Peter Stenning (Edward Judd) is a Daily Express journalist awaiting the biggest story the world has ever seen, but then, so are the rest of the planet. The atmosphere is unbearably hot as he stumbles through the near-deserted streets of London until he reaches the offices of his newspaper and makes his way up to his desk. Sitting at his typewriter, he finds it has jammed due to melting plastic, and calls for someone to take down his story. It was only ninety days ago and the British summer was in full swing, and two events took place that would change things forever...
It caused quite a stir at the time thanks to Cold War fears, but nowadays British science fiction The Day the Earth Caught Fire is almost forgotten. Fuelled by worries that the nuclear arms race was spiralling out of control, the script by Wolf Mankowitz and director Val Guest tapped into a common unease which went beyond simple "Ban the Bomb" slogans and into a warning that if the powers that be didn't take account of themselves and weren't held responsible for their potentially destructive actions, a disaster on a scale that threatened life on Earth might be the end result.
With the emphasis on the word "end". Taking for granted that we know what the story is about before it's even started Guest places us right at the climax and jumps back to the beginning of a season that was drenched in rain, typical of British weather in contrast to what is to come. So if we are already aware that the Earth has heated up dramatically at the start, the question is really about how we ended up in this predicament, and the simple citizens are not the ones to blame. We are represented by the journalists trying to uncover the scandal, and by one of the workers at a government building who finds out more than she should.
She is Jeannie Craig, played by Janet Munro in a performance that has caught the eyes of many male viewers over the years, and not solely because of her out of character for the times nudity. Of course, she and Peter are destined to be together, although we get the impression near-alcoholic divorcée Peter is keen for any female company he can lay his hands on. Yet it's Jeannie who lays a hand on him first when she gives him a slap for being rude to her on the telephone. She soon defrosts after he meets her by the Thames and amps up the charm, just as the river evaporates into a heat mist that sends the capital into confusion.
One thing you'll notice about The Day the Earth Caught Fire is that there's a hell of a lot of talk in lieu of action, but Judd, Munro and the man on the science desk, Leo McKern, help to keep it lively. It doesn't quite stave off theatricality, but with the massive tragedy approaching the tension is sustained. What has happened is that the East and the West superpowers have conducted huge bomb tests and not only has the Earth's axis shifted by a few degrees, but we have been sent hurtling into the very sun itself. And that's why it's getting hotter, and the weather has gone haywire. Occasionally over-symbolic - Peter and Jeannie's passion erupts the night of a cyclone - the film commands attention and valuably depicts a world of Fleet Street journalism from a bygone age. If it were made today, the two Express headlines prepared: "Earth Doomed" and "Earth Saved" would doubtless include something about Princess Diana too. Music by Stanley Black.