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Posts Tagged ‘Barry Hines’

Just when it looks like the late-summer interesting-movie drought is a thing of the past, the UPP goes and closes for its annual week of maintenance. Sigh. Still, when it returns, it is at least with an amusingly tongue-in-cheek choice of subject matter for its usual revival season – the weeks leading up to October 31st feature a series of films under the umbrella title of Apocalypse, Now?, connected by the fact they are either dystopian or downright apocalyptic British-set movies. One can appreciate the joke even if, fingers crossed, recent events mean that Halloween no longer has particularly ominous associations this year.

I expect it says something about me that most of the films in the Apocalypse season are ones I’m already rather familiar with. It includes A Clockwork Orange, Children of Men, and The Day the Earth Caught Fire, and you’ve already got two classic films there at least. The curve-ball of the season, however, is a film which wasn’t originally made for the big screen, and, well… it’s a very different kind of beast from those others. It is Threads, from 1984.

If I may digress a moment, a few years ago I was in Prague for a long weekend and one of the places I visited was a nuclear bunker in the suburbs of the city. We had an engaging time exploring the facilities, putting on the gas masks and having our photos taken in them, and so on, and then the guide pointed out to us that the mirrors in the bathrooms were all sheets of polished metal, rather than the usual glass. And when we asked why, he explained it was part of the policy to make the bunker suicide-proof, because it was anticipated that even the survivors of a nuclear strike would be very likely to contemplate ending their own lives. And suddenly we felt a bit subdued and queasy, and everything was considerably less jolly.

Threads is a film which will give you that moment of uneasiness and recognition of what is really at stake here, and stretch it out to 108 minutes. It was first broadcast on British TV in 1984, and even before the transmission it was drawing complaints – even the front cover of the BBC’s TV listings magazine was considered to be too disturbing and explicit. I was much too young to watch the actual film when it was shown then, but the cover did lodge itself in my memory as a grisly, haunting symbol of the film.

Quite when the film is set is a little ambiguous – based on the dates given on screen, it appears to be a near-future 1988, but it is clearly meant to be contemporary, although it does not identify specific politicians. In the opening scenes, we meet lead characters Ruth (Karen Meagher) and Jimmy (Reece Dinsdale), a young couple living in Sheffield, getting on with their lives, not paying much attention to the world situation – Russian troops have recently moved from the USSR into eastern parts of Iran. Ruth falls pregnant, and in the absence of any other options, they decide to marry and move in together, although Jimmy’s commitment to the relationship seems far from complete.

They buy a flat, start to think about a wedding; the two sets of parents get to know each other. But while all this is going on, tensions are building in the Middle East, with both the Americans and Soviets building up their forces in the region, and the rhetoric becoming increasingly antagonistic. Slowly it impinges on the characters that armed conflict is a possibility, then a likelihood. There is panic-buying in the supermarkets. The TV broadcasts public information films about how to convert part of your home into a fall-out survival room, and what to do if someone dies while you are in there. Key personnel and resources are quietly moved into locations of safety.

And then, one Thursday morning, the air attack warning sounds. As an industrial city not too far from USAF bases in England, Sheffield is targeted and struck by several nuclear warheads.

The first half of Threads has something of the look and feel of a kitchen-sink drama – something gritty and naturalistic, about the real lives of young people today, albeit one punctuated by occasional captions giving supplementary information, and contributions from an omniscient narrator (Paul Vaughan). The very nature of the production means it has an extraordinary atmosphere of impending doom, and a weird tension – you’re kind of anticipating the moment when the world comes to an end, and wondering what it’s going to be like, and yet at the same time you are dreading how the actual reality of it is going to be presented to you.

And your instincts are quite right, because the second half of Threads is probably the most soul-crushingly bleak hour of TV ever broadcast in the UK – yes, even worse than the final episode of Blake’s 7. And the tone and nature of the film feels like it undergoes a quite radical shift. Some of the documentary realism persists, but it is mixed with an almost impressionistic approach to portraying the scenes of nightmarish horror which ensue: we see fragments, odd scenes; montages of photographs take the place of live action. We almost seem to be seeing events from the point-of-view of Ruth and the other characters as they teeter on the edge of madness. Perhaps this was necessitated; even on a pretty big budget by 1984 standards, the BBC was probably quite incapable of naturalistically presenting the sheer scale of the horror of the aftermath of a UK-wide nuclear attack. And perhaps even the writer’s mind recoiled from the magnitude of the task he had been charged with. The film covers the decade-and-a-half or so following the attack, and we are presented with an increasingly disjointed set of snapshots of the dismal future world which comes into being. But the horror of it is tangible: survivors breaking up farmland with hand tools, swathed in cloth to shield themselves from post-nuclear UV exposure; children being taught to read using fuzzy pre-apocalypse video recordings; and the concluding sequence of the film, suggesting that the damage extends far beyond the severing of the threads of civilised society, even to the essential humanity of the survivors.

There is perhaps a bit of a mismatch in the creative team behind Threads – the writer was Barry Hines, otherwise best-known for the working-class bildungsroman A Kestrel for a Knave (famously filmed as Kes by Ken Loach), while the director was Mick Jackson, who would go on to make rather more cheerful Hollywood movies like LA Story, The Bodyguard and Volcano (more recently, he also directed Denial). Apparently there were creative tensions between the two of them on set. But together they produce something which does full justice to a weighty remit – Hines’ script is loaded with social and political anger, although it resists the temptation to make explicit political points and still finds time for formal quirks (one major character simply vanishes out of the film, midway through the bombing sequence) and heart-breaking moments of pathos (we see that Ruth is still carrying around tiny, useless mementos of her dead loved ones, years after the end of the old world). Jackson brings documentary realism to the early parts of the film and a willingness to go big and cinematic in the key moments depicting the attack. The film is superbly made, even if it is also in a very real sense awful to watch.

It would be nice to say that age has worked wonders to diminish the ghastly power of Threads, and rendered it a bit of a cold-war era curio, a reminder of what kept our parents and grandparents awake at night with alarm, something we have moved on. Certainly, all the video tapes and fake TV news broadcasts do give Threads the feeling of a period piece. But the last time I checked, we still have nuclear weapons, we still have international tensions, we still have foolish politicians who want to look like strongmen in the global media. (That nuclear bunker in Prague could be made fully operational again in only 48 hours.) We have not stepped back far enough from that brink: Threads suggests it is impossible to step back too far. This is one of those pieces of art which transcends time and place.

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