A threadbare future

 

© BBC / Nine Network / Western-World Television Inc

 

It’s said that everyone remembered where they were and what they were doing on November 22nd, 1963, when they heard that President John F. Kennedy had been shot.  Likewise, I remember where I was and what I was doing on the evening of September 23rd, 1984, when BBC2 broadcast the gut-wrenching apocalyptic drama Threads.

 

I was staying in the youth hostel in Aberdeen, with my second year as an undergraduate at Aberdeen University due to begin in a fortnight’s time.  Having worked abroad for the summer, I was now back in the city trying desperately to arrange accommodation for myself for the year ahead.  I’d spent the past few days trudging around flat-hunting without any luck and, to make matters worse, I’d just been informed that I wouldn’t be eligible for a student grant for the next year either.  So I was feeling pretty low about my residential and financial situation that evening when I wandered into the youth hostel’s lounge and sat down among a crowd of hostellers who were about to watch something on television called Threads, a much-anticipated documentary-drama showing what would happen if a nuclear conflict broke out between America and Russia and the UK was struck by 210 megatons of nuclear weaponry.

 

It’s fair to say that by the time Threads ended 112 minutes later, my mood had not improved any.  Mind you, nobody else in the lounge looked like they were bursting with joie de vivre.  Bill Dick, who was the hostel’s usually easy-going and affable head-warden and who’d been in the audience, couldn’t have looked more down in the dumps if he’d been buried to his neck in garbage.  (I got to know Bill four years later when I spent a summer working at the hostel as a warden and had him as my boss.)

 

A few days ago, something compelled me to view Threads again – possibly the fact that we have a US President currently braying on twitter about his ‘nice and new and smart’ missiles and goading Russia to ‘get ready’.  Though it might also be because a remastered version of Threads has recently been released on Blu-ray.  Here are my thoughts on it having re-watched it 34 years later.  I should warn you that the remainder of this blog-entry will contain spoilers, though you’ve probably gathered already that in Threads absolutely nothing good happens.

 

Threads is directed by Mick Jackson and written by the late Barry Hines, author of the 1968 novel A Kestrel for a Knave that a year later established Ken Loach as a cinematic force when he filmed it as Kes.  It consists of three sections: an initial 45 minutes showing life during the build-up to the cataclysmic nuclear strike; then another 45 minutes showing the strike and its immediate aftermath; and then a 25-minute epilogue chronicling Britain a year, a decade, finally thirteen years into the future when, with its natural environment, economy and social infrastructure pulverised, the country reverts to the Middle Ages.  That’s the Middle Ages minus the chivalry, balladry and pageantry, but with plenty of fallout, nuclear winters, depleted ozone, ultraviolent radiation, cataracts, skin cancer and genetic damage.

 

The gruelling central section imprinted itself on my 19-year-old memory.  I’ve carried its images around in my head ever since: milk bottles melting on doorsteps in the heat of a nuclear detonation, a charred cyclist (still on his bike) lodged amid the branches of a burning tree, cats igniting, dolls melting, a crazed woman squatting amid the rubble cradling her baby’s burnt corpse, a traffic warden with a bandage-swathed face holding off a starving mob with a rifle, doctors in an overrun hospital sawing away a leg while the un-anaesthetised patient screams through a gag, and several dozen other things involving flames, rubble, cadavers, rats, blood, wounds, excrement, vomit and general mayhem and horror.  In particular, I’ve never forgotten the moment when a mushroom cloud rises terrifyingly above the skyline, causing one poor woman to wet herself in the middle of a street – something that led to the actress Anne Sellors having the briefest and most poignant entry ever on IMDb.

 

© BBC / Nine Network / Western-World Television Inc

 

But having seen Threads again, I now appreciate the queasy effectiveness of the opening section too.  Here, Hines and Jackson establish the focus of their story, two families in the Yorkshire city of Sheffield.  These are the working-class Kemps and the middle-class Becketts.  The Kemps’ eldest boy Jimmy (Reece Dinsdale) has been courting the Becketts’ daughter Ruth (Karen Meagher) and Ruth has just realised she’s pregnant.  Jimmy and Ruth resolve to get married and start renovating a flat to live in while their families uneasily make each other’s acquaintance.  Interestingly, this reflects the uneasy working relationship between Hines and Jackson themselves.  According to ThreadsWikipedia entry, the working-class Hines saw Jackson as something of a middle-class prat.

 

Meanwhile, ominously, news reports chatter in the background about escalating superpower tensions in the Middle East.  The characters are initially oblivious to what’s brewing.  Early on, we see Jimmy fiddling with his radio, wanting to get away from some boring news bulletin about the crisis and find the latest football results.  Apathy gradually changes to shoulder-shrugging helplessness, something summed up by Jimmy’s workmate Bob (Ashley Barker).  In the pub, he declares that they might as well enjoy themselves while they can, because there’s bugger-all else they can do.  Plus, if things do kick off, he hopes he’ll be ‘pissed out of my mind and straight underneath it.’  Ironically, Bob survives after nearly everyone else has perished and we last see him tucking into the raw and probably irradiated flesh of a dead sheep.

 

By the time the characters try to respond to what’s coming, it’s too late.  The bomb goes off while the hapless Kemps are still assembling a fallout shelter comprised of a couple of doors propped against a living-room wall.  The Becketts, being posher, have a cellar to retreat into.  Not that they fare any better in the long run.

 

For me, it’s this opening section that brings home what Threads is about.  A preliminary narration talks about the economic threads necessary for a society to function: “…everything connects.  Each person’s 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.”  However, my impression is that the truly important threads – which are obliterated once the missiles hit their targets – are the ones between people, of feeling and compassion, which have been refined by centuries of civilisation and, today, are the essence of what it means to be human.

 

Thus, we see Jimmy (whom we know has been cheating on Ruth and is a bit of a tosser) standing in the aviary in his family’s back garden and doting over the birds kept there.  We see Mr and Mrs Beckett (Henry Moxon and June Broughton) trying to look after an ailing elderly relative discharged from hospital after the NHS is ordered to clear its wards in anticipation of a flood of war casualties.  We see Clive Sutton (Harry Beety), the local government official put in charge of an emergency team that will run things from a bunker underneath Sheffield City Council, attempting to reassure his nervous wife.  But empathy for our fellow creatures rapidly disappears as, in the war’s aftermath, humanity degenerates into a shell-shocked, zombie-like rabble fixated only on its own, scrabbling-in-the-dirt survival.

 

© BBC / Nine Network / Western-World Television Inc

 

This is made explicit in Threads’ final stages when, years later, we’re introduced to Jane (Victoria O’Keefe), the daughter of Ruth and Jimmy.  When Ruth dies, sick, exhausted, blinded by cataracts and looking decades older than her true age, an impassive Jane reacts by stealing a few items from her mother’s corpse and then clearing off.  The few kids born post-holocaust are a scary bunch, incidentally.  Their language is limited to phrases like “Gizzit!” and “C’mon!” and they generally act like feral mini-Neanderthals.

 

Threads came in the wake of the bleak 1983 American TV movie The Day After, directed by Nicholas Meyer, which depicted the effects of a nuclear strike on Kansas City and caused a considerable stir on both sides of the Atlantic.  But while I like The Day After, I think the altogether more graphic and relentless Threads beats it to a bloody pulp.  For one thing, Meyer’s film is disadvantaged by its cast of familiar actors like Jason Robards and John Lithgow, which means you can’t ever forget you’re watching a dramatic fabrication.  In Threads, the cast is comprised of unknown performers, which adds to its worrisome sense of authenticity.

 

That said, saddoes like myself might recognise David Brierley, who plays Ruth’s father, as the voice of K9 in the 1979-80 series of Doctor Who; and a couple of voices heard from the early blizzard of news reports are familiar, like Ed Bishop, star of the Gerry Anderson sci-fi show UFO (1970), and Lesley Judd from the BBC’s flagship kids’ magazine programme Blue Peter (1958-present).  I’m glad Jackson decided not to go with his original casting idea, which was to use actors from the venerable north-of-England TV soap opera Coronation Street – disturbing though the sight of Jack and Vera Duckworth puking their guts up in a makeshift fallout shelter would have been.

 

From wikipedia.org

 

Threads also contains the sonorous tones of the great voice-over actor Patrick Allen, whom the UK government had hired to narrate its Protect and Survive public information films that would be broadcast if nuclear war looked imminent.  By 1984, the media had got hold of these films and discussed them at length and they’d been much derided for their epic uselessness in the face of actual, atomic Armageddon.  (At one point in Threads we hear Allen crisply and matter-of-factly advising the public on how to deal with corpses: “…move the body to another room in the house.  Label the body with name and address and cover it as tightly as possible in polythene, paper, sheets or blankets.”)  Earlier in 1984, Allen’s Protect and Survive voice-work had been sampled in Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s hit single Two Tribes – for which he sportingly added the lines: “Mine is the last voice you will ever hear.  Do not be alarmed.”

 

The futility of Protect and Survive and officialdom’s attempts to deal with the holocaust generally are embodied in Threads by Sutton and his team, who utterly fail to provide leadership and control once the bombs have gone off.  Trapped in their bunker under the rubble of the flattened council building, with insufficient training, malfunctioning equipment and limited supplies of food, water and air, they succumb to bickering, despondency, hysteria and – finally – asphyxiation.  Predictably, when order is re-established in Sheffield, it’s pretty brutal in nature.

 

Brutal too is the narrative as it moves forward in time, with Telex-type captions flashing up on the screen giving statistics about fallout levels, the nuclear winter, the ozone layer, epidemics and an ever-rising death-toll.  Things conclude with the now-teenaged Jane giving birth after she’s been raped by another of the feral kids.  The baby is stillborn and deformed, and Threads’ last image is a freeze-frame of Jane’s face as she recoils in horror from it.  Early on, Jimmy’s kid brother Michael (Nicholas Lane) had embarrassed his parents by asking, “What’s an abortion?”  Threads ends with the implication that humanity has unwittingly aborted itself.

 

It isn’t perfect.  Thanks to budgetary restrictions, there’s a reliance on stock footage and stills from previous wars and conflicts, which don’t necessarily look like they’re occurring in Sheffield in 1984.   And despite valiant efforts by the make-up department, the actors playing the long-term survivors are a bit too firm and healthy-looking – by then they should have resembled death-camp inmates.  Additionally, the fact that Threads takes place in a pre-Internet, pre-social media world gives it a quaint distance now.  (Imagine the reaction if the equivalent events happened today.  While the first warheads exploded over Britain, Katie Hopkins would be on twitter blaming it all on immigrants.)  Nonetheless, as a harrowing account of what might engulf us if our political leaders are seized by a moment of trigger-happy madness, it’s unbeatable.

 

And in 2018, with the world’s nuclear arsenal largely concentrated in the hands of a couple of narcissistic thugs, Threads seems no less relevant than it did 34 years ago.  That’s a sentence I take no pleasure in writing.

 

© BBC / Nine Network / Western-World Television Inc

 

Scary telly – ten favourites

 

As promised in my previous blog-entry, here are my ten favourite memories of the golden age of scary British TV – back in the 1970s and early 1980s, a period when UK programme-makers seemed to have no compunctions about frightening audiences.

 

Journey to the Unknown (1969 – Matakitas is Coming)

At the end of the 1960s, Hammer Films – Britain’s premier studio specialising in horror films – tried its hand at television.  The resulting series, an anthology one called Journey to the Unknown, differed from the studio’s usual output in that it eschewed gothic costume-dramas like their Dracula and Frankenstein movies and placed its stories in contemporary settings.  The show was short-lived and variable in quality but, when it was repeated on late-night TV during the 1970s, it impressed me with this instalment about a woman (played by Psycho’s Vera Miles) doing research in an old labyrinthine library about a serial killer who operated during the 1920s.  As night falls, she inadvertently gets locked inside the library and, as she tries to escape, she discovers that, somehow, the city outside has shifted four decades back in time to the 1920s.  And worse, she isn’t actually alone inside the library…

 

Journey to the Unknown also sticks in my mind because of its opening credits sequence, whose images were set in a deserted, night-time fairground and accompanied by a haunting, whistled theme-tune composed by Harry Robinson.

 

The Stone Tape (1972)

The output of Manx writer Nigel Kneale could easily provide material for a top ten of scary TV moments in itself, from his Quatermass serials in the 1950s through to the adaptation of Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black that he did for ITV in 1989 (two decades before Hammer Films got their hands on the property).  The Stone Tape is perhaps his most unnerving work.  An example of Kneale’s fondness for blending science-fiction elements with the supernatural, it’s the story of a team of scientists with hi-tech monitoring equipment investigating an old, supposedly haunted house that has the psychic memory of some hideous, malevolent thing imprinted in its stonework.  This one-off play is in fact an early exploration of the ‘residual haunting’ theory – that ghosts are echoes or recordings of past events somehow stored in their physical surroundings – and so influential was it that the theory is now sometimes called the ‘Stone Tape theory’.  The play was directed by Peter Sasdy, who was responsible for several of Hammer’s better later horror films, and among its cast was the distinguished Scottish actor Iain Cuthbertson, who will appear again in this list.

 

Doctor Who (1976 – The Seeds of Doom)

There are two things that Doctor Who has always done well – mass killing and body horror.  The Tom Baker-era story The Seeds of Doom – which is about alien seed-pods that germinate, infect human beings and transform them into grotesque, meat-eating plant-monsters – has both things in spades.  One pod becomes the possession of an insane millionaire plant-lover called Harrison Chase – played by the underrated British character actor Tony Beckley – and he gets it to germinate, using one of his own employees, a luckless botanist called Arnold Keeler, as bait.  Episode 4 of this serial, wherein Chase chains the slowly-transforming Keeler to a bed, ignoring his pleas for help and trying to speed up the metamorphosis by feeding him pieces of raw meat, was the stuff of nightmares when I was 11.

 

(c) BBC

 

A Ghost Story for Christmas (1976 – The Signalman)

Unlike other instalments of A Ghost Story for Christmas, this was based not on a story by M.R. James but on one by Charles Dickens and it is perhaps the fondest-remembered of the lot.  Dripping with oppressive atmosphere – most of the action is set in a remote, lonely signal-box, located at the bottom of a deep cutting and before the mouth of a tunnel – it features Denholm Elliot as a harassed signalman, convinced that (a) he occasionally sees a spectral figure wailing and gesticulating in front of the tunnel and (b) whenever that figure appears, it is the harbinger of a deadly accident about to happen on the line.  Particularly spooky is the ghostly vibration that emanates from the signal-box’s bell, as a forewarning that the ghost is about to manifest.  The script was by Andrew Davies, who later become British television’s leading adaptor of classic literature.  And Denholm Elliot ended up doing a lot of this stuff.

 

Beasts (1976 – After Barty’s Party)

By the mid-1970s Nigel Kneale had become disillusioned with the BBC and turned to rival channel ITV, for whom he would pen the final Quatermass serial in 1980 and The Woman in Black in 1989.  Before those, however, came a short anthology series called Beasts in 1976.  No doubt the ITV programmers expected an old-fashioned horror show that was packed with monsters – but what they got from Kneale was entirely different, a series of plays called Beasts that paradoxically didn’t contain any beasts (or at least, didn’t show them).  Kneale described the episode After Barty’s Party, about a middle-class couple whose home is invaded by a swarm of noisy, hungry but never-seen rats, as an attempt to remake Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds “without the birds”.  Its low-key, leave-everything-to-the-imagination approach, with the rats represented only by sound effects, didn’t exactly scare me as a youngster but it certainly unsettled me.  And it has stuck in my head ever since.

 

Supernatural (1977 – Countess Iliona / The Werewolf Reunion)

From its foreboding church-organ music, to the images of stone gargoyles that adorned its credits sequence, to its premise – people try to gain membership of a decadent Victorian society called the Club of the Damned by telling them stories based on their terrifying real-life experiences – to the fruity acting by guest stars such as Jeremy Brett and Denholm Elliot (again), Supernatural was as gothic a show as you could ever expect to get on TV.  Slow-moving, extremely stagey and resolutely keeping most of its horrors off-screen and in the viewers’ imagination, it’s the sort of show that would never be made today.  Indeed, I don’t think it’s been repeated since the 1970s.

 

The Supernatural story that scared me most when I was a kid was the two-parter Countess Iliona / The Werewolf Reunion.  This stars Billie Whitelaw (then wife of the show’s writer Robert Mueller) as a woman who during her youth was used and abused by a series of powerful men and eventually, to spare them embarrassment, ‘married off’ to a brutal aristocrat living in a remote mountain castle.  After the aristocrat dies mysteriously, she invites those former beaus who’d mistreated her – played by Edward Hardwicke, John Fraser, Charles Kay and the great Ian Hendry – out to her castle.  What they don’t know is that the aristocratic husband didn’t really die, but got infected with something that leaves him hairy and bloodthirsty when there’s a full moon.  And his wife now plans to use him, like a deadly attack dog, to right a few wrongs.  We never see the werewolf or the havoc it wreaks but the final scene, where the shadow of something advances on the final, quaking victim, is chillingly effective.

 

Children of the Stones (1977)

It wasn’t just the adult TV schedules that were awash with scares during the 1970s.  BBC and ITV programmers also crammed them into the children’s schedules as well, with shows like Sky and The Changes – both of which were ostensibly science fiction, but being a sensitive child I found them supremely creepy – and the anthology show Shadows.  But The Children of the Stones is regarded as the scariest British kids’ show of the lot.  It’s fashionable now to describe it as a children’s version of The Wicker Man, but with a story incorporating a megalithic stone circle, a druidic cult of brainwashed villagers, ‘time rifts’ and an attempt to harness the power of a black hole, it was rather trippier than Peter Schaffer’s celebrated horror movie.  People remember it for its spooky atmosphere, its distinguished cast (Gareth Thomas, the ubiquitous Iain Cuthbertson and the wonderful Freddie Jones) and, most of all, its music, which involved weirdly chanting voices swirling in and out of audibility.  In fact, so disturbing was that music that I’m sure the show had given many kids nightmares even before they’d finished watching its opening credits.

 

 

Tales of the Unexpected (1980 – Royal Jelly)

Tales of the Unexpected, which for its first couple of seasons drew its stories from the works of Roald Dahl, was the most famous anthology series of the time, although I wasn’t a big fan of it.  Too often I found it stagy and cheap-looking.  Its budget seemed to be mostly spent on its casts, which were genuinely impressive, ranging from big British names like Michael Hordern, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, John Mills, Derek Jacobi, Robert Morley, Anthony Quayle, Anna Massey and Denholm Elliot (him again) to big international ones like Joseph Cotton, Rod Taylor, Eli Wallach, Telly Savalas, Jennifer Connelly, George Peppard, Brad Dourif, Sondra Locke and Frank Sinatra – that’s Frank Sinatra Junior, admittedly.

 

However, the episode Royal Jelly, based on the Dahl short story of the same name, was memorably freaky, thanks largely to a performance by Timothy West as an aging beekeeper who consumes vast quantities of royal jelly in order to make himself virile and able to impregnate his young wife (played by Susan George).  It has the unedifying side-effect of turning West into a hairy human bee who goes ‘Bzzz-hzzz-hzzz!’ whilst chuckling about how clever he’s been.

 

The Hammer House of Horror (1980 – The House that Bled to Death)

At the beginning of the 1980s, with the British film industry all but extinct, Hammer Films turned its attention to television again and has a second go at mounting a horror anthology series.  The result, The Hammer House of Horror, was as variable as its predecessor, Journey to the Unknown, but the best episodes have lingered in people’s memories ever since.  (The series started off being sexually and bloodily explicit by TV standards of the time, but the producers toned the sex and violence down when they realised that a good part of the audience they were attracting was made up of children.  It didn’t occur to them that the sex and bloodshed was probably why so many kids were tuning in.)  And Denholm Elliot – yes! – appeared in one of the stories.

 

 (c) Hammer Films

 

The episode The House that Bled to Death was inspired by the allegedly true-life, much-disputed events of the Amityville haunting in the USA.  It has a young family moving into a house that was the scene of a gruesome murder and engineering a series of fake supernatural happenings to make it look like the house is haunted.  Then, colluding with their estate agent, they become millionaires by publishing a bestselling book about their experiences – though things don’t go quite as they’d planned.  A scene where a pipe bursts in a living-room ceiling and, instead of spewing water, spews blood down onto a group of children enjoying a birthday party provided The Hammer House of Horror with its most notorious moment.

 

The Nightmare Man (1981)

The four-part serial The Nightmare Man was a collaboration between Robert Holmes and Douglas Camfield, who these days are regarded as the greatest writer and director respectively to have worked on the original series of Doctor Who.  Based on a novel by David Wiltshire, it was set on a Scottish island where locals and tourists are gorily falling victim to a mysterious thing and it had a wonderful cast – James Warwick, Celia Imre, Tom Watson, Maurice Roeves and James Cosmo.  However, it was cheap (it was actually filmed in Cornwall, not in Scotland at all) and I suspect that if I saw it now it would look very dated.  Even at the time, the final episode with its denouement about what was really happening, involving a Cold War plot and a malfunctioning cyborg, struck me as a big anti-climax.  But for me in my impressionable youth, during those earlier episodes where animalistic sound effects and Camfield’s subjective camera represent the monster as it stalks unseen through swirling island fog, the show was perfect.

 

As I said previously, the British TV ghost-and-horror craze was over by the early 1980s.  Suddenly, this sort of show stopped being made.  Maybe it was a coincidence, but the disappearance of the genre from British screens coincided with a broadcast of a TV play that, although it wasn’t about the supernatural or the conventionally macabre, managed to be the most terrifying thing I’ve ever seen on television.  1984’s Threads, written by Barry Hines (of Kes fame) and directed by Mick Jackson, shows what happens in Sheffield when nuclear war breaks out between the NATO and Warsaw Pact countries.  A nuclear strike on the city and its immediate aftermath are depicted with a series of unforgettable images – a woman wetting herself on a street when she sees a mushroom cloud rising above the rooftops, milk bottles melting on a doorstep, a charred cyclist on a blackened bicycle entangled in the branches of a burning bush, a gagged patient screaming mutely on a table in an anaesthetic-free hospital while surgeons saw off his leg, blood running down that hospital’s steps – and Hines and Jackson don’t flinch either in showing what comes later, with the advent of a nuclear winter and Britain’s descent into dystopian hell.

 

After the very credible horrors that were presented by Threads, I’m afraid, no amount of TV ghosts or monsters were ever going to frighten me in the same way again.  So maybe it was just as well that the golden age of scary British television ended there.