British Science Fiction; The Invisible Force Fields Vs The Hollywood Monster.
‘Filmed science fiction generally comes in two flavours: British, which has a unique and distinctive character, and everything else. British SF relies heavily on mood, atmosphere and tension, owing as much to Orson Welles as to H.G. Wells. The emphasis is not on startling visuals but on startling concepts. A good British science fiction film could almost take place entirely in a drawing room (and bad ones sometimes do).’
Mark Wilson, scifi.com
I found this quote while trawling the web looking for any information on British Science Fiction Films, specifically those of a very English pastoral character made in the 1960s.
Apart from a few interesting articles, (mostly centred around The Quatermass franchise) there was surprisingly little to be had. What there was though were some good, if brief summing up of this very small, but potent genre.
For reasons that are obvious to our project, I will use ‘The Village of The Damned’, as the prime example of the canon and invite anyone with an interest to add to, or argue with these thoughts and ideas via the open forum on the website. As I say, I don’t intend this to be an academic or exhaustive essay on the topic, as I readily admit my research has been severely limited by the time I can grab away from I.F.F.E.
Background; Paranoia and the post war malaise
Britain was still a pretty war weary society at the end of the fifties and early sixties, with the usual ambivalence and obedience to authority that has always confused most outside observers. The ornate and spectacular coronation of Queen Elizabeth 2nd Took place in 1953, one year before the final end of Second World War rationing.
Although, obviously (due to not having had a land war) it was not as bombed out, as many of their European brethren, vast areas of the Inner Cities were still unreconstructed bombsites. The reconstruction of the countries infra structure and civilian life was not only hampered by crippling war debts and a chronic labour shortage, but also by a massive re-armament process, in which the post war Atlee Government secretly created a £100 million atomic weapon development programme.
In 1957, twelve years after the end of world war two, the worlds first admitted nuclear accident happened in Northern England at Sellafield (then called Windscale) emitting radio-active contamination into the atmosphere over large areas of Cumbria And the North.
During this time, The British public were realising that they had been dragged into the middle of a cold and dangerous war with the communist block, and that successive Labour and Conservative governments were planning, in the event of a nuclear war, only for their own and the militaries survival. The totalitarian government that the public were told was a wartime necessity was appearing to be a beast that was stubbornly hard to remove.
The Space programme added to the emerging sense of sublime and paranoia, as humanity took faltering steps into a very unknown territory. To cap it all, in 1961 Britain’s new found enemy, Russia succeeded in launching the first manned space flight.
Another blow to the once great empire – children at school were no longer looking up at the Queen for the embodiment of the sublime, but to a 27-year old cosmonaut brought up on a collective farm 100 mile from Moscow.
Even considering the horror of the recent past of war, a recent past that still dominated the collective memory, the future was not looking too great. In an interview in1996, Nigel Kneale. The writer behind The Quatermass Franchise. referred to the 1950’s as such.
‘That decade (the 1950s) has sometimes been called one of paranoia, which means abnormal, sick attitudes and irrational fears. I don’t think it was irrational to be fearful at that time; there was a lot to be frightened of and stories like mine were a sort of controlled paranoia, inoculation against the real horror’
Post colonial shock syndrome and the fantastic invasion
As soon as the Second World War ended, The British Empire began to crumble, and the country had to begrudgingly begin to accept that they were not the power they thought, or knew that they once were.
In 1947, Pakistan and India (‘The jewel in the crown of the empire) had gained independence, the map pink of British territorial ambitions was receding as country after country, in a domino effect of renewed national and political consciousness demanded self governance, like the former colony America had done in almost two hundred years previously.
More immediately on the streets of major British cities there was a profound change taking place that would create a very different Britain, in which, in many peoples eyes the empire was turned upon it’s head. No longer was the British race (the ruling classes) exporting their culture and manpower to the far-flung corners of the globe, but that the unthinkable was happening.
The’ Children ‘ of the Empire were coming ‘home’
On June 21st 1948 (the year that was the inspiration and main concern of George Orwell’s 1984) The Empire Windrush arrived at Tilbury Docks, bringing the first wave of settlers from The Caribbean since the end of WW2. In fact many did not intend to settle in Britain, and many were members and ex members of The RAF, who had recently finished fighting for the empire.
As many of the British white working class rejected what they considered to be the lowest of low paid jobs, to compensate for the labour shortages The British Government actively encouraged immigration from colonies and former colonies from the early fifties onwards. Although Britain has always had waves of migrants, this wave was highly visible. Home office figures state that in 1953 there were 2000 ‘coloured’ commonwealth immigrants residing in Britain. By 1960 the number had rose to 58,300.
This lead to great racial tension through out the decade, mainly based upon the racism inherent within the fear of ’the other’ and the customary manipulative media frenzy, but also upon problems of access to housing stock, a problem that would not be eased in London until the late sixties and the disasterous ‘New Towns’ project that were to be deemed a sociological and communal failure, and abandoned in the 1970’s
‘When I wrote the Quatermass stories I couldn’t help drawing on the forces and fears that affected people in the 1950s. The last adventure, the one I called Quatermass and the Pit went way beyond concerns of the time and into an ancient, diabolical race memory. It sought to explain man’s savagery and intolerance by way of images that had been throbbing away in the human brain since it first developed. Racial unrest, violence and purges were certainly with us in the 50s and I tried to speculate where they first came from’
Roger Kneale, 1996
The Racial tensions in Britain came to a head in 1958, with race riots in Nottingham and Notting Hill, London, in which the newly established communities of Caribbean’s fought back against the white working class and the police.
For most people this was seen as an important turning point, with the new communities becoming strong enough to defend themlves and the birth of a small but vocal anti-racist movement amongst the indigenous British population.
Others saw it as proof that the country was in total collapse, that the barbarians were no longer at the gates, but living next door, in the houses that, by rights belonged to their sons and daughters.
Either way, British society, culture and politics would never be the same again; the myth of ‘Little England’ was finally being dismissed. The real past and future of Britain had arrived. However it was another, far more powerful former colony that caused far more political and social change.
By 1960, Britain had become home to many important military bases belonging to United States of America, receding sovereignty to various nuclear airbases housing B-57 bombers, intermediate range missiles and submarines, even Britain’s own atomic defence system was not their own, being forced to abandon the development of it’s own independent system and demanded that they buy American produced versions.. As Britain’s Empire collapsed, Americas was getting bigger and their economic and cultural might was becoming irresistible.
Although many American Sci Fi films of the time-shared the invasion scenario, The British ones excelled in the slow, creeping insidious take over. Maybe one of the things that defined the more nebulous enemy was that of allegory. In American Sci-Fi, the fear was obviously based upon Communism, and in a few more intelligent versions (i.e. Invasion of the Body Snatchers ‘) also McCarthyism. Either way the enemy was easily identifiable, the cruder outings using such sledge hammer hints as aliens from Mars (the red planet). However what if the paranoia in British Science Fiction was not based on their enemies but their friends?.
America was scared of Russia. Britain was scared of America.
Although there were obvious anti- American sentiments within all classes of British society (CND being a particularly outspoken vessel for the middle classes and the left), could fiction really make bold anti American statements? And if so what signifiers would they take?. I think the issue of racial fear in these films go beyond the newly arrived migrants, but extends to the expansion of American influence upon British politics and culture.
And what made these signifiers of fear so subtle in British Sci Fi, was not just the lack of special effects, but also the nature of the invaders themselves.
They were not Martians, a totally alien race as America saw the soviet communists, but they were like ourselves, They used to be part of them, They used to share the same mother country and same royalty.
It was as if it was a part of themselves, either something from the past (ancient racial memory) or something from the future (based upon new and un-quantifiable science) that was slowly and methodically claiming prominence, moving into the vacuum left by the collapse of the empire and it’s effect on British self identity.
English Pastoral Sci-Fi – ‘The Village of The Damned’
The Village of the Damned is a film that embodies almost all the characteristics of good British Science fiction, and strangely enough was nearly never filmed in Britain and was directed by a German. The film is based upon the 1951 novel ‘The Midwich Cuckoos’, written by the highly influential English Science Fiction writer John Wyndham
Although the novel is set in a ‘typical’ English village, the film was to be set and filmed in America. This was until The Catholic Deformation League heard about it. The CDL were one of the most powerful and censorious bodies in the American film industry, with the power to exert enough influence to stop production. The CDL, vetoed ‘The Village of the Damned before it even went into production, as they strongly objected the ‘Immaculate conception ‘ implications of the alien invasion.
The production then moved to England, where it was shot on location in Letchmore Heath. It was directed by Wolf Rilla, produced by Ronald Kinnoch, with cinematography by Geoffrey Faithfull, Art Direction by: Ivan King, Screenplay by George Barclay, Wolf Rilla, Stirling Silliphant, and starring George Sanders and Barbara Shelley.
The entire production cost less than $30, 000, and on it’s initial release in the UK and United States it grossed a very impressive $1.5 million.
In 1960 The British film industry had very little money, especially for such esoteric concerns as science fiction. Unlike their war debt rich cousins America, they could not afford many special effects, so there were very few flying saucers and eleven-foot high robots in these films. This is why the invisible force field works as a good metaphor. As it was science fiction, you needed some kind of vaguely futuristic plot device, and what could be cheaper than an invisible force field?. Invisible, a film financiers dream. All you need is a bobby falling of his bike or a soldier collapsing at the periphery (remember this was still a highly militarised and regimented society) and there you have it.
To use Village of the Damned, as an example, the only real special effect was at the end when a highly unconvincing 12-inch model building was blown up as the grand finale. Oh yes, and they hired an aeroplane that could only ‘crash’ after it had disappeared behind a line of trees.
However, the special effects were not the point of these films, and they turned this into an advantage by concentrating on the psychological fear of the uncanny (un-homely in it’s truest translation from the German), of invasion, where the conquering Island race finally got the inevitable, an invasion not necessarily from the outside, but also from within. With strong plotlines, almost existential in character (if not in delivery) it turned the recognisable and the homely into a slow creeping menace.
So the invisible force field wins as the cheapest and best special effect. It could also be described as and invisible barrier’, or in more recent terms in relation to gender race and class a ‘glass ceiling’. You can’t see it, but you can feel it.
Maybe that why it works so well within the confines of British Sci-Fi, that it turns the small highly structured village hierarchy upon it’s head. The tight knit community becomes a prison, and the self-administered control mechanisms are replaced by an unexplainable, egalitarian entity. What ever your class or position, you are effected equally. For once, at least along class lines, the horror is equitable.
However, The division of horror is not just along class lines. One of the obvious failures of the film is to fully engage with the fact during the lost time during the force fields occupation every woman of child baring age is raped and impregnated by an unknown entity.
Although the film does not truly examine this from any real or exhaustive female perspective, it could be said that this, is a product of the time in which Female roles in cinema were always underdeveloped and subservient to those of the males. Although in no way offered as an excuse, this forty three year old film does, admittedly in a cursory way acknowledges the incompressible fear, confusion and socially endorsed shame that the women feel as they queue up at an emergency mobile pregnancy clinic.
What the film does manage to do rather better is show the effect upon the men of the village. The impotent, animalistic and self-loathing of the working class husbands and fathers, seething with a self absorbed hatred of the attack on their own patriarchy is quite well represented.
Class stereotypes are continued with the stiff upper lipped middles class men hiding their fear and confusion in front of their wives and daughters, and attempting to rationalise and understand the incomprehensible, (with the George Sanders character, Gordon Zellaby becoming the primary social nurturer and protector of the alien children).
Although gender and class stereotypes are all to be found in the film, this I would argue is more to do with the attitudes and the conventions of the film industry of the time.
More to the point is that forty years on very little has changed.
The impregnation of the women, and the gestation period of the alien foetuses work as yet another metaphor for the creeping, subsuming take over, and one over twenty years before the most famous version of the plot device found in the Ridley Scott’s (an British Director) ‘Alien’, although the first screen outing for this plot line was in the seminal BBC Drama of 1953 ‘The Quatermass Experiment’, (later to be made into a big screen version in 1955 by Hammer Films and re-titled ‘The Creeping Unknown’ for The American market).
It is not just the story that is unsettling, but the backdrop, the English Countryside. Due to smart cinematography and deft use of day for night filming, the picturesque English village becomes a brooding and threatening presence. Again, no need for special effects, just wide pans, long takes and dramatic lighting evokes the physical darkness and isolation of these communities.
True fear does not dwell in the fantastic or extraordinary, fear is at it’s most potent in the everyday and the instantly recognisable. It could be argued that this is another form of slow invasion, of the suburban expansion of the post war years, as small market towns found themselves the centres of sprawling New Towns. The farming rural areas have always felt its self to be under siege and encroached upon by the alien cities, cities in which they rely upon to sell their produce. In a familiar symbiotic science fiction cycle, they feed the very thing they fear most.
This was not the vision of a future society, no flying cars or any other form of technology fetishised by many science fiction writers, but almost a vision of the last gasp of the past, in which mass communication and easier access to transport shattered any notion of the mythical rural ideal.
And this happened the other way, with increased access and urban sprawl working class city dwellers could travel into the countryside, a place as alien as could be imagined, a foreign country with strange people, customs, buildings and seemingly strangely harsh affinity to the one thing they had never known, the land.
The final horror in the Village of the Damned is the breaking of one of the final taboos, the slaughtering of the alien children, or half alien children as they were born to the women of the village.
The final act of infanticide was carried out not by the revenge seeking local mob,(still conforming to class stereo types, they had tried, but failed to understand what they were up against) but in a neat pseudo Freudian twist, by the childrens main protector Gordon Zellaby. In doing so Zellaby also sacrifices himself, not so much out of necessity, but out of guilt, and possibly a hint of the violent patriarchal self loathing that had previously been the territory of the mob. In Zellaby’s logic he had failed to understand and tame his ‘son’ and so his ‘son’ had to die, and out of honour, so did he.
Maybe not despite of its faults, but because of them, The Village of the Damned is still a classic understated example of understated British sci-fi.
Maybe it is particularly pertinent now.
One hundred years after the birth of John Wyndham we find things in the future are not that different from the past.
Britain has been dragged into an unpopular hot/cold war, namely an ongoing war in the Middle East, under the Orwellian News speak term ‘The war on Terror’. America, the only real colonial power base left is, and according to some analysts predictions, at the height of it’s imperialist and aspirations, and are heading for an al mighty fall, as their own domestic infra structure collapses around their ears and the government sanctions catastrophic levels of pollution for short term economic gain.
The scientific establishment are divided on the possible ramifications of nano technology as the opposing camps claim it to be the saviour or the possible destruction of humanity. In Britain the media are whipping up a frenzy about new migrants, with the phrase ‘bogus asylum seekers’ having achieved a horrific and un questioned ubiquity.
The Countryside alliance have declared war on the government, and those City dwellers who are encroaching on the morality of how they live their lives, and how much space they are allowed to occupy.
Very few people trusts the government, The Hutton inquiry is throwing up all sorts of nasty examples of negation of responsibility and lying to the electorate. Further integration into Europe is constantly stalled by the electorate’s fear of the loss of sovereignty, although voter participation in domestic elections has achieved an all time low.
It’s almost like the future has never arrived.
As Marx once said everything happens in history twice; First time as tragedy, the second time as farce.
A stiff upper lip and a bloody strong gin and tonic; a short list of British Science Fiction Films.
There are several traits that, while they not exclusively belong only to British Science Fiction films of this time, are a good rule of thumb. All of the below films contain some of them. Any more pictures I have missed out please let me know.
- A Matter of life or Death 1946
- Seven days till noon 1950
- The Quatermass experiment 1955
- Quatermass 2 1957
- The village of The Damned 1960
- The Day the Earth caught Fire 1961
- Dr Strangelove 1964
- Invasion 1965
- Quatermass and the Pitt 1968
- A Clockwork Orange 1971