Dan Murrell
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The super-recognisers of Scotland Yard

How an elite police unit is catching some of London’s most prolific criminals.

A successful thief sets his own rules and the best ones live by them. These were some of Jimmy McNulty’s: target luxury stores only, dress as smartly as the wealthiest customer, engage and charm the salespeople if approached. Never rush, never panic, and always trust in your powers of sleight of hand.

Here he is at 12.59pm on 28 September 2013, ringing the bell of the Leica Store in Mayfair, where cameras sell for thousands of pounds. He is 40 years old, with short, dark hair and of athletic build – McNulty is the name given to him by a Metropolitan Police detective who saw a resemblance to Dominic West’s character in the television series The Wire. He wears a pink dress shirt, a dark cardigan and jacket, smart shoes. Under his arm is a wad of papers. McNulty picks up a camera, and then a pair of binoculars, carefully appraising them. Two store assistants stand a few metres away. When they turn their backs, he slips the camera inside his jacket. He asks to be let out and casually strolls away.

This is McNulty again at 4.39pm on 18 October 2014, sitting at a table in Buy Fine Diamonds, a retailer in Hatton Garden, London’s jewellery district. A salesman lays out a selection of bracelets. McNulty uses a jeweller’s loupe to examine several items. When the salesman stands up to retrieve a piece from a window display, McNulty strikes, pincering a bracelet and dropping it into his pocket. The salesman returns and from under his nose McNulty lifts another bracelet into his palm and closes his fist.

Now here he is at 6.27pm on 13 May 2015 at the Hackett clothing store on Regent Street, Piccadilly. After slipping a few leather accessories into his sleeveless jacket, McNulty picks up a pair of shoes from a display, walks to an empty sales counter and stuffs them down the front of his trousers.

That was his favourite place to hide stolen goods: merino wool jumpers, cashmere scarves, fancy shirts and wallets disappeared below his belt. He hit Salvatore Ferragamo on Sloane Street, Smythson on New Bond Street, Aquascutum on the Brompton Road, Alfred Dunhill on Jermyn Street, Ede & Ravenscroft – the oldest tailor in London – on Chancery Lane. Boutiques in Islington, galleries on the Portobello Road, the Space NK and Jo Malone cosmetics shops. At Linda Farrow, an eyewear shop in Mayfair, he slipped a pair of sunglasses into his jacket and then, as if it were a game, asked the assistant for a business card.

McNulty had a rule for closed-circuit ­television cameras, too: ignore them. More than 400,000 CCTV cameras watch over London and most upmarket shops have them. But McNulty knew they were used mostly as deterrents. Even if the footage was sent to the police, at best he’d be fingered for a single crime, he thought. Unless, of course, they recognised him as a serial ­offender and found out his real name. What were the chances of that?


Since the 19th century, doctors have known that some patients who suffer brain trauma lose the ability to recognise faces, a condition known as acquired prosopagnosia (from the Greek prosopon, “face”, and agnosia, “not knowing”). In the 1970s scientists discovered that a congenital form of the disorder affects a much wider segment of the population – ordinary functioning people who have never experienced head injuries and have perfect vision.

Studies suggest that two out of every 100  people have developmental prosopagnosia, meaning they have great difficulty recognising faces, sometimes even their own in the mirror. To identify someone familiar, a face-blind person relies on clues such as voice, gait, posture or unusual facial characteristics.

Among the best-known prosopagnosics was the late doctor and author Oliver Sacks, who became aware of his bewildering predicament as a schoolboy in London. He learned to pick out his best friends, Eric Korn and Jonathan Miller, by their ­specific features. “Eric had heavy eyebrows and thick spectacles, and Jonathan was tall and gangly, with a mop of red hair,” Sacks wrote in the New Yorker. When he looked at old photographs a decade after leaving school, Sacks could not identify a single classmate. Stephen Fry and Jane Goodall are other well-known sufferers of the disorder, which is associated with lesions in a part of the brain known as the fusiform gyrus.

In 2009 a trio of researchers led by Richard Russell published the results of their study, which aimed to determine if there was a third group of people when it came to face recognition, whose problem (or rather talent) was that they struggled to forget a face. Russell, a psychologist who was then based at Harvard, tested four people claiming to have superior face recognition abilities, including a 26-year-old female student who told him: “It doesn’t matter how many years pass. If I’ve seen your face before, I will be able to recall it.” Russell set his subjects and a larger control group two tasks, involving famous faces and unfamiliar faces. In both, the test group performed “far above average”, leading Russell to coin the term “super-recognisers”. “In both face recognition and face perception, the super-recognisers are about as good as many dev­elopmental prosopagnosics are bad,” he and his colleagues wrote.

Around the same time, Detective Chief Inspector Mick Neville of the London Metropolitan Police was reaching his own conclusions about people with an exceptional ability to recognise faces. In 2007, Neville had set up a unit to collate and circulate images of unidentified criminals captured on CCTV. Officers were asked to check the Met’s “Caught on Camera” notices to see if they knew any of the suspects. “It became apparent that some officers were much better than others,” Neville told me. “For example, if I received 100 names, some officers would have submitted ten or 15, while in the main they were one-off identifications.”

At first, Neville assumed that the prolific officers simply knew more criminals than the rest. Then he realised that it had more to do with their ability to remember faces: the best identifiers could spot a suspect they had never met merely after viewing a photograph of them.

In early 2011, he discussed his findings at a conference attended by Josh Davis, a psychologist at the University of Greenwich. For his PhD, Davis had studied the use of CCTV identification in court proceedings. “Most of my research had shown that people were not very good at face-matching,” Davis told me one recent morning when we met at a cafeteria on campus. “So I was suspicious of the police claims.”

He agreed to test the facial recognition skills of 20 officers who excelled at Caught on Camera identifications. To Davis’s surprise, most of them scored much better than the norm, and a few were exceptional.

That August, the London riots broke out. Met officers trawled through tens of thousands of hours of CCTV footage, ­identifying 609 suspects responsible for looting, arson and other criminal acts. One officer, PC Gary Collins, made 180 identifications, including that of one of the most high-profile suspects, who had thrown petrol bombs at police and set cars on fire. During the riots, the man covered his mouth and nose with a bandana and pulled a beanie low over his forehead. Collins recognised him as a criminal whom he had last seen several years earlier. The man was convicted and sentenced to six years in prison.

Now convinced of the super-recogniser theory, Neville assembled a standby team of 150 officers who excelled at identification. Over the next few years, as McNulty was slipping jewels into his pockets and stuffing luxury shoes into his trousers, the officers were deployed in high-profile investigations, including the Hillsborough inquest and the Alice Gross murder.

Gross, a 14-year-old girl from west London, went missing as she walked along a canal towpath in August 2014. The Met operation to find her was the biggest since the London 7 July 2005 bombings. But it was only after ten of Neville’s super-recognisers were brought in to the investigation that her body was discovered in the River Brent.

The team zeroed in on one of the suspects, a Latvian construction worker called Arnis Zalkalns, whose wife had reported him missing a few days after Gross disappeared. A CCTV clip showed Zalkalns cycling along the canal 12 minutes behind Gross. In footage from an off-licence later in the day, the officers recognised Zalkalns, who was buying a few Carlsbergs, and council cameras captured him cycling back to a particular spot on the River Brent at dusk. At his next sighting in a shop, later in the evening, he was wearing fresh clothes. The super-recognisers suspected that Zalkalns had changed because he had been back to the crime scene. They informed the officer in charge, who ordered a fresh search of the stretch of river­bank where they had seen Zalkalns – and Gross’s carefully concealed body was found.


On May 2015, the Super-Recogniser Unit was established at New Scotland Yard, the first – and still the only – dedicated team of its kind in the world. Initially it comprised four officers whose skills had been tested by Josh Davis and who were seconded from elsewhere in the force. (The unit now has six men and one woman.)

Detective Sergeant Eliot Porritt, who had worked on the Alice Gross murder, was the most senior recruit. A 36-year-old former plain-clothes officer from north London, Porritt had been largely unaware of his superior face recognition skills until a few years ago. “As a boy, I watched The Terminator and Aliens with my father, who worked for Billboard and Hollywood Reporter magazines. I now remember him being amazed when I noticed that an actor – Bill Paxton – was in both films, even though he looked different in each role,” Porritt told me. “But I didn’t think too much of it at the time. I assumed everybody saw what I saw.”

The main function of the super-recogniser officers was to attend large events, such as music concerts and the Notting Hill Carnival, and spot criminals there. In their downtime, they were tasked with trawling through the Met’s forensic image database, which holds more than 100,000 stills of unidentified suspects captured on CCTV camera or on mobile phones in London since 2011. Each picture is linked to an unsolved crime – in essence, a cold case – and is tagged with the date, location and type of offence, along with the suspect’s distinguishing features, such as race and hairstyle.

As they scrolled through the images, the officers first checked whether they recognised anyone from their time on the streets or previous Caught on Camera appeals. The next challenge was to link suspects involved in multiple crimes, using their powers of recall and recognition to match images – a process they called “snapping”.

“Basically we’re saying, ‘This guy and that guy in those two pictures are the same person – snap!’” Porritt told me when I visited the Super-Recogniser Unit one after­noon. “And you’ve got two strands to it: the people we already know and who we try to link with as many crimes as possible; and people who we don’t know but who we still link and then try to identify.”

It was difficult, painstaking work: the images were often grainy, the lighting poor and camera angles awkward. Furthermore, a criminal’s appearance could change over time. But if snapping led to an arrest it would be worth it: a person charged with multiple crimes was likely to be sent to prison rather than receiving a suspended sentence and being left free to reoffend.

In early August 2015 one of Porritt’s junior colleagues (who asked for his name to be withheld) was looking at CCTV images from the borough of Kensington and Chelsea, where he had worked as a beat cop. The officer noticed the same, smartly dressed thief – the man the team later nicknamed McNulty – in two stills taken in upmarket shops. Snap. Then another, and another – snap, snap. As he broadened his search to other affluent boroughs of London, the officer kept seeing the same face. He printed out the images of the serial shoplifter and tacked them to a wall in the office. He told me: “When I had 13 or 14 crimes, I said to Eliot, ‘There’s £35,000 worth of goods stolen by this guy. We need to do something.’”

They downloaded the CCTV clips from where the stills had been taken. McNulty’s hands were so fast that in some cases the officers had to slow the footage down to ascertain exactly when the theft had occurred.

“I hate using the words ‘talented’ or ‘good’ for a criminal, when they could be so many better things, like a street magician or a dextrous watchmaker,” said Porritt. “But when we watched him [McNulty], it was like: ‘That’s good.’”

Porritt sent out a media appeal and the London Evening Standard published a story about the “sleight-of-hand thief”. Through tip-offs, the police learned that the man’s first name was Austin. Porritt’s colleague keyed the name in to the Met’s custody image database, which stores mugshots of everyone arrested in the capital. There were 73 Austins. Number 14 looked familiar. “I think I’ve got him!” the officer shouted.

Jimmy McNulty was Austin Caballero, a born-and-bred Londoner. He was on the arrests database because he had been caught stealing an expensive rug in January 2015, but the police, unaware of his other crimes, had freed him on bail. He skipped his court hearing. There was a bail address but when Porritt and his colleague knocked on the door, there was no sign of the thief. Caballero was on the run.

By then, it was clear that the task of searching the database should be the primary focus of the Super-Recogniser Unit, not just something to do in quiet times. The team had identified, apprehended and charged dozens of suspects, from shoplifters to commercial burglars and perpetrators of assaults. (Three in every four of the unit’s completed cases have resulted in a suspect being charged in court – against fewer than one in five cases in the wider Met force.)

The super-recognisers had also assisted other units struggling to close cases. Police in north London had obtained CCTV images of a man accused of sexually assaulting women on buses but were unable to identify him. Porritt and his colleague Alison Young used Oyster card data to map out the suspect’s travel patterns and noticed that he often began his journey at Camden Road Overground station. One afternoon, they went there to make inquiries. While on the concourse, Young, by chance, spotted the suspect – whom she had only seen in CCTV stills – passing through. “Oh, my God, Porritt, that’s him,” she exclaimed. They ran ­after the man and slapped on handcuffs. (The sexual offender pleaded guilty in court and was convicted.)

By the end of 2015, the team had much to celebrate. Yet there was frustration, too: the unit’s most high-profile target was still at large. The tally of offences linked to Caballero, rising by the week, stood at 42.


At 2am on New Year’s Day, Caballero ordered a taxi. He was out of cigarettes and did not feel like walking to the shop. On the way home, he tried to jump out of the cab to avoid paying the £5 fare. When the driver locked the doors, Caballero hit him with his shoe. The driver called the police, who arrested Caballero and took him to Holborn Police Station. “New Year’s Day is the worst shift you can possibly work,” Porritt said. “Holborn was absolutely manic, with prisoners all over the place, chaos.”

Caballero gave his name as Jack Donaghy and claimed never to have been arrested before. He was charged for the assault and bailed. One of London’s most wanted men in terms of numbers of crimes – involving stolen goods worth more than £100,000 – was about to walk free.

Just before he could do so, the custody sergeant noticed the red hand that appears on the police computer screen when the person booked has not been fingerprinted. Caballero tried one last ruse, saying that he had to rush home to be with his children. It failed. When his prints were scanned, his real identity was revealed.

At 10am that morning the super-recog­niser team was notified. Porritt drove straight to New Scotland Yard to write up the case summary for the police lawyer. “It was longer than my dissertation at university!” he told me. Meanwhile, in the interview room at Holborn Police Station, his super-recogniser colleague James Rabbett showed the suspect the poster that the unit had made using CCTV images of his crimes. “Caballero was gobsmacked,” Rabbett told me. “He then got a bit arsey, saying, ‘I’m not speaking to you until I’ve had a cigarette, I’m getting out of here, you can’t do this to me.’ And then it was: ‘Yeah, it’s gonna be a full hands-up. Let’s get it done.’”

When formal questioning started, Caballero gave his name and date of birth, then smiled, put his head on the desk, and refused to talk. Based on Porritt’s evidence, the police lawyer agreed that Caballero should be charged with 42 crimes.

Word of the Super-Recogniser Unit’s success was spreading. In January, Porritt flew to Cologne to advise German police investigating the mass sexual assaults that had occurred in the city on New Year’s Eve. Enforcement agencies as far afield as India, Australia and the United States – as well as other parts of the UK – visited the unit or ­requested information on its methods.

One of the most common questions asked of the team is whether computers will put the super-recognisers out of a job. After all, some countries, including the UK, already use facial recognition technology at passport control. Porritt’s unit has its own software but this has been responsible for only one of the 2,010 identifications made since May 2015. DCI Mick Neville reckons that it will be ten to 20 years before software is advanced enough to be a useful tool, and even then super-recognisers will still be needed to analyse the results and identify the suspects.

Josh Davis, the University of Greenwich lecturer, agrees. “Algorithms will get better and we will be able to build 3D representations of faces. But people change appearance and we as humans are primed to see through those changes.”

Meanwhile, studies into the science ­behind super-recognition continue. Anna Bobak, a research fellow of the Centre for Face Processing Disorders at Bournemouth University, said that the exceptional ability to identify faces has a strong genetic component and that efforts to train people to be better recognisers had yielded mixed results.

In her experiments, Bobak found that whereas most people concentrate on a person’s eye region when looking at them, super-recognisers often focus on the centre of the face, around the nose. “That’s not to say that the nose is important, but more that people can perceive the whole face better,” Bobak told me.


On 1 April, Austin Caballero appeared at Blackfriars Crown Court and pleaded guilty to 42 charges. He was convicted and sentenced to three years and nine months in prison. Weeks later, his name still featured in the whiteboard list of “top ten serial offenders” in room 901 at Scotland Yard – and the number of his crimes was rising. For even though Caballero was now behind bars, his old thefts, caught on camera, were still being solved. 

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue

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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 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue