Apocalypse Now

The resurgence of interest in classic BBC disaster drama Threads is a symptom of an increasingly bleak political climate.

Consumption is always swayed by external factors: availability, emotional state, economic status. Media consumption is no different, and is particularly prone to the vagaries of our mental state. Depressed? Seek refuge in comedy, or further compound your misery with a film you know is glutted with dark plot twists. Falling ill demands a form of entertainment that requires less brainpower and offers the comfort of familiarity: a week battling a chest infection has seen a run through of several Netflix boxsets I’ve seen too often, to avoid the annoyance of missing crucial scenes when I constantly fall asleep.

Political realities can’t help but sway our artistic tastes. It’s no surprise then that, with a geopolitical crisis stretching through the last few years, and a climate crisis inevitable, that there has been a resurgence of interest in the 1984 BBC docudrama Threads. The political landscape feels bleak, unrelenting and out of our control, and nothing could dovetail with such a feeling than Threads, an object lesson in untrammelled bleakness, an apocalyptic vision of nuclear winter, human cruelty and state abandonment. The childlike histrionics of our political leaders continue to alarm people, worrying that actually, these lunatics will get us all killed. In Threads, precisely this happens: a nuclear bomb explodes over Sheffield with barely any warning due to grandstanding between the US and Britain, and the Soviet Union, after an attempt to overthrow the government of another country. At the time of its release, Threads provoked a particularly strong reaction by using the original ‘Protect and Survive’ videos explaining what to do with a dead body, and what to stockpile in case of emergency. The mood of panic and distrust in government advice is more muted than the 1980s, but few people trust official government claims that a No-Deal Brexit won’t impact medicine or food supplies.

Threads opens with the narrator’s warning that “the connections that make society strong also make it vulnerable.” Those connections, family and kinship, local community, and camaraderie, falter and collapse when the nuclear attack happens within the first few minutes of the film. When the family structures collapse, pregnant protagonist Ruth finds herself alone and vulnerable. Her daughter, similarly alone after her mother’s death is raped in a barn by a teenager who views her only as a source of gratification and someone to steal food from. In a 1987 interview with Women’s Own magazine, Margaret Thatcher famously said “there’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first.” But it’s the scarcity that causes the breakdown in society, and the bleakness of Threads springs from the fact that social connections are lost as each person scrabbles to keep themselves alive. Even the small number of children born through the nuclear winter are largely incapable of speech, barely socialised by parents spending every waking hour scavenging.

Millennials are bleak and apocalyptic, which is enough to endear them to Barry Hines’ film: but Threads is unapologetic in its class analysis. The ruling class protect themselves entirely from the moment the possibility of nuclear war is present. The entire situation is engineered by elites, and the truth of it is kept from the wider public. The bomb dropped, the residents of Sheffield run for cover, having attempted without much success to prepare for the blast. Trade unionists and peace activists are attacked by police and arrested under an Emergency Powers Act when protesting in the run up to the disaster. After the nuclear attack, most citizens are abandoned, their only contact with the state being the muzzle of a gun pointed at them as the army institute martial law. The people responsible for the disastrous political decisions never have to endure the consequences themselves. Bunkers, security guards and escape plans are in place at all times.

If anything caught the zeitgeist of Blairism, it was Richard Curtis’s Love Actually: a mercenary, soulless yet glitzy extravaganza, that sought to approximate human relationships without bearing any real resemblance to how they are lived. The film was more about selling the concept of romantic comedies than anything close to the actual concept, as Tony Blair’s third way sought to rebrand democratic socialism without having to embrace anything as tiresome as real socialist policies. That Threads has returned as a cultural shorthand for our present situation speaks to the lack of trust in institutions, but also hope in a wider sense. Most films contain some note of hope, or the possibility of redemption: Threads denies the viewer even that with the final harrowing scene. But the fact the characters are crushed by misery also reveals the human spirit that drives people to continue political organising despite endless setbacks. Why do Ruth, and her daughter Jane, continue fighting for life when it offers only disappointment? In the hope of something better, against all odds.