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The Martians are Coming! The True Story of Orson Welles' 1938 Panic Broadcast (2011) Alan Gallop

The Martians are Coming! The True Story of Orson Welles' 1938 Panic Broadcast (2010) by Alan Gallop

Prominently proclaiming on the cover that this is "The true story of Orson Welles' 1938 panic broadcast" is certainly a bold statement given the cloud of misinformation and doubt that shrouds this seminal event in radio history, so I was mildly disappointed that author Alan Gallop's concise retelling of this infamous story falls short of providing any new or startling truths. Of course with the passing of the years, it is getting harder and harder to provide any genuinely new forensic detail, so in that context it is not surprising or unwelcome that Gallop has opted to tell in his own highly approachable style the tried and tested narrative of events that far October night.

Before he gets going in earnest however, Gallop starts with a very good introduction set nearer in time, in which he provides a touching account of his own personal encounters as a journalist with Orson Welles. It's an effective and enjoyable device, connecting author and reader to the heart of the matter, the larger than life (and tragic) figure of Welles, before setting the scene of American in 1938, the first meeting between Welles and John Houseman and hence to the creation of the Mercury Theatre and its on air namesake.

What follows is a brisk and readable tour through the key elements of the generally recounted story of The War of the Worlds radio broadcast, and as far as the basic bones of the legend go, all the expected tropes are present and accounted for, except that frustratingly, Gallop does not flesh things out greatly and largely keeps his own counsel on the veracity of the story he is telling, leaving the casual reader with little choice but to take that proclamation on the cover at face value. This strikes me as a somewhat dangerous approach - we are after all dealing with a legendary dissembler of the truth in the rotund shape of Orson Welles, so while I have no objection to the idea of giving the reader an exciting, fast paced and uncluttered account, I feel the author could have applied the brakes more firmly when on slippery ground, and flashed the hazard lights a little more aggressively.

Given this approach, I feel the reader should always be presented with avenues for further investigation, so I was somewhat surprised to find this book lacks an index, which to my mind seems quite essential in a history book, nor (and this I found even more surprising) are there any references to the quotes and "facts" presented, which is frustrating given that Gallop has assembled an impressive and varied selection of anecdotes from a wide range of participants in the broadcast, some of which quite rare. I'm surprised the publisher did not consider an index and references a prerequisite, however, on the plus side, the multitude of illustrations gathered by Gallop are a particularly strong element of this book, with for instance, some particularly nice and seldom seen cartoons from the period, which lampoon the broadcast.

Another book on this endlessly fascinating subject is always welcome and Gallop adds some new (to this reader at least) and interesting details to the story, though some readers are likely to find the uncritical approach to the more questionable aspects of the tale frustrating. This book seems aimed at those with a general passing interest in the subject rather than serious armchair historians, so if you're not inclined to get bogged down in too much nitpicking detail or controversy (of which there is plenty to be had if you dig deeper) you may find this a useful addition to your bookshelf.

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See also

Books

1970
Panic Broadcast

The Panic Broadcast by Howard Koch. An account of the 1938 broadcast by the scriptwriter.

2005
The War of the Worlds: Fresh Perspectives

The War of the Worlds: Fresh Perspectives. A collection of intriguing essays by some of the best science fiction authors in the world.

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