When celebrated Yorkshire playwright Barry Hines passed away recently, he left behind a remarkable body of work. Many people know, and rightly love, his Kestrel For A Knave, but he left us so much more to enjoy, such as his Play For Today two-parter on the mining industry, The Price Of Coal, directed by Ken Loach, (full versions can be found on YouTube). Part 1 is a pithy comic take on an official royal visit to a working Yorkshire colliery, full of his characteristic blunt northern wit, whilst Part 2 sees the same town and characters (sans royal family member) dealing with events more tragic, when there’s a disaster at the pit, not an unknown occurrence by any means, at the time it was made. Great pieces, both.
But, when I heard the sad news of Hines death the other day, the first thing that came to mind, apart from recalling having had the pleasure of chatting with him a few times in my old local pub in Sheffield, was the time he dropped a nuclear bomb on our beloved city. That was in his extraordinarily harrowing TV play, Threads. Brilliantly directed by Mick Jackson, it made front page of the Radio Times in the week it aired, to dropped-jaws all round, one Sunday night in 1984. Tracking down this, as fine a piece of socially conscious telly as you could ever wish to see, had been on my To-Do list for a long time. So what better way to mark the man’s passing, I thought, than to finally revisit that which so compelled and appalled me and many others all those years ago?
If you were around at the time, you’ll know that it can’t be emphasized strongly enough just how urgent, likely even, the idea of nuclear war seemed back then. It really wasn’t that big a stretch for early 80s imaginations, fueled by the paranoid politics and politicians of the day, to envisage an atomic strike on British soil. And, we were often reminded, Sheffield was the country’s bull’s-eye. So when we saw, a few feet away from us, in our living rooms, our greatest fears of all being played out in horrific detail, happening to people just like us, in such familiar settings, places we walked around, the effect was pretty darn powerful. It scared the crap out of us.
I remember immediately afterwards, wanting to go for a drink, to talk to people about it, but, at nearly 2 hours running time, it had finished too late to catch last orders. So it was all I could do to open the front door, and look, uneasily down our street, checking it was all intact, as many other people, I would hear later, had done too, when we eventually had our ‘pint moment’ (we didn’t have water-coolers). But the relief that the city was still in one piece, was tempered by the lingering disturbing thought that the real thing could still actually happen one day. Only, now we knew exactly what it would look like..
A few images stayed with me over the years; the melting milk-bottles, a man with a box of dead rats (to eat), the moment someone looks up at the mushroom cloud and says, ”They’ve done it. They’ve only gone and done it”. The most abiding memory though was a more general one of the overall building, creeping tension, as events spiraled and walls closed in on the powerless, innocent ordinary folk, just getting on with their lives, shopping, having their tea, doing homework, because what else can you do? The increasingly pessimistic and doom-laden TV news reports of growing global hostilities, emanating from tellies in homes and pubs, whilst local authority figures generally flap around, unprepared, as the world edges closer to war. Then, a sudden rapid escalation and the actual bomb-blast itself, which, when it comes is truly shocking. And then we witness the appalling consequences of radioactive fall-out, at various stages, on to a nuclear winter and beyond. Relentlessly bleak? Yes. But ‘can’t look away’, riveting too? Absolutely.I wondered how it would hold up now, some 32, thankfully non-nuclear winters and summers later..
And I can honestly say that, for me, Threads has lost little of it’s dramatic clout, and still provides an utterly terrifying watch, especially if you’re a Sheffielder. (”Stocksbridge, are you receiving me, over?”). The unbearable build up still grips, the inhumanity of it all chills the marrow, afresh. The way the authorities deal with post nuclear issues such as civil disobedience and food shortage, still seems believable, and unlike so much nostalgia TV we reunite with, time hasn’t diminished or devalued it. There are obviously things that date it, such as prices in the shops, and vintage food packaging, (I remember that Vimto tin design!), but you don’t have to make endless allowances for dodgy references and dialogue. It’s testimony to Hines’ writing that I spotted just the one line that could be deemed a little off, by today’s standards, when a child gets threatened with ‘a good hiding’. But neither does it come across as self-consciously right on, or tub-thumpingly left-wing either. Hines’ politics were more deftly woven through his work than that. In full possession of the common touch, even in this grim setting, he managed to pull off the odd, subtle comic moment, such as when we see see the first instance of food panic buying. One shop customer turns to another ”Ee, it’s busy for a Wednesday. It’s like Christmas”.
There’s also a line, written without any humorous intent, that nevertheless did provoke a wry smile from me, second time around. That’s when someone refers to us ‘leaving the Common Market’. (I couldn’t help thinking, come June, would it be another case of, – ”They’ve done it. They’ve only gone and done it..”)
But something that has definitely not changed since 1984, is a nuclear device’s likely effects on human life, infrastructure and environment, should one ever be deployed. At various points throughout the play, a ministerial-sounding, public information film type voice-over and some on-screen statistics make sure we get the full dreadful picture of what is happening elsewhere, away from the immediate action. I don’t know why I was shocked at hearing, immediately after the initial impact, that ‘most windows in the country have been broken’. Have I forgotten everything I learned in 80’s anti-nuke school? Just goes to show, I suppose, how one can become dulled to the potential danger of the beast when it’s sleeping, because ultimately, whilst ever nuclear weapons still exist, so does the possibility of someone using them. Maybe Jeremy Corbyn should take a copy of Threads along to his next meeting on Trident. I rather think Barry would’ve approved..
There’s a link to a full version of Threads below, or it’s available on DVD.
As for Barry, for a lad from near Barnsley, who’s back catalogue surely places among the cream of his generations’ crop of writers, he didn’t do too bad, did he? When your work can make people look outside to see if the world is still the same, that’s probably a good as it gets..
RIP Barry Hines 1939 – 2016