Victoria.

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