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‘Nowt We Can Do About It’
‘Threads’ during Covid
As the UK went into lockdown in March 2020, the idea that the Covid pandemic was ‘like the war’ or required ‘a bit of Blitz Spirit’ became a familiar one. It was in part, perhaps, the leaking out of Boris’s own barely restrained Churchill fantasies – but at its heart was a more fundamental and necessary self-delusion: that, when a crisis arose, our leaders would be decisive and our people selfless, their altruism fuelled by tea, bitter, singsongs and ciggies. But as the weeks went by, with tabloids and social media packed with pictures of people scurrying out of supermarkets with 96 toilet rolls, I didn’t think it looked like the Second World War at all. I thought it looked like Threads.
Written by Barry Hines and directed by Mick Jackson, the 1984 BBC TV film shows the build-up and aftermath of a nuclear attack on Britain. Following a stand-off sparked in the Middle East, Russia attacks NATO bases in the UK, including one near Sheffield, where the film is set. The second hour is bleakly unwatchable as the maimed and deformed stagger through an endless nuclear winter doing horrible things to each other. The first half, though no less shocking, is a fascinating depiction of British society’s response to imminent annihilation which, watched during a global health crisis, seemed creepily prescient.
A central theme of Threads is unpreparedness. Everyday people don’t know how to respond, even if they understand what’s going on. So they die. As one character says to another down the pub, there’s ‘nowt we can do about it’. This particular strain of mulish English fatalism has been a hallmark of Covid, with its anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers, and an apparent willingness to continue to put faith in the authorities, however poor a job they are doing.
In Threads, that authority is Sheffield’s Emergency Committee. As they open their secret instructions and pack their small ’80s suitcases, this collection of overweight middle-aged councillors and minor civil servants seem unlikely instruments of a nuclear power, bickering and chain-smoking amid the acrow props of the town hall basement, where they are eventually trapped, symbolically entombed by bureaucracy.
Instructions are given to people via public information films or news bulletins. When a child pesters her mother for some breakfast before she goes to school, the woman responds, ‘What did it say on the telly? I can’t remember if it said schools are closed or not.’ People panic-strip the shelves of tins; there is a transport lockdown; families flee the city in cars, Grapes of Wrath-like, only to be told to go home by the police.
Interestingly, the film has no central political mouthpiece: there’s no equivalent of Boris’s briefings. Mrs Thatcher is clearly implied, however: a heckler at a rally mentions the 1982 Falklands War (in the same scene, a TUC official calls for a general strike and says ‘I’ve been trying to get us out of the Common Market for bloody years’) and in particular, her cosying up to the US is hinted as being at the root of the country’s annihilation. Chuck Berry’s ‘Johnny B Goode’ appears as a motif: a throwback to a more fantasised rock ’n’ roll special relationship with the USA.
Deprived of a prime ministerial voice, there is no sense in Threads that anything will ever ‘get back to normal’, or even that ‘normal’ is worth striving for. Even before the apocalypse, Britain is presented as a shithole: joyless and jobless, painted in a palette of turd brown and multi-storey grey. The year of the film’s broadcast saw the bitter miners’ strike and the Thatcher regime’s highest unemployment figures. Against this backdrop, Threads poses a question that still feels painfully relevant in the Covid era: why isn’t the government helping the country’s poorest and most vulnerable people? Why would a country spend billions on missile systems that they probably wouldn’t even ever get a chance to use? When an official says of the fallout victims ‘What’s the point of wasting food on people who are going to die?’, you wonder if Threads isn’t about a nuclear holocaust at all, but rather an enduring metaphor for the failure of bellicose politicos to do the right thing and stop being morally repugnant self-serving twats.
But, intriguing as the resonances are, I can’t in all conscience recommend watching Threads. I remember being extremely disturbed by it when I first saw it; rewatching it this time literally gave me nightmares. It’s a film without any hope or redemption – its emphatic bleakness isn’t just a warning about Cold War brinkmanship, it’s a warning not to assume anyone is necessarily going to help you if things go to shit. Covid might not have seen food dumps guarded by armed, masked traffic wardens (surely the ultimate horror figure for Clarksonian Middle England), but you wonder how close we might have come to that at certain points. The film is also devastating in its awareness of the fragility of the NHS: ‘The entire peacetime resources of the British health service, even if they survived, would be unable to cope with the effects of even the single bomb that’s hit Sheffield.’
Poised equidistantly between the Blitz of 1940-41 and the pandemic, Threads suggests that leaning too heavily on the myth of the former has played its part in the catastrophe of the latter. Its portrayal of Britain in 1984 might be quite different to Orwell’s vision of a totalitarian state that controls language, thought and impulse, but it certainly doesn’t look that much better in its aggressive fumbling incompetence.
In early 2021, there was news that Sir Kenneth Branagh was slated to star as Boris in a TV mini-series, This Sceptered Isle, about his ‘handling’ of the pandemic, so you hope someone clever at the BBC might give Threads another airing. When it was first broadcast, audiences were shocked – but you assume a lot of viewers saw it as fantasy, or a worst-case scenario. Surely the government wouldn’t be that unprepared? Shops wouldn’t just run out of things. The army would step in. Of course there would be a doctor available to help a woman give birth…
As a final warning from history, consider the opening scene of Threads: if you are going to bring a child into this benighted world, don't tempt fate by conceiving it in a knackered Ford Cortina parked on the edge of a literal and figurative precipice.
Next week: How the friendly ukulele became the soundbed to every ghastly corporate video