Beware air pirates, be nice to Martians: lessons from the dawn of British sci-fi

Critics Notes by Mark Lawson.

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In 1989, Martin Amis published a novel, London Fields, set ten years in the future in a world on the brink of a nuclear war. But the Berlin Wall fell as the book appeared, lessening the terror of millennium Armageddon, while another aspect of Amis’s 1999 – the restriction of mobile phones to a small super-cadre – also suggested an anti-Cassandra. While all art gambles on being overtaken by time, science fiction is most likely to lose the bet. Yet there is a fascination in predictive stories that have become historical period pieces, such as the two futuristic movies, more than a century old, screening in the BFI Southbank’s “The Birth of British Sci-Fi” event this month: Pirates of 1920 by David Aylott and A E Coleby, released nine years before its title date, and Wallett Waller’s A Message from Mars (1913).

Although, in the term “science fiction”, the second word qualifies the first, it’s tempting to tot up the success rate of guesses and Pirates of 1920 scores well. The silent, black-and-white short
imagines “air pirates” who use balloon-driven vessels to bomb ships, with the lofty brigands then sliding down ropes to take hostages. Within three years of the release date, there would be a world war in which the Germans used airships against ships, although this prophecy was not entirely the film-makers’ – H G Wells, the begetter of so much in this genre, had published a novel, The War in the Air, in 1908, anticipating the elevation of the battlefield.

The movie did show its own prescience, though with a longer perspective. The attackers from the earth’s atmosphere are a kind of hijacker and, in this sense, the film foresees a tactic of terrorists between the 1960s and, with a mass-suicidal-homicidal twist, 9/11. Modern viewers may also reflect that, with tighter aviation security in the 21st century, sea piracy and hostage-taking were revived as weapons of terror. The scenes in which the invaders threaten the captain eerily resemble those in a movie released more than a century later, Captain Phillips, with the exception that, whereas Paul Greengrass’s camera rarely stops moving, Aylott’s and Coleby’s hardly starts.

More substantial, at about an hour, A Message from Mars has also drawn on Wells, most obviously his 1897 Martian drama The War of the Worlds, although oddly combining that fantastical line with the social comedy of his earthbound books such as Kipps. Apart from a prologue and a coda set on Mars, where aliens dressed like Arthurian knights scrutinise events on earth through a goldfish bowl, the film takes place almost entirely in Edwardian London, where a Martian, having somehow broken the etiquette of the red planet, has been despatched to redeem himself by persuading Horace, an obnoxious, selfish boor, to be nicer to people.

In this element of an extraterrestrial on a mission of redemption, it combines the tenets of sci-fi and Christianity in an early example of a genre that would later include Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods?; Chris de Burgh’s song “A Spaceman Came Travelling”; Steven Spielberg’s ET; L Ron Hubbard’s Church of Scientology; and, according to recent reports, some modern school nativity plays in which aliens and angels are apparently largely interchangeable.

Though few scientists now believe that, if life exists on Mars, it will wear chain mail, capes and veils and be prone to camp hand gestures, A Message from Mars proves – as does Pirates of 1920 – that crystal-ball fiction can still be worth watching once it’s a dot in the rear-view mirror. Both films will be shown at the BFI, as part of their Days of Fear and Wonder sci-fi season, on 7 December with a live piano accompaniment, and A Message from Mars will be available to stream from 12 December on the BFI Player and BBC Arts Online.

Curators’ eggs

In most sports, the 30th birthday is a sign that the best years are over. Some have suggested that the same measure might apply to the Turner Prize. Many of the earlier winners – Grayson Perry, Damien Hirst, Gilbert and George – and even one runner-up, Tracey Emin, have a name or an artwork known even to those with little interest in art. But recent recipients – Susan Philipsz, Martin Boyce – are more of what you might call curators’ eggs, their impact contained within gallery walls.

This is again the case with the 2014 winner, Duncan Campbell. The Turner’s high profile was created by media debate; it helped to have an image (Hirst’s shark, Gormley’s Angel of the North) that was easily reducible to headlines. Campbell’s winning entry is a 54-minute film reworking a 1950s French documentary, with sequences co-created with the choreographer Michael Clark. Few visitors to the Tate Britain exhibition (until 4 January 2015) can be expected to watch it in full.

Like Hollywood, the Turner favoured showbiz-savvy creators with a grabby pitch but struggles to get recognition for art-house films. Channel 4’s live coverage suffered from sound problems but even if it gets the microphones right next year, the Turner is having trouble being heard. There’s no obligation on artists to become popular but, having gone from a period in which they did to one in which they don’t, the trophy named after Mike Leigh’s latest protagonist is in a difficult transition. 

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. 

This article first appeared in the 04 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Deep trouble