Ginger Nuts of Horror
I leap to my feet, clapping so hard I can feel the impact right up to my shoulders, and I’m far from alone - there’s people jumping up all around me.
One thing I’ve noticed about this column so far: the articles are pretty evenly split between expressions of joy and horror. This makes sense - I love horror, but at the same time, duh, it’s horrific. And the sheer breadth with which I cast my net when using that term has in itself almost become part of the game at this point. That said, one thing I’ve noticed is that, with very few exceptions, the joy columns outperform the darker ones - sometimes vastly so.
With that in mind, and because next month will be one of the darkest yet, let’s go with joy, this time - especially as it’s an unexpected joy, one that all but jumped out at me unawares this week, and left me with a mind still fizzing at the brilliance of it all.
It’s the 20th February, 2016, and for my sins I am 37 years of age. I’m at the Dominion theatre in the west end of London, due to a happy accident involving my father scoring some overseas work at short notice and a non-refundable ticket. In attendance is my stepmother.
The stage dressing is beautiful. A safety curtain with the name of the show projected onto it prevents any view of the performance area, but the clockwork scrolling up and across the arch, gold effect on red, is gorgeous. And the logo, as we both remark, is pretty iconic.
That said, I have to say that overall my expectations are fairly low. For one thing, I have a huge attachment to much of the original cast, and most of them are not in attendance today (and not all of the ones that are will be playing the roles they did previously). For another, well, I basically don’t like musicals. At all. Rock/pop operas, fine, but sing all the time or don’t sing at all is my basic philosophy, mainly because in practice the broadness of the non-singing performances sets my teeth on edge, and I find the transition from one to the other to be not just goofy but actually grating. And no, this isn’t a musical, more like a narrated pop opera, so we’ll probably be fine, but on the other hand, it’s the West End, so they’re probably contractually obliged to have interpretive dance at some point, so blah.
And then, the lights go down........
The screen goes up.
Liam Neeson starts talking.
And all of a sudden it’s… 1984 or ‘85, and I am somewhere between five and seven years old, perched in front of the speakers of a record player. A man starts talking to me, a rich baritone, about the Timeless Whorls Of Space and Creatures That Swarm And Multiply In A Drop Of Water, and the gorgeous language, gorgeously spoken, washes over me as I stare at the picture of the tripod on the cover, shooting out some kind of laser that’s melting a boat, and as my mind boggles at the image and reels from the half understood implications of what the voice is telling me…
DUN DUN DUNNNNNN!!!!
2016: Holy shit! There’s every chance that it’s been 20 years since I last heard those notes, played on those instruments. It’s a hammer blow to the soul. No, an internal explosion - a sudden burst of light, in my gut and brain. I feel like I’m giving off sparks, and my mouth pulls into a grin, big and goofy.
Then the drums come in, good and loud, and I glance over to the left, seeing the band lined up on their own podium, opposite the strings. In the centre, the conductor does his thing, keeping them all honest. The mix is not perfect - it’s a bit bass heavy, and for what I can well imagine will be the only time in my adult life, I find myself wishing the synth was louder - the counterpoints to the strings get a bit lost in the mix, not as front and centre as they were in the recording - a recording that is now unspooling in my mind in sync with the live performance. And as the overture ends, and the timelessly weird pitch-shifting radar sound kicks in, I’m flung back in time once more.
1987 - We have the cassette. The double cassette. I listen to it endlessly, on the big stack system in our living room. I cut out the coupon in the inlay card, and persuade my mother to send it off with a postal order for £2 to get the ‘full colour booklet, featuring additional artwork!’. It takes long enough to arrive that I forget completely about it. Then one day, an A4 envelope arrives for me. I open it, mistified, and cry out with delight when that huge picture of the tripod melting the boat comes into view, with that amazing logo.
I look through it over and over again, staring at the huge painted art as the story unfolds. The image of the evacuation of London stays with me in particular - there’s a woman in a victorian dress, bleeding from a head wound, eyes staring ahead with blind terror. Further back ,a portly gentleman in a suit and whiskers has his arms up in a puffing run. Behind them both, behind them all, a tripod fires a heat ray at a building, causing an explosion and reining down rubble. I consider taking the pictures out and making them into posters for my wall.
2016: Wait, what? There’s a new song. It’s… not very good. It’s about people being excited about the coming of the martians, full of ‘hope and joy and kittens’ or something, and it’s bad for two reasons. One, it sounds like a typical musical number from a typical musical, which means it is horrendously out of place here and two, it’s ahistorical - by which I mean, there is zero chance that Victorian England responds to the arrival of spaceships from Mars with joy and hope and expectation - we’re strictly a fixed bayonets and cannon nation at this point. I mean, there’s even kids going ‘wee-oo-wee-oo!’, mimicking that awesome weird radar sound, only without the pitch shifting. It’s bad, and I can only suppose a running time insert to make act one the full hour.
In fairness, part of why it grates so much is I am waiting for that amazing, plunky, woody bass line that kicks off the opening of the cylinder. Luckily, it’s not a long delay, and when it arrives, it’s every bit as transporting as I’d hoped.
1989 - I’m still listening. New house, and I have a stereo in my bedroom now, and that means headphones. The voice speaks directly into my brain. I’m listening at night, too loud, and when the lid falls off, the crash makes me jump. The build through the narration into the main body of music, wah wah plus vocoder plus sound effects and synth is glorious - like, Dark Side Of The Moon glorious.
2016: It’s all kicking off now. Looking nervous for 3 or 4 minutes in coordinated interpretive dance can be nobody's idea of a good time, but they do it well. Still, I can’t take my eyes of the band.
At least until the heatray starts up.
I’m three rows from the front when it lights up, and suddenly a sheet of flame ignites at the front of the stage. It’s big enough to make me sweat. Behind it, as the guitar plays the theme, the dancers writhe and fall, while on the screens behind the performers, the nozzle of the heatray spins and glares, and figures engulfed in flames collapse. It’s pretty full on, but even when we slip back to the dream sequence, my main attention returns to the band. Because I’m in the same room as people actually making this music, and I just can’t quite believe it. They are amazing - note perfect, tight as anything, assured. It’s a surreal experience.
The expanded version is interesting - there’s additional narration, but I’m not convinced it was really needed. And it’s grossly unfair, but Liam Neeson is no Richard Burton. Having him appear as a projection onto screens, while his onstage counterpart pulls all the singing duties, is an odd choice, but one that works well in practice, for the most part. There’s a brilliant moment - actually more brilliant in retrospect, because at the time it was so fast that I hardly had time to notice it - when the narrator plunges into a water, and for a moment, the sound of the music becomes washy and distorted, before breaking back in as he surfaces.
The visuals are stunning - and yes, a physical tripod makes an appearance, crab walking across the stage and shooting smoke and light. It should be utterly absurd, but it is not. In fact, it is awesome.
And then ‘Forever Autumn’ starts, and I am a child again, listening, eyes shut, headphones delivering the acoustic guitars and strings directly into my mind, and I feel my throat tightening up, and 2016 me has time to think, ‘really?’ And then the singer hits this line, note perfect:
“Like the sun through the trees, you came to love me,
And yup, here comes the waterworks. Amazing.
And I guess it’s equal parts a perfect marriage of lyrical theme and music - the poetry may not be subtle, but bloody hell it’s on the nose - not an ounce of fat, elegant almost unto perfection - and just that this is likely to be the first song that ever broke my heart, long before I’d be mature enough to really understand what that meant.
Then we’re back to the collapse, ‘the rout of civilisation’, as the narrator has it. I think about the supposedly modern obsession with disaster porn stories - The Walking Dead, 2012 and all the rest of it - and reflect that so few of them get at the sheer desperation expressed in this passage of music and narration. When the theme dissolves back into ‘Forever Autumn’, as the narrator sees his wife swept away on the boat, before transitioning seamlessly back to the main overture theme, we’ve just been given an object lesson in how the personal and global can superimpose on each other - one a microcosm of the other, the smaller tragedy hooking us into the wider catastrophe. The solo in Thunderchild is glorious, wiry, wailing, desperate.
How much of that was I thinking as I sat there, listening to the sinking of Thunderchild? None of it. How much of it was I feeling?
All of it.
The narrator’s wife escapes, but the earth belongs to the martians.
End of act one.
I get up on not entirely stable legs, and complete the genuflection of capitalism at the merch stall. Yes, the T-Shirt and the mug. What can I say? At least I stopped short of the keyring.
Part 2 opens with a reprise of Forever Autumn that I frankly could have done without, and then we’re off into the Red Weed. I have to admit to having a certain curiosity about how they’d handle this - a lengthy section of at times profoundly odd music with little narration. And the answer is about what you’d expect - lots of CGI footage of the red weed crawling over the English countryside, some people dancing in some profoundly odd costumes. It’s technically flawless, and genuinely eerie, but I’m basically a philistine, and if I’m honest, would rather have just watched the band playing - especially the wonderful, all-too-brief guitar solo. Because the musicians continue to be astonishing, and I keep having to remind myself that I’m in the room with these people.
Oh shit, here comes the parson. A favorite since childhood, this sequence. The way the theme of ‘Spirit of Man’ verses combines with the ‘No, Nathanial’ pleading always got me. And of course, the recording stars no less a vocal talent than Phil Lynott.
In 2016, we get Jimmy Nail.
And I’m not one of Those People. Jimmy Nail is a talented actor, a decent writer, and he’s got his vocal range. But fucking hell, you’re talking about taking on a part played by one of the greatest rock singers of the last half century. It’s just not fair, and he tries, but… it really doesn’t work. I mean, it’s not quite egregiously bad, but it’s a weak moment - the acting as well as the voice work. And I sympathise - it’s a really tough part, and I’m sure part of the reason Lynott’s performance of the spoken word works as well as it does is because we don’t have to watch him. I mean, you can get away with a broadness of performance in radio that even on the stage might be a problem. But it’s like he just can’t quite commit to chewing the scenery enough to really land it. Which is a shame.
Oh, by the way, this is the part of the story where we discover the martians are capturing live humans to hold them in cages and drain them of their blood to feed on it. Just in case you're wondering how this is ‘My Life In Horror’. I mean, bloody hell, that’s bleak.
Anyhow, Jimmy Nail’s performance has made me nervous, because coming up, I remember we have Brave New World. And that song contains a vocal performance that is, to use a technical term, impossible. I mean, David Essex managed it, back in his prime, but he’s not even going to be attempting it this evening. That dubious honor goes to Daniel Beddingfield, about whom I know nothing. I mean, his acting in Act one was good, but I haven’t heard him sing.
He kills it.
I mean he knocks it out of the park. It’s a superb performance. You feel like he really gets it - he understands the bravado and triumphalism that sound so impressive but are ultimately brittle, and predicated on a fantasy, a pipe dream (pun, I guess, intended). For me, there’s echos of every chickenhawk speech about the glory of arms, every politician that’s talked about a hand up rather than a hand out, a deep hypocrisy that could either be rooted in venal self serving rhetoric or actual delusion. Ultimately, there’s no way of knowing, and ultimately, we’re fucked either way. There’s the unmistakable echo of the jackboot under the triumphalist march.
“Just think of all the poverty, the hatred and the lies,
If that doesn’t give you the willies, I strongly suggest you read more speeches from history. Yikes. The lyrics are utterly brilliant, carrying all this ambiguity effortlessly, and Beddingfield puts it right in the back of the net. “I’ve got a plan”, indeed.
After the show, in the program, Jeff Wayne asserts that he thinks the story of War Of The Worlds is ultimately one of hope. As a childhood fan of this story, I find that utterly boggling, as a concept. I mean, civilisation is destroyed, technological terror is rained down on the survivors, who are rounded up and harvested for their blood, and in the end we only survive because indifferent microbes, germs, wipe out our invaders. I mean to say, our salvation is ultimately down to the fact that we’ve evolved an immunity to the forces on our planet that have been out to kill us from day one. If that’s a message of hope, it’s a pretty odd one. Feels more like fatalism, to me. Even more strangely, it’s this song, Brave New World, that Wayne cites as being his chief justification for this perspective, and he quotes the following lines:
“Take a look around you,
And if that’s hope, okay, but man, it’s fragile, and precarious, and expressed by someone's whose idea of what ‘something beautiful’ is seems likely to be diametrically opposed to my own. Which ultimately speaks to the incredible strength of the writing, of course - the fact that it can bare the weight of two such different interpretations. It’s been a day for surprises, but I think Brave New World, the performance and the lyric, is the biggest. Certainly, it’s still rattling around in my head now, days later.
The rest of the show plays out as expected, and to my delight, they keep the NASA ending, complete with a final attack from that ridiculous, wonderful tripod prop. And somehow, I’d missed the blindingly obvious. Because when the curtain call is complete, and the musicians have taken their bow, the conductor finally leaves his podium and turns to face us.
And it’s Jeff fucking Wayne.
I leap to my feet, clapping so hard I can feel the impact right up to my shoulders, and I’m far from alone - there’s people jumping up all around me. There’s tears in my eyes, again. Jeff Wayne. I’ve just watched and heard ‘A Musical Version of The War Of The Worlds’ conducted by the composer. A man who probably deserves equal credit with The Doctor as being the reason for my continued love of and interest in Sci-Fi. And, you know, The Doctor is only real in my head.
Thank you. Thank you.
It was - it is - you are - bloody magnificent.
PS - It’s August 2015, and following the boarding of the loft, the epic emptying of the garage has begun. Boxes are opened and contents sifted, assigned to ‘keep out’, ‘keep in loft’, and ‘chuck’ piles. Hoarder that I am, the ‘chuck’ pile is small enough to be testing the superhuman patience of my wife.
And it’s either a boxfile or a smaller carton we’re working through, and in among old Guns and Roses posters and Private Eye back issues, she holds up a folded brochure and looks at me, eyebrow raised.
“Surely not this?”
I look at the tripod rising out of the sea, heatray firing at the boat. I take it from her hand and turn it over, seeing the portraits of Richard Burton, Phil Lynott, the bios underneath.
My eyes mist over. I barely hear her sigh of resignation as she turns back to the boxes.