Most modern reviews of Barry Hines’s nuclear Armageddon docu-drama Threads (a film released almost 35 years ago) tend to focus on how much the core message of the film still resonates in today’s dangerously unstable and volatile world. That’s all very well and good, but to truly understand the impact this low budget made-for-television British film had on its native country (and then the rest of the world a year or two later), you really have to look at what was going on politically back in the early 1980s.
I was eleven years old when Threads made its rounds in the schools of Britain. It wasn’t part of the curriculum, nor something we were studying in English or History: they’d just decided to show the movie in schools. Each class was scheduled a two hour slot at some point during the school day, two whole hours off from the daily grind of Double Maths, Chemistry and Physics – a temporary exchanging of the horrors of trigonometry and fractions for the horrors of nuclear annihilation and megadeath.
So when my class’s turn came, we all trotted obliviously into the TV room like sheep across a minefield… everyone, that is, except for me.
I refused to watch it.
I’d been given a rather lurid and graphic description of the horrors depicted in the film in the playground by classmates who’d already watched it, and I’d quickly come to the decision that it wasn’t the film for me. Instead I was allowed to sit in another classroom and read my book until the film had finished. The world was a scary enough place for an adolescent boy who’d just taken his first shaky steps through puberty without having to watch people dying from radiation sickness or being eaten by rats.
When Threads was originally broadcast on BBC 2 on 23rd September 1984, the world was arguably at its most dangerous since the Cuban Missile Crisis; Between 30th April and 5th May 1980, six armed members of the Arab KSA group entered the Iranian Embassy in London and held 26 people hostage, it ended in 2 of the Iranian hostages being killed as the SAS stormed the building, straining already very tense relations between the UK and Iran; In June 1982, just seventeen months into his Presidency, Ronald Regan declared that “…freedom and democracy will leave Marxism and Leninism on the ash heap of history”, his announcement of the Strategic Defence Initiative program less than a year later triggered an escalation in the arms race between the US and Russia; In April 1983 the largest US Navy fleet exercise took place in the North Pacific hoping to provoke Russia into a response so their manoeuvres could be analysed, in retaliation Soviet jets were ordered to fly over the US owned Aleutian Islands; On 1st September 1983 Korean Air Lines Flight 007 was shot down over the Sea of Japan by Soviet jets killing all 269 people aboard including a US congressman, sending relations between the US and Russia plummeting; In November 1983 a massive NATO exercise codenamed Able Archer 83 resulted in the Soviet Politburo to believe that the exercises were a smokescreen for NATO launching all out war, Russia responded by readying it’s nuclear forces.
But perhaps the most frightening occurrence of that time was the early-warning system false alarm that almost ended in full-scale nuclear war. A little after midnight on 26th September 1983 the Soviet early-warning system reported that the US had launched several intercontinental ballistic missiles at Russia. Lieutenant-colonel Stanislav Petrov of the Soviet Air Defence Force, the officer on duty at the time, realised that the attack was most probably a computer error, as the system had malfunctioned several times in the past, and decided against implementing his orders of an immediate nuclear counter-attack.
Naturally the timing of Threads was a big deal. It’s original broadcast was immediately followed by a Newsnight special nuclear debate, and several pages of that week’s Radio Times were dedicated to articles on the realities of a limited nuclear exchange as well as the making of the TV film. It was watched by over 7 million people and was the topic of conversation amongst the adults in my neighbourhood for days afterwards, it was even repeated the following year on BBC 1.
Yes, Simply Media’s 2-disc release of Threads is just as politically timely today as it’s ever been, but more importantly it’s the long awaited lavish release of a very fascinating and historically important drama that we’ve all been screaming for. And it doesn’t disappoint.
Presented in it’s original 4:3 aspect ratios, this new 2K scan from the original BBC CRI (Colour Reversal Intermediate) prints looks wonderful, the best the film has ever looked. Not that there are many colours used in the film (director Mick Jackson opting for a mostly grey palette), but when they appear they really do pop out of the screen. The contrast looks natural (for all those used to the old washed out VHS and DVD releases) while darker scenes show off a very healthy-looking grain pattern. Let’s face it, Threads is not a beautiful film and was never meant to be - the lack of colour, the grime and that rough-around-the-edges look was intentional right from the start. Just like the BFI release of Ken Russell’s The Devils in 2012, this film looks amazing on DVD, the best it can look outside of a blu-ray release.
But the extras package is where the real meat is. Disc One boasts not one, but two audio commentaries: one by director Mick Jackson, the other with actress Karen Meagher exclusive to this UK release. Both are chatty and informative and worth your time and attention. Over on Disc Two we are treated to a handful of documentaries covering everything from the filming in Sheffield to designing a post-apocalypse Britain. By far the best of the documentaries is the 30-minute video appreciation piece by film historian and author Stephen Thrower, which covers the making of the film from conception to release and it’s impact around the world. This disc also features the original articles from the September 1984 Radio Times on PDF and, again, are exclusive to the Simply Media DVD.
Threads is an astounding film. Watching it today is as powerful, evocative, upsetting and emotionally draining as it was back in the 1980s. It’s not a film you can just sit down in front of to kill a couple of hours, then move on. Threads affects you deeply, it stays with you for days afterwards, plays on your mind. For my money it’s a strong contender for the best British film of all time and Simply Media’s 2-disc DVD set is the best release of the film so far – not just in terms of the generous special features, but the care and attention that has gone into its restoration. If I had only one quibble it would be that this set is so good it’s simply crying out for a collectors booklet to be included. That would have made it perfect!