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CineCity: The Catalyst Club Film Special
Back when he started drawing, an eight-year-old Andy Riley produced a picture of Martians invading Earth – suggesting perhaps an unhealthy obsession with the end of the world.
But as cinema and popular fiction has shown, he is not alone in dreaming of disaster scenarios.
As part of this month’s Catalyst Club – Cheeky Guide creator David Bramwell’s ever-popular 21st-century debating salon – the creator of the fairly apocalyptic Bunny Suicides comics and co-writer of TV sitcoms Hyperdrive, Black Books and Robbie The Reindeer, and movies Gnomeo And Juliet and The Pirates, will discuss the disaster movie genre.
“The whole disaster genre was invented in Britain,” he says.
“The first book was The Battle Of Dorking in 1871, which was written after the Franco-Prussian War.
“It imagined what would have happened if Germany invaded. It’s the most influential book that no one has ever heard of – it was even mentioned in the House of Commons.”
From there the genre exploded and has continued to present day, with the likes of Philip K Dick, Philip Roth and Robert Harris all taking the idea of later Nazi occupation for their own dystopian masterpieces.
“[HG Wells’s] The War Of The Worlds follows exactly the same patterns as the others but with an alien invasion,” says Riley.
“There was no apocalyptic fiction during the First World War but between the wars people were obsessed with bombardments from the air and poison gas.”
Both could be seen as direct reactions to the horrors of the trenches and the airship bombing faced by London during the closing years of the war.
The post-war period saw another enemy arise – the nuclear bomb – as well as fears about climate change and nature getting its revenge in John Wyndham’s brilliant The Day Of The Triffids.
London also became less central, especially in the movies, as attention was focused on the US, reflecting the reduction in the UK’s international influence.
“Nowadays London is destroyed in one shot,” says Riley. “In Battle Los Angeles [from 2011], the soldiers walk past a television which has a news report saying London has been attacked and London Bridge destroyed.
“In the pictures you can quite clearly see Tower Bridge with a plume of smoke above it.”
As a child of the nuclear age, Riley admits “every-one was s***-scared of being blown up all the time.
“It used to come into conversation,” says Riley. “You wondered what you would do if you heard the four-minute warning.
“I was watching Superman II with my kids yesterday, where terrorists manage to get a nuclear weapon and threaten to blow up Paris. It’s not that far-fetched.
“Nuclear weapons have been used twice when they were dropped on Japan – and it was by Harry Truman, not some power-crazed madman.”
Nuclear weapons and apocalypse have featured in Riley’s own work, too – both in the first series of Hyperdrive, which saw he and long-time co-writer Kevin Cecil deploy nuclear weapons twice, and in Bill Bailey’s destruction of the London street outside Black Books after succumbing to Dave’s Syndrome.
He feels that the love of the disaster genre comes down to two things – a need for reassurance, reminding you that everything around you today is OK, and a chance to question how we would react in a similar situation.
“Everyone wants to know what they would do,” he says. “What makes the story of Titanic so satisfying is there are so many famous responses to what happened when the ship went down.
“Some people are heroic, some lose their heads, some sneak on to a lifeboat, some think of everyone else before themselves.
“With these films we hope we would be level-headed and heroic, but we might be the guy who panics and is evaporated by an alien.”
Riley is currently working on two new sitcoms – an episode of Big Bad World for Comedy Central and a new pilot being shown to BBC executives set in a coffee shop, which develops the idea he began with his weekly Observer comic strip Roasted.
“When I did Roasted for years I assumed someone would do a TV sitcom set in a coffee shop,” he says. “When no one else did, I thought, ‘Why not me and Kevin?’”
If picked up, the comedy will feature a different set of characters from the comic strip – which ran for seven and a half years in The Observer – with the focus being a stroppy girl.
Riley and Cecil have also finished the first draft on their sequel to the animated movie Gnomeo And Juliet, which is set to feature a famous detective, Sherlock Gnomes, with Kung Fu Panda’s John Stevenson in the director’s chair.
For this week, though, Riley is focusing on disaster movies and admits his favourite is a 1950s UK monster movie Gorgo.
“It was a British knock-off of Godzilla,” he says. “The special effects are surprisingly good and there is some bad acting.
“It starts off the coast of Ireland where a bunch of people find a reptile, Gorgo, which lives in the sea and is the size of a bus. They take it to a funfair in Battersea, where they show it as an attraction.
“They don’t know what they’ve got is just the baby, and Gorgo’s mum comes along to destroy Piccadilly Circus and Big Ben.”
- Speaking alongside Riley will be David Bramwell on Pranks And Mischief In The Movies, and Stella Keen, who will discuss the cinematic influences on her father Jeff Keen’s life and work, and introduce his Brighton-shot short film Breakout.
- The event takes place at Latest Music Bar, Manchester Street, Brighton, on Thursday, November 29. Starts 8pm, tickets £5. Call 01273 687171