Remembering Orson Welles and the War of the Worlds, with full audio broadcast

AN incredible 71 years ago, on October 30 1938, one man brought the United States to a standstill – just using words.

Orson Welles and his fellow players at the Mercury Theatre put on a presentation of HG Wells the War of the Worlds. The touch of genius he employed was to present it not as a play being broadcast, set in Victorian England, but as a series of radio bulletins and reports of a Martian invasion, using real place names in modern day America.

It starts with reports of explosions on the surface of Mars – interrupting a supposed radio broadcast of a big band – followed by reports of meteors landing and then the martians attacking with their heat rays.

To the listening audience – many of whom tuned in late after listening to a rival network – the martians’ inexorable advance and destruction seemed terrifyingly real as they had never heard anything like it before.

Don’t forget, this was an America driven by the fear of approaching war in Europe and the rise of Hitler – braced for a terrifying unknown. The news that it had arrived at – of all places – Grover’s Mill in New York state, chilled them to the core.

The result was panic – especially in Grover’s Mill itself where there are reports of families hiding in their basements and men firing upon water towers, convinced it was a martian tripod. Others rushed to the scene to see what was happening for themselves. (Ironically the hamlet was chosen by sticking a pin in a map, with the show’s producers then plotting the martians’ route to New York.)

Listening to it now, seven decades later, it is still very effective – at least until the soliloquy of Professor Pearson, supposedly one of the last survivors, where its dramatic origins become more apparent.

You can understand why people were taken in and why CBS had to promise not to use the we interrupt this broadcast technique again for dramatic purposes.

However, it is well worth a listen and an object lesson to today’s creators of science fiction so sit back, dim the lights, unplug the telephone and enjoy ….

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