May 26, an undisclosed year in the mid 1980s: Sheffield is devastated by a nuclear attack.
Thousands in the city die instantly. Buildings are destroyed. A mushroom cloud forms above the Peak District. Survivors face a decade-long apocalyptic winter.
This was the harrowing storyline for a BBC drama, written by South Yorkshire author Barry Hines and screened exactly 30 years ago, which traumatised a generation.
Threads – about two city families trying to cope after Cold War tensions erupt into all out war – was so powerful it is said President Ronald Reagan requested a private viewing. Some historians have since claimed that its portrayal of the sheer devastation which would be caused if The Bomb fell was so powerful it actually helped de-escalate Soviet-American tensions. The 90-minute film, which was watched by six million viewers, won four Bafta Awards.
Not bad for a drama which was shot around the streets of Sheffield – including the city centre and the recently-closed Royal Infirmary.
And one which starred hundreds of thousands of ordinary South Yorkshire folk as extras (advertised for in The Star, no less) and which included seriously low-budget make-up tricks such as using tomato ketchup and rice Rice Krispies to create third-degree burns.
“We were told to turn up in our tattiest clothes with a few days growth of beard and to be ready to get dirty,” remembers Stephen Pratt, of Mexborough, who was picked to be an extra after auditions at City Hall.
“My friend Robert Peart and I were chosen to take part in an anti-nuclear demo marching through the centre of Sheffield. Another day we were in a compound guarded by soldiers after surviving nuclear war and its effects with radiation sickness, terrible disfigurements. That was at the derelict Sheffield Royal Infirmary, Looking round at the terrible injuries, the victim’s burned bodies and charred dummies brought a sense of realism to the whole experience, one that I would not wish to experience for real.” Viewers, it seemed, felt the same.
Even today, Threads – the first film to depict a nuclear holocaust – has the power to shock. Unforgettable images include the old Egg Box building being blown up and the Town Hall as rubble, as well as melting milk bottles, writhing cats and main character Ruth Beckett feeding desperately on a raw, frozen sheep out in the Peak District. In one scene a youngster is shot while scavenging for food. In another, someone’s leg is amputated in a hospital awash with blood.
“Threads was so disturbing because it seemed so very real,” says John Highfield, who was The Star’s TV critic for more than a decade before starting up John Highfield PR.
“It was based on the most widely respected scientific research about the effects of a nuclear bomb, and the script by Barry Hines – who also wrote Kes – was typically realistic.
“The main actors were mainly from Yorkshire too. But more than that, in 1984, you have to remember this was the height of the Cold War – we lived with this constant threat that this could really happen. I remember feeling half scared to death.”
Director Mick Jackson, from Essex, later said it had the same effect on plenty of others too.
He recalled how usually when a programme he’d worked on finished airing on TV he would immediately receive phone calls of congratulations from friends or colleagues. With Threads that didn’t happen.
“I realised,” he said, “That people had just sat there thinking about it, in many cases not sleeping or being able to talk.”