War of the Worlds radio broadcast (BBC, 1950 and 1967)
The War of the Worlds was first adapted by the BBC in 1950. Tragically,
like so much of their early output, the 6 part series appears to have
been lost to posterity, but we can find some detail in the BBC listings
magazine of the time. The Radio Times lists 6 episodes, the first of
which, The Red Planet, was broadcast at 9.30 pm on Tuesday, May 30th
1950. The writer was Jon Manchip White, who has been kind enough to help
me fill in some of the blanks on this production and the subsequent 1967 version.
White is by now the author of nearly thirty books of fiction, history,
travel, and biography, but in 1950 had just joined the BBC Drama Script
Unit as an editor. He had very definite ideas about the production as he
made clear in a feature he wrote at the time for the BBC Radio Times magazine.
"Out of respect for the Martian Fighting-Machines - a bit obsolescent by
the standards of jet-planes and anti-tank guns - the dramatised version of
The War of the Worlds has not been brought up to date."
In personal correspondence with me, Mr White further comments "I had kept
the Victorian setting and as much of Wells' wonderful atmosphere and dialogue
as I could. As for the music, it was not radiophonic, but I selected it myself - as
I took care to do in all my radio and TV plays. So I opened with Mars, The Bringer Of
War, from Holst's great suite The Planets, which provided a suitably rousing,
indeed frightening, introduction."
In the first episode, Anthony Hawtrey, the son of the great Charles Hawtrey,
starred as the hero Nicholson, Peter Coke (famous for his portrayal of the
detective Paul Temple) was Ogilvy and Derek Guyler played Stent.
The episodes titles and broadcast times are as follows. (Click on the
links to see the original BBC Radio Times entry for each).
Nicholson. Anthony Hawtrey.
Ogilvy. Peter Coke.
Stent. Deryck Guyler.
Holroyd. Stanley Groome.
Dora Nicholson. Dorothy Green.
First Boy. Ursula Hirst.
Second Boy. Brian Weske.
Lieutenant. Manning Wilson.
Colonel. Laidman Browne.
Corporal. Lewis Stringer.
Old Gentleman. J. Hubert Leslie.
Parson. Raf De La Torre.
First Spokesman. Hamilton Dyce.
Second Spokesman. Howieson Culff.
Man. Ronald Sidney.
Girl. Joan Hart.
With David Kossoff, Alan Reid, Basil Jones, Joan Matheson, Margaret Vines and Hugh Manning
Production by David H. Godfrey.
What a shame then that this extraordinary sounding production may no longer
exist, but we can hope for a flavour of it since the 1967 version has
survived and seems to share a connection, because Jon Manchip White is
again listed as the writer. Yet there is a mystery here, since as he
himself has told me in no uncertain terms, "I could not have been
concerned with it because 1967 was the year in which I first came to
America to take up a professorship at the University Of Texas." The 1967
version certainly can't be a direct word for word remake, since it is
thoroughly updated, with a modern English setting, helicopters and jet
fighters, yet White has the sole writing credit, the episode titles are
identical and both productions share very similar character names. Despite
all this, it remains to be seen how much of White's original dialogue
survives into the 1967 version.
The first episode introduces us to the character of Nicholson, played
by Paul Daneman. Nicholson replaces Wells' nameless narrator, though
in a fairly major departure from the original novel the character is
now an astronomer and Ogilvy his assistant. Nicholson is a determined
believer in the possibility of life on Mars, and sees the eruptions he
is observing on Mars as proof positive of an impending invasion. This
is fully confirmed by the arrival of the first cylinder and the
emergence of a Martian. In the second episode troops and helicopters
arrive to contain the Martians, with one of the pilots assuming the
role of the Artillery man, but despite his best efforts to dissuade
them from the attempt, Nicholson is unable to stop Ogilvy and the
Astronomer Royal Stent from leading a peace delegation to their doom
at the hands of the Heat Ray.
By the third episode a second Cylinder is seen to arrive and Nicholson's
predictions are proven horribly true when the badly injured helicopter
pilot stumbles into his home with news of a terrible defeat for the army
and air force. There are some effective descriptions of modern weapons
succumbing to the Heat Ray, such as the rotors disintegrating on a
helicopter and interesting speculation on the problem with fighting the
Martians with modern weapons in the midst of a civilian population. The
episode culminates with a fantastic re-imagining of the battle for Shepperton
with tanks against the Martian Tripods.
In the 4th episode there is another fantastically realised battle, this
time with Jet Fighters against the Tripods, but most are shot down and the
Martians deploy their Black Smoke against waiting Tanks. By now, Nicholson
has met the Priest and the pair become entombed beneath a newly arrived
Martian cylinder. Peter Sallis (British readers will likely recognise him
for his long running portrayal of the wonderfully reprehensible Norman Clegg
in Last of the Summer Wine) plays the conflicted priest to perfection.
For the penultimate episode, Nicholson arrives in London (the character of
his brother is entirely excised from this version) and meets the helicopter
pilot again, who seems to have landed on his feet and is plotting the survival
of the human race by retreating underground, though first he persuades
Nicholson to set up base in an abandoned luxury hotel. The highlight of this
episode has to be a superb recap of the Martian assault, replayed from the
point of view of government pronouncements, at first incredulous in tone,
then humorous and smugly confident, before becoming increasingly panicked
and strident. In another interesting departure from the novel, Nicholson is
far more receptive to the ideas of his companion, and there is an interesting
reference to the visibility of the Canals on Mars. I feel this may be one
definite example of original dialogue from the 1950 production, as by 1967,
the idea of Canals on Mars had been refuted, not least by the return of
photographs a few years previously by Mariner 4.
The final episode builds to a highly satisfying crescendo, with the Martians
defeated as in the original novel by Earthly germs, but ends a little differently,
bringing Nicholson and the helicopter pilot together one more time for an
ominous discussion about the chances of another invasion.
The sound and music for the 1967 version is provided by the BBC Radiophonic
Workshop, which I have never found to be a particularly entertaining listening
experience, with its trademark cacophony of discordant notes, but this is the
only real (and subjectively personal) criticism I can level at the production,
which boasts excellent acting and a well thought out script, though not
uncommonly to adaptations, the portion of the book containing the adventures
of the narrators brother is completely removed,. This means rather tragically
that the sequence involving the Thunderchild is absent.
The episodes titles and broadcast times are as follows. (Click on the links
to see the original BBC Radio Times entry for each).
Proffesor John Nicholson. Paul Daneman.
Ogilvy, his assistant. Martin Jarvis.
Dora Nicholson. Isabel Rennie.
Sir James Stent. Harold Kasket.
Sergeant Holroyd. Alan Dudley.
The Lieutenant. Anthony Jackson.
The Colonel. Ronald Herdman
The Coporal. Frank Henderson
The Old Gentleman. Walter Fitzgerald.
The Parson. Peter Sallis.
The Spokesmen. Denys Hawthorne, Anthony Hall.
With Brian Hewlett, LeRoy Lingwood, Christopher Bidmead, Ronald Herdman, Ian Thompson, Alan Dudley, Carole Boyd, Rolf Lefebvre and Beth Boyd.
Sound score by David Cain of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.
Produced by John Powell.
The 1967 BBC version is available to buy.
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See also in:
War of the Worlds, 1967. Listen to an audio clip from episode 4 of the 1967 BBC version of The War of the Worlds (MP3, 5.37 mins).