31 October 2013

75 years on - Orson Welles' 'War of the Worlds' broadcast

‘The War Of The Worlds’ radio play has taken on an almost mythical status, and the notion that huge swathes of the U.S. public was gripped by fear of Martian intruders has gained a foothold in the popular imagination. A patchy-but-enjoyable 1975 made-for-television movie, ‘The Night That Panicked America’, reinforced newspaper stories at the time suggesting the alarm sizeable: farmers grab their shotguns and fearful families jump into their cars and hit the freeway, while others seek refuge in churches.

BBC Radio 4’s ‘Archive on 4’ series, which last week examined the broadcast’s legacy in ‘Myth or Legend: Orson Welles and The War of The Worlds’ and questioned the extent of the panic, noted that out of an estimated 6 million listeners, around 1.7 million believed the play to be true. Only 1.2 million were said to be “frightened”, according to a study, and just 20 people – a tiny fraction of those who actually heard the show – had to be treated for shock.

Radio 4’s programme also points to later suggestions that a hostile print media, miffed by radio’s growing dominance, embellished or simply made up stories of people fleeing their homes and driving their cars off bridges in some faint hope that the young upstart medium’s influence may be curbed.

- Hugh Leask, 'Myth and media: Orson Welles’ ‘The War Of The Worlds’ – 75 years on', Independent, 30 October 2013
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