Thursday, October 31, 2013


Halloween. Bradbury season. A good time of year to (re-)read Something Wicked This Way Comes, The Halloween Tree and The October Country...

And a good time to receive the news from award-winning radio dramatist Brian Sibley: that he has been commissioned to write a radio dramatisation of Bradbury's The Illustrated Man. It is to be part of a short season for BBC Radio which will also include an adaptation of The Martian Chronicles (written by someone other than Sibley). Brian has considerable experience of working with Bradbury material, having adapted a number of short stories for the series Ray Bradbury's Tales of the Bizarre. A few years ago he was trying hard to get a production of Something Wicked This Way Comes onto the air, but the BBC wouldn't bite. (Shortly afterwards, they did stage a production, but not the Sibley version.)

For Halloween, Brian has also posted something seasonal on his own blog: Death and the Magician is about the life (and afterlife?) of Harry Houdini. Brian, of course, is a connoisseur of magic, and Chairman of the Magic Circle.

Halloween is also a good time to (re-)listen to Colonial Radio Theatre's productions of Something Wicked This Way Comes and The Halloween Tree...

And a good time to reconsider the classic Orson Welles radio dramatisation of The War of the Worlds, now seventy-five years old.

It so happens that Colonial have recently produced their own audio version of H.G.Wells' novel, and in traditional Colonial style they have "done the book". No updating of the story, no attempt to relocate the events of the story to a different country, no attempt to reflect current world or political situations - just The War of the Worlds as H.G. wrote it.

This is something I have always wanted the visual media to do. Although we occasionally see an updating of Shakespeare, for the most part film and TV adaptations of classic literature will attempt to recreate the period in which a work was created, the world in which the story is set. Dickens and Austen are always set in the nineteenth century, so why not adaptations of Wells? George Pal's The Time Machine starts and ends in Victorian London, I suppose, although most of the action is in the far future. There was also a 1980s BBC TV dramatisation of The Invisible Man which was staged as a period piece. But every time The War of the Worlds is done, the aim seems to be be to recreate the effect of Wells' work - to scare the audience by showing a realistic threat - rather than to recreate Wells' actual plotting and staging. This latter is exactly what the Colonial Players have done, in audio.

Jerry Robbins' production, starring British actor David Ault,  takes us back to Wells' text, but not without some creative interpolations. Wells advances his story mainly through a first-person narrator, but the Colonial Players turn much of this into dialogue, especially in the early scenes. This has led to some smart decisions, such as the presentation of Pearson, the central character, as a man who is slowly acquiring knowledge about the Martian invasion. Whereas Wells' narrator tends to sound authoritative - think Richard Burton's classic reading in Jeff Wayne's musical version of War of the Worlds - this Pearson seems to be talking off the cuff at the start, as he recalls the events he has just witnessed. By the end, with the Martians defeated, he reads confidently as he attempts to shake listeners from complacency.

Because M.J. Elliott's script follows the book, the geographical wanderings of Pearson are preserved, giving it a distinct air of authenticity, at least for a Brit like me who has some familiarity with the places named, but the casual dropping of place names with logical consistency should also make it seem authentic to anyone who is not aware of the real places. If you want to get a sense of the very real geography that Wells uses, take a look at this website, which provides maps and photos of some of the key locations.

Somehow, Robbins has managed to collapse the reading time of the novel right down. I have some audiobook versions of The War of the Worlds which give a straight undramatised reading, and they run to about seven hours. This Colonial dramatisation lasts just under two hours, and yet doesn't seem to have cut very much from the story. I put it down to some efficient dramatisation, and removal of some of the more formal sections of Wells' narration. What remains tends to be dramatic material that keeps the story moving forward.

As is so often the case with Colonial productions, the cinematic soundscapes make a strong impression. I was particularly taken with the thumping, piston-like stride of the Martian tripods, and their bellowing, almost subsonic communication. Although it's science fiction, Wells' novel works by being realistic: his Martian war machines are extrapolations of the massive mechanical contraptions which were beginning to appear in real warfare at the turn of the twentieth century, and which within twenty years would bring about the devastation of the First World War. Colonial's sound effects build upon that same kind of technology. When the first cylinders descend, they sound like missiles, weapons of war, rather than Hollywood flying saucers. There is only a modest use of cliche science-fictional sounds, and reliance more on hisses, grindings, thumps and explosions. The best soundscape comes in the scene where Pearson, in the river, goes underwater to hide or escape from the Martians. But the "call to feed", with blood-curdling screams accompanying the bellow of the Martians is quite effective - and quite appropriate for Halloween listening...

I can't finish this brief review without addressing the question of voices and accents. Brits don't sound Americans, and Americans don't sound British, so some very embarrassing results can arise in  productions like this (Colonial Radio Theatre records in Boston, MA). Fortunately, with David Ault at the centre, it is very convincingly British. The secondary characters blend in well, with Joseph Zamparelli's Ogilvy and J.T.Turner's Reverend holding up well.

There's a lot to be said for the Orson Welles eve-of-Second World War version of The War of the Worlds, and even Spielberg's post 9/11 film version from 2005. It's great that Wells' story, anticipating world war and the end of empire, can find modern resonance in updated, relocated renderings of his story. But the genius of Wells was the building of the real and the mundane into an only slightly extrapolated fantasy, and it is this War of the Worlds which Colonial delivers.

If you want to treat yourself to The War of the Worlds this Halloween, you can get it as a download from Amazon or Amazon UK. And you can even get the script for Kindle!

The War of the Worlds, adapted by M.J.Elliott, directed by Jerry Robbins. 104 minutes.
Cast: RICHARD PEARSON: David Ault,  CATHERINE PEARSON: Shana Dirik, PROFESSOR OGILVY: Joseph Zamparelli,  WARRICK PEARSON: Robin Gabrielli,  MRS WAYNE: Jackie Coco,  PORTER: Seth Adam Sher,  ESSEX: Fred Robbins,  LIEUTENANT: Mark Thurner,  REVEREND: J.T. Turner,  MRS ELPHINSTONE (MRS E): Shana Dirik,  CAPTAIN: Dan Powell,  ONLOOKER 1 (MALE): Fred Robbins,  ONLOOKER 2 (FEMALE): Shana Dirik,  LONDONER 1: Mark Thurner,  LONDONER 2: Jackie Coco.

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