Aliens in Aldershot: why you should catch up on Radio 4's War of the Worlds

The BBC have done wonderfully accurate adaptation of H G Wells’s novel.

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An adaptation of H G Wells’s seismic 1897 novel (began 4 March, 2.30pm) stayed close to the text and kept the drama’s location in Surrey. Always one of the nice aspects of the book was the way Wells set most of his narrative “a couple of miles from Woking”: somewhere pointedly recognisable and ordinary. It may be a story of alien-bearing meteorites plummeting fantastically from Mars (with all the attendant flame and panic), but it also documents the reaction on Horsell Common and in Aldershot barracks, in Winchester and at Shepperton Lock, as though written by a sci-fi Betjeman.

All of this gives the book – and this adaptation – a marvellous psychogeographical dimension. I liked the villagers sweetly approaching an alien craft, playing “To Be a Pilgrim” on the accordion. And that some of the incidental sound effects had been lifted directly from the novel. Where on the page Wells mentions (merely in passing) “the steady ticking of the clockwork of the telescope” in an observatory, here we heard it, only very subtly – not quite a metronome or timepiece, just something curiously rhythmic and mechanical beneath the human voices. Now that’s a playful adaptor at work (the award-winning Melissa Murray.)

One thing that struck me repeatedly was quite how much Wells’s aliens are like creatures in a ghost story by M R James. Wells first published WoTW as a serial, around the same time as James was mulling his earlier stories, and both had an eye for the sinister in quotidian textures. “I thought of mushrooms,” gasps a witness in this adaptation, to the stirrings of an alien that “glistened like wet leather”. So much like James’s “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas”, in which a hapless character descends into a well (noting a fungoid smell), only to touch a creature “that felt more or less like leather; dampish it was”.

Another detail rang a bell. The meteors in WoTW are in fact hollowed-out cylinders, purpose-built to transport alien life from Mars: shades of the 1938 drawings (and the 1978 film) of Superman arriving on Earth as a toddler inside a comet-like craft hurtled from the dying red planet Krypton. The second, concluding part this Saturday ought to be a proper, round-the-radio event.

Catch up on BBC Radio 4 now.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 09 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The return of al-Qaeda