How we made the nuclear apocalypse TV drama Threads

‘It was not the most comfortable of parts. I’m vegetarian, so the scene where we ate a sheep raw was pretty yuck’

Mick Jackson, producer/director

I was working in the BBC Science features department and had made a well-received documentary about nuclear war, A Guide to Armageddon. I wanted to explore this area further by creating a drama about nuclear war and its aftermath. I went to Sheffield and talked to Barry Hines, a brilliant novelist and screenwriter (best known for Kes) who I knew would bring a terrific worldliness, empathy and rich feeling for human nature to the project. I persuaded him to be my collaborator.

Barry came up with the idea of the two families – one working class, the other lower-middle – and what their lives were like. Sheffield seemed a good place to set it, and Barry knew it well. It was bang in the middle of the country, and a good way from London. Strategically, it also made sense: there were industrial and military targets nearby.

Both of us were interested in the idea that none of these characters would ever have a god’s-eye-view of events, and never find out what was happening outside their immediate experience, certainly not outside Sheffield. That seemed to be the way most people would have to deal with a nuclear apocalypse, with most forms of communication vaporised.

Threads was very graphic and the shoot asked a lot of everybody, especially the actors. Once it was over, we all ceased being members of a movie ensemble and just became anxious individuals in the 1980s. What we’d depicted and its implications stayed in the minds of every actor and crew member for a long time. I’m sure there were some nightmares. There are some things so far outside our experience or comprehension that they are unthinkable. Nuclear war is one.

The props department had shown me various options for the handheld LCD game featured in the film. I picked the Epoch Game Box Penta for Michael to be playing with in the early scenes as it seemed to show people being pursued by ghosts – a nice prefiguring of what would happen to him later. It was also poignant, in the aftermath, to see his father playing with it in an emergency feeding centre in a graveyard. It was the only thing he had salvaged that linked him to his son.

People tell me how relevant they find the movie to what’s happening now. It’s comforting, at a time when so many films are being remade, to find that people still appreciate – and are scared by – the original film.

‘Most world leaders at the time watched it’ … Threads.
‘Most world leaders at the time watched it’ … Threads. Photograph: Allstar/BBC

Karen Meagher, actor, played Ruth

Ruth was a great part and it was a great script – I was young and up for a challenge. But the nature of the story seemed all too real and traumatic.

It was not the most comfortable of parts, physically or emotionally. I’m a vegetarian, and so the scene where we ate the sheep was pretty yuck: the raw meat became quite gelatinous in your mouth. It was absolutely real. We northerners are made of stern stuff.

I have particularly strong memories of helping the “rat man” round up his critters in the scene where I’m forced to trade my body for food – dead rats – and another day getting to the set and finding the wardrobe department blowtorching rails of costumes. Seeing Rita May, who played Mrs Kemp, in post-bomb makeup was also pretty harrowing.

The scene in the stable where Ruth gives birth was a particular challenge, as at that point I did not have children. Luckily, the women who worked on the crew were a great source of information. Our aim was always for the piece to have integrity. The crew and extras were definitely the heroes, and the [four] Baftas the film won was testimony to their skill and dedication. We were aware that no one person was more important than any other, or than the message.

When Threads aired, on 23 September 1984, some branded it: “The night the country didn’t sleep.” It had a huge impact. I have a copy of a letter of thanks sent to Barry Hines from the then Labour leader, Neil Kinnock. I think most world leaders of the time watched Threads. The BBC was very brave to make it.

There is an argument that without nuclear weapons, we would be less safe. And yet if we look at the world today, few places seem free from strife. The film still taps into today’s anxiety that the world is heading into a catastrophe, whether it be ecological, military or economic. There was a a live “redux” remake filmed in June this year – whatever keeps the message current! Complacency cannot be tolerated.

Interviews by George Bass

The GuardianTramp

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