Threads transcends its subject matter, nuclear war, and reminds us that society is a fragile thing
Barry Hines has died. He was a significant writer, the author of A Kestrel for a Knave, a gritty tale about northern working class life, which was a popular set text for English classes back in the day, and which was turned into a film by Ken Loach, entitled Kes.
He also created the script for the film Threads, the docudrama dealing with a nuclear attack on Sheffield, which was broadcast by the BBC in 1984, and which made a huge impression at the time, and which, over thirty years later, I still recall with the utmost vividness.
Why was Threads so good? It made such an impact in 1984 because the idea of a nuclear attack on Britain was by no means fanciful. The government had even issued leaflets about what to do in the event of such an attack, and commissioned studies about what the probable effect of a nuclear strike would be. None of this was at all reassuring. I remember reading that the whole of Oxford would be devastated by a bomb detonating above the city centre, and that the official advice was to paint your windows – to avoid going blind thanks to the nuclear flash – and to cover yourself with a urine soaked sheet, to protect yourself from radioactive fallout. At the time I fervently hoped that any bomb would kill me instantly: the horror of survival was too awful to contemplate. And so it proves in Threads. The lucky ones are killed at once. The not so lucky survive. The post-nuclear world is deeply frightening.
Another thing that resonated with Threads was the point of the title. A nuclear war would not just kill millions and do catastrophic damage, it would destroy the invisible ties that bind us all together, the threads that make up the web of social life. Barry Hines cleverly set threads in Sheffield, and the thrust of the story was the way that the fabric of society is destroyed by the bomb: civilised living ceases, and even language unravels, and a new age of barbarism returns. The cities are abandoned, and a shadow life is eked out among the ruins.
In many ways Threads transcends the actual subject of nuclear war, in that it reminds us that society is a fragile thing, and that there are other threats that can destroy the ties that bind as well as nuclear war. Since 1984 the threat of nuclear war has receded, thank goodness, but there are other menaces to society, and these have to be faced. Chief of these is family breakdown, which has come about without the help of nuclear catastrophe, along the failure of the older generation to pass on traditional values to the younger generation.
We have no real idea what a society not based on the traditional family will look like, for there has never been such a society, though history provides hints. But those who think that our current situation is something to be pleased about may well be in for a shock.
Nuclear technology is clearly a double-edged sword. As a source of energy, it could be very good; as a source of aggressive power, it threatens not just its victims but also those who wield it. As such, nuclear technology is a useful emblem for all our progress. Threads was a warning of how a highly developed society can become a victim of its own success. Now that Barry Hines has died, perhaps the BBC could show it again: that would be a fitting tribute to its author.