Ruth and Jimmy kiss in their car on the Moors. A fighter jet roars ominously overhead. Potential violence erupts into the everyday. Some of the images in Threads - a mushroom cloud rising over Sheffield, a middle-aged woman urinating in fear - are etched forever into my mind’s eye. Watching the film again, the same cold fear washes through my guts at the thought that such destruction is still within the reach of several world leaders. Threads is chilling because of its salty social realism, thorough grounding in a wide range of contemporary research, and its unblinking exposure of the disasters nuclear war brings.
The story unfolds against the backdrop of everyday life. Nuclear states rattle, then unsheathe their sabres over border conflicts. Conventional munitions give way to small nuclear devices, like dominoes knocking against one another. Sheffield becomes a microcosm for the whole of Britain, the rest of the world. Panic looting and mass hysteria follow the first mushroom cloud, before the city takes a direct hit. Jimmy, searching for Ruth, disappears in a blinding white flashpoint. Milk bottles on a doorstep melt like water. Buildings are smashed and burning. A husband dabs at the ravaged face of his wife. Infrastructure has been obliterated.
The film clinically explains which diseases would spread, how civil society would attempt to continue. A soldier patrols a street with radiation mask and machine gun. The dazed and charred remnants of society huddle in makeshift shelters as the nuclear fallout occludes the sun, beginning a nuclear winter.
In fields, survivors work for rations. If you do not work, or infringe the law, your rations are withheld. Children receive a year or two of rudimentary education before being turned out to take their chances. Ruth dies of exhaustion at thirty, a wasted shell. Her daughter, Jane, falls in with two vagrant boys. She fights, then couples, with one - over a stolen crust. Heavily pregnant, she appeals for help: “Babby coming!” Her still-born child is handed to her; her face freezes in a scream.
Threads offers unavoidable challenges to any ignorant complacency as to the implications of total war employing non-conventional weapons. Indeed, it is a dystopian vision of the impact of any total war on communities and human rights. The recent siege of Homs in Syria has had similar implications for its residents.
The alignment of the thirtieth anniversary of Thread’s first screening and the centenary of the start of the First World War has set me reflecting on the evolution of war making, and the particular cultural interchange that led to the film’s making. The making of it had an impact on Richard Levitt, a peace activist involved in recruiting the film’s non-professional cast.
One quiet summer evening, I sit with Richard, discussing his life, peace work, and inner journey. From a maintained grammar school in a Yorkshire mining town, he won a Classics scholarship to Oxford, where he began to preach in Methodist circles. Coming from a family of teachers, however, he felt it necessary to explore that career: “I spent a spell at Eton… I could not endure to be paid for the privilege and snobbery. Then I taught for a year at a big comprehensive in Wolverhampton.” After that apprenticeship, he knew that he wasn’t suitable for school teaching. “I found my way to Sheffield to take stock of my life’s values.”
He found the Urban Theology Unit, a Methodist-inspired ecumenical project run by John Vincent and others. “There were a lot of Methodists but also Anglicans and Quakers. One day we went down to Hartshead Quaker Meeting in the city, in the summer of 1979, and watched a screening of Peter Watkins’ The War Game, and it changed my life… Twenty five years of living went to zero.”
The BBC ruled that this 1967 docu-drama would provoke mass suicides if screened. Threads updates its black and white reportage, adding a lava wave of research on the psychological and cultural wreckage of nuclear war.
Sheffield was reeling from the depletion of the coal and steel industries. In the 1980’s it suffered from unemployment and other social issues. Nevertheless, its spirit endured. Street theatre was popular and Sheffield was a pioneering Nuclear Free Zone. These forces coalesced into a cultural moment of threat and opportunity: “Sheffield’s broken-down state lent itself to the filming… There was a sense of it being like 1936 again… you had to choose to try to make a difference.”
This attitude informed the path that Richard followed beyond Threads. With other peace activists, he built a peace chapel at RAF Molesworth, later symbolically planting potatoes at RAF Menwith Hill, refusing the resulting fines. He served a series of short prison sentences for this reason. It was a dynamic time: he grew from anxiety (“I didn’t tell anyone the first time I was sent to prison”) to stoicism, open to learning from fellow inmates: “I got an insight into how life is.”
The consequences of following this liberal path? Later, as an unpaid Anglican lay reader, he nursed hopes of ordination; it was quietly explained that the Anglican hierarchy felt uncomfortable choosing an applicant with a prison record. Richard however is not cynical: “If it comes to the crunch of ‘Where do my loyalties lie? With a large organisation or my friends?’ My loyalties lie with my friends.”
What should be the next steps of the Peace Movement? “We’ve got to link together WMD and domestic violence, link together the long-term unemployed with people searching for a voice….We’ve got to keep on learning to work together.” Whether the action is big or small, creating threads that bind for the common good is powerful. Watching this film, still so fresh and raw, poses the question: what shall we do to achieve that?