Threads
by
Barry Hines

Threads was a TV film created by the BBC and first shown in 1984 and repeated in 1985 as part of a week of programs to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the atom bomb attacks on Japan. Threads was set in Sheffield and looks not only at the devastation done but also at the attempts by government to help the survivors. The City has a population of about 545,000 and is the 4th largest city in the UK, with chemicals, steel and Engineering being the main industries. Set in 1983 (I think) the political background is a revolution in Iran and a subsequent invasion of northern Iran by the USSR. It was introduced with these words. "In an urban society everything connects, each person's needs are feed by the skills for many others, our lives are woven together in a fabric, but the connections that make society strong also make it vulnerable"

The film follows the fortunes for 2 families the Kemps and the Becketts, Ruth Beckett and James Kemp are a courting couple and in the first scene of the film we see their parked car up on a ledge and looking down on Sheffield. It is Saturday March 5th.

Ruth in her car, looking down on the city of Sheffield

Sheffield is 17 miles away from RAF finningley, likely wartime use would be as a base for USAF phantom jets and also an RAF communication centre, and thus a high priority military target.

The Becketts waiting for the Kemps

It is now May eleventh and the Becketts are waiting for a visit from the Kemps. The TV news had just reported that a united states submarine has been attacked in the gulf. Ruth is pregnant with Jimmy's child and they are planning to move in together and get married. Meanwhile the US government has announced that they plan to send units of their rapid deployment force into western Iran, in an attempt to block any possible move towards the oil fields.

The Kemps at home Alison, the Kemps' daughter

The kemps are discussing Jimmy's forthcoming marriage. His father Bill observes that It is not a good time to be getting married in the middle of a recession. Alison is shocked by the sudden wedding plans, until she hears mention of an abortion, when all falls into place.

Jimmy and his friend Bob are discussing the international situation over a pint, when it is announced on the TV news that the US have accused the Russians of moving nuclear warheads into their new base in Iran. Bob's concluding comment was "... I'll tell you one thing, if the bomb dose drop I will be pissed out of my mind and strait underneath it when it happens..."

Jimmy Kemp and his friend Bob

Britain has emergency plans for war, if central government should ever fail power can be transferred to a network of local officials dispersed around the country. In an urban district like Sheffield there is already a designated wartime controller, he is the city's peacetime chief executive. If and when this happens depends on the crisis itself. On Saturday May 21st the MoD begins to move troops to Europe. British Airways and some cross channel shipping is commandeered for the same reason. Also there are many peace rallies up and down the country. US demands that there be a joint withdrawal from Iran by noon on Sunday May 22th

Thousends take to the streets

However reports over night indicate increasing build-ups of Russian forces along their border with Iran and in east Germany. At 1PM on Sunday US B52s strike at a Russian base in Iran with conventional weapons. Russians defend base with single nuclear air defence missile. Many B52s lost, 2Pm US retaliates with battlefield nuclear weapon, base destroyed, exchange stops.

Back in the UK, There are large outbreaks of rioting and general lawlessness. By May 24th reports of the out break of fighting between the US and soviets have reached the west and the UK parliament passes an emergency powers act. Meanwhile many people attempt to leave large population centres for the relative safety of the countryside. This movement is against government advise. Official Essential Service routes are setup to enable vital movements to continue. Known and potential subversives are arrested.

People try to get out of cities

The US carrier Kittyhawk sunk in Persian gulf, American air and naval blockade of Cuba. Many people follow government advice to build improvised fall-out shelters. Protect and survive booklets distributed, advice states that a fall-out room should be setup and provisions for the family for 14 days should be stored within it, including food and water stocks as well as a portable radio and extra battary. A 'lento' should be built out of doors, boards, etc rested against an inner wall, this should be strengthened with boxes for earth or sand or heavy furniture. The Kemps build such a structure, the Becketts decide to use the cellar.

One way to build a DIY shelter

A radio news broadcast states that "... There has been a run on tinned food sugar and other storable items that is causing shortages in some areas. A spokesman for the main supermarket chains says that fuel shortages are hindering re-supply and urged the public to calm down"

May 25th Officials for Sheffield district enter the bunker under the local Town hall. Many of these officers have had no training at all, some have discovered their emergency role only in the last few days, and almost all are unsure of their exact duties. Ruth has decided not to go into work. when her mother tries to call into Ruth's work to tell them she discovers that the telephone has been disconnected. In fact all non-essential lines have been cut, this is the UK telephone preference system being activated, that allows all but ten or one percent to be cut off at will. in order to allow hospitals, Powers firms, military bases and the like to still have a phone line.

The bunker under Sheffield town hall, just before the 'Attack Warnning Red' is given

The UK Warning and Monitoring Organisation is responsible for issuing the "four-minute warning", using the telephone lines used for the speaking clock in peacetime. The warning originates at RAF High Wycombe near London or Longley Lane near Preston, and is relayed to over 250 carrier control points in major police stations. The police then activate the powered sirens via standard local telephone lines using a very clever method of transmitting instructions on a 72KHz carrier. Over all there are some 7,000 power-operated sirens all over the UK. See UK Nuclear Attack Warnning System

These are backed up by 11,000 other warning points in rural areas, located in coastguard stations, hospitals, village shops and even pubs, these warning points sound the alarm by hand-siren. Here we see one being used outside one of the many Roc posts, These are small three man bunkers scattered all over the UK, as well as giving the alarm they are equipped to monitor blast and levels of fall-out.

A hand-siren being used outside a ROC Post

In the bunker under Sheffield town hall they have a WB1400 warning receiver, this is a small box containing a loud speaker, it is making a 'ticking' sound, a kind of nuclear 'all clear'. It is 8:00am May 26th, Here we see the Kemps taking off doors to use for their make-shift shelter, while the radio plays an information broadcast. Alison is sent to the shop to try to buy some tinned food, it is the last we ever see of her. By this time Public information films are being broadcasted almost constantly on TV and radio. I have included the sound track from one of them here (MP3 270KB)Sound This one explaines that you will need a radio in your fallout room.

The kemps building a shelter

It is 8:30am, 3:30am in Washington, over the last few days neither the president nor his senior staff will have had more than a few hours rest, this is when they may be asleep, this is when western response will be slowest. 8:30am the warning sounds, 8:35 single warhead detonated high over north sea, the energy burst knocks out power systems and most communication systems. 8:37am first salvos hit NATO military targets, including RAF Finningly. First salvo totals 80 megatons.

Here is a sound clip from the sheffield bunker as the attack warning is given (MP3 220K)Sound

The first bomb, an Air Burst on RAF Finningly

The nuclear exchange continues, strategic rather than tacitel weapons are used. That is weapons with yields measured in megatons rather than kilotons. One of these large bombs is detonated over Sheffield, probably a one megaton warhead. We see buildings exploding and milk bottles melting in the heat.

Milk bottles melting

Initial casualties are between 2.5 and 9 million. An hour and 25 minutes after the attack the first fall-out dust settles on Sheffield. Fire fighting on any large scale is unlikely. Food distribution also unlikely for at least 3-4 weeks. About two thirds of the houses in the UK are in fire zones. Almost all windows are broken and most roofs are open to the skies. In total 210 megatons fall on the UK, that is the equivalent of 3.5 tones of high explosive for every person in the country.

The first problems the Sheffield officials have is to maintain communication with other control centres and assess the scale of the damage. They have a large map on the wall, this is marked with concentric circles around the detonations. These release bands (as they are called) determine the length of time people will have to stay in their shelters.

The kemps come out of their shelter to look for their son

The Kemps emerge from their shelter to a scene of total devastation. Their Survival chances are reduced by the damage the house has sustained, this in it's turn exposes them to fall-out that they would otherwise have been protected from. They find the dead body of their youngest son Michael under rubble in the garden. The Becketts living outside the fire zone and having a cellar, still suffer radiation sickness but survive the initial effects of the attack. Ruth's grandmother who is staying with them in their basement, dies in her sleep. While her parents are removing the body Ruth decides to leave the basement. Shortly afterwards the house is raided by looters who kill her parents.

Ruth's parents listening, as the looters walk around the house.

A group of survivors (Jimmy's Father amongst them) attempt to break into a food storage depot, solders defend the depot with CS gas. (MP3 300K)Sound Detention camps are setup to cope with looters, their numbers are growing.

Finding medical help is difficult, even if you can find a doctor or other medically qualified person, without power, mains water or drug supplies there is almost no way a doctor can exercise his skill. In fact the whole UK health service (even if it were still intact) could not cope with the effects of even the one bomb that has hit Sheffield. In probably the most sickening scene in the whole film, we see a hospital, people with terrible burns and a man having his leg amputated with only a rag to bite on for anesthetic.

Planning the distribution of food stocks

The officials in the basement are as shocked by the events as anyone else, not surprisingly tempers begin to fray... "look I've got thousands of homeless people up there and I have got enough on with them, without being worried about bloody criminals" "Well you're going to have to find somewhere to put them" "well I don't know, Look shoot the buggers I don't care!". The chief Executive and the Medical officer are looking at the map on the wall "..Everybody here will be dead already, it is completely flattened. Around here 50% will still be alive, but they are as good as dead already, they have probably received a lethal dose" Here is some more dialogue from the bunker (MP3 340K)Sound

The town hall bunker has a generator and food supplies for 2 weeks, however the blast brought down all 4 floors of the building, sealing the officials in. It is hard to get lifting equipment to them, and it is many weeks before they can be dug out, they all die of suffocation.

Nuclear winter starts to set in

Hanging in the atmosphere the huge clouds of dust block out the sun's heat and light, over large parts of the northern hemisphere it starts to get dark, it starts to get cold. In the centre of large land masses like America or Russia the temperature drop maybe as much as 25 degrees centigrade. Even in Britian within days of the attack it could fall to freezing or below for long dark periods.

It is now one week after the attack. Ruth walks along the devastated streets passing charred bodies and a woman still alive but holding a dead baby. On arriving at Jimmy's house she finds Mrs Kemp dead in the Kemps make-shift shelter, takes one of Jimmy's books as a keep sake and leaves. The killers of Ruth's parents are arrested and executed. Ruth returns home to find that her parents are no longer there. A public information broadcast on the radio states that "... All able-bodied citizens, men, women and children should report for reconstruction duties commencing 08:00 tomorrow morning..."

By 4 to 6 weeks after the attack deaths from the effects of fallout are reaching their peak, disposal of bodies is difficult, digging pits by hand is simply not practical, the remaining population are to weak, fuel is to valuable to be used for cremations. There are now somewhere between 10 and 15 million unburied bodies in Britain, they in their turn give rise to epidemics.

By now most of those who can, have left cities and towns, in search of food. In the grim economics of the aftermath there are two harsh realities, a survivor who can work gets more food than one who can't, and the more who die the more food is left for the rest. Along with many others Ruth is relocated to Buxton, a town about 20 miles from Sheffield. Buxton has suffered less from the effects of the attack, there are even windows still intact. Ruth along with 3 others is allocated temporary accommodation in the home of a Mr Gorge Langly, the occupant however had other ideas!

Ruth and Bob at a feeding centre

Food stocks start to be distributed after about 4 weeks. The delay is partly organizational and partly deliberate, as there is a desire not to waste food on people who are going to die anyway. Even with supplies rationed to 1,000 calories per day stocks do not last long and it is up to the remaining population to harvest what little crops have survived the cold months.

Ruth and Jimmy's friend (Bob) find a dead sheep. After some deliberation, they choose to eat it then use its coat to keep warm. Four months after the attack, Ruth gives birth to a surprising healthy child. We see them sitting around a fire with other survivors the date is December the 25th.

By now the sky is beinning to clear and sun light (now heavy with ultraviolet) is returning. However with fuel stocks running low, this could be the last harvest performed with tractors and combine harvesters. Lack of fertilizers and the like make the growing of crops very hard.

The first few winters are so harsh that most of the young and old disappear, their protective layers of flesh are finer. The pace of the film now quickens we see Ruth and her daughter working in the fields.

Working in the fields, after the nuckear winter

The population may fall to a minimum of about 5 million some time about 8 to 10 years after the attack. Basically The country is returned to population levels and standards of living similar to those in medieval times. With the breakdown of language that is also evident among those born after the attack, learning is also going to be very difficult. One scene shows a video of a children's TV program being shown, it was obviously an attempt to help them get some structure into their speach, rather than just the one and two word phrases that most of them could manage.

It is now 10 years after the attack, Ruth is in the final stages of cancer and looks far older than her years, she dies peacefully. By this time basic electricity is in use again and we see mining and the use of steam engines. Ruth's daughter is learning how to repair clothes.

Ruth's Daughter repairing clothes

Ruth's daughter becomes pregnant. As her contractions begin, she stumbles through the devastated landscape until she finds a hostel with electricity. Her baby is stillborn and hideously mutated.

It would be interesting to know the effects on countries not directly attacked, that is ones only affected by milled radioactive fall out and less nuclear winter effects. Would countries like Switzerland do better? Having full scale shelter programs, or would this simply mean that there would just be more people sharing the same tiny food stocks? It has been said that if people fight world war 3 with nuclear weapons, they will fight world war 4 with sticks and stones!


Acting Armageddon (The Making of Threads)

Unfortunately it is a fine day on 'Curbar Edge' in the Peak District National park. Almost too fine for filming Threads. A dark cloudy day would have been best. The camera crew have fitted filters to cut out the sharp sunlight and the props department have spread stage snow over rocks and heather. They are filming a scene set one year after the attack.

'No smiling faces, please,' requests producer and director Mike Jackson as several from the coach-loads of extras cheerfully turn there faces to the sun. 'Remember you are all refugees from the city of Sheffield, six weeks after the attack. This is the peak of radiation sickness. I want some of you to stumble -- and some of you to actually keel over and give up, and please don't forget to shiver.' Dutifully, the refugees shut out the sun and the faint hum of weekend traffic and stumble forwards in their worn and shabby coats. They clutch their valuables in supermarket bags or drag them in makeshift carts. It is surprising how natural the volunteers have taken to their task.

'They know they can't exaggerate', says Barry Hines, the local writer who has scripted Threads. 'We held a meeting for volunteers in the ballroom of Sheffield City Hall, We expected a few dozen, but 1,100 people turned up. I have been both touched and depressed when ever I have watched the filming. People will not have seen a film like this before. A lot of people saw The Day After but they could dissociate from it because it portrayed an American experience. The War Game was good but it is out of date now.'

It is difficult in fact to be up to date. Hines was continually having to revise his script as new information came to light. On this very day of filming the WHO released a report stating that a one megaton bomb dropped on London would kill 1.8 million people outright. Despite the cheery assertion of one St Johon Ambulance Brigade man on duty at the filming that 'I would have an important medical role after a war' -- most experts predict that no health service in the world could hope to continue to function.

There has been a rather optimistic belief maintained by some government officials that after the first few weeks survivors are going to come out of their shelters with picks over their shoulders and set to work on re-building Britain. Both Jackson and Hines spent a week at the Home Office training centre for 'official survivors' Estingwold in Yorkshire. 'We sat in on one of their courses.' says Barry Hines. 'We had our eyes opened on how disorganised it would be'.

Hines sensed a barely suppressed disquiet at Easingwold - the participants understood that they were merely simulating war, with a clean shirt and three meals a day. Would they leave their wives and children for the limited safety of the bunkers? Would their good humour survive the weeks or even months of incarceration? Would they be fit to rule? 'some just shrugged their shoulders and say "It'll never happen", Others, and this is the most common view - said, "If it happens let me be right under the first bomb." But as the course progressed they became more thoughtful, nobody came out of that week unchanged.'

And None of the cast and 'extras', too, came out of filming unchanged. They had come as close, perhaps as anyone in the UK to 'experiencinng' a third world war. I have included the Radio Times Cover (576K) from the week Threads was first Broadcast.


The BBC post attack Broadcasting plans.

The national anthem was deemed too solemn, the disco hit Stayin' Alive rejected for being too frivolous. BBC executives preferred the music of Julie Andrews when they chose programmes to be aired if Britain came under nuclear attack.

The BBC, distributed a supply of comedy, drama and religious programmes to an underground network of radio stations intended to maintain morale while the survivors of a nuclear blast sheltered in their cellars. The cache, packed in black boxes, included The Sound of Music, Andrews's 1965 hit.

The secret schedule was intended to be broadcast for up to 100 days of nuclear conflict. The radio stations, equipped with iron rations, tennis tables and bunk beds, were maintained until 1993.

Peter Donaldson, Radio 4's chief announcer, was designated the official "voice of doom". He recorded a warning of impending nuclear attack, which was to be broadcast on all television and radio stations. It was accompanied by "Dalek" music and strong pulses of light.

The 20 underground stations were controlled from Wood Norton, a mansion near Evesham, not far from Worcester. Some turned down the opportunity of serving the nation because they were not allowed to take their families with them. One insider said: "I can't blame them for deciding there were better ways to go than to sit in a bunker with a group of local radio engineers."

Jim Black, a former BBC executive, assembled a schedule of classic radio comedy, including Round the Horn, Sorry, I Haven't a Clue, and Hancock's Half Hour. Drama was culled from The Afternoon Play and Thirty Minute Theatre. Black admitted that some BBC managers refused to take the project seriously. "We had to run occasional trials to create a sense of realism," he said.


Chas Newkey-Burden writes for a number of magazines including Loaded, The Big Issue, Time Out and Total Football. He lists Threads as his favourite film of all time, even though he admits he can barely stand watching it. "It turned me into what I am today," he says. "A vehemently anti-nuclear, paranoid mess, harbouring a strange obsession with radioactive sheep." Earlier this year, Chas wrote the following article about Threads in Loaded magazine. He is currently working on a new project about nuclear paranoia and the presence of nuclear war in popular culture.
Great Moments In Fright Nuclear TV Drama - By Chas Newkey-Burden

Nuclear missiles were never feted for their subtlety or charm, but when I sat down as a 12-year-old lad to watch a film about them, I wasn't expecting the visual and emotional onslaught I received. Threads was a life-changing moment for a generation of youngsters and the peak of a decade of nuclear paranoia.

The '80s had begun with the government distributing a public information booklet called Protect and survive. It instructed the great British populace in the fine art of building nuclear bomb shelters from an ingenious combination of books, doors, towels and Lego. All very Blue Peter. It also assured us: "When you hear the all-clear, this means there is no longer an immediate danger from air attack and you may resume normal activities."

For those of us in any doubt at all about what exactly constituted 'normal activities' in the aftermath of a nuclear strike, Threads offered a graphic account. A comprehensive destruction of society, diseased survivors fighting over the right to eat dead, plutonium-rich sheep, casualties having limbs sawn off without anaesthetic in makeshift hospitals. Not forgetting, of course, the stillborn babies, burning cats, formation vomiting and those mutilated characters tiling a barren earth under a nuclear winter sky. This was truly horrific television, even more terrifying than Grange Hill bully Gripper or those uncompromising 'Don't Play With Fireworks' ads.

As if in sympathy with the radiation stricken cast, I literally threw up with fear while watching Threads. And it was only my close proximity to a toilet bowl that prevented me from soiling my pants. Although my generation was aware of truly catastrophic events, most, like the Nazi holocaust, were well in the past; whereas the events depicted here were in the future, at a date to be arranged - quite possibly next week. Make no mistake about it, as far as we were concerned during the '80s, it was merely a case of 'when' not 'if' the bomb dropped. For months afterwards we walked around stiff with fear, every passing plane momentarily inspected before normal breathing rate could be resumed. I had an ugly row with my family the day after Threads was broadcast. With the benefit of hindsight, perhaps it was reasonable for Dad to want to keep the door on his garage. And I suppose Mum really was too busy cooking the tea to drive up to the builders' merchants and procure those sandbags. I guess I shouldn't have been so disappointed that I didn't finish building that nuclear bomb shelter. It was hardly the end of the world, was it? Chas Newkey-Burden


Nuclear Weapons Yield

The most widely used standard for measuring the power of nuclear weapons is "yield," expressed as the quantity of chemical explosive (TNT) that would produce the same energy release. The first atomic weapon which leveled Hiroshima in 1945, had a yield of 13 kilotons; that is, the explosive power of 13,000 tons of TNT. (The largest conventional bomb dropped in World War II contained about 10 tons of TNT.)

Since Hiroshima, the yields or explosive power of nuclear weapons have vastly increased. The world's largest nuclear detonation, set off in 1962 by the Soviet Union, had a yield of 58 megatons--equivalent to 58 million tons of TNT. A modern ballistic missile may carry warhead yields up to 20 or more megatons.

Even the most violent wars of recent history have been relatively limited in terms of the total destructive power of the non-nuclear weapons used. A single aircraft or ballistic missile today can carry a nuclear explosive force surpassing that of all the non-nuclear bombs used in recent wars. The number of nuclear bombs and missiles the superpowers now possess runs into the thousands.


Why did I write this page? well, aside from wanting the film to be known to a wider audience, I feel that in so far as people think about nuclear war at all, they either believe that 'it can never happen' or that 'everyone will die instantly'. The former may be true, Threads shows us that the latter is not. I would like to thank Chris Arnsby for help with some of the pictures. This page is still under divelopment, I will change the Protect and Survive sound track from time to time, and add some new pictures shortly so return soon! Last update Jan 3rd 2002

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