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The real impact of the legal aid cuts

How the cuts to legal aid have affected asylum-seekers, migrants and the lawyers who defend them.


One morning in January 2014, Gloria Jackson was returning from the supermarket with her groceries when she saw five policemen standing near the door of her home in London. When she tried to pass and go inside, the officers told her that she was under arrest. Jackson, a 57-year-old NHS psychiatric nurse who worked with dementia patients, was searched in the street as her neighbours looked on, locked in the back of a police van and driven away.

She was in shock and confused. Until that day, Jackson says, she was unaware that she did not have the correct immigration status to live and work in the UK. Born in the Caribbean, she arrived in England with her teenage son on a visitor’s visa in 1999 to stay with her mother and sisters, who are British citizens. Jackson says that when she saw the education opportunities in Britain, she decided to obtain a student visa to study nursing. On qualification, she applied for a work visa through a solicitor. Her son, Joseph, joined the navy, got British citizenship and fathered a son. Jackson did night shifts in residential nursing homes and hospitals and loved her work. Their life in the UK was turning out well.

In 2012, after she had been working in British hospitals for a decade, people at the nurse bank that employed her made inquiries about her immigration status for the first time. The Home Office told them that Jackson was entitled to work. It was only two years later, when the police arrested her, that she was informed that she did not have the right paperwork after all. Her solicitor had failed to apply for the correct visa. Charged with fraud, Jackson faced up to three years in prison.

When her criminal case went to trial, Jackson was able to prove that she had been unaware of her true immigration status and the jury acquitted her. But her troubles were far from over. Unable to work and facing removal from the UK, she remains in limbo, living in her elderly mother’s spare room in north London, while she fights to remain in Britain.

“My head is just bursting. I just want to move on with my life,” she tells me, staring at the living-room carpet. “But I am so glad I have Ana,” she adds, looking up. “Why didn’t I know her all those years ago?”


Ana Gonzalez is an immigration and asylum lawyer at Wilson Solicitors, a well-respected firm in a field where unscrupulous practitioners have been known to take advantage of migrants and refugees. It is her job to help some of the most vulnerable and often demonised people in the country to stay here when the system moves against them.

Her caseload is large and varied. On the same day as an appointment with Jackson, she saw a victim of domestic violence from the Caribbean, a Somali asylum-seeker and a Nigerian woman who was smuggled into Europe by sex traffickers.

“We can get upset, we can get stressed out – but never bored,” Gonzalez says at her office in Tottenham, north London, when I spend a few days shadowing her.

More than eight million people in Britain – 13 per cent of the population – were born abroad. Net migration to the UK is at near-record levels, with a peak of 330,000 in the year ending March 2015. This was three times the government target and nearly twice what it had been in 2013. But as demand for legal services for migrants increases, the public funding for representation has been slashed and the pool of firms taking on such work has shrunk. In 2009, England and Wales had the highest legal aid spend per capita in the world, administered by the Ministry of Justice’s Legal Services Commission (LSC). Then the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act came into force in April 2013, part of a plan to cut £350m a year from the £2bn annual bill. It replaced the LSC with the Legal Aid Agency, which is still part of the Ministry of Justice but makes independent decisions.

Under the act, many categories of criminal and civil cases no longer qualify for legal aid funding, including immigration cases involving clients who are not in detention, such as Jackson. Many who previously could
have claimed legal aid have been left unable to afford lawyers and have to represent themselves. Jackson would be in that situation, too, were it not for Joseph, now 30, who is paying her legal costs and joins his mother for the meeting at Gonzalez’s office.

Gonzalez is using Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights to argue that Jackson’s right to family life will be breached if she is forced to return to the Caribbean. Her entire family is in the UK – she has no one to go back to.

“Your case is very solid,” Gonzalez tells her. “It is very difficult at the moment for those without British children and British partners to get to stay in the UK if they haven’t been here for 20 years but you have your grandchild and your son. The ball is with the Home Office now. If they refuse you, which is likely, they will have to give you right of appeal and then we go before an immigration judge. I believe you will have a very good case in front of an immigration judge, because you are a very likeable person. You have no criminal convictions, you have given so much to this country and you would give more if you could.”

But Jackson looks defeated. She has been waiting for nearly six months to hear back from the Home Office. Gonzalez suggests that Jackson contact her MP to make inquiries that could speed things up.

“I don’t have an MP, because I don’t have a vote,” Jackson says.

“Even if you live on a bench, you have an MP. Everybody has got one.”

Gonzalez wants to find out if there is any new evidence she can submit to strengthen the case. “You’re living with your mum. What do you do for her? Shopping?”

“Actually, I’m her carer,” Jackson replies. “She had a shoulder replacement.”

“That strengthens your case so much more,” Gonzalez says, smiling. “It would be really good to get a letter from her doctor confirming that your mother has been relying on you for day-to-day support. If you were not there, the government would have to provide a social worker to come in.”

Jackson describes how much she misses her job. It’s the first time in her life that she has found herself sitting at home with nothing to do.

Gonzalez listens and then shakes her head. “They’re gagging for people like you in the NHS, with your work and experience,” she says.


Gonzalez is also a migrant. Born into a working-class family in a small town in Galicia, Spain, she studied employment law at a university near her home town. She came to London to improve her English in 1994, aged 22, working part-time as a waitress and office administrator. By chance, she started temping at the centre for Refugee and Migrant Justice (RMJ), which provided free legal advice and representation for vulnerable migrants and asylum-seekers. (The centre closed in 2010 after cash-flow problems caused by changes to the legal aid system.) Gonzalez loved the work at RMJ and was inspired to do a legal conversion course.

Since then, it has been an all-consuming vocation. In 2013 she found herself fighting Home Office removals for two of her clients on Christmas Day while her husband was stuffing the turkey. “I love my job dearly but it takes a lot out of you,” she says. “You don’t do this for the money. People talk about fat-cat lawyers – we’re very skinny here.” According to research by the Law Society, immigration and asylum solicitors earn £35,000 a year on average, compared to an average salary of £51,500 across the legal profession.

The legal aids cuts have prompted Wilson’s to take on work from ever more private clients seeking help with immigration matters. One of Gonzalez’s cases involved a wealthy British businessman based in east Asia whose fiancée’s visa ­application had been refused. Settlement visas are expensive: on top of the £956 application fee, applicants have to pay a £500 health surcharge, even if they never use the NHS, so they spend nearly £1,500 before they even see a solicitor. But the more money you have, the easier immigration ­becomes. If you can pay an extra £400, your application will be resolved on the day of your appointment. For £7,000, you get the Home Office’s “super premium service”: at a time and date of your convenience, a courier will collect your application documents and a staff member will then visit your home to obtain a signature, photograph and fingerprints. A decision is made within 24 hours.

Gonzalez accepts that the government wants to attract foreigners who can afford to invest. But many of her clients are women who first came in on visitors’ visas and perform jobs that are low-paid but essential to the UK, such as care-home workers and domestic cleaners. For them, official immigration can be almost unaffordable.

It has also become harder in recent years for asylum-seekers to obtain permission to stay in the UK – the cases that take up most of Gonzalez’s time. Although the number of asylum applications in the past few years has been far below the 2002 peak of 84,130, the government has been tightening the criteria for successful appeals. In 2014, there were 24,914 asylum applications. About 59 per cent were initially refused and of those cases that went to appeal 28 per cent were successful, against 40 per cent in 2010.

Asylum cases still qualify for legal aid, but at a reduced level. When Gonzalez first started at Wilson’s in 1999, solicitors were funded to attend asylum screening interviews. Now, they are funded to attend only if their client is a minor. She is used to having every legal aid expense quibbled over at the end of a case – not just her time, but also expenses incurred obtaining vital medical and psychological reports on her clients, even if the money has been pre-approved by the Legal Aid Agency. “Many really respectable firms have stopped doing legal aid and I entirely understand why,” Gonzalez says. “They make us fight for every single piece of funding and the bureaucracy involved is brutal.”

For each asylum case, solicitors are paid a fixed fee of £413. If their work costs exceed this, they won’t get paid more for it unless they incur expenses three times that sum. “It’s a ridiculous system,” says Gonzalez, whose costs can often be in the region of £600 to £700. “If the work has to be done, we just do it and we don’t get paid for the extra work. We can absorb that to a degree, because we’re a big firm, but that is something that we cannot keep on doing, because it’s not sustainable.”


Later that afternoon, Gonzalez has an appointment with Florence Abuku. She says that Abuku’s case is a “classic example of Home ­Office bad behaviour”. Originally from Benin City, the trafficking capital of Nigeria, Abuku, who is 30, was forced to work as a prostitute in Italy for two years before being sent to the UK in 2008. Her traffickers made her cash fraudulent benefit cheques here. She was caught and sentenced to 15 months in prison, before claiming ­asylum while in Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre. Granted leave to remain in 2010, Abuku has just been notified that her settlement application has been refused.

“This is a copy of your refusal,” Gonzalez says. “I’m going to go through it with you.”

Abuku leans forward to read the letter, her black curls falling across her face. Gonzalez explains that applicants in Abuku’s position should be given indefinite leave to remain after five years so long as they have no
criminal convictions. But when the Home Office carried out a criminal records check, it threw up the pre-asylum conviction for fraud, so her application has been rejected.

“This is a very weird decision,” Gonzalez tells her. “The courts already knew about that conviction when you won your case. Had it not been for the trafficking, you would not have committed the crime.”

Tears well up in Abuku’s eyes. “They [the traffickers] made me go and do this.”

“It is very low of the Home Office to throw this in your face all these years later,” the lawyer says. “But I honestly believe this is a mistake by somebody who didn’t know how to do their job. We’re going to challenge this and we’re going to reverse it. My plan is to write to the Home Office and threaten them with litigation, with judicial review.”

Abuku was suicidal at Yarl’s Wood and has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. “I was beaten by bad boys at the side of the river in Perugia,” she tells me. “I would stand by the side of the road and they would throw eggs and stones.” She was raped. “Now this. The stress is too much for me.”

“This is just a setback,” Gonzalez says, gently. “It’s a blow but it is fixable.”

She is right. A few weeks later, news arrives that the Home Office is giving Florence the right to settlement after all.

Gonzalez’s frustration at Home Office bureaucracy, and the ministry’s mistakes when it comes to asylum in particular, is not unique. In 2013 Mark Stobbs, the Law Society’s then director of legal policy, said that the government would get better value out of the system, were it not for the “inefficiency, delay and culture of disbelief” at the Home Office. As a result of its obsession with numbers and targets, the department is determined to fight even the most promising cases, Gonzalez says. Her next client after Abuku is Amal Mohamed, a Somali asylum-seeker, whose case has cost the taxpayer well over £10,000 in legal aid. Now, after two and a half years of going back and forth between judges, they are back at stage one: the Home Office has agreed to look at Amal’s initial asylum application again.

The biggest barrier that Gonzalez’s clients face is stigma from the media. “They always report on the family on benefits in a £1m home in west London with five kids,” she says. “After 16 years of doing this work, I know those people are a minority.” She tells me about former clients of hers who have won their cases and received papers to stay: the main buyer at a big department store in central London, a lingerie designer with his own thriving company. “The tabloids never report on those people.”

Gloria Jackson, the NHS nurse, hopes that ultimately she, too, will be allowed to stay. A month after her meeting with Gonzalez, she heard that the Home Office had given her the right to appeal, so she will be going to the high court to appear in front of an immigration judge. She is still waiting for the court date. Given the huge backlog of cases, Gonzalez doesn’t expect the hearing to take place for another nine months at least.

The names of all of Ana Gonzalez’s clients have been changed to protect their identity

This article first appeared in the 10 March 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Psycho

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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.

Listen on iTunes here, on Acast here or via the player below:

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This article first appeared in the 10 March 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Psycho