JEFF WAYNE (The War Of The Worlds) “I Would Have Been Happy With One Week. I Had No Idea It Would Be In The Charts For 330 Consecutive Weeks”

On its release in 1978 Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War Of The Worlds went totally against the grain of the Post Punk world of the times. An iconic, grandiose Prog Rock epic featuring the likes of Phil Lynott and Justin Heyward told the story of an alien invasion in dramatic fashion. With a UK Tour just about to start featuring a show bigger and better than ever before, Mick Burgess called up creator, Jeff Wayne, to talk about the tour, the new cast and the future.

Your latest UK arena tour is not far off. You must be looking forward to playing shows again?

Like many shows our tour had been postponed last year and rebooked for 2022 and tickets have been selling very well. At the start of this year, we were holding on and hoping that nothing would stop us performing this year. Everything is on course for the tour. It’s been four years since the last one so I’m very much looking forward it.

Have you started your rehearsals yet?

The cast started last Monday with the Director and his two assistants in Wimbledon village and I join them next week and I’ll start working with the band for seven days in a row. We then move to Redditch for two days of tech rehearsals so that’s all the big physical and technological stuff such as the bridge that we introduced into the show in 2018. Kevin Clifton, who is playing the Artillery Man, has to learn how to mount the bridge and perform on it and then go down to the B-stage which is further away from the main stage. Everybody else in the cast that has a riser needs to get used to performing on it. We’ll then have three days of dress rehearsals where we’ll perform the show in its entirety, twice a day. It’s the full show that the audience will come to see. Then we’ll be off to start the tour in Nottingham on 23rd March and we’ll be doing 14 shows around the UK, including Newcastle on 7th April.

Each tour you have done since you started the live shows in 2006 has been bigger and better than the last. How are you going to top the tour that you did last time?

Every tour we do review where we left of, so that’s our starting point. The first thing I did when we started planning for this tour was to get out the videos of the last tour, listened to the audio and looked at the scores and the script. I start to bury myself in it and try to think of something appropriate that could be really exciting from the audience point of view. That is always the end target, what the audience can enjoy in a new way. I think we’ve done it again with this show. A couple of things aren’t possible because of Covid so we can’t enter the arenas in the same way but there are extra things that look better and sound better because the technology has advanced since the last time, which allows us to do a new trick or two. It starts with me so when I have a good idea of where I want it to go, I send over an edited storyboard and send it to our Director and Production Manager who will say whether it works great or they’ll say I’m bonkers. Our animation and film company have added new things There’s a range of things that when added together I do hope that the audience will go “Wow, they stepped it up”. Some things are subtle but some are much more obvious. Of course, we have several new cast members who put on their own stamp and personality into interpreting the role which brings in another element that will be new.

In the past you have done the traditional War of the Worlds show and the New Generation show. This shows sees the return of Justin Heyward from the original album performing the Sung Thoughts of the Journalist alongside new cast members. Is this going to be more of the original show or is Justin stepping into the New Generation format?

This production is no longer built around the version of the album called ‘The New Generation.’, although some of best ingredients from that have remained. It’s not the original version either but we have brought back some of those iconic sounds that went when ‘The New Generation’ came in. It’s an amalgamation of “Old Gen.”, “New Gen.” and “Newest Gen.” When we decided to call it the ‘Life Begins Again’ tour I wondered if it was a good time to invite Justin back. Justin goes right back to the original album and when I emailed him, he was up for it in a heartbeat. That excited me. He’s been welcomed back by the fans so life begins again does work on so many different levels.

As with every tour you have a fascinating cast including Clare Richards from Steps, Duncan James from Blue, Nathan James lead singer with Inglorious and Kevin Clifton from Strictly. It must be a difficult task to pick the right parts as there’s so many things to consider from choosing names that people know, suitability for the part, whether they are available at the time you need them. Do you have a committee of people throwing names about, discussing pros and cons before making the final decision?

It’s a little of all of that. I’m always looking out for people who maybe new, who have broken through since the last tour or who I’ve admired. We make suggestions and that starts a process. That may be trying to find out who represents them so you’ll go through managers or agents to find out if they’re interested. I may get a response back saying that they are very interested but when I mention the dates, they may be on their own tour or unavailable for another reason. So it’s a process that we have to keep working on but I’m pleased to say we have always ended up with a cast that we are very happy with and we have never got to the stage where we go down to the wire with our casting so we’ve always got the right cast in place in good time. It’s a little less nail biting for me now as we’ve always got there in the end.

Jason Donovan has performed as Parson Nathaniel for the last three tours and was the Artillery Man on his first tour with you in 2010. Was he unavailable or was it time to freshen it up?

We had spoken about Jason coming back and he was very interested but he also had the opportunity of going back into the West End and touring around the UK as Joseph so it was over a year’s work compared to a few weeks. I couldn’t really use the “Come on mate” argument to persuade him so it was the availability issue again.

It must be exciting for you to bring in new cast members, like Kevin Clifton from Strictly Come Dancing, who will be performing as Parson Nathaniel on this tour, to see how they interpret the role that you created all of those years ago?

I get excited when there’s an interest from a given artist that is getting serious and it is certainly exciting and satisfying to see how they interpret the role and bring something fresh to the show.

The Voice of Humanity was originally done by Chris Thompson. Over the years you have picked a strong rock voice for this part. Nathan James, lead singer with Inglorious, fits the part perfectly. What did you make of him when you first heard him sing?

Nathan James has a brilliant voice. He has such a versatile voice. When I first met him, I knew him more from a Rock vein but I’ve heard him do other styles too where he sounds fantastic. He’s a lovely guy too.

Claire Richards from Steps plays Beth and Duncan James from Blue is Parson Nathaniel. They are such a central part of the story. Is it important to get the right people for those parts so that their chemistry comes alive on stage?

Casting is one of the most important ingredients of the show as you are asking the audience to be transposed into a different world. In our show there isn’t a huge cast, there’s six key characters so they need to get their parts spot on in their own way.

Your daughter Anna Marie is stepping off the big screen and onto the stage. Why did you decide to bring that change into the show?

With Anna Marie, she’s always been the character of Carrie, the girlfriend of the journalist. When we went from Old Gen to New Gen that role has grown. When we were filming a scene in New York with Liam Neeson he said the way that we were developing the relationship between the journalist and Carrie was terrific. Anna Marie’s role along with the rest of the cast, has grown as we’ve developed the production so now it’s time to step from the screen and onto the stage.

What about the Rock band? Are Herbie Flowers, Chris Spedding and Laurie Wiseman joining you on stage again?

Chris and Laurie Wiseman are definitely back as part of the Black Smoke Band. Herbie, unfortunately had eye surgery and he didn’t think that he’d be able to do the tour. We have a young bass player, Keith Hunt, who is a lovely guy, joining us on this tour. The irony is about a month after Keith signed on, Herbie contacted me to say that his sight had been improving and he could do it after all. I got way back with Herbie and hopefully he will be involved in future shows. If Herbie and I can wobble onto the stage in years to come, we’ll both be back. We also have a brilliant guitarist Paul Bond with us and he’s worked with me in my studio for some years now. We also have the ULLAdubULLA strings with us too. Most of those who have played on the previous tours for the last 15 years are coming back.

One of the most challenging tasks for you to face was replacing with part of The Journalist, performed by Richard Burton on the original album and on the first few tours?

When it moved to the New Generation show the most vital role was the role of the journalist but in one sense, I was heartbroken that there was no Richard Burton. When I had the original concept for the album, there was only so much I could put onto a double vinyl album so there were parts that we had recorded that hadn’t been used. When we did the New Generation version, we could incorporate some of the source material into the show to expand the storyline but of course with all the sadness at having to leave Richard Burton’s incredible voice behind. I had to find someone who had a voice who could match in their own way that of Richard Burton and that was Liam Neeson. Liam was interested from the get go and I’d found another golden moment. We met in New York and he knew The War Of The Worlds so that gave me the confidence that we could go ahead with the New Generation version. Doing the hologram of Liam was a very expensive process but we were very lucky with the companies that we worked with as they really wanted to be involved with The War Of The Worlds. The projectors and screens have since got better so the hologram effect is even more striking.

Did you ever dare to dream when you first brought your creation to life onstage back in 2006 that it would have grown and developed to what it has become and now on its 8th tour of the UK?

I had absolutely no idea it would have grown like this. We’ve also been able to tour as far away as Australia and New Zealand. The touring all started after I was asked to do a one-off concert rendition at the Royal Albert Hall. It was never seen as a tour. It came about because Sony had been promoting a reissue of the album and it went Top 10 for 10 weeks but missed out on the Number One spot twice because they ran out of stock. I think we missed out to Coldplay and James Blunt but it was the biggest selling catalogue album of the year, a catalogue album is something that isn’t new for that year. So that convinced Clear Channel, who are now Live Nation, to do a one-off live rendition. There would be a band, an orchestra and guest artists, not in costumes, but tuxedos. The box office said that there was enough demand for 10 to 12 dates. The promoters starting thinking that there may be more to this than just a single concert rendition and asked me if I’d be interested in putting on a full production and going out on tour. The initial 7 shows grew to around 17 all around Great Britain.

You have also taken The War Of The Worlds to the West End which saw David Essex from the original album, return to the cast in 2016. Do you have any plans for a theatre tour now or was this more of a one off?

I was offered initially to do a 7-week season but the offer was extended by another month as it was doing so well. There’s always been a conversation about touring it around Great Britain. I’ve stayed in touch with Bill Kenwright, who has the producing company so it may be something that we do again in the future.

There is also currently The Immersive 5D Experience in London. What does this entail?

It’s been running now for a year and a half and has been very popular and through virtual reality, live actors and 5D technology you are put at the very heart of the story. It’s very different to anything that you’ll have seen before.

You had a computer game of The War Of The Worlds quite a few years ago back in the days of CD-ROMS. Computing has come a long way since then. Do you hope to build on that and use the latest gaming technology to develop a new game?

In 1985 we had our first computer game out on the Sinclair Spectrum. The programmer can’t have been more than 15 years old. I thought that this was the brave new world of computer games. It was monophonic notes and simple graphics so computing has come on a long way since then. I would absolutely love to do another generation of computer games utilising all of the latest technology.

What other ideas do you have to take The War of The Worlds forward into the future?

We have an Audible version of The War Of The Worlds available and there’s a couple of new things that will be announced sooner or later that I’m very excited about, maybe in time for the start of the tour.

Do you have any other projects outside of The War of the Worlds in the pipeline?

I’ve been fighting Martians for so many years that when some really interesting things have come my way, I just haven’t had the time to get them on board. I’ve been asked to write and produce with a couple of major artists but they require a lot of time that I just can’t commit to.

The War Of The Worlds has become one of the biggest selling albums ever in the UK. What were your hopes for the record on its release back in 1978?

I would have been happy to have seen my album in the UK charts for just one week and thought that I wouldn’t be embarrassed when I saw all the artists and musicians who worked on the album with me and gave me their time and talent. I had no idea that one week would turn into 330 consecutive weeks on the Charts. It still pops in and out of the Charts, even now. The life of the album is way beyond anything I could have imagined. It seems to be something that the critics and public have enjoyed and that was the whole goal of it.

The War of the Worlds started as idea with you and your Dad and now your daughter is part of the live stage show. What do you think he’d say if he could see how far it’s come since you first started work on this in 1976?

He would be so proud that’s for sure. Pretty much the whole of my family has been involved in some way. My eldest son, Zeb, does all of the play out music and has done a humdinger for this tour. My daughter Gemma who is an author and a journalist, has provided work around the tour too. My Dad certainly would have been very proud.

The 50th anniversary is only 6 years away. Have you had any thoughts about how you will mark that?

If I’m still here then, I’m sure there’ll be some opportunity to celebrate. That is a serious milestone for anybody but at this moment I’m just looking ahead to the upcoming tour.

Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War Of The Worlds starts on 23rd March in Nottingham. See for details.

Interview and Live Photos By Mick Burgess


  • Mick Burgess

    Mick is a reviewer and photographer here at Metal Express Radio, based in the North-East of England. He first fell in love with music after hearing Jeff Wayne's spectacular The War of the Worlds in the cold winter of 1978. Then in the summer of '79 he discovered a copy of Kiss Alive II amongst his sister’s record collection, which literally blew him away! He then quickly found Van Halen I and Rainbow's Down To Earth, and he was well on the way to being rescued from Top 40 radio hell!   Over the ensuing years, he's enjoyed the Classic Rock music of Rush, Blue Oyster Cult, and Deep Purple; the AOR of Journey and Foreigner; the Pomp of Styx and Kansas; the Progressive Metal of Dream Theater, Queensrÿche, and Symphony X; the Goth Metal of Nightwish, Within Temptation, and Epica, and a whole host of other great bands that are too numerous to mention. When he's not listening to music, he watches Sunderland lose more football (soccer) matches than they win, and occasionally, if he has to, he goes to work as a property lawyer.

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