Skip to main content

‘The end of the world as we know it’: Futility, Fear and Film in the Age of Nuclear War

Dying and the Dead module

This post continues our series from students on ‘Death, Dying and the Dead’, an MA history module at the University of Leeds. This post, by Harriet Lloyd, explores Threads and what it tells us about fears of nuclear apocalypse.

[content warning: stillbirth]

It is September 1984, and 6.9 million Britons tune in to BBC Two to watch Threads. One of the first apocalyptic war films of its genre and a story that left in its wake a legacy of terror and nightmares that still haunt Britons today.

Branded ‘the night the country didn’t sleep’, the film follows the story of ordinary working-class characters living in Sheffield when increasing tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union lead to an all-out nuclear war. Following the fallout, the film follows the breakdown of society as characters struggle to stay alive. Produced on a budget of only £250,000, the film went on to be nominated for seven BAFTA awards and according to Toni Perrine, the film is the closest representation of the full horror of nuclear war and its aftermath.

So, what was happening in the early 1980s? The election of Margaret Thatcher as UK Prime Minister in 1979 and of Ronald Reagan as U.S. President in 1980 saw the collapse of détente: the period of stalemate in international relations. Together with the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union in 1979 and the increasing number of military exercises (FleetEx ’83-1 and Able Archer 83), for some, the period was the closest that the world had to come to nuclear war since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

The film offered an alternative reality to the post-nuclear attack world created by the government’s ‘Protect and Survive Campaign’. The pamphlet produced between 1974 and 1980 intended to advise the public on how to survive and nuclear attack. However, the campaign was met with harsh criticism by the public. John Preston called it a fantasy document that placed all responsibility on the householder. Various parodies spawned of the guide which mocked it, including an episode of the popular 1980s sitcom The Young Ones where the housemates hide under tables after finding a bomb in their kitchen, with one character announcing:

 I’m going to consult the incredibly helpful Protect and Survive manual!

The film’s equivalent to ‘Protect and Survive’ called ‘Advising the householder’ is shown to be useless in the attack itself despite even the best of preparations. Characters who have built makeshift bunkers find themselves trapped or buried alive by rubble.

Threads not only sharply contradicted the government’s suggestion that preparation equalled survival, but it also showcased the pointlessness of survival. A BMA report suggested that a nuclear attack on Britain would leave 39 million dead and 4 million injured. The film quite emphatically told viewers that those who survived were the less fortunate. The film ends on a freeze-frame of the leading character Ruth, who after surviving the attack, selling her body in exchange for food, finally gives birth to a stillborn baby deformed due to radiation poisoning. This disturbing scene demonstrated that the effects of nuclear war are long reaching beyond simply death or survival. The director Mick Jackson's statement expresses this desire to show the full effects:

We couldn’t hold back, because to do so would have been to not tell the truth. People had to see it’.

In a single frame, the film’s creators demonstrated the futility of survival and that in nuclear war, there is never a winner.

The legacy of the film is not easily forgotten by a whole generation of schoolchildren who were shown the film by teachers. Whilst the U.S. had implemented an official ‘Duck and Cover’ initiative in the 1950s where schoolchildren practised drills in the event of nuclear war, the British government produced no equivalent. Thus, the film acted as an informative tool despite its fictional nature. The overarching reaction towards the film was one of fear. Chris West, aged thirteen upon watching Threads, is just one of many schoolchildren who remember the film with dread:

I was 13 and I believe the school showed it to us in a Religious Studies lesson… From that night on, I had night terrors—the most hideous and real nightmares—for years. Sirens I heard in even the daytime would make me stop dead in my tracks.

Preceded by only a few documentaries like A Guide to Armageddon and If the Bomb Drops, the film was the forerunner for what we now know well as the apocalyptic war genre. Perhaps the newness of the film accounts for why it scared so many. Equally, the film did not shy away from blood and gore, especially in the hospital scene where various injuries were depicted.

However, what West and presumably his peers felt about this constant fear of sirens can now be termed as nuclear anxiety. A Gallup Poll published in January 1985 indicated that 48 per cent of British teenagers believe that nuclear war was likely, and they were unlikely to survive it. This overarching sense of fear of the inevitability of war plays into Jonathan Hogg’s definition of ‘nuclearity’ as a powerful influence.

Returning to the tagline that features on the DVD cover, ‘The end of the world as we know it’. The film animated both the physical and emotional realities of nuclear war so that it could be better understood by the audience. Ultimately, how far do we let films influence what we know about the world? In the case of Threads, the writer and director exerted more power than the government in shaping the narrative of the public perception of nuclear war. For those that watched Threads and believed it, the end of the world was nigh.