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Myth and media: Orson Welles’ ‘The War Of The Worlds’ – 75 years on

Hugh Leask
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  • Last updated: Wednesday, 30 October 2013 at 11:42 am
war of the worlds 300x228 Myth and media: Orson Welles’ ‘The War Of The Worlds’   75 years on

(c) Wiki Commons

Seventy-five years ago this evening, American actor, director and writer Orson Welles, with the help of his Mercury Theatre On The Air team of producer John Houseman and scriptwriter Howard Koch, retold ‘The War Of The Worlds’ – H.G. Wells’ 1898 Sci-Fi novel about mankind’s annihilation by aliens – in the form of a series of supposedly live breaking news broadcasts.

The play, which beamed out across the U.S. from the Columbia Broadcasting System’s studios on Madison Avenue in Manhattan on the evening of Sunday October 30th 1938, became infamous for supposedly panicking a less-media savvy section of the American public, and has since been tagged as one of the most important and influential radio broadcasts ever.

By the 1930s, radio was rapidly replacing newspapers as the main source of information among Americans and, seizing on the sense of trust that listeners had in the new medium, Welles set out to blur the lines between news and entertainment. He cleverly tapped into many listeners’ underlying anxieties which were being swelled by a daily diet of radio broadcasts into homes across the country: at home, concerns over the continuing recession, with unemployment stuck at 20 per cent, were refusing to budge; overseas, fears were mounting over the spread of fascism and the prospect of another war in Europe.

The end result – a tale of an invasion from another world made to sound like a genuine news broadcast that wound up spooking a section of the country – has since gone down in radio folklore.

Starting innocently enough with a programme of Latin-infused dance music by “Ramon Raquello and his orchestra” supposedly from the “Meridien Room at the Hotel Park Plaza in downtown New York” (in reality it was the CBS in-house orchestra conducted by frequent Alfred Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrmann), the music is suddenly interrupted by a curious meteorological report of explosions on Mars recorded by astronomers.

From there, the story begins to accelerate at a breakneck pace, with the events of H.G. Wells’ original novel relocated from Victorian England to the contemporary U.S. – a sleepy hamlet named Grover’s Mill, New Jersey to be exact. A frenzied mix of on-the-spot reportage, accounts from terrified eyewitnesses and, later on, muffled military communications between squadrons of fighter bombers either overlapped each other or are cut short by dead air, all of which Welles carefully designed to create the sense of a genuine unfolding news story. Welles, just 23 years old at the time, modelled the journalists’ dispatches partly on Herbert Morrison’s anguished live report of the Hindenburg zeppelin disaster from a year earlier, while a pitch-perfect impersonation of President Roosevelt – labelled somewhat cryptically as “the Secretary of the Interior” – bolstered the sense of realism.

Media historians have noted that, just as television viewers today tend to channel-hop when boredom kicks in – or ad breaks start – listeners back then would twiddle their radio knobs back and forth between shows. As a result, some listeners joined the broadcast having missed Welles’ intro, and mistook it for a bona fide bulletin.

Since then, ‘The War Of The Worlds’ radio play has taken on an almost mythical status, and the notion that huge swathes of the U.S. public was gripped by fear of Martian intruders has gained a foothold in the popular imagination. A patchy-but-enjoyable 1975 made-for-television movie, ‘The Night That Panicked America’, reinforced newspaper stories at the time suggesting the alarm sizeable: farmers grab their shotguns and fearful families jump into their cars and hit the freeway, while others seek refuge in churches.

BBC Radio 4’s ‘Archive on 4’ series, which last week examined the broadcast’s legacy in ‘Myth or Legend: Orson Welles and The War of The Worlds’ and questioned the extent of the panic, noted that out of an estimated 6 million listeners, around 1.7 million believed the play to be true. Only 1.2 million were said to be “frightened”, according to a study, and just 20 people – a tiny fraction of those who actually heard the show – had to be treated for shock.

Radio 4’s programme also points to later suggestions that a hostile print media, miffed by radio’s growing dominance, embellished or simply made up stories of people fleeing their homes and driving their cars off bridges in some faint hope that the young upstart medium’s influence may be curbed.

Whatever the case, as the broadcast’s 75th anniversary arrives this Halloween, it’s worth re-examining its legacy and continuing influence on other media. Its fingerprints remain all over movies such as Independence Day, while the use of archive footage and news broadcasts – whether genuine or dramatised – to create a sense of realism has been borrowed by filmmakers as diverse as Oliver Stone for JFK and Danny Boyle in 28 Day Later.

And, fittingly for Halloween, it’s perhaps the BBC’s own notorious Screen One drama special ‘Ghostwatch’ that owes the biggest debt to Welles’ play. The still-brilliant 1992 mockumentary – which the Beeb has never re-broadcast – saw Michael Parkinson, Craig Charles and Sarah Green playing themselves in a supposed genuine ‘live’ supernatural investigation, which upset some viewers and sparked considerable furore. Its on-the-spot reporting and staged ‘technical difficulties’ are strongly redolent of the style of ‘The War Of The Worlds’ broadcast, while the subsequent strongly-worded letters to ‘Points of View’ from viewers terrified by Parky’s ‘possession’ still recall those reports of anxious callers jamming the CBS switchboard back in 1938.

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