The Wednesday Play – The Night America Trembled (1957)

One of the most infamous and amazing events in US radio history was the reaction to Orson Welles’ 1938 dramatisation of HG Well’s War of the Worlds. Unaware that it was fiction, many listeners believed they were hearing a live radio broadcast of a Martian invasion of New Jersey, and panicked accordingly.

Since then, the events of that night have been dramatised on several occasions, including the 1975 TV movie The Night That Panicked America. It even featured in an episode of the TV show War of the Worlds, which argued that the Welles broadcast was a cover-up for an actual Martian invasion.

But the first and perhaps most interesting dramatisation is today’ Wednesday Play: an episode of Studio One called The Night America Trembled. It looks at the effect the broadcast had on various elements of society, including a group of card-playing frat boys, some policemen and, most poignantly, a young girl babysitting some children. As well as the hallowed and smileless newscaster Edward R Murrow popping up to narrate and put the play in its historical context, it also features numerous actors who would later go on to become famous: as well as Ed Asner and Warren Oates, James Coburn makes his television debut, John Astin appears uncredited as a reporter and in one of his earliest acting roles, Warren Beatty plays one of those card-playing frat boys.

Perhaps its most remarkable feature, though, is that not once does Orson Welles get name-checked. Apparently, people were still a little sore about the whole thing…