CHRISTOPHER STEVENS reviews BBC's adaptation of The War of the Worlds

If you’re suffering Poldark withdrawal, don’t worry – Demelza is back, fighting Martians… and it’s a red hot winner: CHRISTOPHER STEVENS reviews the BBC’s new adaptation of The War of the Worlds

The War Of The Worlds

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Hopeless romantics suffering pangs of Poldark withdrawal symptoms can heave a sigh of relief. Demelza’s back, and there’s a hero on a galloping black horse to rescue her.

H G Wells’s sci-fi classic The War Of The Worlds, which begins its three-part adaptation on BBC1 on Sunday evening, might seem impossibly removed from the windswept Cornish saga that ended in the summer. But the similarities are unmistakeable.

Heroine Amy, a headstrong young woman with a West Country accent and a fireball of red hair, is played by Eleanor Tomlinson in a tight-waisted riding jacket.

H G Wells’s sci-fi classic The War Of The Worlds, which begins its three-part adaptation on BBC1 on Sunday evening (pictured), might seem impossibly removed from the windswept Cornish saga that ended in the summer. But the similarities are unmistakeable

When we first meet her, she can’t keep her hands off her dashing lover, George (Rafe Spall).

This story is set 100 years after the Napoleonic adventures of Cap’n Ross and his kitchen wench, but the Edwardian backdrop makes little difference. It is still an England where, if a character needs to be somewhere else in a hurry, a gleaming black stallion is the only way to travel.

Within the first few minutes, Demelza – sorry, Amy – is having one of those half-flirtatious, half-furious conversations with her lover in their bedroom, before seizing him by the waistcoat and throwing him on to the bed.

Heroine Amy, a headstrong young woman with a West Country accent and a fireball of red hair, is played by Eleanor Tomlinson in a tight-waisted riding jacket

At this point, Poldark used to cut to surging shots of Atlantic breakers bursting against the cliffs, but this is sci-fi so we see the sun rising over Earth from space before a rocket explodes from the surface of Mars. Either way, I think we get the idea.

The Beeb must have been very keen to shoehorn Miss Tomlinson into this big-budget epic, because Amy doesn’t actually appear in the novel. H G Wells had his unnamed narrator bundle his wife off to safety at the beginning of the book: No rising suns and priapic rockets for them.

And in this version, she isn’t the hero’s wife. That role falls to Aisling Jarrett-Gavin, as the spiteful Lucy, who has no intention of giving her husband a divorce.

Amy and George are living in sin in Woking, Surrey, at the start of the story, with their housemaid, a dog and a duck, amid the outraged disapproval of their friends and family. Woking is apt, since this is a decidedly ‘woke’ adaptation.

Several of the characters are fusty old white men with pronounced views about racial superiority and the dominance of the British Empire. You can be sure they will get their comeuppance from the aliens. Meanwhile, Amy’s best friend is a gay astronomer called Ogilvy (Robert Carlyle).

Apparently unconcerned by the stringent laws against homosexual acts, which (as Oscar Wilde had only recently discovered) were punishable by a jail sentence and total ostracisation, Ogilvy is happy to joke about being gay. Everyone guesses it, he says, because he’s unmarried and well-dressed. That boast makes some sort of sense in 2019, but not in 1905.

George is a journalist, whose editor is so offended by marital impropriety that he refuses to have his star reporter’s name printed above his stories.

Actually, in Edwardian times, there were no ‘bylines’ on news pieces: Journalists considered them vulgar. But I suppose it’s daft to quibble about these details when the entire thing is a fantasy about giant spider-monsters that hatch from Martian eggs to decimate the population.

When we first meet her, she can’t keep her hands off her dashing lover, George (Rafe Spall)

However it’s told, The War Of The Worlds has been a favourite for more than a century.

Orson Welles’s radio adaptation in 1937 was famously reported to have caused panic across America, with newspapers somewhat imaginatively claiming that many listeners had believed they were hearing a real inter-planetary invasion.

Jeff Wayne’s musical adaptation in 1977 starred Richard Burton as the narrator and featured David Essex and Phil Lynott. With a changing cast of big names, it still tours theatres today.

Morgan Freeman and Tom Cruise headlined the 2005 Hollywood movie, set in New York and directed by Steven Spielberg.

In fact, the tale is so popular that a simultaneous French-American production – La Guerre Des Mondes, starring Gabriel Byrne and Elizabeth McGovern – began airing in France last month.

Wherever you go, you can’t get away from those Martians.

I haven’t seen the French production yet, but it’s hard to imagine it could look more spectacular or convincing than the BBC version.

The fireballs that tear apart an English market town, the spinning globe that spits luminous rays causing men in tweeds to spontaneously combust, and above all the sight of a London reduced to red dust like a Martian landscape, these are all lovingly imagined.

And some of the dreamlike effects, conveying the strangeness of it all, are quite beautiful. There’s a lovely moment early on, when Demelza and Ross are gazing at the night sky, with the burning red dot of Mars brightest of all.

Slowly, the red dot becomes the flame of an oil lamp, as the first scientist approaches a thing from outer space.

Sorry, did I say Demelza and Ross? I meant Amy and George… old habits die hard.

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