Monday, October 06, 2008


Ostensibly a straight if harrowing made-for-TV docudrama about the run up to and aftermath of a full-scale nuclear strike on England, Threads is also one of the great examples of the dramatic and representative powers of television as a medium.

Threads as Docudrama.

Threads lays claim to the imagination through a number of exegetic and diegetic strategies. Firstly there is the solidly professorial voice-over that ushers in the action and reappears at key points to explain the difficulties of particular situations, considerably more so in the more speculative second than first half. There is also the use of text overlaying images in order to establish location and population levels etc, hammered up onto the screen and accompanied by the whirring of an electric typewriter, as well as a more dramatic series of inter-titles. These provide the outer shell of Thread’s verisimilitude, enclosing the fiction, the main dramatic action of the piece.

But there is also a far more subtle intrusion into Thread’s fictional realm; from within. The use of Lesley Judd, a familiar face as a real-world newscaster within the film’s fictional world, allows the outside access. The TV as a portal or a trapdoor through which reality leaks frighteningly into the fiction. There is no safe, hermetically enclosed fictive world in Threads. The use made of television is vital to Threads’ power, without it we would simply be contained within the horizon of the docudrama. Here the fiction is put under pressure from both without and within

There is also a slow leakage of footage from the TV into the films real-world frame: all the genuine documentary footage within the film is initially contained within the TV screen, but slowly as the panic spreads and the television news becomes a more central focus the film begins to inter-cut stock footage with the filmed drama, until during scenes of protest and the blast itself the two schemes of representation have collapsed into each other. The stock footage is also complemented by what might be termed “realia”, the use of government emergency broadcasts and films to pressure the fictional realm further.

In Threads the creation of a world is more important than the creation of characters. This does not mean that the identification with the characters is weaker, quite the reverse. We identify more deeply with them, despite the lack of time the film can spend on them, precisely because the factors considered extraneous to most drama, the setting of the protagonists within a richly realized world, a world we recognize absolutely as our own and which is partially composed from the fabric of our daily lives forces a deep and immediate identification. The terrible poignancy in Threads is not what happens to its central characters, Ruth’s eventual death is dealt with perfunctorily, but in watching a world fall apart. It’s neither plot nor character driven, it is instead an act of assembly and disassembly on a cosmic scale. The making and unmaking of a world.

Threads as cold medium.

Threads power is dependent on its status as that most reviled of cultural artefacts, the Made-for-TV movie. Here, rather than simply producing neutered Cinema Threads exploits its own inherent and richly persuasive set of dramatic and diegetic possibilities to the maxim. Threads is to TV what “Man with a movie camera” is to cinema.

The cold medium forces a greater attention on the part of the observer, a deeper engagement of his interpretive abilities. This is why Thread’s seemingly underfunded apocalypse is so powerfully felt compared to the spectacle of New York being overwhelmed in, say, “The Day After Tomorrow.” The cold medium demands a suspension of disbelief that spectacular cinema can never enlist. This is why science fiction has been so much more effective on television, not despite but because of all the budgetary constraints. The symbiotic relationship between the viewer and the televisual world is the true and vital interactivity in the TV form, and it’s in it from the start.

Before and after the blast

With the blast itself comes a moment of total erasure, an unrepresentizable access to the real of the nuclear strike. Whiteout. Soundless, imageless, an overwhelming surplus of reality. The film itself winks out of existence for a moment and when it returns nothing is the same.

The blast divides the film technically into a before and after. The first half is filled with matching shots, beginning with the spider’s web and the shots of power lines and phone cables hanging over Sheffield, reaching a brilliant apex with the shot of Ruth opening a tin of cat food cutting into a letter from the ministry of defence being typed up. The shots are used as a way of reinforcing the interconnectedness of all lives and social spheres in the pre-apocalypse. In the second half of the film, with humanity scattered and divided, there are none.

The second half of the film also reverses the stealthy assimilation of found footage into the drama. Exploiting still, black and white images of ruined cities and civilian casualties the filmmakers slowly begin to use black and white freeze frames from the film itself, which then spill forward into movement and colour. Here, rather than reality invading the fictional frame in the speculative second half the fiction begins to take on the character of stock footage.

The first half of the film repeatedly focuses on hands, the hands that have been instrumental in building the world that is about to be laid low, knitting, keeping birds, playing games, the second is a portrait gallery of ravaged faces straight from Bosch or Brueghel.

In one of the few moments of hope in the film the hands reappear, sewing together the purple threads that have been salvaged from the ruins. Another world may be coming into being, but if so it will carry traces of the first. There is a deeply ambiguous snatch of Chuck Berry as Ruth’s daughter flees through the city, echoing the opening shot of her mother and father in the car the day she was conceived and the bad news from Iran was still just something to spin past as you hunted down the football scores.

Threads as horror

Threads begins with an image of a spider. Hung in a void and spinning out its web, the sounds of an unseen nature chattering around it, the spider is gradually inter-cut with establishing shots of Sheffield. It is this first shot that suggest a more radical reading of Threads. Throughout the piece there is little suggestion that the events can be overturned or intervened in and this first shot is the only overtly symbolic moment in the piece, the only moment that stands outside Threads’ remorseless real world and seems to ground it. Some extra-human agency spins the world into being, crouched in the void at the centre of all things. The spider is there, endlessly spinning, throughout every sequence in Threads, the dark, alien engine of history itself. Even up to the final sequences of Ruth’s daughter giving birth in the semi-abandoned hospital the spider is invisibly present.

And that last scene is Thread’s coup de grace, its masterstroke. After the excess of horror that has preceded it we are cruelly denied the catharsis of the girl’s final scream as her stillborn baby is delivered into her arms. The image freezes, there is no escape or release. Instead, we scream for her.
(cross posted @ )


Dominic said...

Fantastic piece. I watched the film on Google Video while recovering from surgery - never have I so appreciated the NHS.

Threads today would be different, because the society being blown apart would be different: even the metaphor for what was being blown apart would be different. The nearest thing we have to a contemporary rewrite I think is the recent "alternative history" episode of Doctor Who where the Doctor dies and various disasters take place that he would have otherwise prevented. Donna bloody Noble and her cuddly grandad go through the whole thing with an attitude of disbelief and a naive hope that "the authorities" will sort everything out - "the authorities" end up rounding up all the non-whites and carting them off to forced labour camps. Here, society continues to function much as before only there's less stuff to be had, and all your individual liberties get trampled on, culminating in a re-run of the holocaust (signifier of ultimate totalitarian evil). And that's what the end of the world looks like to us now, because our sense of the world we inhabit is so radically impoverished.

filmsnoirs said...

I wonder if there really is a transitional dimension to the concept of nuclear conflict. I suppose there must be, since the global population is so decentralised. Nuclear holocaust as instantaneous and total annihilation is a fantasy, what Threads shows is the horror of the breakdown, strung out to infinity. There is nothing left to live for, but existence goes on. But then on the other hand, the Threads intro seems to say something different. Society is the spider's web. What keeps us together also makes us vulnerable to extinction. From which could it be deduced that "we either live together or die together"? If so isn't there a contradiction in Threads? On one hand we have coroloraries such as "there is no such thing as a self", and that nuclear catastrophe is the proof; we either live together, in full and open recognition of our global interdependence and mutual rights as a species, or we perish. Full stop. But on the other hand the film is presenting us with the decline of the species (and becoming of a new one?), the idea that the species is hanging by a thread. Watching this film today, I hesitate to say it doesn't cause me quite the kind of existential dread I had when it was first broadcast. Such dread is based on PRE-nuclear tension of not knowing what will happen. Once we actually see it then any comparison with what the world may have been like before seems to be irrelevant. You just get on with your "life". Or else you die - nay never really existed at all.

Anonymous said...

Large "S" said...

Interesting analysis, because I remember that even as a 14 year old it looked a bit cheap (and therefore unconvincing).

That's the sad thing about everything BBC, it's always has a bargain-basement feel to it.