Because one dog ain’t enough, and two is too low, it’s me, Three Dog! How you kids handlin’ Post-Apocalyptia today? Or at least, an episode looking at two uniquely British takes on post nuclear war shenanigans, Threads and When the Wind Blows.
I suppose the first thing to point out with Threads is that it’s not a documentary. We have somehow so far avoided the sort of catastrophic nuclear exchange that causes the end of the world as we know it. I say this not to point out the bleedin’ obvious, but more as an act of self assurance. It’s the film introduction equivalent of sitting in the corner, hugging my knees, rocking back and forward saying it’s all just a nightmare. This is necessary because Threads in very large part remains entirely plausible, and entirely terrifying.
We have to cast our minds back to the dark days of 1984, which admittedly wasn’t exactly peak-Cold War tensions, but certainly much more of a concern than now. We’re introduced to Sheffield, at that point a major industrial centre of England, so thanks to Maggie Thatcher for keeping us all safe by destroying industry. Never forget. Anyway, there’s also an Air Force Base, so it’s card’s still marked.
We’re introduced to Karen Meagher’s Ruth and Reece Dinsdale’s Jimmy, young lovers contemplating marriage after an unplanned pregnancy worrying about their parents reactions and the slight working and middle class divides between them. While this kitchen sink drama plays out over a few week, we also hear diegetic news reports of rising tensions in Iran – a failed coups, with Soviet Russia – remember them – and the US sticking their oars and armed forces in some boring old conventional weapon confrontations, before some limited “tactical” nuclear exchanges. Eeep.
While Ruth and Jimmy are just trying to navigate their own lives, the geopolitics of it does impact them. Various anti-Soviet and anti-war protests break out, some lead by trade unions – remember them – before being put down under a government emergency powers act. The government is also polishing up their contingency plans for what happens in the event of a proper nuclear war, with an expected breakdown of communications meaning an awful lot of power landing on the local council, which are a group of people that can barely organise garbage collection at the best of times, so I think we all see how this is going.
Before long the button is pushed, and it’s holocaustagogo. Focus remains split between Ruth and her family’s efforts to survive the initial chaos, during which we’ll also see how well the government’s plans hold up. Spoliers – poorly, before taking a longer and admittedly much more speculative view of how society, if you can call it that, will rebuild the ruins of the old world.
This has glossed over an awful lot of exceedingly miserable statistics and details, for both your and my sanity, dear listener. Like, an hour of chaos, depression, misery and horror, told in a way that makes if reel like a documentary of something on the verge of happening. Here is a film that ends on a rape victim giving birth to a still born baby, and can’t claim that it’s the definitive low point of the film. Pretty low, for sure, but there’s stiff competition in here for “most miserable vignette”.
You’ll have to watch it for yourself if you want the full effect, and latter half plot details, and I’m not recommending that you do. Not because it is not an extraordinary film, it one hundred percent is, but because I don’t want the psychic toll this takes on the viewer on my karma bill.
Threads is, I think, a unique experience, and certainly one that shows off the effectiveness of the medium when done right. It boggles my mind that this was a BBC film – state broadcasters normally look to keep populations calm and reassure them that the government has them covered, and this rather explicitly does the opposite of that. Thankfully I did not see this on initial viewing, as it would have literally murdered the five year old me, and it still does a pretty solid number on a nearly 40 year old me. I’ve never really had to live with the threat of this sort of thing living on the edge of your awareness. It seems like it would suck. About a million times more harrowing than you’d expect from a director that went on to do Volcano. Dreadful, in the more traditional sense of that word.
When the Wind Blows
If you didn’t know anything about When the Wind Blows then I doubt the opening would clue you in at all. There may be some news footage at the very beginning, but the relatively upbeat David Bowie title song allows it to be dismissed as being like a music video. This footage then gives way to an animation in the distinctive style of Raymond Briggs, best known for Fungus the Bogeyman and, particularly, the Christmas time stalwart The Snowman, notable, amongst other things, for its near total lack of nuclear war. Certainly there’s nothing to suggest that this is about the arrival of some missiles into the UK bringing with them megadeath.
Death comes in particular to a sleepy Sussex village, where our protagonists Jim and Hilda live. Jim and Hilda are… how to put this kindly? …dippy bastards, with not the strongest grasp on current events and some very odd ideas about the likeability of Joseph Stalin and how, actually, World War II was a good time. (Jim in particular also has some very odd ideas about the differences between men and women.)
Putting faith in the government to know what it’s all about, Jim sets about following a government-issued preparation leaflet and builds a shelter in his living room from doors, while his wife seems even more reality-detached and ill-informed from him, and seems genuinely more concerned about the wallpaper than being burnt to cinders by nuclear fire.
After the missiles strike the country, Jim and Hilda continue to have little to no concept of the facts, and so go about the business of slowly succumbing to radiation sickness.
The existence of this film was, I’m pretty certain, entirely unknown to me until we came to organise this episode so I’m coming to it entirely fresh and my primary thought is, “who was this for?” The fact that it’s by Raymond Briggs and is animated immediately suggests it’s for children, but it can’t be because I’m sure few children are going to understand cold war tension and the symptoms of radiation overdose, or get much benefit from seeing an elderly couple slowly die from an unseen killer. In many ways it feels like a public information film, as for much of its length Jim is seen quoting from and referring to the government guidelines. Yet no, not least because more than once it critically points out disparities between local and central government advice, and public information films rarely get the feature film treatment.
So does that leave it as a drama for adults? I guess. Or maybe a black comedy? Certainly it seems to be trying for humour in many spots, but in all but a handful it fails completely, even otherwise absurd moments like the duo donning large paper bags that once contained potatoes. I think for me much of why I did not enjoy this film at all is that Jim and Hilda are idiots. Not everyday folk a little unsure or confused of what to do in the event of such unprecedented calamity. Not people rattled by the catastrophe and unwilling or unable to cope in the aftermath. No, the film almost seems to take pains to present Jim and Hilda as thick before the bombs drop, and as the fallout descends so, it seems, does their IQ.
Not a film I could recommend watching.
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