On Thursday the forecast for the evening was cloudy, a little sun but no rain. This was excellent news for those of us going to see The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961) in the open air, at the British Museum. Some were more prepared than others for the fact the sun would go down and, despite the title of the film, it would get cold. But we had cushions and cardboard seats, and hot dogs and wine were on sale, so we were comfortable.
I had never seen the film before. It was in black and white, British, with lots of well known faces – Leo McKern, Bernard Braden, Peter Butterworth as well as a brief appearance by Michael Caine and loving shots of London. But with its subject matter – the nuclear arms race, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament with archive film of the Aldermaston march, and the melting of the polar ice caps – it could have been made today.
There was also a brief section where beatniks ran amok when the world seemed to be coming to an end. They smashed windows, broke into homes, behaved in sexually explicit ways (in the nicest possible way) and were rude and brainless. It was an image reflective of the times – society trying to come to terms with the notion of teenagers, youth culture, young people having a life away from their parents. Even the credits showed that the ‘beatnik music’ was composed by someone other than the composer who created the rest of the music in the film.
The day before, Frank, my hairdresser, had been playing a version of A Town Without Pity – amazing how you don’t hear a song for 10, 20 years but you still know all the words – but it didn’t have the edge on Gene Pitney. But in terms of young people, the song and the film seemed to be saying the same thing. We don’t much like you. Beatniks got older and made way for mods and rockers but the message was still the same. And as Gene sang so powerfully, ‘It isn’t very pretty what a town without pity can do.’