Scare on a Shoestring: A Look at Threads

A gory picture of Sheffield before, during and after a nuclear attack

  • Starring: Reece Dinsdale, Karen Meagher;
  • Co-featuring: David Brierley, Rita May, Jane Hazlegrove;
  • Narrator: Paul Vaughan;
  • Companies: BBC/Nine Network/Western-World Television Inc.;
  • Transmitted: Sunday, 23 September 1984, BBC Two, 2130 hours;
  • Writer: Barry Hines;
  • Director and Producer: Mick Jackson.

WARNING: this piece may contain spoilers.

Britain in 1984 was hardly the best year for one’s formative years, mine included. Fellow children of the 1980s were affected by the rigours of high unemployment. There was also the Miners’ Strike; service cuts thanks to the introduction of rate capping. A certain Yorkshire group was kept off the top spot by a Liverpudlian group singing about the threat of nuclear war. The promotional video, produced by Godley and Creme, saw lookalikes of Ronald Reagan and Konstantin Chernenko slugging it out in a pit.

Whereas Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s focus on Soviet/American relations was a tad trivialised, Threads focused on the effects of nuclear war on a human theme. It took a typical English city for its template instead of the city of London, which in our case was Sheffield. Along with Manchester, Sheffield was also a Nuclear Free Zone, and Sheffield wasn’t a million miles from Barry Hines’ familiar stamping ground, Barnsley (Kes, 1969).

Synopsis

Threads focused on the fortunes of two families, the Kemps and the Becketts. Both of which going about the minutiae of normal life at the start: paper rounds, school, full-time jobs, having a pint or two, and cooking the Sunday dinner.

Early on, we cut to Lesley Judd on newscasting duties, giving us the lowdown on USA/USSR relations (or lack of them) in Iran with a bulletin shown on a portable TV in Jimmy’s (Reece Dinsdale) local pub on a typical Thursday. The first signs of concern set in among fellow drinkers, but not until U.S. action is ramped up.

Shortly after it details Sheffield City Council’s role in preparing for a nuclear attack; cue shots of teletype machines, GPO couriers, the now demolished ‘Eggbox’ and a dossier detailing their roles. In spite of this, Ruth (Karen Meagher) and Jimmy settle in to their new home which overlooks the highest tower of the Hyde Park estate. Jimmy is introduced to Ruth’s mother (June Broughton) at her house in Hillsborough.

Somehow the peace is interrupted as the U.S. steps up its attack on Soviet forces in Iran. Cue panic buying, accusations of profiteering over the price of a tin of fruit, and RAF Finningley on red alert. Peace rallies and demonstrations take place on Sheffield’s main shopping street, The Moor. From then on, all necessary steps are taken by central government in advance of nuclear war. This meant subversives being incarcerated; drivers being turn away from roads on account of, for instance, the A1(M) being a Essential Service Route for military and emergency vehicles; and hospitals being cleared for casualties. Shops are ransacked, a scene mistakenly identified by the Kemps as the pubs turning out.

By this point, it was clear nuclear war was inevitable. We see a sobbing Ruth stripping wallpaper in Ruth’s and Jimmy’s new home with the dulcet tones of Patrick Allen on their radio. Wartime broadcasting measures were in place, as seen in Sheffield Town Hall before that scene, and in the Rediffusion shop on The Moor shortly after.

With the shortest of notice possible our fellows from Sheffield City Council are introduced to the joys of RGHQs, post-fallout preparations and resettlement. Moments into doing so, comes the city’s first attack warning. Chaos ensues. Ruth tries to phone in sick prior to her pregnancy, but all ‘non-essential’ calls were blocked under the Government Telephone Preference Scheme. The Kemps start tearing the doors down for their fallout shelter; elsewhere, Jimmy is bombarded by request for wood at his place of employment, the Don Joinery.

There follows the Four Minute Warning at 8.35am. Workers are seen dashing around The Moor in blind panic, in search of a shelter (the basement entrance to The Moor Co-op and the Hole In The Road may have been pretty rammed). Cue shots of explosions, power lines catching fire, milk floats crashing into terraced houses and a mushroom cloud seen between Debenhams and Woolworths on The Moor.

In just a matter of minutes, 120 megatons of nuclear bomb wreaks havoc. We see Jimmy running away to find Ruth who is at her parents’ house in Hillsborough. The blast impacts on the Kemps’ more humble abode; the flats on Hillsborough near the Owlerton Stadium takes a hit as does Woolworths; the town hall extension’s blast also breaches their bunker.

The next eighty minutes of the film makes for unsettling viewing, a point where some viewers in 1984 may have turned over from to watch a profile of George Burns. We see the family units asunder as they cope with depleting supplies. Our fellows underneath the rubble of the Eggbox struggle with communications and deploying its fellows to given sites. Two weeks after the impact, survivors would report for ‘reconstruction duties’ – some of which incarcerated in the hard court of Dore and Totley Tennis Club.

Later we see how the NHS’s provision is affected with gory scenes inside and outside The Crescent, Buxton. The rest of the film follows Ruth into a post-nuclear Peak District; firstly with her being allocated lodgings, only to be thrown out by a reluctant elderly man. Then we see her living rough as the transition to normality is slower than envisaged. Her new baby was born in December with a tied German Shepherd dog witness to the birth instead of Jimmy. The impact of nuclear weapons sees a ruined ozone layer with greater ultra violet light affecting crops and increased instance of cancers.

By 1993, ten years after the attack in May (the film is set in 1983), the UK population is at Medieval levels. Ruth’s daughter, Jane (Victoria O’Keefe) survives her, but her adolescence is somewhat stymied by the post-nuclear Britain. Instead of Take That or East 17 posters and a primary school place in Arbourthorne, we see her being taught in a makeshift school. In a dilapidated lecture hall, TV time was a VHS cassette of Words and PicturesSkeletons and Skulls of all the episodes they could have chosen.

Three years after her mother’s death [1996], we see Jane and two boys caught stealing food, which leads us to some the three fighting over their booty. Months later – in probably one of the most harrowing endings – we see a pregnant Jane find a makeshift hospital. The nurse says there’s ‘no time for babbies’ though within moments, Jane receives her baby only to find it stillborn. The final scene sees her holding the baby and she screams, with the moment suspended prior to the end credits.

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30 years since its original release, Threads still has the power to scare today’s audiences. Its special effects may be more Hollinwood than Hollywood, but the human interest approach made for an accessible yet chilling film. As stated by the female speaker in the peace rally (played by Maggie Ford) near The Moor, the film proves one point: nobody wins in a nuclear war.

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The cast:

When auditions began, the director floated the idea of having a few names from Coronation Street. Instead, they opted for relatively unknown local actors and advertised in the The Star. 1,100 people arrived at City Hall, Sheffield with extras chosen on height and age.

Principal characters:

Ruth Beckett (Karen Meagher): the female lead and central focus throughout the docudrama. As a member of CND, Ms. Meagher jumped up at the chance to be in Threads. She is still active today and has most recently been in Casualty and Doctors. In Jonny Briggs, she played the part of Miss Broom.

Jimmy Kemp (Reece Dinsdale): male lead and love interest to Ruth Beckett. Prior to Threads, Normanton born Reece Dinsdale appeared on London Weekend Television’s The Secret Adversary and Agatha Christie’s Partners In Crime. Known to many audiences for his role as Joe McIntyre in Coronation Street, Gail Tilsley’s beau. Shortly after Threads, he co-starred with John Thaw in Yorkshire Television’s Home To Roost.

Mr. Kemp (David Brierley): Jimmy’s father, though better known by many Doctor Who aficionados as the voice of K9. Also Threads‘ second link with Coronation Street where Mr. Brierley played the parts of Milo (1961) and Harold (1983).

Mrs. Kemp (Rita May): Jimmy’s mother. Since Threads, she has been better known for her parts as Mags in Children’s Ward and Connie Rathbone in Coronation Street. She is also Margaret in the Sky One sitcom Trollied.

Alison Kemp (Jane Hazlegrove): Jimmy’s kid sister. One of Jane’s her first televisual roles, the other being Maggie Selby in How We Used To Live. Today, she is better known for her role as Kathleen Dixon in Casualty, a part she has had since 1996.

Michael Kemp (Nicholas Lane): Jimmy’s kid brother. Whereas his on-screen sister fared better in Casualty as Kathleen Dixon, he has since taken a backstage role. This time as make-up artist for horror film The 5th Dimension.

Mr. Beckett (Henry Moxon): Ruth’s father. Played the part of Arthur Harvey in Coronation Street between 1973 and 1974.

Mrs. Beckett (June Broughton): Ruth’s mother. Also featured in Coronation Street as Joan Lowther (1982 – 1987), Barbara (2008) and Enid Crump (2010) and in The Full Monty as Lomper’s mother.

Granny Beckett (Sylvia Stoker): Ruth’s grandma. Also appeared in Coronation Street as Old Ma Pimlott (1985) and Mrs Fuller (1994) and in Last of the Summer Wine.

Clive Sutton (Harry Beety): leader of Sheffield City Council. Also featured in Coronation Street as Alec Yardley (1983 – 1984) and Ronny Rogers (1991), Emmerdale Farm as Graham Jelks (1982) and Crossroads as George Parker (1972).

Marjorie Sutton (Ruth Holden): spouse to Sheffield City Council leader Clive Sutton. Prior to Threads she already amassed a number of television credits to her name. In Coronation Street she was Vera Lomax and appeared in the Corrie spin-off Pardon The Expression as a female customer. Other credits include On The Buses, The Cedar Tree and Crossroads.

Production Team:

Mick Jackson (producer and director): Mr. Jackson was chosen following his previous work on the award-winning Q.E.D. film A Guide to Armageddon. Shortly after Threads, he would become better known for the Whitney Houston film, The Bodyguard (1992). Other credits include the mini-series adaptation of Chris Mullin’s novel A Very British Coup (1988), Volcano (1997), and Temple Grandin (2010).

Barry Hines (writer): formerly a teacher, Barry Hines is best known for Kes (1969), the film adaptation of the book A Kestrel for a Knave.

Duncan Campbell (programme advisor): if you’re too scared to watch Threads, you could always turn to his excellent though long deleted War Plan UK book from 1983. The book is instrumental to the detailed research work, particularly government functions before during and after the war. After Threads, he would work on the controversial Secret Society series where one episode, The Zircon Affair was banned from transmission for a year and led to the sacking of the BBC’s then Director General Alastair Milne.

Professor Carl Sagan (scientific advisor): many people would recognise Carl Sagan for his legendary Cosmos: A Personal Journey series of documentaries. Even fewer would recall his contribution in Threads.

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Threads locations:

Much of Threads was filmed in and around Sheffield and the Peak District. Here is some of the locations:

  • The Nottingham House, 164 Whitham Road, Broomhill: Jimmy’s favoured public house, then serving pints of Joshua Tetley’s finest at the time. Now known for its home made pies and live music;
  • Rustlings Road: Mr. and Mrs. Beckett’s house;
  • Hyde Park Estate: view of demolished taller block of housing estate from Ruth’s and Jimmy’s flat. In reality, Ruth’s and Jimmy’s flat is part of the more modest and refurbished part of Hyde Park Estate which was completed in time for the World Student Games;
  • Town Hall Extension, Sheffield city centre: the ill-fated ‘eggbox’ was designed to last 499 years when opening in 1977. It costed £10 million and was known as the ‘eggbox’ owing to its protruding windows. Demolished around 2000 – 01 with the Winter Gardens and Millennium Galleries in its place;
  • The Moor, Sheffield: much changed with some of the department stores demolished, part of which includes Sheffield’s new market hall which has moved from its magnificent modernist site on Haymarket [Castle Market];
  • Regent Court, Hillsborough: imposing 1930s block of deck access flats seen in part of short sequence of explosions. Was later used as Gaz Schofield’s (played by Robert Carlyle) house in The Full Monty;
  • Dore and Totley Tennis Club: used as holding pen for prisoners of war;
  • The Crescent, Buxton: formed part of the makeshift hospital. The main entrance of which now leads to the town’s Tourist Information Centre.

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Before I go…?

Could you remember Threads the first time around, or did you catch the rerun a year later? Do you have the DVD or VHS version? Did you get to sit through it or did you switch over midway through? Feel free to comment on a film which, in my opinion, makes Night of the Living Dead seem like Rainbow.

S.V., 22 September 2014.

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5 thoughts on “Scare on a Shoestring: A Look at Threads

Add yours

  1. Excellent film. I saw this on telly when it was first shown and what struck me was how real and ordinary it seemed. I was 21 at the time and it almost seemed nuclear war was inevitable. Very chilling, great drama and no less powerful when I saw it at the wonderful NMPFT or whatever it’s called in Bradford some 12 years ago. Recommended.

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    1. Hi Mark,

      On its original transmission date and time I was tucked up in bed, being five years old at the time. I don’t know if my Mum and Dad saw it first time around, but if you checked the schedules on Sunday 23 September 1984, between 2100 – 2200, it was probably the only decent thing on that night. Nancy Banks-Smith in the following Monday’s edition of The Guardian said it should have been shown on all four channels!

      The first time I saw it in full was at the NMPFT in 2001 – shortly after its mention on I Love 1981. Then I saw its first rerun in 17 years – on BBC Four just after midnight, and added the DVD to my collection.

      Seconded on your reference to its chilling nature, particularly its holistic approach to the city before, during, and after its nuclear attack, and its use of captions. There’s also another ironic scene besides the ‘Words and Pictures’ clip – the presence of a Standard Life advertising hoarding post-attack with dead rats being offered as food by one of the survivors sat in front of the hoarding.

      Bye for now,

      Stuart.

      P.S. It is number 611 in the National Media Museum’s catalogue in their TV Heaven suite.

      Like

  2. 31 years old and came across this film about 5 years ago. I’ve only ever seen clips but never had the courage to watch it. I spent the first 19 years of my life growing up in Barnsley and relatives in/from Sheffield. Too close to home for me. I can understand why, back in the cold war era, this film scared the living daylights out of people. But, I’d like to think it had a positive impact. Perhaps like the American version of the film (I can’t remember the title) that is said to have had a profound impact on Ronald Regan.

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    1. Hi R,

      I too hope it had a profound effect on its audience. If I remember rightly, 8 million viewers saw ‘Threads’ – one of BBC Two’s highest for a late Sunday evening. That would be usurped by the 1985 Embassy World Snooker Championship months later (15 million watching till past midnight – won by Dennis Taylor).

      The American film, produced the year before was ‘The Day After’. I have yet to have the joy of sitting through that in full.

      Bye for now,

      Stuart.

      Like

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