The Global Nuclear War between East and West began twenty-three years ago today, on Thursday, May 26, 1988, at 8:30 a.m. GMT. It started with a single Soviet nuclear missile detonated over the North Sea. The electromagnetic pulse from that blast blew out the phones and electrical power across northern Europe and brought Britain’s days as a technological society to an end.
The 210 megatons of nuclear warheads that fell upon the island seven minutes later finished off everything else.
And it was the same all over the world. No hiding place: by the end of the day, the former citizens of Europe, the Soviet Union, the United States, and probably China and Japan had all been reduced to scattered individuals and small groups, buried, burned, punctured by flying debris, each hiding from the radiation and trying to survive in a new world of ashes and bones.
Or so goes the internal chronology of Threads – a television play about nuclear war written by Barry Hines, directed and produced by Mick Jackson, and broadcast by BBC Two on September 23, 1984. A harrowing 110-minute rollercoaster ride through World War III and its aftermath, Threads was both shocking and controversial to telly audiences in early-1980s Britain, and remains controversial to this day. Over the past two and one-half decades, the film’s bleak and unrelenting narrative, brutal tone, and lo-fi documentary look have made it a legend among nuke-film fans, yet time has not dulled its blunt impact and haunting imagery. In many ways, to many people, Threads remains perhaps the most infamous made-for-TV film ever created.
But this is no The Day After, no slick ABC all-American apocalypse. This is a stripped-down, no-name, Brit-bleak vision of the Big One. You ain’t sitting in a basement with John Lithgow and Flounder from Animal House when you watch Threads, and perky JoBeth Williams isn’t going to show up in her spotless nurse’s whites to soothe Jason Robards’ radiation-fevered brow. Neither is it the jazz-cool, Brylcreem-and-Buicks suburban version of atomic warfare so familiar to Twilight Zone fans and connoisseurs of obscure Ray Milland movies. (Milland’s self-starring, self-directed Panic In Year Zero! [American International Pictures, 1962] is perhaps the coolest version of nuclear holocaust ever realized on film.) No, this is a very English Armageddon, set in the British Leyland era, a shite-brown, shabby, worn, Are You Being Served? Apocalypse.
The cast of Threads is also remarkable for its lack of cosmetic appeal. Unlike The Day After, there’s no shirtless, strapping, Steve Guttenberg Superjew viewpoint character by which one may watch the last days unfold. Threads stars a cast of (then-) unknowns, a parade of bony noses, flabby arms, patchy skin, and cheap-looking, drab clothes typical of ordinary Britons of the day. Actress Karen Meagher (familiar to modern viewers as the WWII version of Lou from Civvy Street) is made to look simply horrid as saggy, weepy main character Ruth Beckett; fiancée Jimmy Kemp (then-unknown Reece Dinsdale, late of Coronation Street) gets his kit straight off the rack from the Git Shoppe at John Lewis. The other characters range in appearance from Upper-Middle Sweaterclass down to Pub Slut Minidress. All pre-attack, of course; after, it’s bandages and moldy blankets all ‘round, I’m afraid.
The message of the film – and the reason it’s named Threads– is that our modern technological society can be imagined as a thin tissue of mutually-supporting connections, symbolized by a spiderweb stretched across a black abyss in the title sequence. (A garden spider [uncredited] spins the web as we are told this by the Narrator.) Tear a thread or two of the web here or there, no big deal. Blow a hole in the web, say with a Russian two-megaton nuclear warhead, and everything goes to pieces. Hines’ moral: civil defense is pointless. Even a limited nuclear war, says he, would wreck the web of threads and send us back to the horrid old Middle Ages. If war does come, Threads tells us, don’t bother protecting or surviving; instead, curse God and die.
OK, political content received. On with the show.
The central plot is a little ditty ‘bout Jimmy and Ruth, two Yorkshire kids growin’ up in the heartland of Sheffield. Laborer Jimmy works in a joinery, joining things. Bourgeois Ruth has some unspecified office job. Ruth debutante back seat of Jimmy’s car, gets pregnant, and they decide to get married and have the baby. But changes come around real soon, make them women and men – changes in the form of an East-West nuclear crisis. In the spring of 1988 (I assume it is 1988; the on-air captions of days and dates of events in the story are correct for that year), Iran’s government is overthrown. Civil war between the communist parties and pro-Western groups breaks out. The Reds accuse Uncle Sam of another Mosaddegh-style covert coup and invade northeastern Iran to “restore order”. The U.S. counters by airdropping rapid deployment forces into west-central Iran. As Jimmy and Ruth buy a flat and start scraping off the wallpaper in the baby’s room, the confrontation develops. The Bible Belt does not come and save their souls. April turns to May, troops mass along the inter-German frontier, a U.S. submarine goes missing, and rioting and looting start. Finally, the U.S. president issues an ultimatum to the Soviets: quit Iran, Or Else.
There is a second storyline in Threads: the tale of Clive Sutton (Harry Beety), the chief executive officer of the city of Sheffield. Sutton, a mild-mannered, flower-loving, middle-aged family man, is also the city’s wartime Emergency Controller, a sort of dictator-designate who in time of emergency can be granted essentially absolute power by London. Sutton serves as Hines’ proxy for Britain’s ‘80s civil defense program: we see him struggle to assemble a working emergency committee from within Sheffield’s peacetime bureaucracy, desperately attempt to assemble necessary resources, and establish a makeshift subterranean headquarters beneath city hall. The trouble he experiences in doing so, and the pathetic helplessness of Sutton and his team to help the city’s population survive in the post-attack world, are again meant to portray civil defense efforts as a pointless waste of time and money. Nevertheless, the film’s triumphant ending shows Sutton, his family, and his team surviving the war and emerging from their underground bunkers ready to help Britain rebuild.
Just kidding. They all die horribly, as does most of the UK’s population. The last we see of Jimmy he is (spoilers!) running through the ruins of the city in a desperate attempt to find Ruth. Sutton & Co. suffocate to death in the bunker. Ruth’s parents and grandmother die in their basement and are eaten by rats, dogs, and maggots (uncredited). Jimmy’s little brother is roasted into something that looks suspiciously like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial when Sheffield gets it, and his folks die choking on their own vomit courtesy of fallout. Only Allison Kemp, Jimmy’s cute younger sister (played by Jane Hazlegrove, now better known as lesbo nurse “Dixie” Dixon on Casuality), is seen to have survived the attack: she makes her farewell appearance as part of a hungry mob locked in a civilian detention camp. It’s like The Sound of Music, only the Nazis win and nobody sings “Edelweiss” at the end.
Unlike many fictional World War IIIs, the 1988 war depicted in Threads is a fairly accurate portrayal of what really would have happened if the U.S. /NATO and the USSR/Warsaw Pact had ever gone at it proper. In your standard Hollywood thriller scenario à la mode Tom Clancy, the Soviets build up big forces on the frontier, the Allies respond in kind, the Reds attack with conventional weapons along a broad front, and the NATO forces fight a holding action, trading space for time until reinforcements from the U.S. arrive and the tide can be turned. Nuclear weapons, if used, appear only as a terrible last resort (if used by NATO) or a dire warning (if used by the Warsaw Pact).
We know now from captured documents what would really have happened. The Soviets had no intention of allowing NATO forces to fight a delaying action until superior forces could be brought to bear in Europe, nor did they intend to let the Allies blunt their attacks with single, small nuclear attacks. Instead, their real plan was to simply nuke the living shit out of everything in western Europe on day one of the war – every airfield, ammo dump, tank formation, fuel depot, port, harbor, and headquarters – and then roll over the rubble in sealed tanks. Nine days later Soviet forces would be crunching their way over the ruins of Lyon, and, a few days after that, the old hammer and sickle would be flapping from Vladivostok to the shores of the English Channel. All glory to the union of worker-peasant-intellectual proletarians!
England would not have been spared, of course. Old Blighty would be a radioactive heap within minutes of the first attack, and this is how it (and presumably the other combatant nations) ends up in Threads. Ruth, however, somehow survives; living by her wits, always on the move, she gathers supplies, flees the city, bands together with other refugees, and eventually finds a place among the tattered corps of agricultural workers trying to chip a living out of the scorched, irradiated soil. She gives birth to Jimmy’s child in a stable rude; unlike the arrival of our Lord, however, little Jane’s coming is attended not by ox and ass but by a whimpering and confused guard dog. We get to see her (Ruth, not the dog) chew off the umbilical cord, which one has to admit is pretty hardcore for a TV movie.
The end of Threads? Well, watch it for yourself. I think Hines and Jackson probably exaggerated the effect of nuclear war on humanity for the sake of the film’s rather overt political message (“Yoo cannat wen a nucleah woah!,” as one minor character helpfully explains), but then again they may have had a point about how delicate the ties that bind our technocracy can be. I mean, look at what happened in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit: the population reverted to savagery literally overnight, the government assuming emergency powers (and collecting the guns of law-abiding citizens), rape, looting, homelessness, hunger. All the Big Easy lacked to become Threadsville, U.S.A. was a dusting of fallout and that incomprehensible Yorks dialect.
One thing is certain, however: you will never forget the final scene of Threads. It is what Stan Lee of Marvel Comics used to call a “Senses-Shattering SHOCK Ending!”. And while World War Threads is and remains the plutonium standard of nuclear war flicks, it can have a real effect on the emotional life of those who survive to its end. As the credits roll on this incredible example of the real World War III – that forty-year war that we stupidly refer to as “cold” — you may feel a bit like a war victim yourself.
Mar 5 Sat
- Civil war in Iran; some NATO air activity over UK
- Coup in Iran
May 2 Mon
- U.S. reconnaissance satellites detect armed convoys entering northern Iran from USSR
May 3 Tue
- Film crew from West German television crew “NDR Film” captures images of Soviet armed convoys entering northern Iran via mountain passes
May 5 Thu
- Images of Soviet incursion broadcast in UK via BBC 1. In Vienna, USSR Foreign Minister defends incursions as a response to a call for help from the legitimate government of Iran, accuses U.S. of fomenting Iranian coup
May 8 Sun
- Soviet armored columns enter Iran; forces “dig in” near Mashad. U.S. calls invasion “threat to peace”
- 1930Z:BBC Radio 2 reports U.S. hints that troops may be deployed to Iran in response to Soviet incursion. UK PM and other global leaders protest incursion, call USSR actions a “serious threat to world peace”
May 10 Tue
- U.S. submarine Los Angeles attacked and sunk while on a reconnaissance mission off the coast of Iran. All 127 aboard lost.
May 11 Wed
- Television news reports from Washington, D.C. refer to a newspaper story citing a “serious incident involving an American warship off the coast of Iran”, relates rumors that a U.S. Navy submarine has disappeared while on routine patrol. Pentagon refuses to confirm that “something very serious has happened”
- U.S. destroyer Callahan collides with, seriously damages Soviet cruiser Kirov in Gulf of Oman
May 12 Thu
- 0800Z: BBC reports Soviet protest of “‘dangerous provocations’ by U.S. warships in the Gulf of Oman”
- U.S. search and rescue vessels discover oil slicks that “could only have come from the missing submarine”.BBC broadcasts speech by U.S. president stating Soviets are “solely responsible for their deaths and for the vessel’s disappearance”, protests “the unprovoked attack on our submarine and the move into Iran” as “the actions of a reckless and warlike power”; warns Soviets “in the clearest possible terms” against “taking the world to the brink of an armed confrontation with incalculable consequences for all mankind”
May 17 Tue
- U.S. begins airdrop of first elements of Rapid Deployment Force/Central Command into western Iran. 10th Abn Div establishes airhead in Esfahan
- UK Home Office notifies regional controllers to implement Emergency Arrangements. City Controllers begin assembling Committees
- U.S. Air Force deploys first B-52 and AWACS aircraft to UK
May 18 Wed
- Run on food begins in UK
- USSR moves nuclear weapons into Iran by air
May 19 Thu
- U.S. begins crash reinforcement of 10th Abn Div in Esfahan
- U.S. 84th Airborne Div brought to full combat readiness
- U.S. tactical aircraft begin arriving at RAF Finningley
- Distribution of blankets and supplies to UK shelters begins
- U.S./NATO chiefs assembles in Brusels, accuse USSR of stationing nuclear weapons at Mashad
- UK issues statement of support for U.S. action; UK PM condemns “reckless actions which can only worsen an already grave situation”
- Regional emergency fuel stocks topped
- Large-scale military convoys move into rural areas adjacent to major UK cities
- U.S. delivers quit-Iran ultimatum to USSR; deadline 1200Z May 22
- Telephone and Telex links to Iran severed; borders closed
May 21 Sat
- Warsaw Pact forces mass on the German central frontier
- Large-scale pro-and antiwar protests across UK. Police make arrests due to unrest at events in the North and Midlands
- UK begins crash reinforcement of British forces in Germany.
- The UK Government seizes control of British Airways to facilitate troop movements, stranding thousands of civilian air passengers and refugees at Heathrow and Gatwick airports. Cross-Channel ferries also seized
- Royal Navy begins defensive air and sea patrol of oil drilling installations in North Sea
22 May Sun
- Large-scale CND rally in Sheffield; clashes between right- and left wing protesters leads to riot; police intervene
- Military units begin deployment
- 1200Z NATO ultimatum deadline expires
- 1300Z U.S. launches large-scale B-52 strike on Mashad using conventional weapons. Soviet forces defend base with nuclear surface-to-air missile, resulting in loss of many U.S. aircraft
- 1400Z U.S. responds by striking Mashad with single tactical nuclear weapon. Soviet base destroyed; exchange stops.
May 23 Mon
- Intense diplomatic effort to mediate U.S.-USSR crisis begins
- UK Foreign Secretary cites lack of news, calls speculation “irresponsible”
- Heavy construction equipment moved out of cities
- U.S. – Soviet navies engage in combat in Middle Eastern waters
- Panic buying of food begins
- Special session of Parliament enacts UK Emergency Powers Act.
- UK PM addresses nation; Government “optimistic” that a settlement is at hand
- Civil disorder, riot, looting begins in UK cities
- DDR erupts in rioting
May 24 Tue
- Civilians begin fleeing UK cities. AA and RAC report heavy congestions on routes to Wales and the West Country
- USSR cuts road, air links to Berlin; offers NATO garrison safe passage
- U.S. Berlin-bound relief convoy turned back by Warsaw Pact forces at Helmstedt border crossing
- Military vehicles moved out of cities
- BBC Emergency Measures official broadcasts begin
- Regional Emergency Controllers directed to begin moving to HQs, assume broad powers to suspend certain peacetime functions and to commandeer resources as needed
- Ambulances moved out of cities
- U.S. aircraft carrier Kittyhawk sunk by hostile action
- U.S. begins air and naval blockade of Cuba
- Anti-Soviet mass demonstrations in U.S. cities; some Soviet consulates damaged
- Rioting continues in DDR
- Hospitals cleared for expected casualties
- Acting under the Emergency Powers Act, the Government seizes M1, M18, A63 A629, and other motorways and intercity trunk routes as “essential service routes”; lists of affected routes posted outside local regional authority HQs
- All retail motor fuel stations closed. Stocks seized for use by official vehicles only
- Key points guarded
- Known and potential subversives arrested
- Scientists around the world detect evidence of two nuclear explosions in Iran. UK Government refuses to confirm. PM insists “war can be avoided”
- Paris evacuated
- TUC threatens general strike. Union rallies broken up by police after left-right clashes; union leaders arrested
- Important works of art moved out of cities
- Rioting in cities across UK
- Regional Controllers and Emergency Committees move to Emergency Headquarters
- BBC broadcasts “Action After Warnings”
- 2230Z Fire engines moved out of cities
May 26 Thu
- 0800Z BBC broadcasts “Casualties”
- Protect and Survive shelter instructions published in newspapers
- Non-essential phones disconnected
- BBC broadcasts “Fallout”
- Bank runs begin
- 0830Z [0330 EST] Attack Warning Red sounded. Air Attack Warning sounded. Single Soviet warhead exploded above North Sea. Heavy EMP damage to electrical, communications systems
- 0837Z USSR launches first missile salvo. RAF Crewe and other NATO military targets struck. Total attack yield UK = 80MT, immediate blast casualties UK 2.5-9M
- Exchange escalates. Countervalue strikes mounted. Sheffield, other UK industrial centers struck with multiple nuclear weapons. Total attack yield UK = 210MT, global = 3000MT.
- 0955Z Fallout from groundburst at Crewe begins to settle around Sheffield
May 29 Sun
- Radiac level in Baslow, Derbyshire reaches 800-1000r/hr
Jun 2 Thu
- UK Government seizes all food stocks
June 5 Sun
- Radiac levels in areas around Sheffield safe for two hours exposure per person per day
June 9 Thu
- Food riots in UK. Looting begins. Food distribution begins in UK
June 11 Sat
- Hospitals overrun by injured and ill
Daily food ration in UK cut to 1000 kCal/person for manual laborers, 500 otherwise
June 17 Fri
- First epidemic diseases appear in UK
- UK Government issues shoot-to-kill orders for looting
- Able-bodied citizens in Release Band F (Dore and Totley, Abbeydale, Woodseat) ordered to report to Abbeydale Park at 0800Z June 18 for reconstruction duty
June 18 Sat
- 0800Z Able-bodied survivors from Release Band F report to Abbeydale Park for reconstruction duty
- Food becomes common currency
- 20M unburied corpses in UK
June 23 Thu
- Government converts Dore and Totley Tennis Club into detention camp for looters
- Sheffield Emergency HQ excavated; all personnel found dead
June 30 Thu
- UK Government creates special courts of justice with wide-ranging powers. Firing squads instituted for those convicted of capital offenses
- Temperatures remain low in Northern Hemisphere
- Deaths from fallout peak
- No electrical power in UK; motor fuel generally unavailable
- Food and water supplies become unreliable in UK
- Registration of refugees begins. General exodus from cities
- Police assign registered refugees to occupied intact housing with space to spare
- Government establishes mass Feeding Centers for registered refugees
- UK deaths from direct attack effects = 17-38M
- Widespread cold, hunger appear in UK
- Government directs all resources to agricultural production as basis of national redevelopment
- Environmental effects of war damage plant life; refugees collect diminished harvest mostly by hand due to lack of fuel for agricultural equipment
- Cold weather, illnesses kill many of the old and young in the UK
- Survivors loot grain warehouses
- Barter economy established in UK; rats commonly eaten
- Heavy UV from post-attack effects causes widespread skin cancer, cataracts and leukemia among surviving population
- UK harvests reduced due to insect, crop diseases, lack of fertilizers, insecticides, and equipment
- UK population reaches minimum at medieval levels (4-11M)
- Subsistence agriculture in UK
- Electrical power available; limited basis and coverage
- Education for literacy resumed, but largely ineffective
- Handicrafts (e.g. recovery of thread from cloth) done by children
- Large-scale reclamation of materials from urban ruins
- Coal mining, steam traction resumed in UK
- Looting remains common, punishable by shooting or hanging
- Many among postwar generation of children born dead