Saturday, 27 February 2016

Hot off the press… The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961)


This is not only amongst the very best of British science fiction but also a love letter to the British press or at least Fleet Street when it was Fleet Street. These are the men and women who search out stories in the public interest and who work unsocial hours risking life and liver in pursuit of the “story”.

The focus is on the great art deco Daily Express headquarters and everyone from an actual former-editor Arthur Christiansen (1933 to 57 – a long stint!) – who plays Jeff Jefferson the Editor – to the machine minders and the craftsmen who worked the hot metal presses day and night to deliver the news in a world every bit as 24/7 as our own. The Express and others was always open breaking news and only ever a plate make up, quick print run and rapid delivery by its fleet of vans, from informing its public of every key development: from press room to doorstep in mere hours all verified and proof-read (mostly).

So, when governments let us down and we screw up the planet, who can we rely on for the truth?

Edward Judd and Leo McKern outside the art deco splendour of The Express
The splendid new BFI restoration begins at the end with reporter Peter Stenning (Edward Judd) walking with weary steps down a parched Fleet Street. The Thames is empty of water and a heavy sun beats down on a parched West End. Stenning makes his way to the press room and finds his typewriter roller has melted he calls down to find the last copy boy working and begins to narrate his last and most important feature…

Cut to the press room as it was, full of care-worn, wise-cracking journalists navigating their way through the fast-moving events of a slow news day. Bill Maguire (Leo McKern) cracks wiser than most and is covering for a pal, Stenning, who has lost his way following divorce and an over-reliance on journalists’ ruin. Pete can barely string a story together and is rapidly running out of favours missing deadlines and many a point.

The press room - stories must have IMPACT!
Bill sends him off to the Royal Meteorological Society to investigate stories of abnormal sunspot activity; he tries to pull in a favour from an old pal and ends up gate crashing a meeting with the minister. He encounters a helpful and distractedly-curvy secretary Jeannie Craig (lovely Janet Munro) whose attitude to his rapid-fire banter changes once she realises he’s the same loudmouth who abused her on the switchboard. Stenning needs to work on his charm.

Stenning's charm initially fails him...
Later Pete attends a CND rally at Trafalgar Square – the film is very much about nuclear weapons and Wolf Mankowitz had originally written it after the UK’s first H-Bomb tests in the early fifties.  A fight breaks out with pro-bomb sympathisers – a bit like the next Labour conference – and as Peter hops on a TV news van he sees an unscheduled solar eclipse.

Eclipse over Trafalgar Square
Meanwhile the temperature rises to alarming degrees and Pete takes his son Michael to Battersea Park Fair taking him on the ghost rain much to the consternation of his new nanny – Michael’s mother has re-married and the future’s looking posh for the youngster. After dropping him off he finds Jeannie sunbathing and has another go at apologising… maybe it’s the weather but she’s warming to him.

The two share an ice cream and then nature takes another unexpected turn as a deep fog spreads rapidly up the Thames causing panic… On a limited budget director Val Guest makes the absolute most of his special effects and even with the unforgiving clarity of Blu-Ray, the scenes of London smothered in unnatural fog are still impressive.

The mist rises over Battersea
Yet it is the human element of the story where Guest most excels, with superb performances from Judd, Munro and McKern – three people facing up to the worst hoping for the best.

Guest shows some provocative shots of Jeannie in her bathroom before Pete arrives to be offered a couple of pillows and the bath… Theirs feels like a very real relationship for the time: she reluctant to give way not trusting the look of post-commitment in his eyes. But he is serious and the situation is getting far worse: if you were the only girl in the World and I were the only boy…

Things hot up
Whilst the Ministry keeps schtum the Express boys dig deeper and establish that not only has the Earth been knocked off its axis by two nuclear bombs exploded at the same time by Russia and the USA… but it has been nudged towards the Sun (not the odious newspaper, then called The Daily Herald by the way…) with no sign of stopping. What at first seemed to be a disaster is rapidly looking like Armageddon.

Meanwhile the authorities begin to clamp down on disintegrating society and water rations and near martial law are introduced.

What a scorcha!
The denizens of Harry’s Bar – a journalistic haven next to St Bride’s Church - gather to watch government pronouncements and to toast their increasingly-bleak futures. In spite of it all there is excellent interplay between Pete and Bill – the latter always hoping to set his pal back on course, both of them talking with the clipped precision you’d expect.

But Pete is getting himself focused not just on Jeannie but on The Story. His creative “Muscle memory” kicks in and he does his best for his readers, his talent and the wonderful new woman in his life.

The Express team wait for news
As his ex-wife’s new partner says as they prepare to escape to the country, “it all seems a bit silly now” – Pete wears the look of a man who felt that all along. Now he cares and you hope the crisis can be survived for this realisation to provide him more than short-term benefit…

Mankind’s last throw of the dice is to repeat the two atomic explosions in the hope of reversing or at least halting the planet’s drift. The minutes count down and then we return to the film’s beginning as Pete makes his weary way back to the Express. In the print room the crews prepare two front pages one for salvation and one for doom… Church bells hint at the former but you have to make your own mind up…

Parched Fleet Street
Dusty verdict: Undoubtedly one of the best British films of the period, The Day the Earth Caught Fire still stands up as a testament to man’s enduring humanity even in the face of such a crisis. The message is a simple one – take good care of the ecology and, enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think.

Leo McKern went on to have a long and illustrious career but his other co-stars were less fortunate, Edward Judd surprisingly never established himself as a regular leading man – a difficult temperament possibly holding him back (according to Val Guest) – although he got regular work and was a fixture of voice-overs in the 70s and 80s.

Janet Munro
Janet Munro was less fortunate, dying of heart failure at just 38 – gone far too soon.

The film is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Amazon and every home should have one!

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