HG Wells’ iconic tale of an alien attack on Earth is here to give your Sunday nights a jolly good fright
The War Of The Worlds, Sunday 17 November, 9pm, BBC One HD (CH 101/108). Also available for 30 days in Catch Up > Channels > BBC iPlayer
“You’d have to be a crazy person not to believe in aliens,” says Rafe Spall. To be fair to the British actor, his recent schedule has been taken over by extraterrestrials, what with starring in BBC One’s new adaptation of HG Wells’ 1897 invasion saga The War Of The Worlds.
From Orson Welles’ notorious 1938 radio play to Steven Spielberg’s 2005 blockbuster starring Tom Cruise, this famous story of not-so-friendly aliens invading Earth has captivated generation after generation. Anyone would think we secretly want to be destroyed by nasties from the far reaches of outer space.
But, where previous adaptations have thrust the action onto different locations and time periods, this new three-part miniseries takes what makes the novel so terrifying and runs with it – namely having destructive extraterrestrials wreak havoc on an unprepared and woefully unequipped Edwardian England.
Spall’s role in all of this? He plays George, whose plans for a new life are soon thrown into turmoil by the alien attackers. “George is an Edwardian gentleman who has defied convention and broken away from his loveless marriage because he has fallen in love with an intelligent, fierce, beautiful young woman called Amy,” says Spall. “Much to the chagrin of their families and society as a whole, they go off and follow love and start a new life together. Then Martians come and eviscerate the human race.” The course of true love and all that.
Starring opposite Spall as Amy is Poldark’s Eleanor Tomlinson, who the actor describes as “charming” and “one of our finest young actresses.” Other British actors involved include Trainspotting’s Robert Carlyle and Sherlock’s Rupert Graves.
The War of the Worlds remains one of science fictions most celebrated stories, written by one of the genre’s true titans. Not that Spall was familiar with the original text before he started work on this hotly anticipated new series.
“In my ignorance, all I knew of it was the album (the 1978 concept album Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version Of The War Of The Worlds),” he sheepishly admits. “I was aware it was part of science fiction and British literature, but I didn’t really know that much about it. I’ve come to learn it’s very dear to people.”
Despite this version being pitched as a period piece, Spall believes viewers will relate to its contemporary messages. After all, what is sci-fi without a little metaphor?
“We live in a time where there’s mass immigration going on around the world, because people are being affected by horror,” he says. “It’s easy to disconnect from that because it feels like it’s in a far-off land. If you see people in something like this because they’re being dislocated by horror, by aliens, audiences might be able to put themselves in those situations. If you can make people associate and empathise with it, then it might hit home a little more.”
Away from any moral messages that might be found, the series is first and foremost an immersive marriage of period detail and bombastic CGI baddies. For someone who has starred in such creature features as Prometheus and Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom, has reacting to things he can’t actually see got easier for Spall throughout his career?
“That’s my stock in trade,” he says proudly. “That’s what I do. It’s all a suspension of disbelief. You just try to convince yourself, and then people watching the film, that you’re seeing and feeling things that aren’t there. If I’m looking at a dinosaur or an alien snake or whatever, you’re going to be seeing the same reaction on my face. It still beats working for a living.”
More of the worlds
The War Of The Worlds has been the subject of many adaptations down the years, from radio to vinyl to the big screen. Here are four versions to know about…
Orson Welles scares a nation
In 1938, actor/director Orson Welles took to the airwaves to perform a live version of The War Of The Worlds. Ever the innovator, Welles’ version was presented as a traditional evening radio broadcast routinely interrupted by news of an alien invasion. Some listeners believed it was actually happening. Cue media outrage.
The Martians get funky
Released in 1978, Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version Of The War Of The Worlds is exactly what its title suggests. The bestselling LP retells Wells’ story over nearly 100 minutes of slinky-hipped disco and raucous rock opera. Later adapted into a touring show, it pulls off the impressive feat of being both brilliantly camp and spine-tinglingly scary.
Spielberg has a go
Blasting the story into the 21st century, Steven Spielberg’s 2005 version is a heart-pounding blockbuster that rarely eases up on the thrills. Tom Cruise stars as a dad who has to think on his feet to save his family when mysterious aliens start vaporizing everything in their sights.
One more for the road
Starring Gabriel Byrne and Elizabeth McGovern, this upcoming US/France co-production places the action in present-day Europe. After Earth makes contact with an alien species, humanity soon finds itself all but wiped out. For the survivors it’s all about staying out of harm’s way, but why has the planet been targeted?
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Image credits: The War Of The Worlds © Mammoth Screen 2018 – Photographer: Ben Blackall