There are, perhaps, no two phenomena more quintessentially of the 1980s as the concept of having a television in your kitchen and films about the Soviet Union and the United States of America using Western Europe as the board for an apocalyptic game of backgammon. It should, therefore, probably be no great surprise for you to find out that I was in the kitchen of an opulent house in Radlett in Hertfordshire (while my parents had a French evening class next door, in case you were wondering) as the city of Sheffield was blown to smithereens before my twelve year-old eyes. Threads, the BBC’s 1984 docu-drama about an imagined World War Three and the after-effects that it had on the people of the aforementioned Yorkshire city, remains the high water mark of this ghoulish genre, but films about our apparently impending annihilation have a considerably longer history than a mere three decades.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that story-tellers of any persuasion have more than a tendency to reflect the time during which they are writing as much as shape our opinions. With this in mind, it is perhaps no great surprise that the spiritual great-grandfather of this genre, the BBC’s seminal 1965 film The War Game, should have been made within three years of the Cuban missile crisis, when the whole world stood at the edge of the unthinkable as a result of a high stakes game of brinkmanship being played out by the two great superpowers of its time. By the standards of the time, The War Game was bleak, bleak material. Set in Rochester in Kent, it depicted the before, during and immediate after-effects of a nuclear attack on Britain, with a variety of talking heads putting arguments – some reasonably coherent, others as mad as a box of frogs – for and against the nuclear deterrent.
The War Game suffers a little from the limitations of the time during which it was made. The modern viewer, weaned on lavish CGI and the constitutional right to see blood and internal organs in (soon not to be) living Technicolor, may feel let down by a relatively slow pace and a singular lack of mushroom clouds. None of this is to suggest that fans of the macabre will be completely disappointed, though. Some of the bomb’s victims look suitably mournful and char-grilled, while the film’s finale – which is more about the breakdown of societal norms than the after-effects of enormous exposure to radiation – is likely to sear itself into the consciousness of anybody that sees it.
Curiously, the back story behind The War Game is almost as interesting as the film itself. It had been due to be broadcast as part of the BBC’s The Wednesday Play series to mark the twentieth anniversary of the American nuclear strike on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, but was pulled by the corporation on the eve of broadcast on the grounds that it was – with a description of unusual candour – “too horrifying for the medium of broadcasting.” This didn’t, however, prevent the film from receiving a limited theatrical release and it was from this that it subsequently collected an academy award in the best documentary category at the Oscars in 1966. The BBC finally got around to showing it to mark the fortieth anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, during the summer of 1985.
The 1970s were a period of detente for the superpowers, and accordingly film-makers turned their attentions elsewhere. By the beginning of the 1980s, however, the thawing of relations between east and west had taken on a decidedly frosty feel again, and it was time for the media to start articulating – some may prefer to use the word “feeding” here – the very worst fears of its viewers, and considerably beyond. Alongside such paranoid hokum as Red Dawn (in which a group of teenagers repel a Soviet invasion of the motherland with an armoury that largely consists, initially at least, of twigs and moss) and WarGames (in which Matthew Broderick almost kick-starts the third world war by trying to play chess with a military super-computer), two behemoths of the genre surfaced, one from either side of the Atlanic ocean.
First up came The Day After, a serious attempt to address the great “What if?” of the early 1980s from an American perspective. Produced and broadcast by ABC television in 1983, The Day After is set in Kansas City, Missouri, and follows the travails of a group of families in the Mid-West of the United States of America as global apocalypse kicks off around them. The film packs a lot into its first twenty minutes, with the political background to its plot being crowbarred in through a series of overheard radio and television broadcasts as the main characters are introduced to the audience. These characters discuss the impending crisis with a peculiar detachment, as if such a dread scenario could never affect them. Such an insular attitude is, perhaps, unsurprising in the Mid-West of the United States of America, even though European viewers might be surprised by the apparent unconcern of the film’s main characters over the fact that the Western half of the continent is being reduced to a pile of irradiated rubble.
By the time of the nuclear attack takes place the loosely-linked cast have been fully identified, but it is here that the film starts to go off the rails a little. The special effects as the bomb hits are poor, and the inevitable absolute terror of the strike feels watered-down, as if someone at the network cut down the after-effects of the bomb itself. Indeed, it is possible that this was the case – the original plan was for the film to be four hours long and broadcast over two evenings, but the final version ran to two and a half hours and was shown in one sitting – and storyboards were drawn up for an extended version of the film, but this was never shown. Criticism that The Day After makes the after-effects of a nuclear strike seem more survivable than they would have been is valid, and this is a feeling that cannot even be counterbalanced by the – admittedly morbid – pleasure of seeing Steve Guttenberg losing most of his hair from the effects of radiation sickness.
Still, though, at least The Day After provoked a debate in the United States of America at a time during which it was important to have one. In Britain, however, we would have to wait a further year for the same, but when it came, it came with the full force of a ten thousand megaton explosion. Threads was, as The Day After had been in The United States of America, a reaction to a broader political situation. The stationing of cruise missiles at Greenham Common had brought the issue of nuclear disarmament in Britain to the top of the political agenda (the Labour Party had unilateral nuclear disarmament as one of its key policies in the now-infamous “longest suicide note in history” General Election manifesto of 1983), and it was timely that the BBC should finally revisit a subject that they had been too troubled to broadcast almost two decades earlier.
Written by Barry Hines (who had previously written A Kestrel For A Knave, the novel upon which the film Kes was based) and directed by Mick Jackson (who would go on to produce the 1992 Whitney Houston shriek-a-thon vehicle, The Bodyguard), Threads was based upon three significant artifacts of the Cold War in Britain – Protect & Survive, the much-ridiculed 1980 government pamphlet which advised the public on how to best prepare for a nuclear strike, Operation Square Leg, a government home defence exercise which was intended to try and establish what the effects of a nuclear strike on Britain might actually be, and QED: A Guide To Armageddon, a 1982 BBC documentary which sought to explain the effects of a nuclear attack upon London and which touched upon the somewhat uncomfortable subject of how utterly useless any attempts at civil defence would likely be in the event of a full-scale nuclear attack. Jackson described the film as an attempt to create a “workable visual vocabulary for thinking about the unthinkable”, and to say that he succeeded in this with Threads would be come to be seen as something of an understatement.
As with both The War Game and The Day After, Threads starts in a soap opera-esque style, the story of a young couple, she pregnant, moving into a flat together in Sheffield. Their two families are from different social classes – hers is middle class, his is working class – and there is a stilted meeting between the two with the news (presented by Lesley Judd of Blue Peter, of all people) playing on the television in the background. Yet all the time, events of obvious significance are moving inexorably forward in the background. Television, radio and newspapers begin to intrude into the foreground of every scene in which they appear, as a dispassionate voice-over explains the machinery of war slowly grinding into place. To illustrate the feeble institutional attempts at mitigating the effects of the unthinkable, the story cuts away to an unrelated sub-plot, the story of a hopelessly ill-prepared council executive charged with putting the government’s emergency measures into effect in Sheffield, despite having little budget to work with and still less co-operation from the departments supposedly under his control.
When it finally arrives, the money shot – the explosion of a nuclear weapon over Sheffield – is largely made up of stock film and is possibly the weakest part of the film, but it is as the fallout starts to settle that Threads comes into its own. Unlike The War Game, Threads doesn’t end a few hours or days after the bomb drops, and unlike The Day After it doesn’t pull any punches in its depiction of the aftermath of such an attack – “Threads makes The Day After look like A Day At The Races”, wrote one reviewer at the time. Statistics flash up on the screen, giving estimates of the number of nationwide deaths and explaining the reasons for the bombs’ selected targets. At first, the survivors seem very alone, as if the world has ground to a complete halt around them. Over time, however, society starts to regroup, although by this time a nuclear winter – a still theoretical scenario in which so much debris is thrown into the Earth’s upper atmosphere by its inhabitants’ moments of madness that the sun is blotted out, leading to a drastic fall in temperatures – is starting to set in. The audience is largely left to assume who has died and who has survived, and Jackson fast-forwards years into the future, showing a society that has been bounced back a thousand years in time by the destruction of its infrastructure. “In an urban society”, says the voice-over at the start of the film, “everything connects. Each persons needs are fed by the skills of many others. Our lives are woven together in a fabric, but the connections that make society strong also make it vulnerable.”
While The War Game, The Day After and Threads make up a personal holy trinity of this most niche of genres, there are a couple of others that are also worthy of a mention. World War 3, a 1998 film made by the German television company ZDF, cleverly pulls apart contemporary news reports of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the attempted Soviet coup of 1991 to stitch together a vision of a world in which a hard-liner ousts Mikhail Gorbachev and deals with the attempt to liberalise Eastern Europe in a somewhat different way, but stops short of dropping the bomb itself. Meanwhile, Countdown To Looking Glass, a made-for-TV film from 1984, attempts to run as a series of news broadcasts as a banking crisis precipitates a clash between the superpowers in the Middle East, only to ruin itself with an oddly out of kilter romantic sub-plot that looks and feels like nothing so much as a series of out-takes from Days Of Our Lives. Finally, and again from the middle of the 1980s, is Raymond Briggs’ grim animated classic When The Wind Blows, which shows a couple who lived through the Second World War as hopelessly ill-prepared for its third and eventually succumbing to the agonising confusion of radiation sickness in the weeks after the bomb drops.
The moment for the nuclear apocalypse film, it seems, has passed. While big budgets are still spent on dystopian visions of the future, these have tended in recent years to be focussed upon natural disasters – Deep Impact, Armageddon, 2012, The Day After Tomorrow, and so on – or upon that very twenty-first century paranoia that has come about thanks to the threat of terrorism and its hysterical coverage in the press. These films, however, were important. More than any government message would ever have dared to, they informed the public – with a reasonably rigorous degree of accuracy, on the whole – of the science behind and likely chaos hat would almost certainly follow the use of atomic weapons, and provided ordinary people with that “workable visual vocabulary for thinking about the unthinkable” of which Mick Jackson spoke when describing Threads. That they scared the living daylights of twelve year olds such as myself in 1984 and and that they retain their capacity to traumatise three, four or five decades on is a testament, not only to the skill of the film-makers concerned, but also to the absolute horror of their subject matter.
You can follow Twohundredpercent on Twitter by clicking here.