Cult Movie The Terrornauts and the stage name of David Bowie

*contains spoilers

The singer David Bowie (1947-2016 liver cancer) arrived on the scene officially in 1967 with his song The Laughing Gnome which was the same year the Amicus Productions movie The Terrornauts (1967) was released on a double bill with They Came from Beyond Space (1967) in Bowie’s home country of Great Britain.

The Terrornauts is a low-budget cult classic which may hook you with the daftness of a group of scientific office workers being swept into space with their building and others taken with them include the tea lady played by Patricia Hayes (1909-98) as well as Carry On actor Charles Hawtrey (1914-88 after leg amputation) as an accountant.

Modern day The Terrornauts (1967) poster
Original poster
Book cover for Leinster’s novel
The founders of Amicus Max Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky
Writer Murray Leinster
Director Montgomery Tully

The Terrornauts was based on a 1960 novel by Murray Leinster (1896-1975) who had been published since 1919 and wrote one of the first movies about the internet A Logic Named Joe in 1946. He wrote rather prolifically although I had never heard of him.

It is an Amicus Production and that film house created by Milton Subotsky (1921-91 heart disease) and Max Rosenberg (1914-2004) was a very successful one with a number of horror films made up or chapters as anthologies featuring several faded British and American stars.

The movie was directed by another cult director Montgomery Tully (1904-88) if only for the fact he directed The Terrornauts and another film of the cult variety the very same year entitled Battle Beneath the Earth (1967) which was about the Sino-Chinese army boring a tunnel beneath the Pacific Ocean so they can invade the United States… Perhaps the invisible army was cheaper and less time-consuming was of invading the West.

Battle Beneath the Earth has an early gay hero in the form of Kerwin Mathews (1926-2007 in sleep). I had always admired him as a handsome and sensitive leading man from the late 1950s in The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958) and The Three Worlds of Gulliver (1960) and couldn’t work out why his career petered out and then I realised it was because he was OUT as homosexual and living with another man. Another of the leads in the movie was also gay and that was Peter Arne (1924-83 murdered) who used to dress as a vagrant among other things and bring homeless men back to his apartment for sex. Sadly, he chose the wrong partner one day and ended up having his head bashed in. It was a murder which remained unsolved for some time. He can be seen in the Julie Andrews classic Victor/Victoria (1982). The other side of the tale is that Arne helped a homeless man with food and the murder was committed for unknown reasons. The body of an Italian schoolteacher was found in the Thames four days after Arne’s murder from an apparent suicide.

Actor Kerwin Mathews
Actor Peter Arne
Murder clipping
Montgomery Tully’s The House in Marsh Road (1959) has quite a bit of ghost action but is still low grade
Lobby card for the underrated Battle Beneath the Earth (1967)

Anyway, Battle Beneath the Earth is possibly a little politically incorrect these days but it is a fantasy just like The Terrornauts, albeit in two totally different realms, and they showed that Tully had potential as a director. I guess he simply just reached retirement age and went out with a flourish, I guess. Meanwhile also both movies fizzled at the box office. I have only seen a couple of Tully’s many potboilers from the 1950s and none are really considered ‘classic’ but were simply churned out for what I guess were ‘quota quickies’. Those films being made so that a percentage of British films were released in the local cinemas each year. A final word on Battle Beneath the Earth and it was obviously made in the United Kingdom, by MGM studios, although it is set in Las Vegas and other US locations. It passes muster as action movies beneath the Earth’s surface as the balance of power on the planet comes down an atomic bomb which is so often the case.

The Jim Bowie themed The Iron Mistress (1952)
The knife attributed to have been used in John Wayne’s The Alamo (1960)
David Bowie in 1967 as he appeared in the short film The Image (or was it 1969?)
Another image of Bowie around this period

Now for the link between Bowie’s – real name David Robert Jones – stage name and it is usually attributed to the American folk hero Jim Bowie (1796-1936 killed in battle) who was killed at The Alamo and whose large frontier knife has fascinated people ever since. There was even an Alan Ladd movie about Jim Bowie entitled The Iron Mistress (1952). But such a thing doesn’t ring true with the man who wrote and performed songs like Space Oddity and Starman. I suggest there is a British science fiction link.

What I guess from the trickster that David Bowie is and was, is that his stage name was taken from British special effects man Les Bowie (1913-79). Bowie had been around since The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) and worked credited and uncredited for years on such films as The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961) and various Hammer Horrors until he peaked in 1967 with almost ten titles including Casino Royale (1967), more Hammer horrors and then in 1968 capped his career with work on 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

One of Les Bowie’s special effects movies
Montgomery Tully capped off his career with a couple of mini-epics
Les Bowie and his production house complete with Jim Bowie knife in the logo
Les Bowie and a special effect from one of the later Dracula movies
Les Bowie and a matte painting
The other half of The Terrornauts double bill

So, there you have it, as David Bowie would be more likely have been a Hammer Horror Dracula or Frankenstein fan, rather that a Jim Bowie knife fetishist. Incidentally, the effects man Bowie, died several weeks after his special effects team won an Oscar for their work on Superman (1978) at the 1979 award ceremony.

The Terrornauts was one of Les Bowie’s so-called uncredited works in 1967. Along with its double feature They Came from Beyond Space, they were seen as a marvel when they were first released in 1967 as they were described by one critic as “the two worst films (Amicus) ever produced”.

It’s probably a beat up to call The Terrornauts a ‘masterpiece’, but it is on a par with the It Came from Outer Space (1953) inspired They Came from Beyond Space in terms of the quality of the product despite the budget. The Terrornauts also has an interesting lead actor in Simon Oates (1939-2009 long illness) who was apparently once touted as a future James Bond but whose best-known work is the television series Doomwatch (1970-72) and its spin-off movie.

Simon Oates is the perfect hero for The Terrornauts (1967)
Doomwatch DVD cover
Simon Oates and Max Adrian
Zena Marshall and Simon Oates in The Terrornauts (1967)

Doomwatch is a series which has a number of episodes missing due to their mismanagement by the BBC and their idiocy to tape over old episodes of their series in a quest to save money and space. Doomwatch is not a bad series, probably not particularly memorable, but there are couple of episodes which stick in the mind such as the one where a virus causes plastic to turn to dust and this happens aboard an aeroplane mid-flight.

Oates has a distinctive English voice which is a part of his mystique and charm in The Terrornauts, as he plays the head of a small group of scientists who are out to listen to transmissions from outer space and are on the brink of having their investigations cancelled which are being carried out in a laboratory next to a massive dish. It’s not surprising that Oates went to Christ’s College, Finchley in his teens due to the poshness of his well-spoken voice in The Terrornauts but he did end up in the Intelligence Corps as well as the York Theatre Royal or the Chesterfield Repertory Company which must have trained it further. What can I say except it’s one of those distinctive voice performances that capture you like Sam Chew Jr. in Rattlers (1975) and Byron Sanders in The Flesh Eaters (1962). Oates is said to have been a boxer at some stage and is certainly tall enough to be a heavyweight.

“I wasn’t a Method actor,” he recalled. “I was a ‘me’ actor. I realised that, if I’m the leading man at the rep, the audiences are coming to see me in this, playing this part, so I thought it was a good idea to play myself and, as far as possible, that’s what I’ve always done.”

Doomwatch (1972) trailer
Zena Marshall with Sean Connery in Dr No. (1962)
Charles Hawtrey in Carry on Screaming (1966)
Max Adrian in one of three movies he made for Ken Russell in 1971 – The Music Lovers.

One of Oates fellow professors, in her last role, is Zena Marshall (1926-2009 cancer) who was one of the original Bond girls as she appeared in Dr. No (1962) and only a bunch of B-movies in the 1950s. She’s also rather well-spoken and so it’s not surprising she was trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. Marshall is charming and has a soothing voice.

To add even more to the soundtrack of well-spoken voices is the appearance of another stalwart of the theatre with the earthbound villain in Max Adrian (1903-73 heart attack) who is out to terminated the scientists work at the laborabory. Adrian’s is perhaps the most stage trained of all and he is a noted thespian who finished his screen career with appearances in Ken Russell’s (1927-2011 after strokes) The Boyfriend (1971) and The Devils (1971) which are both classics worth checking out. I’ve seen Adrian’s work on Delius (tv movie 1968) and his plummy voice is somehow a wonder to behold.

As I mentioned before there’s ‘Carry On’ actor Charles Hawtrey whose camp intonations make him perfect for the accountant Mr Yellowlees, while Patricia Hayes as the working-class and ageing tea lady is a perfect foil as well as the perfect contrast for the well-spoken leading scientists, which is capped off a third scientist played by Stanley Meadows (1928-?) who is the voice of reason compared to Oates dreamy yet intellectual stargazer who has something in his childhood memory which he must face…

Electronic music from Montgomery Tully’s The Electronic Monster (1958)… It’s okay, Marsh Road is better
Simon Oates and the Dalek type robot in The Terrornauts (1967)
Patricia Hayes is the typical comic nurse in a typical English comedy with Terry-Thomas
And here is Patricia Hayes in The Neverending Story (1984)

“It’s a matter transposer,” says Oates to his colleagues once they are aboard the Wailing Asteroid which contains some sort of space building or fortress as it passes the Earth and uses remote control to lift the laboratory into space. Once they have landed safely aboard the asteroid, they find the only life aboard is some sort of robot not unlike a Dalek but far more friendly. In fact, this machine gives the five souls various challenges… but back to the matter transposer and it is of the type Doctor Who or Star Trek dreamt up originally – certainly it is linked to Forbidden Planet (1956) – and it takes Oates to another planet or time where spear throwing natives wearing some sort of Egyptian head-dress – albeit rubber ones like a shower cap – like to sacrifice people on stone altars.

Another interesting thing about the movie are the cubes which lines the wall of the space building as if like books when they really contain knowledge somewhat like a podcast which can create images inside the heads of the human beings. They are some sort of teaching device. Soon they will have to save the lives of the entire galaxy.

I suppose you could describe this building as a fortress full of skeletons which are trying to save the galaxy from a war-like tribe which is sending missiles to attack and destroy the fortress even though the beings have long since passed away… So, the humans must take over. In this sense the film resembles This Island Earth (1956).

One of Bowie’s last movies as a special effects man flopped and ended the Dracula cycle
Low budget shower caps maybe distracting for some viewers.
Along with rubber ones… I still enjoy the movie nonetheless.

“They’ve got a beam projector on us,” says someone somewhere in the movie.

The Terrornauts is a strong mix of both the goofy and mysterious and is slightly serious science fiction. I love how this movie probably was an antidote for Nigel Kneale’s deadly serious Quatermass and the Pit (1967) which was released that same year and added the missing colour to the Doctor Who episodes of the day which were appearing on BBC television in England also at the time. To really describe The Terrornauts and there’s just nothing quite like it, and its failure saw such theatrical casting and its simply fun tone in terms of the script never again attempted. It was also that year which saw an end of an era where censorship saw such ‘childish’ movies seen as passe and banished to television.

“I’ve been squirted through space like a BBC broadcast,” says the poor tea lady who proclaims her working class roots as well as has her consciousness being risen by her journey which ends with them dumped in an old French slag head without a passport labelled: ‘Forbidden to tourists’… “I’ve never thought much of foreign parts…” she squawks about the working and middle classes need for a simple sit in front of the telly with a cuppa.

A note on David Bowie and he released his song Space Oddity five days before the launch of Apollo 11 on June 20… He had recorded it four weeks earlier.

Les Bowie was a legend and here he is with someone slightly resembling Monty Python’s Terry Jones.
Was a young David Bowie a firm sci-fi fan from the beginning?
Bowie as Pontius Pilate in the Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
Simon Oates is only a legend for The Terrornauts (1967) and Doomwatch but he is still a legend.

If you read the literature, you will find many Bowie references to science fiction and it is possibly his relatives, a couple of whom were schizophrenic or/and autistic might have held a fascination for such books and movies which rooted them fully into the realm of Bowie’s psyche. I have never been a totally obsessed Bowie fan, but I certainly love his film work and know that many of his songs right up to his final album related to science fiction.

And finally, to use some quotes from Oates, who wouldn’t find stardom in terms of his own career until he made the Doomwatch tv series, said he was really proud of his work on the pioneering conservation or ‘green’ show. To quote from Radio Times way back in 1970: “Doomwatch was obviously science fact,” said Oates. “Obviously, we told stories but they were always based on what often could and did happen in the fullness of time. I can remember one where we had a man out in space at the same time as an American astronaut was actually zooming around up there. We’d do a scene and then go down and put the radio on and listen to what was going on. It was practically happening to a parallel to what Kit had written.”

Kit Pedler (1927-81) was one of nineteen writers on Doomwatch and was also a scientist. There were about 38 episodes of the series and one of the missing episodes takes place on the Titanic.

It’s a shame The Terrornauts and Simon Oates’ voices aren’t more recognisable as cult Items in the galaxy of science fiction as he was a bit of star man although hardly as hip as David Bowie!

1 Comment

  1. jameselliotsinger
    Permalink

    The Terrornauts was never released on tape or disc in the US and is rarely shown on TV. It had a theatrical run that I caught when I was a kid. So I bought the DVD from NetworkOnAir when they advertised it. The sets and effects look like early Dr. Who, part of its harmless charm. Zena Marshall was very appealing and brought her considerable feminine sex appeal to a kiddie show made by adults.

    Peter Arne: an excellent actor. He was a guest star on Danger Man in an episode titled Colony 3, a story that foreshadowed The Prisoner. It was one of his best performances.

    Reply

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