War of the Words: the time Great Yarmouth Council took on the British Board of Film Classification to let children see HG Wells’ scary Martian masterpiece

The War of the Worlds -(C) BBC/Mammoth Screen

The War of the Worlds -(C) BBC/Mammoth Screen - Credit: BBC/Mammoth Screen

Ahead of the first episode of the BBC's The War of the Worlds, we remember how Great Yarmouth's council lobbied the BBFC to let children see a 1953 film the classifying body had described as 'very alarming with a number of scenes that could be described as horrific'.

The War of the Worlds -(C) BBC/Mammoth Screen

The War of the Worlds -(C) BBC/Mammoth Screen - Credit: BBC/Mammoth Screen

Eighty years after an infamous radio broadcast which sent Britain into Martian meltdown as thousands believed the world was ending, a new adaptation of HG Wells' War of the Worlds is due to air on BBC One.

The very first film version of the classic science fiction masterpiece, however, sparked a different kind of fear in Great Yarmouth: the council in the seaside town sent a letter to the British Board of Film Classification requesting that the certificate be downgraded to an A, meaning that children could accompany an adult to see it. The council wanted everyone beside the seaside to see the Martians take over the world.

The Orson Welles-directed radio broadcast in 1938 had been in the form of a news bulletin which had fooled thousands of people that what they were listening to was, in fact, a factual report regarding visitors from Mars and the end of the world.

So when Byron Haskin's 1953 film was considered by the BBFC, there was nervous anticipation about how it would be received by audiences.

The War of the Worlds -(C) BBC/Mammoth Screen

The War of the Worlds -(C) BBC/Mammoth Screen - Credit: BBC/Mammoth Screen


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The film's narrative follows the residents of a small town in California, who are excited when a flaming meteor crashes into the hills above the town. However, their excitement turns to fear as they realise that the meteor is actually a magnetic travelling machine from Mars and its occupants are far from friendly.

Initially, the BBFC rated the film an X, considering some of the scenes to be "…very alarming and a number could certainly be described as 'horrific'". The classifying body suggested cuts to producer Paramount to make the film an A certificate, saying that without them, the film would remain X-rated.

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At this point, Great Yarmouth Council - among others - weighed in, asking the BBFC to reconsider and reclassify the film so that it could be theatrically released as an A-rated film in the town.

In a letter, BBFC Secretary, Arthur Watkins, said: "The Board considers that a number of scenes would be very likely to frighten younger children who, under an 'A' certificate, would be able to see the film with their parents".

The War of the Worlds -(C) BBC/Mammoth Screen

The War of the Worlds -(C) BBC/Mammoth Screen - Credit: BBC/Mammoth Screen

These scenes included one in which two men on fire collapsed to the ground, screaming and sustained alien attacks comprising of red and green light flashes, some of which led to victims being vaporised and turned into human-shaped piles of ashes.

Paramount fought the BBFC in 1961 to have the film's certificate lowered, but again were told by the new secretary John Trevelyan: "…there are too many scenes in it which would be unacceptable for any category that would admit children".

It took until 1981 for Great Yarmouth's wish to become reality and War of the Worlds received its sought-after A certificate (a PG in 1986), a spokesman saying: "When this film was first issued, I was not old enough to see it with its X certificate. However it, like me, has aged and today's television-reared generation shouldn't find it too alarming either in theme or treatment".

With its post-watershed timeslot of 9pm on Sunday November 17, it's clear that the BBC's version of the epic drama is likely to be - sorry Great Yarmouth - unsuitable for younger viewers. Starring Eleanor "Mrs Poldark" Tomlinson, Rafe Spall, Robert Carlyle and Rupert Graves, the three-part series was written by Doctor Who's Peter Harness.

The War of the Worlds -(C) BBC/Mammoth Screen

The War of the Worlds -(C) BBC/Mammoth Screen - Credit: BBC/Mammoth Screen

The plot is moved to Edwardian not Victorian times and Harness has created a strong female lead in Tomlinson, which is a variation to the original book, which sees Rafe Spall's character pack his wife away out of harm's way. Tomlinson's newly-created character is called Amy, the name of HG Well's wife.

* War of the Worlds, BBC1, November 17, 9pm.

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