Friday, December 23, 2016
WINTER OF DISCONTENT: Threads
Spoilers throughout. In the increasingly urgent series of public information broadcasts made by an ineffectual government as global events escalate towards nuclear war, the exhortation “stay at home” – backed up with threats that unoccupied houses will be seized by the government and rehousing refused to those moving elsewhere in the country – becomes a mantra of sorts. This is the key to ‘Threads’, Mick Jackson’s unforgettable TV movie on the horrors of nuclear war. Its first half focuses specifically on the domestic, with the momentous political events relayed through newspaper headlines and news bulletins. Barry Hines’s script sketches in a complex global scenario with astounding economy; other writers would have fashioned an entire feature from the material and not even given a thought to the ordinary folk whose lives are about to be devastated.
The second half savagely eradicates the concept of home as a safe place – a working class family perish because their fallout shelter is adequate; a middle class family survive longer because their house has a basement. Not that this prevents them from being murdered by looters. Later, a crowd gather outside the gated premises being used to store foodstuffs and demand entry; the leader of a team of armed guards advises them to go back to their homes; less than a minute later, he’s directing his men to fire tear gas at them. Later still, as society unravels – the title refers to the ties that both join together a society and leave it vulnerable to attack – a group of refugees plodding across a bleak landscape are strafed by a low-flying light aircraft from which an amplified voice barks at them to go home. Raised fingers and clenched fists are offered to the plane by way of response.
The concept of home infuses ‘Threads’ from the outset. Its nominal protagonists are Jimmy Kemp (Reece Dinsdale) and Ruth Beckett (Karen Meagher), whose respective parents – David Brierly and Rita May, and Henry Moxon and June Broughton – aren’t too impressed to learn of Ruth’s pregnancy and the couple’s intent to marry. Objections are strongest on the Beckett side as Mr and Mrs B are middle class and hoped for better for their only child than jack-the-lad joiner Jimmy. Parental disapproval, awkward in-law introductions, and Jimmy and Ruth’s attempt to make a home out of a dismal flat occupies the first 40 minutes or so of the film. Gradually, though, the various characters become aware of how serious things are becoming on the world stage. Jimmy admonishes a bartender for turning off a particularly portentous news update. Ruth suddenly bursts into tears whilst decorating the flat. Jimmy’s father does his best to improvise a bomb shelter from a mattress, a kitchen door removed from its hinges and a pile of rammel stacked on top of it, all the time fretting that he didn’t pay enough attention to the ‘Protect and Survive’ broadcasts.
Meanwhile, powers are devolved to local councils in the event of the worst case scenario. Sheffield (the city was still a major manufacturing hub when ‘Threads’ was made) city council supremo Clive Sutton (Harry Beety) packs his wife off to a safe haven – which turns out to be not so safe at all – and installs an emergency operations team in the city hall basement. Contingencies for post-nuclear survival and societal regeneration are the order of the day, but before any real progress can be made, tensions in the US, Russia and Iran collide and the opening salvos are fired in a conflict that escalates within hours to nuclear deployment.
Jackson’s portrayal of the effects on an everyday social grouping is devastating. The citizenry go from panic buying (a brief but effective scene has the manager of a small supermarket unrepentantly hike the prices of tinned goods) to outright panic. When the first strike hits, the initial response is disbelief. Shoppers stop dead in their tracks. A fireball hangs like something obscene between two civic buildings. “Jesus Christ, they’ve done it,” Jimmy gasps; “they’ve done it!” Two scatological moments capture the awful indignity of facing the unthinkable: a shopper in Sheffield town centre gazes wide-eyed at the horizon, barely aware that she’s pissing herself; Jimmy’s father blurts “Bloody hell!” as he hoists his trousers and stumbles out of the toilet.
I said earlier that Jimmy and Ruth were nominal protagonists. Jimmy definitely so as he exits the narrative at this point, caught in a desperate race to get back to Ruth. It’s the only moment in the film that’s even remotely melodramatic and it’s probable that Hines and Jackson included it to rob the audience of any semblance of a comfort zone. Jimmy has already been revealed as fundamentally less than a romantic hero (his best mate persuades him to be his wingman when a couple of girls in a pub give them the eye; Jimmy ends up shagging one of them in his car); now he’s written out of the narrative entirely, and shortly afterwards, Ruth leaves the confines of her parents’ basement; and after that all bets are off.
Ruth’s surreal progress (if that’s not too proactive a word) through a destroyed Sheffield and – eventually – further north is contrasted with the degeneration of Sutton’s command centre. He and his team are trapped underground after city hall is reduced to rubble. Supplies run low. Tensions increase. Tempers fray. The entombed basement becomes a microcosm of government as a whole, and to call Sutton and his councillors woefully unprepared is an understatement on an entirely new scale. Arrogance and entitlement ooze to the forefront: support services are refused to those “who are going to die anyway”, yet the councillors scream down the phone that rescue teams are too slow in assisting them.
Moral ugliness plays off against visceral ugliness. One of the looters responsible for the death of Ruth’s parents is gunned down. Militia – many of them minor officials with no military training or experience – are armed and given ad hoc powers of life and death. “We’re going to get shot by a traffic warden,” a protestor muses bitterly at one point. Hospitals, deprived of electricity and essential supplies, revert to nightmarish Victorian asylums, full of screaming patients, botched surgeries, blood splashes over the walls and viscera underfoot. But even this vision of healthcare is a comfort compared to the circumstances in which Ruth finally gives birth: in a filthy outhouse in an abandoned freeholding, a chained up and possibly rabid dog snarling and straining at its chain outside.
Money is replaced as a currency by food, which the government partitions out as a reward to “workers” (those fit enough for basic agricultural tasks) or withholds from the elderly or non-able-bodied as punishment for what is perceived as their social uselessness. Those at death’s door doss down in cemeteries. A pack of cigarettes is traded for a bottle of whisky. Insensation or death are the two best options.
As time passes and small semblances of social cohesion emerge – coal mining is resumed; there is some basic provision of electric – one senses that it’s too late: people have become feral; language has devolved; the threads that connect people are few and far between. The coda has Ruth’s daughter giving birth to her own child – a product of rape – only to be handed a stillborn bloody mess in a bundle of dirty rags. The film ends on a freeze-frame of her horror-struck face. She isn’t even allowed a howl of despair.
It’s grim. But we all knew that, right? ‘Threads’ has a reputation for sheer existential awfulness that makes Bergman’s trilogy on faith looked like a gag reel; that makes ‘The Night Porter’ look like ‘The Producers’; that makes Tarkovsky at his bleakest look like ‘The Wizard of Oz’. ‘Threads’ is grim, disturbing; brutal in its commitment to documentary realism. It even takes away from you the ability to comfortingly remind yourself that it’s just fiction. The clipped tones of the narrator are like a BBC newsreader giving you an update on the worst possible news report. The statistics and sociological facts that occasionally punctuate the narrative, tapped out onscreen like a telegraph, emphasize the documentary style. Thirty-two years on from traumatizing the seven million British TV viewers who constituted its original audience, ‘Threads’ has lost none of its power. Sure, the fashions and cultural touchstones may have changed, but it never feels like a time-capsule. Quite the opposite: it feels like a series of dispatches from the not-too-distant future.