The nuclear 1980s

The prospect of armageddon cast a long shadow over novelists, film-makers, song-writers and comedians in the first half of the 1980s. Jonathan Hogg introduces eight cultural responses to Britons' fixation with nuclear war as the Cold War grew more frosty

Demonstrators block the gates of the Greenham Common Airbase, tied together with string. The demonstrators were members of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) group. (Getty Images)

This article was first published in the April 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine

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1) As nuclear tensions soared, a series of massive protests at Greenham Common made front-page news

A new and potentially ruinous nuclear arms race was firmly back on the international agenda at the dawn of the 1980s. This was the decade of Ronald Reagan’s “evil empire” speech about the Soviet Union, of America’s ‘star wars’ defence project, and of Olympic boycotts. It was also the decade in which US Cruise missiles were stationed at Greenham Common in Berkshire.

By the early 1980s, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) had amassed more than 100,000 members, and peace camps had sprung up near military bases such as Faslane in Argyll and Bute, and Upper Heyford in Oxfordshire. But, in terms of size, none rivalled the women’s peace camp at Greenham Common.

The first blockade here took place in May 1982 with 250 women protesting. By the end of the year, that number had swollen to 30,000, with the women linking hands around the nine miles of fencing that made up Greenham Common’s perimeter. They also pinned baby clothes and nappies to the fence to symbolise what they loved most.

The sheer size of the camp guaranteed it huge media coverage – as this Daily Mirror front page from 13 December 1982, which described the protests as “good-humoured” and “remarkable”, testifies.

2) Ridicule greeted government advice on surviving a nuclear strike

One of the triggers for rising east-west tensions in the early 1980s was the US and UK’s implementation of a more assertive nuclear policy, championed by their bullish new leaders Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Nuclear brinkmanship was once more a reality and, to many, a Third World War seemed increasingly likely.

With this in mind, you might think the British public would have welcomed the government’s civil defence pamphlet Protect and Survive (1980), which attempted to reassure Britons that nuclear war wasn’t necessarily a death sentence – and that the bricks and mortar of their homes were the best defence against the bomb.

Instead, when its contents emerged in the press, Protect and Survive was subjected to a barrage of abuse from anti-nuclear activists and cultural commentators. Critics pointed to the futility of advising people to whitewash their windows to deflect the nuclear flash, and to use interior doors and furniture to create a makeshift fallout shelter. Ridiculing Protect and Survive as impractical and absurd, they ensured that it will always be remembered as an unmitigated PR disaster.

3) When the Wind Blows documented a couple’s doomed attempts to cheat death by nuclear fall-out

Of all the attacks on Protect and Survive (see left) perhaps none was more devastating than When the Wind Blows, Raymond Briggs’s bleak and touching graphic novel from 1982. On hearing that nuclear attack is imminent, the central characters, a lovable elderly couple called Jim and Hilda, follow the government’s civil defence advice to the letter. Yet it proves to be of little help to them as they slowly succumb to the invisible but devastating effects of radioactive fallout.

The book was an emotive and humanising portrayal of the terrible effects of nuclear war, one given even more impact when Briggs’s book was made into an animated film in 1986.

4) Threads pulled no punches in its depiction of the horrors of a nuclear winter

Perhaps more than any other decade in the Cold War era, the 1980s gave voice to novelists, script-writers and musicians with the artistry and imagination to depict what would happen if the unthinkable became a reality.

Of all their many creations across the decade, surely none was as unsparingly brutal as Threads. First aired on BBC Two on 23 September 1984, this vision of a Sheffield shattered by the bomb immediately transported its 7 million viewers into the midst of a nuclear winter – a post-apocalyptic nightmare shot in an ultra-realistic docudrama style.

Director Mick Jackson and writer Barry Hines’s creation was defined by the failure of civil defence, the breakdown of law and order and the destruction of community. And, as it traced the horrors confronting young couple Ruth Beckett and Jimmy Kemp, Threads went where few depictions of nuclear war would tread: the prolonged effects of radioactive contamination and the grim reality of genetic mutation.

5) Adrian Mole, aged 13¾, fretted about spots and Soviet bombs

Not all eighties art was imbued with foreboding and menace. Some novelists employed comedy and satire to undermine the tensions that stalked the decade – among them Sue Townsend, author of the Adrian Mole series.

Adrian Mole brilliantly evoked the anxieties that confronted teenagers in the 1980s. Alongside girls, spots, growing up and sitting exams, Adrian was preoccupied with nuclear war. In The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾ (1982), Townsend cleverly intertwined her young hero’s concerns. Adrian believed that arguments within his family were caused by the pressures of living in the nuclear age – pressures that saw his mother threaten to move the family to a remote part of Wales in order to survive the apocalypse.

6) Some of the eighties’ most popular TV shows endeavoured to raise a laugh from the prospect of humanity’s destruction

From rock gods to royalty, and sports stars to supermodels, few public figures escaped Spitting Image’s satirical swipe. This mainstay of British culture prided itself on capturing the political zeitgeist of the 1980s. And so it proved in one 1984 episode, which saw Margaret Thatcher and Michael Heseltine (or at least their rubber puppet doubles) concocting a plan to make political capital out of public alarm over nuclear war.

Spitting Image wasn’t the only comedy to find the funny side of escalating nuclear tensions – one 1981 episode of Only Fools and Horses was set almost entirely in a fallout shelter bought by Del Boy.

Yet, by the second half of the decade, with Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev extending the hand of friendship to the west, Britain’s comedy writers were increasingly forced to look elsewhere for inspiration. Cold War tensions were waning fast – and nuclear paranoia’s impact on Britain’s cultural output was waning too.

7) Humanity came under attack in the youth novel Brother in the Land

Like Threads, Robert Swindells’ youth novel Brother in the Land (1984) did not shy away from the human cost of nuclear war. The book follows the central character Danny, a teenager who is struggling to survive with the remnants of his family following a nuclear strike. Danny represents a peaceful, humane response to the social upheaval that nuclear war has wrought. But it is clear that he will need to contend with the violence, selfishness and desperation that defined many people’s adaptation to a country ruined by war.

8) A German-language single about an accidental nuclear war came chillingly close to the truth

As anyone who watched the recent German drama Deutschland 83 will attest, nuclear paranoia inspired some of the best pop music of the eighties. Everyone from The Clash and Queen to Frankie Goes to Hollywood and The Specials were moved to put their fears of living “in the shadow of the mushroom cloud” (as Queen’s Freddie Mercury sang in ‘Hammer to Fall’) to music.

Some songs, such as ‘99 Red Balloons’, German pop star Nena’s tale of a nuclear war starting by mistake, transcended national borders. Originally released in Germany, the English translation became a worldwide hit, topping the UK charts in March 1984.

She couldn’t have known it at the time, but Nena’s lyrics were chillingly redolent of a real-life nuclear incident that had occurred just months before her single reached UK number one. In November 1983, the Soviet Union readied its forces for war after erroneously interpreting a Nato military exercise, known as ‘Able Archer’, as a genuine attack. The vast majority of Britons were oblivious but many experts believe that Able Archer was the nearest that the world has come to a nuclear war this side of the Cuban missile crisis.

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Jonathan Hogg is a senior lecturer in history at the University of Liverpool.