A History of British Sci-Fi on Film and Television – Part One (1895 to 1955)


I dug up this piece, originally intended as the first part of a sprawling history of British Sci-Fi on film and television for the original run of Strange Skins magazine, and thought it might be of interest. Please excuse any factual inaccuracies as it was written some years ago. Maybe this will inspire me to write Part 2…

Although the whimsical fantasy of Frenchman Jules Verne was there first, it is widely agreed that it was the work of H.G. Wells that ushered in the beginnings of modern Science Fiction (or, as it was known at the time, Scientific Romance). It is only right perhaps then, that it was Wells himself who initiated Britain’s lasting love-hate relationship with Sci-Fi as a visual medium.

In 1895, Wells met up with inventor Robert W. Paul, who was not only a great fan of Wells’ work, but had just developed a new projection system for ‘moving pictures’. Together they hatched the idea of making a short film based on Wells’ The Time Machine, in which the audience would become the time traveller, experiencing the journey through time via the action on the screen. It was an early precursor of the modern interactive ride, now common at fairs and exhibitions. Unfortunately, and although Wells & Paul patented the idea, the era of modern cinema crashed in on the world before they could commence filming and the idea ceased to become a novelty.

Wells’ second personal attempt to bring his work to the screen also drew blank, as his signing of the rights of several of his novels to a motion picture company in 1914 was scuppered by a minor annoyance called World War I. However, with that unpleasantness out of the way, 1919 saw Wells’ work finally make it to the screen with the Gaumont production of The First Men in the Moon, a short film based on the H.G. Wells novel of the same name. The film fared badly at the increasingly more commercial cinemas, Wells hated it, and it would be a full decade before the British cinema had another attempt at Sci-Fi.

In 1929, director Maurice Elvey brought the film High Treason to the screen, again from the Gaumont company. High Treason was the first British sci-fi talkie, although it unfortunately now only exists in a silent format, and demonstrated the massive steps forward that had been made in the ten years since The First Men in the Moon. Billed as a 1930s vision of 1940, the film proposed that the next ten years would bring to England massive Metropolis style cities, busy air traffic, video-phones and the channel tunnel, a project seemingly delayed by about fifty years. It was a moderate success, but did not prompt a great deluge of similarly-themed movies, being somewhat over-shadowed by being sandwiched between two sci-fi landmarks, the German Metropolis (1927) and the American production Just Imagine (1939).

Spurred on by the success of FP1 Antwortet Nicht, a mainly German 1932 co-production which was filmed in three languages, German, French and English, the next British genre film was to be The Tunnel (1936), an English-language remake of the 1932 German film Der Tunnel. Directed by High Treason’s Maurice Elvey, The Tunnel told of the construction of a Transatlantic Tunnel and the subsequent problems thereof.

In the same year came one of the classics of the British sci-fi tradition, and the fruition – forty one years after his first attempt – of H.G. Wells’ vision of personally bringing his work to the screen. Things to Come (1936) was a cinematic triumph, produced by the highly-successful British producer Alexander Korda, and with a screenplay by Wells himself based on his 1933 novel The Shape of Things to Come. William Cameron Menzies, who would go on to have the dubious honour of directing Invaders from Mars (USA, 1953), directs with an epic sweep this tale of future war, armageddon and redemption, which uncannily makes an accurate prediction as to the date of the beginning of the Second World War, though admittedly Wells’ war did go on until the 1970s, which the real one thankfully did not.

Things to Come was a huge international success, and encouraged Korda to take up Wells’ offer of filming his more whimsical The Man Who Could Work Miracles in the same year. In contrast to the grim Things to Come, The Man Who Could Work Miracles is a semi-comedy piece, following similar themes to Wells’ The Invisible Man in it’s exploration of the idea of the little man unexpectedly imbued with God-like powers with which he is ill-prepared to deal. This lighter film was less successful and less highly-regarded than Things to Come, but was to be Wells last foray into cinema. Disillusioned with the medium, the father of British science fiction died ten years later, in 1946.

The next time that home-grown sci-fi was to be seen by the British public, it was in a medium that itself would have been considered science fiction just a few years earlier – television. From it’s very earliest days, the television service of the British Broadcasting Corporation, the state-owned radio broadcasting service, had employed short drama pieces as part of it’s programming. One of these early plays, broadcast in February 1938, was a half-hour adaptation of Czech playwright Karel Capek’s scientific satire RUR – Rossum’s Universal Robots (‘Rossum’ being the Czech word for ‘brain’ and ‘Robotnik’, as is widely known, being that language’s word for ‘slave’). This simple production, directed by BBC staff director Jan Bussell, was performed live in front of the camera in the manner of a stage play. It was seen by very few people, since only the very affluent were able to afford television sets, and the broadcast signals were not receivable outside the Greater London area. However, after a break in transmission for the duration of World War II, the BBC broadcast a second (live) adaptation of RUR in 1948, this time extended to an ambitious 90 minutes. The number of TV sets available was still minimal, so few will have seen this version either, or the following years adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine.

The war years had marked a dearth of genre cinema, with rousing propaganda-laden war movies taking centre-stage, and it wasn’t until 1949 that British cinema would attempt to re-introduce sci-fi, still viewed as something of a novelty. The Perfect Woman (1949) was a sort of comedy twist on ideas from Metropolis, in which a mad scientist creates a robot woman, based on his niece, and field-tests her by matching her up with an eligible young man. However, the real niece finds out, and the two switch places… with hilarious consequences. Another two years turned out Mr Drake’s Duck (1951), directed by British stalwart director Val Guest, and starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr and Yolande Donlan as a farming couple surprised to discover that one of their ducks has laid a Uranium egg!

Altogether better was the same year’s The Man in the White Suit, born of the famous Ealing studios. This famous satire on both science and the unions, starring Alec Guiness as both the inventor and wearer of the eponymous white suit, whose everlasting qualities garner resentment from all quarters, is regarded in some quarters as the best (if not, then certainly the cleverest) of the celebrated Ealing comedies. It is less widely regarded as actual science fiction, though it undoubtedly is, it’s science-versus-resistance-to-change theme being a popular topic of the literature of that period.

Back in TV land, things were hotting up. The first genre serial, Stranger from Space, appeared in 1951 on the BBC. Broadcast as part of the children’s TV strand Whirligig, this series of eleven 10-minute episodes encouraged children to write in and suggest how the adventures of young Ian Spencer and his alien chum Bilaphodorus, (stranded on Earth after crashing his ‘space-boat’) should progress. A second series of Stranger from Space followed the next year, reduced this time to a mere six episodes. This would mark the beginning of a long association between British children’s television and science fiction, frequently with far greater success than it’s ‘adult’ counterparts.

The cinema was still toying with comedies and thrillers bearing a vague scientific basis at this time. American cinema was giving us War of the Worlds, It Came from Outer Space and Invaders from Mars (all 1953), but in Blighty, full-on science fiction had proved ‘unpopular’. Four-Sided Triangle (1953) was a confused nonsense about a scientist who creates a robot duplicate of the woman he is in love with, because the woman herself loves another man. Unfortunately, being an exact duplicate, the robot version falls for the other man also (he should have seen that coming really). The same year’s Spaceways was a short oddity about a scientist (yes, another one) being accused of murdering his wife and her lover and blasting their corpses off into space in a rocket! Both these films are pretty unremarkable, but for the fact that they were both directed by Terence Fisher, whose later sterling efforts would provide Hammer with some of their most memorable horrors.

TV now had the upper hand in the SF stakes, with more and more households possessing increasingly inexpensive television sets, and it was about to play it’s trump card. In 1953, thirty one year old playwright Nigel Kneale and successful TV producer Rudolph Cartier combined to bring The Quatermass Experiment to an unsuspecting British public. Heralded by the ominous warning that it was ‘unsuitable for children or persons of a nervous disposition’, this six part 30-minute serial took the country by storm. Telling of the exploits of British rocket scientist Professor Bernard Quartermass (played, in this instance, by Reginald Tate) and his efforts to tack down a missing, mutated astronaut whilst struggling against the bureaucracy of his superiors, the subtle blend of accessible science fiction and full-on body-horror, hooked the viewing public and held them rapt in a way that no TV had succeeded in doing so before. It was the talking-point of every workplace the following day… and the turning-point of the fortunes of SF on TV. The BBC now knew that SF was not a minority interest medium and was a market that could be exploited to gain more viewers.

The following year saw Kneale and Cartier reunited for a high profile adaptation of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four, starring a young actor called Peter Cushing as the downtrodden hero Winston Smith. Filmed and performed twice, live, this two-hour piece was an astonishing achievement, and still stands as one of the all-time bravura works of television. It was remade in 1965 from the same Kneale script, this time starring David Buck and Jane Merrow, but it is the original 1954 version that is highly regarded. The following year’s film version, also a British production starring Edmond O’Brien and directed by Michael Anderson (who would go on to direct Logan’s Run and Millenium) pales by comparison.



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