TV Cream

100 Greatest TV Moments

7) “The skeleton of… a chicken!”

The most terrifying programme ever made, 23rd September 1984

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Forever scorched on the psyche of a generation for whom the prospect of nuclear Armageddon was just a trigger-finger away, this unrelenting misery-fest remains the ultimate manifestation of none-more- eighties Two Tribes panic. Festooned with Cream points for its subject matter alone, its depressingly grainy docudrama depiction of smoke and concrete-encased Sheffield, both before and after a devastating nuclear attack, feels like a stomach-churning snapshot of an entire era (Mark Lawson would doubtless use the word “zeitgeist” here, so thank God he’s not writing this). Responsible for both the grimmest cover in Radio Times’ history – the BBC’s autumn schedules launched by an armed traffic warden gazing at the lens from behind bloodied bandages – and the single greatest credit on IMDB (Anne Sellors as Woman Who Urinates Herself), it sprang from director Mick Jackson’s own QED documentary from 1982, A Guide to Armageddon, which provided a useful public service by illustrating the hopeless realities of a nuclear strike on the UK. Jackson originally wanted to use the cast of Coronation Street for added verisimilitude, but when Granada presumably baulked at the prospect of viewers watching Alf Roberts puke himself raw from radiation poisoning, he settled instead on a cast of relative unknowns (including Reece “Home to Roost” Dinsdale). This dedication to unflinching realism is what makes Threads so powerful and difficult to stomach. It’s like a Play for Today gone drastically awry. Masterstrokes include the discomfiting use of that nice Lesley Judd as a doom-spreading BBC newsreader, and the government’s notorious but little-seen at the time Protect and Survive public information films, featuring the stentorian tones of Patrick Allen and an ominous burble of synth which must count as one the most chilling sounds ever recorded. Its barrage of “happy now?” imagery is unforgettable – Mr Kemp on the bog as the bombs drop (“Bloody hell!”), a cat writhing in agony, an ET doll burning amidst the rubble, a charred and traumatised mother cradling her dead baby, soldiers shooting looters for a packet of prawn cocktail crisps and, the particular moment we’re highlighting up there, a medieval generation of feral children gazing in mute incomprehension at a fuzzy VHS copy of Words and Pictures. Plus, yes, the woman who urinates herself. It makes its US TV movie counterpart, The Day After, look like Herbie Goes Bananas. Not only important as a key document of its time, Threads is still one of the most powerful dramas every broadcast on British television. And remember… It. Could. Still. Happen.

8 Comments

8 Comments

  1. Richard Davies

    February 21, 2014 at 6:07 pm

    Never seen this bit often heard about it, just today I was thinking about this apropos of nothing.

    No mention of the girl born after the nuclear winter with fillings?

  2. Rob Free

    February 21, 2014 at 6:48 pm

    I’m scared just reading this. All of the above bits you mention send a shiver down my spine, but as a kid I remember the one thing that made me think how bad a nuclear war would be, was the image of an empty milk bottle melting. Was it written by Barry ‘Kes’ Hines or am I imagining that?

  3. Adrian Fry

    February 21, 2014 at 10:16 pm

    It was indeed penned by Barry Hines. I was too terrified, the first couple of times I watched it, to notice the lugubriously black humour – Nat Jackley in the graveyard, the Safeway bag into which dead rats stand in for groceries, those prawn cocktail crisps – of which Skeletons and Skulls is the superlative example. At the risk of getting put into Pseuds Corner, I think the inclusion of telly in Threads has much in common with the use of telly to track the zombie apocalypse in Dawn of the Dead.

  4. Rob Free

    February 22, 2014 at 11:16 pm

    Really odd you should say that. Dawn of the Dead is one of my all time favourites and always leaves my with that slightly depressed feeling I got one I first saw Threads. Well observed.

  5. Lee James Turnock

    February 24, 2014 at 7:12 pm

    Words and Pictures prior to watching Threads – jokey, amusing, entertaining schools programme.
    Words and Pictures after watching Threads – gateway to hell.

  6. Martin M

    March 2, 2014 at 12:52 pm

    The stuff of my teenage insomnia – watched it again a few years back to see if it still had the same impact and it was still as terrifying.
    Don’t forget the burning cyclist in the tree, melted Star Wars figures and Zak Dingle going crazy as one of the government officials trying to run what’s left of Sheffield

    Saw The Day After quite recently – on the True Movies channel, oddly enough – and it’s pretty lightweight fare compared to Threads

  7. neu75

    March 5, 2014 at 7:05 pm

    Amuses me when the journos wax lyrical about American TV drama these days being so dark. To quote the 6th Doctor “they’re still in the nursery compared to us!”

  8. Glenn A

    October 27, 2014 at 8:43 pm

    Nuclear war was a big topic then, a year earlier The Old Men At The Zoo featured a nuclear attack and around the same time The Day After and a debate afterwards pulled in 16 million viewers. Even Grange Hill got in on the act, with Scruffy Mc Guffy wearing a CND badge and a school debate about nuclear disarmament.
    At the start of the decade, when the Cold War really kicked off again, we had people saying” wonder how long we’ve got before there’s a war” and some joyful ditty by Kate Bush about some woman giving birth during a nuclear war. Happy times, well, we just tried to ignore it.

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