I wrote this synopsis around 18 years ago when there was almost nothing on the web relating to Threads:
Critical to Threads is the linear format of the story. The narrative is told from several different perspectives, from ordinary civilians like Ruth and Jimmy to senior governmental staff such as Clive Sutton, Sheffield’s peacetime Chief Executive. In addition to this, are foreground graphics explaining the crisis from a chronological perspective and the narration filling in what can’t be explained by the drama.
In chronological order these are the key events of Threads from March 5th 1984 until May 1997 (this is how the calendar lines up — it is not stated anywhere what year Threads is set in), Threads concludes 13 years after the disastrous nuclear war.
The story begins on the moors above Sheffield introducing Ruth Beckett (Karen Meagher) and Jimmy Kemp (Reece Dinsdale). They are a courting couple who will be central to the dramatisation. They are listening to the radio in the car which is carrying a news story about Middle Eastern tension until Jimmy switches to a different station to hear the football results.
In a pub Ruth tells Jimmy she’s pregnant and they agree to get married. On the television news in the pub, Lesley Judd is reading a report of Soviet troops moving into Northern Iran, the purpose for the incursion is as yet unknown.
Jimmy tells his family he’s to be married to Ruth and an argument occurs between his parents and younger sibblings as he leaves the room. The television news however reports that Soviet tanks have now entered Iran.
The Kemp’s and the Beckett’s meet to discuss the forthcoming marriage. The news reports of uncofirmed rumours that the diesel-powered submariane, the USS Los Angeles, has been sunk in the Persian Gulf.
Thursday May 12th Another naval exchange results in damage to the Soviet crusier, the CCCP Kirov. As the crisis continues to accelerate, the narration informs us about the UK emergency powers legislation that can transfer full powers of Internal Government to regional authorities should central government fail.
The US President makes a hostile and critical statement about the Soviet actions in Iran. He condemns their threat to legitimate Western interests; one can only speculate but it seems likely that the threat to oil is his implication. US paratroopers are landed to push out Soviet forces. Panic buying starts to occur in supermarkets. More worryingly, the Home Office informs Sheffield’s CEO, Clive Sutton, that he is to prepare for war immediately.
Sutton starts making preparations and is often disturbed at how little equipment, supplies and personnel are fit for wartime action. Blankets are delivered to schools with other supplies to turn them into either emergency accommodation or first aid posts. RAF Finningley is placed on high alert, a base used by NATO forces is only 17 miles from Sheffield and 5 from Doncaster, both major centres of population.
Jimmy goes to see his dad on his allotment before meeting Bob, his friend in the pub. They start to become more worried about the impending war, Bob makes the comment that is if they did start a nuclear exchange he intends to be “pissed out of my head” when it happens. Bob eventually talks Jimmy into picking two women up. Jimmy and the girl he goes off with peer out of the steamed up windows of his car as a mobile ICBM launcher goes by. The tension continues to build.
The US delivers a timed ultimatum to the USSR to leave Iran. Warsaw Pact forces begin to mass on the West German border. More US troops arrive in the UK and the UK government takes control of British Airways and cross-channel ferries for military use. RAF Nimrod aircraft begin defensive patrols of North Sea oil and gas installations.
As the US ultimatum expires at Noon, B-52 bombers strike at the Soviet base at Moshad. They defend the base with a single nuclear tipped anti-aircraft missile. Many B-52s are lost. US retaliates with a single battlefield (probably sub-megaton yield) nuclear weapon to destroy the Soviet base. Exchange stops. Panic buying increases with shortages reported. Fuel runs low as supplies are curtailed by government. Emergency Powers Act passed by parliament.
Most motorways now closed to private cars and restricted to official business only. People leaving cities are turned back. The Kemps’ neaighbours try to leave Sheffield but the police stops their car from entering the motorway. Hospitals are cleared of residential and non-essential patients for expected casualties. Many frail and infirm patients now have to be looked after by relatives. “Protect and Survive” public information films are broadcast.
The news reports two nuclear explosions have been detected by scientists but no official confirmation is given. Further proof that war is more imminent then government has admitted. Works of art are removed from galleries to be preserved in bunkers. The Trade Unions call for a general strike in protest against the war. The Home Office now directs the Sheffield Chief Executive, Clive Sutton, to go into their makeshift bomb shelter in the basement of the Civic Centre. “Protect and Survive” is now continuously broadcast on all channels, both on radio, television and newspapers.
As people make their way into Sheffield, the narrator adds that at 8AM in Sheffield it will be 3AM in Washington. As the President and his senior staff will have had little sleep over the past week, this is when Western response will be slowest.
In the Sheffield command and control shelter, the air attack warning comes through: “Attack warning red, attack warning red” (the infamous three-minute warning).
A massive airburst above the North Sea cripples electronic and communications equipment across Western Europe. The Electro-Magnetic Pulse burns out anything not hardened against it.
The first salvo strikes NATO installations. The first attack strikes Crewe as a ground burst. Onscreen graphics continue the story:
- 80 Megatons fall on UK (equiv: 80 million tonnes of TNT)
- Blast casualties 2.5-9 million, minimum.
- Communications failing.
- Command and control failing
Nuclear exchange continues to escalate, now all major cities in UK become targets.
- East-West exchange: 3000 megatons (equiv: 3 billion tonnes of TNT)
- Two-thirds of UK homes in firezones
- Fallout imminent, but rescue and firefighting attempts are unlikely
- Firestorms sweep UK
- Sheffield completely destroyed
The first fall-out descends on Sheffield one hour and twenty-five minutes after the attack. Most windows shattered and roofs exposed, very little protection for the surviving population.
Attack plus 1
Millions already dead or dying from the attack. The Kemp’s leave their makeshift shelter to look for their children. Mrs Kemp, already massively burnt, is dying of radiation poisoning. They find their youngest son, Michael, dead. Their daughter is no where to be found. No one is able to comprehend the scale of the destruction.
Attack plus 3
The Sheffield bunker is buried by the ruins of the Civic Centre above. No rescue is likely because all the roads have been completely destroyed. Petrol is already scarce. Stockbridge Police are overwhelmed with survivors.
Attack plus one week The Kemp’s are dying from radiation. Ruth leaves her parents figuring that Jimmy is already dead (he is never seen again). Ruth’s home is raided by looters who kill her parents. The looters are themselves caught by soldiers and executed.
Sunday June 5th Ruth joins the exodus from Sheffield. She is confronted by a Biblical disaster, bodies left almost completely carbonised by fire, demented and frantic survivors litter the rubble of Sheffield. The graphic and narration note:
- 100 million tons of smoke and 500 million tons of dust have been lifted into the atmosphere by the nuclear exchange
- Nuclear winter sets in
- Mainland United States and USSR will suffer drops in temperature of up to 25 degrees centigrade
Survivors try to break into a food depot guarded by the Army. CS gas is used to keep them back, Mr Kemp among them.
Ruth makes her way to a surviving hospital. She is greeted by a nightmare world, with out water, electricity, medical supplies and other services, the sheer filth, suffering and despair are truly overwhelming. Limbs are amputated without anesthetic or even the most basic hygiene. Now as food begins to run out, Clive Sutton is faced with making the decisions on who lives and who dies.
The graphics now note: Likely epidemics:
Without sanitation and antibiotics, there is nothing to stop them.
- 10-20 million bodies now litter the UK. With no fuel or manpower to dispose of them, they further add to the public health crisis
As civilization unravels, mass-detention camps are set up. Troops finally dig their way into the Sheffield bunker under the Civic Centre but everyone is dead. Probably through suffocation but also their water supply would only have lasted two weeks. Special courts of justice are given wide ranging powers, many are executed. Ruth returns home but does not go in the attic, the stench from the rotting bodies of her parents tell her also she needs to know.
- No water or power
- Most survivors are leaving the cities
- Deaths from radiation are peaking
Ruth meets Jimmy’s friend Bob. They are assigned to an intact building by the police but they are quickly evicted by the building’s owner.
Ruth and Jimmy’s friend find a dead sheep. After some deliberation, they choose to eat it then use its coat to keep warm.
- Deaths now between 17 and 38 million
- Survivors are cold, weak and hungry
- Darkness and cold reduces plant activity to low levels. Collecting this diminished first harvest is now literally a matter of life and death
Ruth gives birth to a healthy baby girl.
Ruth and a handful of survivors are camped in a barn. No one speaks, the only sound is from Ruth’s baby and from the fire. In the first few winters, many of the young and old disappear from Britain.
Ruth can now only scavenge for food for her baby (we have to assume at this point most forms of recognizable government have collapsed)
A man gives Ruth some rats for food; one of the few species that would thrive they become a dominant food source.
- Sunlight returns, but is heavy with ultra-violet radiation
- High risk of cataracts, cancers and leukemia
- Insects plague the Earth
- 3-8 years after attack, UK population levels reach minimum, indeed return to medieval levels. Perhaps as low as 4-11 million (given the relatively “milder” climate during the nuclear winter in the UK, it is likely that the US and USSR populations will be substantially lower by proportion).
Attack plus ten years
Ruth dies peacefully from leukemia. She is probably less than 35 but looks much older. She is grey and exhausted, there are very few people left of her age. Those born shortly before and after the war are extremely primitive and unsophisticated, they have few language skills and no cultural foundation. All Ruth’s daughter knows is how to plow fields and repair clothes. For many years the things that defined the pre-war years, money, civilization and community have had no meaning. However, recovery is slowly coming back with basic electricity, steam power and coal mining. Old video cassettes are used to try and educate the young.
Attack plus thirteen years
Ruth’s daughter becomes pregnant, she stumbles through the ruins of Sheffield (presumably Sheffield, we do not know) and finds a hostel/hospital. She gives birth to a stillborn baby who is terribly mutated.