The evening Sheffield was blown up on television
‘When the finished film was shown to the cast and crew, there was silence’
It was later called “The Night When Nobody Slept” — especially not in Sheffield and its surrounding towns and villages. At 9.30pm on a Sunday evening in September 1984, the BBC showed one of the most shocking dramas it had ever made. Threads showed onscreen the devastating effect of a nuclear strike on the city and the consequences of what might happen to ordinary people.
That same month, Nicholas Booth was about to start a final year of a physics degree. Watching the film made him realise a truism for anyone who went into nuclear research — that, as was said by one physicist when the first bomb was detonated as a test in 1945, “We’re all sons of bitches now.”
Later writing about science — and destruction — for national newspapers, Nick realised that ultimately statistics and jargon were meaningless. The reality of gothic horror was far better experienced on screen when Sheffield — for the purposes of drama — was blown up on a Monday morning at about 8.30am.
By Nicholas Booth
As defining cinematic images go it is hardly as indelible as a frightening mushroom-cloud or the wanton destruction which assuredly would follow such an atomic explosion. But a stream of urine and a cheap pair of white-coloured shoes, inserted into a scene of pandemonium in Sheffield city centre, was more than enough to traumatise a generation.
The Pandora’s Box reality of unleashing an atomic genie played out as one of the scariest TV shows ever made. Just under two hours long, Threads referred to the tenuous links in society and how they could easily unravel if there was a first strike nuclear attack. In showing what would happen to Sheffield, the rest of the country, too, could not escape from the nightmare which would engulf us all.
Even today, people remember the ugly realism of the film. It is all the stranger that Threads has rarely been shown — three network broadcasts in Britain since 1984 (though it is now available on DVD) — and it is only within the last few years that anybody has dared even parody it. The film certainly has the most curious entry on the Internet Movie Database for a featured artiste: “Anne Sellors: Woman Who Urinates on Herself”.
In 2014, Threads was shown at a festival in the city where someone who had appeared as an extra saw it for the first time in decades. “It is still incredibly powerful,” says Ian Soutar, who was a mature student at the time the film was made. “As one of the characters says, ‘My god, they’ve done it’ — and you are immersed into the horror once again.”
If ever there was going to be a city amenable to destruction — in the sense of allowing a drama to be filmed about Armageddon — it was Sheffield. The city had already declared itself a republic, in Ian Soutar’s tongue in cheek reading of the times, who was studying at the polytechnic (now Sheffield Hallam University).
“I remember the signs when you first came into the city – ‘Welcome to Sheffield, Nuclear Free Zone’.”
Cocking a collection of anti-authoratarian snooks to the Thatcher government, the film was a very Sheffield response in a year already loaded with horror — thanks to George Orwell and the Miners’ Strike then at its height. Studying for an English degree, Soutar remembers visiting his creative writing tutor at the time.
“I wondered why he had all these maps of nuclear attacks pinned on his wall,” he says. “There were all these cuttings from the local paper on the potential impact of a bomb exploding on the city”. When asked why he had them, the response was laconic. “It’s for something for the BBC.”
And, strange as it may seem to posterity, that was how Barry Hines viewed the assignment. Just one of many in his distinguished career. As the city’s most celebrated writer, Hines had been hired to anchor the story in realism. As Ian Soutar notes, Hines’ genius was to examine empathy and show telling human gestures against a backdrop of utter terror.
“I write about real people and show a section of their life, without the Hollywood endings,” Hines once said. Famously, Disney wanted to remake Kes — his most famous script shot by Ken Loach in 1969 — but only if the bird would survive at the end. And when it came to Armageddon, the American Broadcast Network had already made The Day After, a glossier version of a nuclear attack on middle America.
In Threads, there would be no sugar coating at all. “There are no craggily handsome stars with distinguished silver at the temples and the power to inspire confidence in the onlooker,” noted Chris Dunkley of the FT, doyen of television critics at the time.
Shot over seventeen days with half the budget of the American film, the BBC team improvised — disfigurements for the attack survivors involved nothing less terrifying than bran flakes and gelatine. The story follows a young couple, Ruth and Jimmy, whose lives are literally torn apart. Karen Meagher — who played Ruth — vividly recalls the scene where a rat man rounded up his “critters” — the only food available in the years after the attacks. There was also a wardrobe mistress using a blow torch to set fire to a rack of clothes.
“Our aim was always for the piece to have integrity,” she said in 2019.
The BBC, too, were applauded for making such a difficult watch. Its first ever attempt in 1965, The War Game, was banned, as the film was deemed too upsetting. One student who saw a bootleg showing of that film was Mick Jackson, who directed Threads. As a documentary maker, he became steeped in all the esoteric discussion surrounding nuclear exchanges. Threads, several people have remarked, was atonement for not having shown the earlier film.
“These are undeniably disturbing programmes,” said the patrician BBC executive, Brian Wenham, a few days after Threads was first broadcast. “But they have been the subject of the most painstaking research.”
Indeed, says Ian Soutar, it seemed to be more of a BBC Science show than anything else. Jackson had made a documentary about Armageddon two years earlier when the notion of Mutual Assured Destruction remained a standard nostrum. But by the end of 1983, when Threads went into production, nuclear paranoia had ramped up even further. One U.S. Secretary of Defense had hinted that a first strike war would be survivable. So convinced was the Soviet government that war was likely its KGB stations overseas were asked to look out for signs of stockpiling.
By 1984, the Wizards of Armageddon — policy wonks and scientists — had concocted an even more horrible version of what might happen. The second half of Threads dramatically showed this very dystopian nightmare modelled by the most powerful supercomputers of the time: nuclear winter.
The first — admittedly simplified — computer models of what would happen immediately after a nuclear exchange showed that debris — smoke and dust — would be thrown high into our atmosphere. It would shield sunlight and lead to a worldwide freeze. On October 31st 1983, a team led by the astronomer Carl Sagan pulled no punches as to what that really meant.
“It is the Halloween preceding 1984,” Sagan intoned to a packed auditorium in Washington DC, “and I deeply wish that what I am about to tell you were only a ghost story, only something invented to frighten children for the day.”
By Halloween 1984, Threads had certainly frightened everybody else. Sheffield was chosen because, as Mick Jackson later said, it was bang in the middle of the country. What he and Hines concocted was a story of what would happen if the whole of the city went bang — literally, so.
For that, local actors and extras were needed. At a meeting at City Hall, CND members were recruited as extras. In one account, something like ten thousand people applied to take part. Ian Soutar, with a young family, felt himself caught up in the dangerous swirls of history. Along with others, he showed up, had their photos taken, and as he says with knowing irony, “I got to spend a day of shouting ‘Rhubarb! Rhubarb!’ on the steps outside.”
In the onscreen build up to the nuclear exchange, there were demonstrations, riots and supermarkets emptied by panic buying. After the explosion, the film follows what would happen to the post holocaust generation with loss of electricity, failed technology, frozen skies, barren landscapes and unending misery. The drama itself is measured out in radiation sickness, rape, looting and, ultimately, a very non-Disney ending with a freeze frame on a stillborn baby.
The power of the film came from the fact that ordinary people “never found out what was happening outside their immediate experience,” Jackson said in a recent interview, “certainly not outside Sheffield.” The only hint of a bigger picture comes where local officials with little or no training take their place in a bunker under City Hall. When a disembodied voice sounds — “Attack Warning Red” — one official turns and says: “It’s for bloody real.”
“Is it?” asks another.
Disbelief is then writ large on screen. In the manner of putting a bandage on a decapitation, the very threads which connect society fall apart. The BBC Science heritage is clear from the strangely avuncular voice over of Paul Vaughan, familiar from the Horizon documentaries of the time. Jackson and Hines fought over its inclusion as the dramatist thought it lessened the impact. Whatever the merits, when the finished film was shown to cast and crew in Sheffield, there was silence.
It was a scenario played out on the late evening of September 23rd, 1984 for viewers of BBC2.
In that sense, Threads was not just of its time but ahead of its time. The memory of that first showing may have dimmed — and a filmmaker more recently showed a parody where an actual mushroom represents a nuclear explosion. But its showing at Sheffield’s “Sensoria” festival at the South Street Amphitheatre in 2014 — the thirtieth anniversary — brought the film alive to a new generation.
“It really was quite scary,” Ian Soutar says. ”And that was before Trump and North Korea.”
Watching out over the very same cityscape that is vaporised on screen was very eerie — and on a large screen with wireless headphones, much more immersive. “Nuclear destruction is still an issue today,” Ian Soutar concludes. “We didn’t think we would change the world but people remember it and how powerful it really was.”