The Martians are Coming! The True Story of Orson Welles' 1938 Panic Broadcast (2011) 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.
Support this website
If you found this website interesting and useful, please
consider supporting it by making a purchase from Amazon. You don't have to do it
now, but if you bookmark this page, then shop with Amazon below, I'll receive
a small commission on each sale.