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The Wikipedia wars: does it matter if our biggest source of knowledge is written by men?

Wikipedia is the world’s most popular encyclopaedia, a collaborative utopia. But only one in every ten of its editors is a woman.

Wikipedia is “like a sausage”, its founder, Jimmy Wales, told a reporter in 2004. “You might like the taste of it, but you don’t necessarily want to see how it’s made.” Back then, the free online encyclopaedia that anyone can edit was an exciting new, scrappy, collaborative utopia. Now it is the most influential source of information in the world. Wikipedia is often the first search result when we google something, our first destination when we want to understand something, and the place where academics, journalists and politicians first brief themselves, even though they might pretend it is not.

Dismissed as dangerously unreliable in its early days, Wikipedia has become more rigorous over the years, with references essential to the survival of any article. We trust the website much more: amid the early panic of the ebola outbreak, the Wikipedia page for the virus was seen as an authoritative, reliable source, receiving as many hits as the World Health Organisation’s online ebola fact sheet. Wikipedia has become one of the most recognised brands in the world and for many people it is the portal to knowledge in the 21st century.

Yet when it comes to how it is made, Wikipedia is a colossal failure. Only a tiny proportion of users now edit articles and the overwhelming majority of those editors are male. The most recent survey by the Wikimedia Foundation, the charity that supports but does not control Wikipedia, found that 91 per cent of the editors are men. More optimistic surveys have put the figure at 84 per cent – but still, Wikipedia has a huge diversity problem. Instead of being the egalitarian “sum of all human knowledge”, as Wales had originally hoped, the English version of Wikipedia is mostly the sum of male knowledge.

The gender disparity has skewed the encyclopaedia’s content – not only which pages are created but also which ones are worked on and improved so that they reach a high standard. Take its “List of Pornographic Actresses”; it is meticulously referenced, with clear sections according to decade. The page is organised, clean and easy to use. Compare it to the “List of Female Poets”: a sprawling dumping ground, organised by name rather than date, unreferenced and of little use to anyone unless they want to know whose name might come after Sylvia Plath in an enormous alphabetical list. The list of poets has been edited 600 times, by nearly 300 editors. The list of female porn stars is a newer page but over 1,000 editors have edited it more than 2,500 times.

Female poets at least get their own list. In areas such as science and technology, women are severely under-represented. If there is not a decent biography of a given woman on Wikipedia, users will assume she cannot be notable because she doesn’t have a proper Wikipedia page, so the marginalisation becomes circular and self-perpetuating. The biographies that do exist often put a woman’s status as a wife, mother or daughter in the first paragraph, before or next to her notable achievements. These personal details are more often an afterthought in biographies of men. Conventionally female interests are also neglected: there’s a single page for all six series of Sex and the City, whereas there are 43 separate articles on Top Gear. And when it comes to articles on topics such as rape and abortion, the gender gap among editors really begins to matter.

Wikipedia knows this is a problem – there is even a Wikipedia article on the subject (“Gender bias on Wikipedia”) – but no one knows what to do about it. Sue Gardner, a former executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, set a goal in 2011 to increase the proportion of female editors to 25 per cent in four years. Just before she left her post in 2014 she confessed that she had not cracked the problem. “I didn’t solve it. We didn’t solve it. The Wikimedia Foundation didn’t solve it,” she said.

At the annual Wikimania convention in London last August, Jimmy Wales said the organisation had “completely failed” in its attempts to increase women’s participation drastically. “We’re really doubling our efforts now,” he said. “We didn’t do enough. There are a lot of things that need to happen to get from 10 per cent to 25 per cent: a lot of outreach, a lot of software changes.”




Elsewhere on the internet, women outnumber men on some of the other most visited sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, and in many online games. Why do they feel less welcome on Wikipedia? “I don’t want to get into a fight on the internet. Ugh,” says Zara Rahman, 26, originally from Man­chester and now living in Berlin. She trains journalists to use data and technology, so you might expect her to feel at home on Wikipedia. But her experience there left her “really annoyed. Just exhausted.”

The frustration stemmed from her experience editing the online entry for Hedy Lamarr, a 1940s Hollywood star and long-neglected inventor. Lamarr devised a crucial technique that paved the way for wireless communication, but her scientific achievements had barely a mention on her Wikipedia page when Rahman first looked her up. She edited the article to reflect the significance of Lamarr’s invention, referencing it in the first paragraph, but her changes were quickly reversed by another editor, on the grounds that Lamarr’s acting career was more noted by historical sources than her invention. Then someone added a line to the opening paragraph about how a film director had once commented on Lamarr’s “strikingly dark exotic looks”. The editing community allowed that to stay in.

“The page is actually worse than when I first found it,” Rahman says. “As it currently stands, a comment by a man about her appearance is more important than the fact that she basically invented wifi.” Lamarr’s invention is mentioned “something like three screens down. If you were looking for quick headlines about this woman, you’re going to stop at the fact that she appeared nude in a scene. That’s all you’re going to remember about Hedy Lamarr.” Sources matter on Wikipedia – the more references a fact has to back it up, the more likely it is to remain on a page – but that can lead to a systemic bias. “Of course her [Lamarr’s] acting career appears in more sources,” Rahman says. “She was a woman in the 1940s, there were men writing, and the men were writing about her being beautiful and exotic, not about women contributing to science.”

Rahman had dabbled in editing before she arrived at Lamarr, but after this encounter she stopped. “I wanted to edit because it’s fun and I think it’s important, but a Wikipedia editing war is not my style,” she says. Editors can be notoriously brusque, sometimes forgetting social niceties when they change other people’s work. The internet is littered with the blogs of bitter ex-Wikipedians who have been burned by rejection and the often fraught arbitration process the encyclopaedia uses to resolve disputes. Plus, Rahman was aware that she had hardly any clout, in Wikipedia terms, because she had not edited much before.

The Wikipedia machine relentlessly churns out information over which women struggle to have any influence. Photo: Jonathan McHugh/NS

The conflict and hierarchy specific to Wikipedia may have been dispiriting but it was an internet-wide problem that ultimately put her off. “I’ve seen so many women be trolled and abused online, I don’t even want to dip my toes into that,” Rahman tells me. “I use the same Wikipedia name as I do for my Twitter and my blogs. If things are going to get vicious, it would be very easy for someone to find where I work as well as my email address.”

It is not just new users who feel alienated – even women such as Theresa Knott, who has been editing Wikipedia since its launch in 2001, have stopped contributing. She was once a leading figure on the encyclopaedia, elected to administrator and then arbitrator status, a role akin to that of a high court judge. But gradually she lost interest and she last edited in 2012.

“When Wikipedia was smaller it was a very different beast,” Knott tells me when we meet near the London mixed independent primary school where she teaches science and computing. “I met a lot of people and had great discussions in the early days. I wasn’t drawn to it because of the community but I stayed because of the community.

“Now editing is more of a solitary thing than it used to be because Wikipedia’s so much bigger. I think women like group activities more than men do; women like to socialise, and because it’s bigger I suspect it’s less appealing to women than it used to be.” When the community was smaller it was more collaborative. Editors took time to help each other learn the ropes, Knott says. “Now, it’s got very formal. I feel sorry for people whose articles aren’t the minimum length and don’t have at least one reference in them, because they just get deleted. That would put me off editing in the first place.”

It is hard to know how the gender gap has changed over time – the earliest survey of editors wasn’t carried out until 2010, when Wikipedia was already nine years old – but Knott says there were always many more male editors. “The women who were on there were more likely to be people like me rather than people with interest in . . .” – there’s a long pause while she searches for the appropriate words – “typical women things.” What does she mean by women like her? “Very geeky kinds of females who thought in a certain way and kind of fitted in with the men. There weren’t many women who would not traditionally be in a male sphere. When I did my physics degree, the ratio was 6:1. You kind of get used to it.”




If you’ve ever clicked on the “Edit” tab on a Wikipedia article, you will understand that having a particular kind of conventionally male-brained thinking might help on Wikipedia. Reams of code cascade down the page: curved, square and curly brackets, chevrons and underscores. It looks more like a computer program than a draft of an encyclopaedia entry. If you can see past the symbols to the bit of text you want to edit, it becomes straightforward: you put your cursor in the place you want to make a change and then type, or delete. Then you write an edit summary describing your changes and click Save – though there is no guarantee they will stay. Most edits, particularly changes from new users, will be scrutinised by an army of experienced volunteers and Wikipedia robots, looking out for mistakes, vandalism, libel and things that break the site’s code of practice.

Knott has observed a gender disparity among her young computing students: the boys have embraced coding more wholeheartedly than the girls, and are more willing to do it on their own, outside class. Even if Wikipedia didn’t exist, the highest-ranked pages on Google would still be more likely to have been created by men than women, she says. “It’s not just a Wikipedia thing – it’s an internet thing.” Wikipedia is about creating content rather than websites but all the behind-the-scenes manoeuvres that go into creating a page mean it has more in common with coding than editing a Facebook status, where the social network invites you to share “what’s on your mind”.

If there are going to be more female editors, Wikipedia needs to learn from websites where women feel comfortable. Some believe Wikipedia “editathons” might be the answer, where editors meet in person to work on neglected topics together. These are encouraged and supported by the Wikimedia Foundation, which sometimes provides tea, biscuits, laptops and trainers to help new editors learn the craft. Recent editathons have focused on topics such as ballet, Australian female neuroscientists and women in Jewish history.

While increasing the coverage of women on the site, these meet-ups are also more likely to attract female editors in the first place. Claire Millington made her first edit at a “Women in Archaeology” editathon in 2013. We meet at a café next to Senate House Library, where she has been working on her classics PhD at King’s College London. Her thesis is on the women who served in the households of Roman auxiliary army commanders, a group of women that has never been systematically studied. “There’s a pattern in what’s written about women and their achievements, and it’s basically that they’re not written about,” she says. “I don’t want Wikipedia to be a place where women are written out of history again, because if it’s not on Wikipedia, it’s not visible.”

Millington sees it as her duty to make sure that her academic field is properly represented on Wikipedia. She creates new articles and nurtures them, keeping them on a watchlist so that she can check on new contributions. So far, she has not yet found any edits that she’s wanted to change. Wikipedia’s genteel classics pages are unlikely sites for bitter editing wars, but Millington has yet to experience the encyclopaedia’s aggressive side, and has organised her own editathon, encouraging her colleagues to participate.

“I think the interface is the one thing that Wikipedia, Wikimedia, really needs to address. It’s not immediately intuitive,” she says. “It’s great if you’re techy – and there are a lot of people involved in Wikipedia who are techy – but the majority of the population are used to getting their phone out of the box and turning it on and using it. It’s not that women can’t do it, it’s just initially it’s not very welcoming.”

Is there another reason why women are less willing than men to contribute to Wikipedia: that women like to feel they have comprehensive knowledge of something, backed up by evidence, before they claim to have the authority to comment on it, whereas men are more prepared to blag? It takes confidence to believe you have the right to write an encyclopaedia entry, something men might have in greater quantities.

“[That’s] not really plausible,” says Charles Matthews, a former Cambridge academic and one of Wikipedia’s most prolific editors, when I put this to him. “To the extent that women have a different working pattern, they are more likely to be patient writers, that’s all. And motivated by different considerations.” The idea of different working patterns has come up before as an explanation of the gender disparity, in another way: several studies have found that women have less free time than men to dedicate to projects such as Wikipedia because they do more of the childcare and housework.

For Matthews, maybe the gender gap is being blown out of proportion. “There are other, similar systemic issues that are also important. Do Hollywood films get better coverage on Wikipedia than Bollywood? You bet,” he says. “We’re beginning to think there’s less of a gap in terms of writing rather than tech maintenance work on the site – which is lost if you treat all edits as equal.”

I can’t help thinking that if women were more confident about asserting their knowledge, they’d feel more at home on Wikipedia. Roberta Wedge, a former gender gap project worker for Wikimedia UK, agrees. “I think far fewer women would describe themselves as experts than men, but you don’t need to be an expert to edit Wikipedia. And there are many ways of contributing, like photography, like labelling and categorising things. Like adding links between articles so that when you’ve found an amazing, obscure woman you can make sure the article can be found from other places.”

Wikimedia UK hired Wedge for four months last year to address the gender disparity. She helped with editathons and attended related conferences. As she told me while she was still in the post, “My job is to say: there are fascinating women out there on the historic record, we need to get them reflected on Wikipedia, and men and women can add to that.”

The focus seems to be on making sure “female” subjects and women’s biographies are adequately represented, rather than recruiting women to edit, but the hope is that once those topics are better represented, ­female editors will feel more welcome.

But there is a limit to what the international Wikimedia Foundation can do. It’s a charity: there is no army of engineers who can make the editing interface more friendly, no funding for focus groups to reveal what women want from Wikipedia. Any intervention beyond that would undermine what makes Wikipedia great: the fact that it is built from the ground up, a collaboration that polices itself. The answer to the problem has to come from within Wikipedia. Ideas from the site’s discussion boards include a Girl Scout achievement badge in Wikipedia, and persuading celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey to ask their audiences to try editing. But ultimately it is up to women to choose to get involved, and up to existing contributors to make them feel welcome.

After several months away from Wikipedia, Zara Rahman met Wedge at a conference, and Wedge persuaded her to give it another try. Rahman has made a few additions to the biography of Marie Tharp, an oceanographer who created the first scientific map of the ocean floor. But she still sounds badly bruised by her experiences on Wikipedia, and is wary of becoming more involved. I ask if she even uses the site for reference any more. “Of course,” she laughs. “Where else do you get your information from?”

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The real opposition

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Einstein’s monsters: what the Cold War films of the 1980s can teach us

Amid the paranoia of the eighties, film-makers attempted to convey the terrifying reality of a nuclear attack. Now in this new age of anxiety we are returning to their prophetic visions

On 1 December 2017, Hawaii’s nuclear war siren network was tested for the first time since the Cold War. Then, on 13 January, a message was sent to that state’s mobile phone networks warning of an incoming ballistic attack (38 long minutes later, this was corrected). On 25 January, the Doomsday Clock was put forward to two minutes to midnight by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and on 2 February, the US Government published its Nuclear Posture Review, proposing a new arsenal of tactical weapons.

In the space of a few months, the West was transported back to a time that until recently seemed impossibly distant – a time when a new American president was expanding his military ambitions, and a British prime minister was doing anything in her power to galvanise that special relationship.

To grow up in the early 1980s was to grow up with a cloud, one that lifted suddenly into a toroidal fireball usually seen in stock footage or shuddery animation. It was also to grow up with a sound that had been familiar in Britain 40 years earlier: a low wail, rising and descending, like a wounded wolf’s howl. Another eerie sound lingers in the mind from this time: the calm, clipped vowels of a male announcer, advising how to build shelters, avoid fallout, and wrap up your dead loved ones in polythene, bury them, and tag their bodies.

These elements came together in Richard Taylor Cartoon Films’ Protect and Survive series, a collection of public information films made for the government’s Central Office of Information in 1975. They first leaked in 1980, inspiring two groundbreaking British films: a two-hour BBC docudrama that has only been shown three times by the broadcaster, Threads (1984), and a 90-minute animated film about an elderly couple following government advice before, during and after the bomb, called When The Wind Blows (1986).

Threads begins with a close-up of a spider weaving its web, and a voiceover telling us that “everything connects”. We cut to a young couple, middle-class Ruth and working-class Jimmy, heavy-petting in a car in the Peak District; she gets pregnant, and their families nervously meet. The warm hum of TV and radio news forms a comforting haze in the background, until its contents pulse through.

A schoolgirl slowly downs her milk and looks at her wireless. A pub landlord changes a TV channel but his punters want to hear more about Iran. A teenager runs into a shop to tell Mam to come home: the Russians and Americans have started fighting. Forty-six excruciatingly tense minutes into Mick Jackson and Barry Hines’s film, it comes: sirens, upturned buggies, urine down trouser legs, a soft swell of volatile gases above Sheffield. Blasts. Flames. Winds. Silence.

In January, a mass-watching of Threads, hashtagged #ThreadDread on Twitter, was led by Julie McDowall, a journalist and nuclear threat expert campaigning for the BBC to show it for the first time since 2003. The US secretary of state George Shultz saw the film when it aired on CNN in 1985, and it is alleged that it affected the Reagan’s government’s attitude to nuclear war. Jimmy Murakami’s adaptation of Raymond Briggs’ graphic novel When the Wind Blows was brought up by Lord Jenkins of Putney in the House of Lords: he asked Baroness Hooper for an assurance that it would not be banned from being shown in schools. The work of the visual imagination can be powerful; brutal enough to make a difference. 

 The 1984 BBC film Threads was unflinching in its depiction of the horror caused by nuclear fallout after a bomb falls in Sheffield. Credit: AF archive/ Alamy

The Protect and Survive films that had a huge impact on popular culture were only shown twice on British TV: first on 10 March 1980, on the Panorama episode, “If The Bomb Drops” – and once again on a shop’s TV screens in the first section of Threads (the films were declassified in 2005, and are now available on DVD). “They have never been seen before and won’t be seen again until nuclear war is imminent,” explained Panorama’s fresh-faced 29-year-old presenter, Jeremy Paxman. “Their advice is intended to be reassuring.”

Reassurance was the reason that the veteran voiceover artist Patrick Allen was chosen to be their narrator; he was best known at the time for a Barratt Homes TV advert, where he is filmed grinning from a helicopter. (In 1984, he recorded less reassuring lines for a 12-inch mix of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s No 1 hit “Two Tribes” in a pointed Protect and Survive style: “I am the last voice you will ever hear,” Allen says. “Do not be alarmed.”)

The BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s Roger Limb wrote the series’ electronic theme, which involved two melodies at high and low pitches, coming together – like people, he says. He handed over his tape to the films’ producer, Bruce Parsons in an alley, such was the secrecy required. It is the films’ visual language, however, that remains their most haunting element. They feature a white, cardboard house against a wall of sky-blue, with two faceless parents holding their children’s hands for a logo. The animator Roger McIntosh, then 27, designed this and the film’s mushroom cloud, and remembers signing the Official Secrets Act. “Having a simple style was essential, so the films couldn’t be seen to be entertainment,” he says. “They had to be understood by all audiences, at all levels of education.”

There was a terrifying flipside to that innocent, familiar world. “Their instructions seemed absolutely pointless, to be honest with you,” McIntosh adds. “But, in the face of Armageddon… well, it was a job.”

The editor of Panorama in 1980, Roger Bolton, was shocked when he first saw the films. Now the presenter of Radio 4’s listener programme, Feedback, he remembers visiting the US in late 1979, and realising the impact expanding international defence programmes would have on the UK, which disbanded its civil defence corps in 1968. Panorama’s producer, David Darlow, convinced a local government commissioner to leak the Protect and Survive films to him; Bolton knew broadcasting them was a gamble. “But these films’ instructions were ludicrous. I knew the military would think them ludicrous. So I didn’t ask permission – I just put them out.”

 After broadcast, remarkably, there were few repercussions, although Darlow claims his name was blackened in intelligence circles. The Protect and Survive booklets, which the documentary claimed would take four weeks to produce in the immediate wake of a nuclear threat, were also printed up later that year, and sold, to those who could afford them, for 50p.

But attitudes towards the government were changing, Bolton says. “We have to remember this was only 35 years after the Second World War. People in government were older then, and still believed in the power of authority in wartime. But we were children of the Sixties. We knew we had to question everything.” The economic and political volatility of Britain in 1970s contributed to this mood, and Bolton’s young team rode with the spirit of the times.

“We were very young, and doubtless very arrogant, back then. But with the BBC’s resources, as they were then, at our disposal, if the basic question, ‘Should we do this?’ came up…” He laughs. “Well, we did this.”

 Jim consults his Protect and Survive pamphlet in When the Wind Blows (1986). Credit: AF archive/ Alamy

Across the Atlantic, in his Los Angeles sunroom, Mick Jackson is remembering his days as a BBC documentary maker too. He reads the handwritten letter framed on its wall, dated 24 September 1984, from the then leader of the opposition, Neil Kinnock:

Dear Michael Jackson and Barry Hines,

I’d like to thank you and everyone involved in the making of Threads for your important and impressive work. The story must be told time and time again until the idea of using nuclear weapons is pushed into past history. Don’t, by the way, be troubled by the possibility that some people might be inured to the real thing by seeing horrifying films. The dangers of complacency are much greater than
any risks of knowledge.

Neil Kinnock

“Great rhythmic phrase at the end,” Jackson says, proudly. “Very Kinnock-like.”

 Now a Hollywood director – the Whitney Houston/Kevin Costner blockbuster, The Bodyguard, and the David Irving biopic Denial are on his CV – Jackson began his career making science programmes. An electronic engineering graduate who “changed his mind and then went to film school”, he joined the BBC in 1965, soon after it had decided not to broadcast Peter Watkins’s The War Game, the first film to depict brutally the effects of a nuclear bomb (it was shown in cinemas instead and won the 1966 Oscar for Best Documentary).

“There was a real sense of shame pervading the BBC about that decision,” says Jackson. It had wanted to share the responsibility for broadcasting the film with the Home Office, he explains; the Cabinet Secretary at the time, Burke Trend, said the government “would be relieved” if the BBC didn’t transmit. “That was a clever move. The War Game obviously had a political agenda. And that’s also a problem, obviously, for the BBC.”

After the Panorama special, however, the BBC had renewed confidence, and protest movements against nuclear programmes were also developing at pace (the first women’s peace camp at Greenham Common took place in late 1981, after Margaret Thatcher’s government announced its acquisition of US Trident missiles). Now working on a new BBC science series, QED, Jackson proposed a “scrupulously factual, unbiased” episode, “A Guide to Armageddon”, which coolly described the effects of a one-megaton blast.

Throughout it, images of ordinary life are juxtaposed with horror-movie detail: Jackson used a photo of his local butcher’s in Holland Park, then a close-up of animal fats burning from a pig’s leg, to show the effects of nuclear blast on human flesh. Couples are also seen building or buying shelters of various kinds: Joy and Eric build one under the stairs that will save them for 17 seconds. “I’d wanted to call it ‘A Consumer’s Guide to Armageddon’,” Jackson laughs. “For some reason, the BBC thought that unduly provocative. ‘But I am a scientist,’ I said. ‘Everything will be citable, provable.’” Jackson’s documentary was broadcast on 26 July 1982 and Threads went into pre-production the following year.

Filmed in 17 days in early 1984 on a budget of £250,000, Threads featured a cast of extras consisting mainly of CND supporters, loaned by Sheffield City Council (the area had recently declared itself a nuclear-free zone). Its script was by Barry Hines, best known for the uncompromising 1968 film Kes: he knew how to write Yorkshire because that’s where he was from. He battled ferociously with Jackson about Paul Vaughan’s intermittent, newsy voiceover, feeling that it smothered his drama, but Jackson knew a sui generis form for the film was essential to make it stand out.

This attitude hardened in November 1983 after Jackson saw the American post-apocalyptic TV movie, The Day After. Watched by 100 million people in the US, and featuring a similarly slow-burning series of real-life stories to Threads, well-known actors such as Jason Robards and Steve Guttenberg prettied it up, and its setting was sanitised. “I mean, the hospital scene in it – the electricity was working!” Jackson rants. In Threads, amputations are delivered without anaesthetic; people bite on rags. Jackson says: “The idea of nuclear war informing a new species of made-for-TV disaster movies was the worst thing that could happen, to my mind. I wanted to show the full horror. I felt that was absolutely my responsibility.”

There were other motivations behind this attitude, he says. A day after Threads was broadcast, as part of a night that also featured a political debate, Jackson went on BBC One’s Pebble Mill with a beeper on his belt – his wife was due to have their first child. Her being pregnant throughout the filming of Threads puts three of its scenes in a particularly tough light: Ruth sees a woman rocking her dead baby, her eyes numb and wide; she herself gives birth in a rural barn, alone, biting through her daughter’s umbilical cord with her teeth; and her own daughter, Jane, gives birth ten years later. In the final scene, Jane is handed her baby, but we don’t see the child. Jane looks at it and she screams. “For Threads to work, I had to try to let images and emotion happen in people’s minds,” Jackson says. “Or rather in the extensions of their imaginations.”


Sheffield City Centre, January 2018. Around the corner from The Moor, the square in which we see the upturned buggies after the bomb, 75-year-old Rita May sits in BBC Sheffield’s reception. “When the bomb goes off, the camera’s on me!” she says, half-surprised – she watched Threads the day before for the first time in decades, seeing herself in a front room in her early forties, next to a window unprotected from the blast. “It’s dated a bit, I thought. But oh, that make-up. Bran flakes and gelatine. Horrible, it was.”

She played Mrs Kemp, the mother of Jimmy, a woman oblivious to the encroaching horror. Her character screams for the first time when she realises her youngest son, Michael, isn’t with her – then her skin is horrendously burned. She goes into the fallout minutes later with her husband, against all advice, and finds Michael’s blackened foot in the rubble.

May keeps her maroon anorak on while she talks, her manner all no-nonsense northern. After the bomb drops the film continues for an hour and seven minutes, covering another ten years. Backstage was a gala of cheap, terrifying special effects, she remembers. Racks of clothes were blowtorched daily on-set by the wardrobe team. Karen Meagher, who played Ruth Beckett, wore her cataract contact lenses while doing her supermarket shopping, in order to get used to them. And the umbilical cord Ruth chewed through? “Made of liquorice!” This cheapness is often apparent in the film, but other moments ensure it doesn’t matter: Mrs Kemp’s husband trying to find food while holding on to Michael’s favourite toy, a broken electronic game; Ruth carrying Jimmy’s old book of birds. Old threads being clung to, before they finally yield.

The subtle familiarity of the faces in Threads is a large part of its power today. May has played minor characters in Coronation Street, larger roles in BBC and Sky One sitcoms, and after Threads was in the ITV kids’ series Children’s Ward for years. This may explain why Threads had a disturbing effect on the generation who
were aware of the nuclear threat as children, but only saw the films a little later. Recognisable faces made it more chilling.

May remembers a screening for the whole cast and extras just before the BBC broadcast. It was a Sunday, in Sheffield’s Fiesta Nightclub, the tables set in a cabaret style. “After it finished, no one could speak.” (Jackson recalls this event too: “These people had known what they were doing in the film, taken part in the crowd scenes, but the effect the whole thing had on them was extraordinary – all these people weeping.”)

May herself had a recurring dream afterwards, she says, in which she was standing by a window, just like Mrs Kemp had been. “My boys were young in it, playing outside, and then I saw a mushroom cloud behind them. Funny that, isn’t it?” It also made May think about her mother, who’d seen a doodlebug suddenly, one day in Sheffield, during the Second War. “Apparently, it destroyed the house next door,” she says. May tugs her gold locket. “We forget what that fear feels like easily, don’t we?”


There is, however, an appetite to remember. On a late winter’s afternoon in London, the BFI Southbank’s NFT3 cinema is full of people ready to experience When the Wind Blows on a big screen. It begins gently: Jim Bloggs (John Mills) bumbling about the house, a Protect and Survive booklet in his hand acquired from his local library. He gazes out of his window in the countryside, seemingly so far away from danger. After the bomb drops, his wife, Hilda (Peggy Ashcroft), worries about trivial things: the filth on her cushions, her blackened, slashed curtains – then later, as reality hits her, the weals on her legs. At the end of the film Jim prays, his mind unravelling with sickness, as the couple tuck themselves up in the bags that become their forgotten coffins.

The film’s executive producer, Iain Harvey, talked to the BFI audience. He explained that it took three years to raise funds to make When the Wind Blows, despite it being developed after the success of another Raymond Briggs adaptation, The Snowman. Nuclear weapons policy had hardened, if anything, in Britain in the mid-1980s:  as late as April 1986 Thatcher was writing her first open letter on the topic to her local paper, the Finchley Times. “Nuclear weapons have kept the peace for over 40 years,” she wrote. “Of course, in an ideal world there would be no weapons of mass destruction. But they exist, and they cannot be disinvented.” Fifteen days later, on 25 April, the No 4 reactor at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded, sending clouds of radioactive caesium-137 slowly drifting westwards.

When the Wind Blows felt particularly vital at its world premiere just six months after Chernobyl. The film is dedicated to the children born to the relatively young cast and crew during its production: Harvey’s daughter, now 32, is in the audience today. Two women raise their hands, admitting that When the Wind Blows haunted them after they saw it as children. “We weren’t out to terrify you,” Harvey assures them. He tells me later how angry he would get when the film was criticised as being too party political. “After all,” he says, “what is party political about trying to ensure the world isn’t destroyed by nuclear war?”

A week later, Raymond Briggs calls me: now 84, he rarely ventures from his rural Sussex home. He also couldn’t stop watching When the Wind Blows the other day – but for different reasons. “That box separate to the telly – I couldn’t bloody switch it off.” He’s grumpy this morning and half-apologises; he’s softer recalling an old memory that inspired his anti-war stance.

“I remember standing at my window in Wimbledon Common, thinking of those ships on their way to Cuba. ‘All this out here,’ I remember thinking, ‘could be gone.’” He was 28 in 1962. “And now all this North Korea business. One bloke speaking off the cuff and the next day…” He tails off. “Thank God I’m 84, that’s all I can say.”

When the Wind Blows acknowledges how easy it is to become romantic about war. Briggs used his childhood experiences in the Second World War to address this nostalgia in the film, inserting his own Morrison shelter, covered with pin-ups, for Jim Bloggs’s, and taking inspiration from his own brief evacuation to a rural idyll far away from the bombs.

But as Threads and When the Wind Blows made clear, there is no rural idyll away from the bombs. And while modern dramas and documentaries have not confronted this reality, these older, bolder films still have a power to draw people together – on social media, in government, or even in smaller, more familiar ways. Mick Jackson’s father spent time in the Royal Army Medical Corps during the war. After he saw Threads, he started talking about what he’d seen for the first time. “That was absolutely what our work was about,” says Jackson, 34 years later. “To never forget, but to try, with the power we had, to change things.” 

“Threads” is released on DVD through Simply Media on 9 April; “When the Wind Blows” is out now on DVD, through the BFI

Tom Gatti and Kate Mossman are joined by Jude Rogers to discuss the 1984 nuclear disaster drama Threads. Then they talk about the Oscar-nominated film I, Tonya, and finally celebrate the noniversary of Jarvis Cocker invading the stage at the 1996 Brit Awards.

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This article first appeared in the 21 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The real opposition