08 June 2018 | Jude Rogers | The Guardian
t’s 7.15pm on a dreary spring evening, and a nuclear bomb is about to go off over Sheffield. The crowd look excited. “Run around please, but not quickly,” says a man with a mohican, holding a tiny hand-held camera. “A gentle saunter. I can speed you up in post-production.”
The crowd – university students, twentysomethings, a schoolboy, his mum, and a couple in their 60s with their 35-year-old daughter, Lisa – run around like headless chickens regardless. They are all here making Threads: Redux as part of the Sheffield Doc/Fest, recreating three major scenes from the 1984 BBC film that has lingered long in the minds of anyone who saw it.
Depicting the tense build-up to a nuclear missile strike on the UK, then the devastating fallout, the original was shown only twice on UK terrestrial television. Its cult appeal mushrooming hugely over the years, it was re-released in HD and on Blu-Ray for the first time this April.
This is artist Richard DeDomenici’s “sixtysomethingth” Redux project. It is being shot in two days, edited in another, before its premiere at Sheffield’s Leadmill venue on Saturday.
DeDomenici began reshooting films in their original locations in pacy, low-budget ways in 2013, when his version of Bangkok Love Story, starring members of the public, got better reviews than the original. “I inadvertently stumped on a compelling concept,” Domenici says.
Threads: Redux, however, has a more personal legacy. His mother used to take him to Greenham Common in the early 80s, “so I knew all about nuclear war very young. But we didn’t see Threads for some reason – probably because we spent all our spare time in airbases in Berkshire.” He eventually saw a poor-quality version on YouTube a few years ago. “It was amazing. It’s such a fascinating snapshot of social history in the 1980s – about Thatcher’s Britain too, and about issues of class, and any way we can get people thinking about it again now is important, I think.”
There are other reasons for this urgency. “If I’d remade Threads five years ago it would have been a weird nostalgia thing. Now it’s worryingly, well … timely.”
Threads built its tension through the stories of two ordinary families – one working class, one middle class – connected by young Sheffield resident Ruth Beckett’s unplanned pregnancy with her boyfriend, Jimmy. But, the families are unknowingly at the mercy of international events, which roll unnoticed on radio and TV bulletins behind them, before their messages become impossible to ignore. Then comes the bomb, followed by a relentless hour and 10 minutes of death, disease and horror.
The director, Mick Jackson, a BBC documentary-maker who later had Hollywood success with LA Story and The Bodyguard, was a huge fan of Barry Hines’s work with Ken Loach, including Kes, and recruited him as screenwriter.
Jackson added documentary-style news reports and voiceovers by Horizon presenter Paul Vaughan to the mix in an attempt to create a dispassionate, objective tone – something the BBC had to get right to protect its licence. The legacy of another BBC production, Peter Watkins’s 1965 film The War Game, also sat behind this decision: it was effectively banned before broadcast on government advice.
A BBC press release from 1984, housed in the Barry Hines archive in Sheffield University, finds Jackson describing the concept of Threads as “non-political” for precisely this reason. It praises the “scientists, doctors and strategists [that] have been generous with their time”, passing the buck of moral responsibility, understandably, to the experts.
“Our aim is to suggest what it might feel like for ordinary people to live through a nuclear attack,” Jackson said in a TV magazine interview from 1984, also found in Hines’s papers. The day before the Threads broadcast, Hines told Sheffield paper The Star what effect that process had had on him: “I have never been involved in anything so mentally and emotionally demanding.”
Threads had a similar effect on the actors. Karen Meagher was 27 when she played Ruth, one of the few characters from the early part of the film that survives. “I remember going home from our rehearsals, where we’d be talking about Nagasaki and Hiroshima, wanting to stand up on the top deck of the bus and shout: ‘Everyone, come on! Do you know what could happen?’” Surviving the bomb for 15 grisly years, her character communicates her horror mainly in silence. “I remember being told: ‘Think of the darkest moments of your life, of loss and grief.’ You immerse yourself in that world.”
Today, Ruth is played by Isabelle France, who has a day off from her marketing job at the city’s Showroom Cinema, and Jimmy by Sheffield University student Harry Brows, wearing a Harrington jacket borrowed from local vintage shop, Mooch. “I love Threads!” he says, beaming. “I mean, it’s terrifying; I couldn’t sleep after it, really”.
The first scene is filmed in the Nottingham House pub in Sheffield’s Broomhill. This was where Ruth revealed her pregnancy to Jimmy, and where a few weeks later, Jimmy meets a girl with whom he has a final, pre-marriage fling. (At the time, Jackson told Australian magazine TV Week that they didn’t want “idealised people” in Threads, but “real people, not necessarily that good … rough, raw, people”).
DeDomenici matches up scenes from the original, take-by-take, on his iPhone, using commendable artistic licence with the props: Henderson’s Relish bottles, for instance, are used as substitutes for beer ones. Seventeen-year-old budding actor Sarah Lenthall has brought along a bag of 80s clothes.
“I’m such an 80s nerd,” she says, laughing. “Although I was born in 2000!” Then we are off to Sheffield City Hall, where Ban the Bomb and No Nukes placards jostle in a recreated CND protest, police officers wearing deliberately cheap fancy dress not to suggest the illegal impersonation of an officer (many risk assessment forms have been completed today). During filming, the crowd get carried away with anti-authority fervour, however, unscrewing the light-up rosetop of one helmet, and tossing it high in the air.
Some extras, such as 29-year-old BT worker Sarah Cathall, are here today because of the film’s contemporary resonance. “In the last few months, I keep thinking about those early scenes in Threads. There will be a missing submarine on the news, or another story about Trump, just playing in the background – and then suddenly I’ll stop in my tracks.” Although the mood at the shooting is largely lightweight and farcical, DeDomenici’s intentions are serious.
“I want this project to bring the original Threads film to new audiences. To bring Sheffield people interested in Threads to the festival, and introduce them to new films. I’m hoping for a beautiful circle of virtue, basically. And the decommissioning of all nuclear weapons, of course.”
The final scene of Threads takes place on busy shopping precinct The Moor, as the bomb explodes (“I finish at the moment of apocalypse for budgetary reasons”, DeDomenici adds). Doc/Fest director Liz McIntyre, laudably, plays the woman who urinates down her leg in terror. Three people who were in the original film are here, too: Pauline Zalaieta, 61, Tony Griffin, 60, and their daughter, Lisa, 18 months old at the time. She is seen in the BBC version being carried down the road by her panicked dad, a moment they replicate today, with a little more physical effort, Lisa wearing a onesie.
Zalaieta and Griffin originally became extras after seeing an advert in the local paper; this time round Lisa saw a story about the redux on Facebook. Griffin also has a claim to Threads fame – during a chat with director Jackson, he suggested Lisa’s pushchair being blown over on the shop steps. Jackson used this idea, and it continues to be haunting.
Being here today is surreal more than anything, Zalaieta says. “It’s a bit of fun, really, isn’t it? But remembering back then, and then seeing your hometown exploding on screen, and with our daughter so young … we hadn’t taken the threat as seriously before that.” Griffin nods, Lisa standing tall next to him. “We hadn’t realised how hard-hitting it would be, had we? And it’s important not to forget what it was trying to say. Film can really bring the world home.”
Threads: Redux premieres at Sheffield Doc/Fest on 9 June. Thanks to Professor David Forrest for access to the Sheffield University Barry Hines archive.
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