Threads Day: I watched nuclear bomb obliterate Sheffield 40 years later and it's still chilling TV

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Even all these years later, the dystopian 1984 drama is one of the most disturbing bits of TV I’ve seen

It's the chilling TV drama which continues to haunt the nightmares of many who saw it back in 1984.

Viewers watched aghast as Sheffield, along with much of the UK, was blown to smithereens on their screens by a cluster of nuclear bombs which fell across the nation.

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The BBC2 TV film Threads, about a nuclear disaster, was filmed in Sheffield with many citizens taking part as extrasThe BBC2 TV film Threads, about a nuclear disaster, was filmed in Sheffield with many citizens taking part as extras
The BBC2 TV film Threads, about a nuclear disaster, was filmed in Sheffield with many citizens taking part as extras | Sheffield Newspapers

At the height of the Cold War, with fears of nuclear armageddon gripping the world, the horrors which unfolded before their eyes in a bruising 112-minute assault on the nerves were all too believable.

I was lucky enough to remain oblivious to the terrifying drama Threads until I moved to Sheffield eight years ago but I quickly realised how deeply it had scarred the collective consciousness of the city.

So upon the 40th anniversary of Threads Day, marking the moment at 8.37am on May 26, 1984 that nuclear bombs rained down on the UK in the film, it felt like a rite of passage to strap myself in and subject myself to this terrifying masterpiece for the first time.

Of course, things are very different now than they were back in 1984.

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The threat of nuclear annihilation doesn't weigh quite so heavily on the world's minds, even if Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the Israel-Palestine war mean the threat of global conflict still feels very real.

I also watched Threads knowing what I was in for, while viewers back then may understandably have expected writer Barry Hines, the man who gave us Kes, after all, to offer a little more hope amid the bleakness.

BHS, Woolworths and Egg Box destroyed

And watching the likes of BHS, Woolworths and the notorious Egg Box Town Hall extension being reduced to rubble doesn't have quite the same impact today, when a combination of internet shopping and architectural sensibilities have long since put paid to all three.

Despite all that, I can report that Threads remains a brilliant and deeply disturbing piece of TV upon first viewing in 2024.

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It opens with the couple at the heart of the film - Jimmy and Ruth - canoodling in a car overlooking Sheffield.

The moment a nuclear bomb falls on Sheffield in the 1984 BBC TV drama Threads. Photo: BBCThe moment a nuclear bomb falls on Sheffield in the 1984 BBC TV drama Threads. Photo: BBC
The moment a nuclear bomb falls on Sheffield in the 1984 BBC TV drama Threads. Photo: BBC | BBC

We're soon plunged into the everyday lives of a cast of characters more occupied with romance and their financial affairs, as they attempt to muddle through amid a recession, than with events in the Middle East.

At first, news of the crisis in Iran escalating, amid a deadly game of brinksmanship between the US and Russia, feel like white noise, with Jimmy quickly switching stations as a news report comes through.

That background noise slowly builds to a crescendo as events hundreds of miles away begin to impinge on their daily lives, from military jets roaring overhead to panic buying in the shops.

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And then the unthinkable happens - a mushroom cloud is seen rising beyond Fargate, windows are blown out, a car crashes into a wall and a woman wets herself in panic.

Sheffield is bathed in a blinding white light and the screeching of the wind fills the air before an even eerier silence descends and fire tears through the city.

It's all brilliantly observed but what comes after is even more harrowing, as nuclear winter descends on the UK and the survivors struggle on while the powers that be plot how to get the city back on its feet from the relative safety of their bunker beneath the town hall.

The next hour is a full-on emotional pummelling, from which as a viewer you emerge staggering and dazed.

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It's the small details that stand out - the intimate moments amid global annihilation - as the public information bulletins delivered in clipped tones are juxtaposed with scenes of unimaginable human suffering.

There's the haunting scene in which pregnant Ruth steps out into a wasteland, strewn with charred bodies, and meets the dead-eyed stare of a mother clutching her lifeless baby.

There are the scenes leading up the nuclear blast as public disorder breaks out on the street, while in contrast around the corner artworks are carefully taken down for safe-keeping, and nearby Ruth and Jimmy silently strip the wallpaper at their new home.

And there's the life insurance poster which somehow survives the destruction, ironically looming large amid the desolation in which starving survivors are reduced to eating rats.

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Living in Sheffield, it all feels particularly real, with the city still recognisable despite the absence today of landmarks like the Tinsley cooling towers. The place names have not changed, of course, and it makes you gulp when you hear how Hillsborough has been virtually wiped from the map, while, further out, Stocksbridge has been spared total destruction.

Watching Threads with the Covid pandemic fresh in the memory adds extra poignancy, with some of the details imagined in the film, like the panic buying, having been sadly realised all those years later in the event of a global health disaster rather than nuclear warfare.

Those who saw Threads the first time round probably never want to watch it again but for everyone else, its compelling portrayal of a world sleepwalking into oblivion means it should be compulsory viewing.

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