Cool things: The War of the Worlds (most versions)

It seems totally incredible to me now that everyone spent that evening as though it were just like any other.  From the railway station came the sound of shunting trains, ringing and rumbling, softened almost into melody by the distance.  It all seemed so safe and tranquil.
—Richard Burton, Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds


Since this old cover was in my sci-fi encyclopaedia, this is how I always imagined the Fighting Machines to look, not the album or computer game version

It’s about time I posted about something I enjoy, isn’t it?  Two years without a proper “cool things” post is more than long enough — and since I listened to the musical version over the weekend (while travelling to and from Worthing), this particular franchise came to mind.

I’m not sure when H.G. Wells’ masterwork first came to my attention, but I suspect I knew about the 1953 George Pal movie before any other version, thanks to clips on TV and images in my childhood science fiction encyclopaedia, but it was Jeff Wayne’s musical version which I first experienced properly, somewhere around 1988 or early 1989, when for no apparent reason I was looking through my family’s vinyl (back before it was cool, you understand).

This version certainly captivated me when I got my folks to put it on for me (which I had to do, as I was scared to put records on myself); because of this they got me the original novel, which proved to be highly interesting when I realised I lived in the general area in which it took place!  Indeed, Walton is mentioned by name at one point, and I was going to school in Weybridge — and imagine my surprise to discover Horsell Common is a real place…

It wasn’t until November 1991 (according to the BBC Genome project) that the 1953 movie happened to be on TV, and I recorded it; during the latter half of 1993 (by which time we lived in Worthing, a podunk town only mentioned in a lesser work, The Importance of Being Earnest), both versions proved important to me.  During the summer holiday I tried, repeatedly, to get a decent recording of the musical onto an old audio tape; and during the run-up to Christmas (when my folks got me a proper official tape copy of the album), I had a working VCR for the first time since we’d moved there, and watched and rewatched my recording of the film version, staying sane during a difficult part of my life.

(I didn’t realise at the time how the movie twists one of Wells’ original lines, about the bacteria that kills the Martians being put there by “God in His wisdom”, and implies that instead of evolutionary immunity saving us, it’s a literal deus ex machina thanks to Christian prayer!)

A year earlier, in December 1992 (a few months after Ghostwatch did something similar on TV and really scared me), I was able to enjoy the 1938 audio version of the story performed by Orson Welles (no relation) and the Mercury Theatre on the Air; I’ve also since obtained (ahem) an MP3 version, and listen to it occasionally.  While the last third is Welles’ character narrating his journey through the wreckage of the eastern United States, even knowing that the first part is fictional and not a live radio broadcast doesn’t soften the palpable fear of hearing the reports of the Martian invasion as it happens — especially that final radio broadcaster in Manhattan being suffocated by the Black Smoke (as all the klaxons and horns of the evacuating traffic are silenced), and a surviving military man plaintively calling out to anyone left alive in the world… isn’t there anyone on the air?


“The chances of my train getting out of London are a million to one”, I thought until I made it to Woking at Christmas 2013 and took this pic

And then came late 1998, when I was Christmas shopping with my “second family” in Michigan, and in a computer shop saw there was a PC strategy game based on the musical; when I came back to Britain, my old school friend let me have his unwanted copy (you could do that back before DRM, kids), and I spent the entire summer holiday — in which I was housesitting with my mother in, of all places, Woking* — playing it to death, though I had to start off as the Martians in order to really “get into” it, and it notoriously crashed a great deal.  I ended up with the game’s soundtrack, a set of instrumental arrangements of the album’s famous songs, stuck in my head as I worked in a dead-end data entry job before returning to university, perhaps the only thing that kept me sane.

(* Well, technically Knaphill, though it’s mentioned in the book, and we visited the main town and the above-pictured statue several times!)

With a lot of franchises that have multiple versions and reboots, I normally find myself choosing a “definitive” incarnation — the BBC TV version of Hitch-hiker’s Guide, the 1990s cartoon version of X-Men, the only versions ever actually made of The Wicker Man and Total Recall (yeah, I went there) — and in this case, while I enjoy all the other aforementioned versions of The War of the Worlds (and yes, even the Tom Cruise movie version in 2005, though I can’t comment on the others around the same time), I have to pick the original novel.  Somehow it’s always spoken to me the most, perhaps because I spent my formative years in the general area.

When we moved to Worthing, I found myself trying to locate the various places in the atlas, and on old maps we’d brought down from Walton.  Google Earth has made this an awful lot easier, and I’ve been able to visualise where the cylinders came down, where that one Fighting Machine was destroyed in Shepperton, the extent of that mighty crescent of Fighting Machines spreading the Black Smoke over every possible artillery position in Surrey, and how enormous that crowd of evacuation shipping must have been around the mouth of the Thames.  And, since I’ve been living in London for the past (let me see) 13 years, I’ve been able to locate a number of places mentioned at the book’s climax… making it seem more real, perhaps?

Ah, I even remember walking home from school in late 1991 and early 1992, fantasising that Martian Fighting Machines (tripod versions faithful to the book) were laying waste to Walton town centre with their Heat-Rays (sounding like the ones from the 1953 film version).  Weird though it may seem, I guess that shows how much I liked living in that area — as I never bothered to have such thoughts about Worthing, a town far more deserving…

(P.S. Why that opening quote?  Well, think how everyone’s carrying on with their lives despite the world-ending disaster hanging over us: Trump’s inauguration on Friday…)


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