Joe Cornish: Why I wanted aliens to invade south London

Joe Cornish, whose feature-film debut 'Attack the Block' opens this week, tells Peter Watts how, when it comes to sci-fi, British is best
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His first feature film, Attack the Block, is about to open in cinemas across Britain, but for a man who began his career using Star Wars toys to re-enact British TV shows such as Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and You've Been Framed, Joe Cornish, you might say, hasn't come as far as you might think.

"Attack the Block is the result of watching films like Critters, Tremors and Gremlins and wishing it would happen where I lived in south London," says Cornish, who began his television career on Channel 4's The Adam And Joe Show alongside comedy partner Adam Buxton. (The pair also present BBC 6 Music's award-winning Saturday morning radio show.) "It's answering a need I felt when I was a kid. Somebody said it was a 'fucked-up ET' and I loved that description – it's about a lonely kid with absent parents who comes across an alien. Only he doesn't invite it home with M&Ms; he duffs it up."

Although Cornish has fond recollections of American movies, he also acknowledges the influence of British science fiction. The film is set in Stockwell, where a gang of slang-spouting teenage hoodies are forced to defend their tower block home from alien invaders. It's a theme that has recurred in science fiction ever since H G Wells's Martians invaded London in The War of the Worlds in 1898, a key book for a genre that's explored in a forthcoming exhibition at the British Library, Out of This World: Science Fiction But Not As You Know It (which opens on 28 May).

Britain has a long tradition in shaping science fiction in books and television – the British Library exhibition looks at writers as diverse as Thomas More, Mary Shelley, J G Ballard and China Miéville – but has less of a history when it comes to cinema. "We've never been able to really do sci-fi movies with quite the consistency that Americans do," says Cornish. "The Eighties and Nineties felt like a sci-fi free zone in British film. It was only Shaun of the Dead and 28 Days Later that revived it. Now we have (Duncan Jones's) Moon and (Gareth Edwards') Monsters so maybe there's a resurgence going on. It could be funding, but you don't need a lot of money to make good science fiction. Many of my favourite films are absurdly high content executed without much money. You felt you could go home and re-create them."

That is what Cornish has done with Attack the Block, and he contemplates Britain's enduring love with science fiction before revealing the British examples that have influenced him. "Good genre fiction is about escape, and what makes it such an interesting art form is that it connects realism with fantasy. The more science fiction has to say about real life, the better it is. England is a rainy, industrial, analytical place and I think that's what makes our pop culture great.

"There's a sense of self-analysis in British work and our culture isn't aspirational so there's more of an onus placed on things that can provide that escapism. I don't know exactly what it is, but there is something particularly great about British sci-fi partly because you simply don't expect it."

Attack the Block opens on 11 May


Launched in 1977, the weekly sci-fi comic 2000AD has been home to outstanding UK writers (including Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison). Its central strip is the dark and witty Judge Dredd, about a draconian lawman in a dystopian American city of the future.

"Tower blocks usually signify urban deprivation, but in Attack the Block I thought it would be cool to bring them back to the spirit of futurism in which they were built. And that connected directly with Judge Dredd and Mega City One. When I was a kid I grew up in a comfortable home but all around me were these monolithic towers blocks that were like 2000AD. As a child you are looking to create a fantasy life within your real life, and localised science fiction does that in a very particular way. One of the first comic strips I ever drew was about a war between two tower blocks in south London. In my childhood the British comic scene was in rude health and I was addicted to 2000AD. My Saturday morning routine was a quarter of pear drops, 2000AD and Swap Shop. I wrote letters to 2000AD and had the Mega City One board game."

The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy

A 1978 comedy series written for radio by Douglas Adams, and later adapted for book, stage, TV and cinema. It concerns the adventures of Englishman Arthur Dent, who travels around the universe with his alien friend Ford Prefect.

"Hitch-Hiker was huge to me. I had it on vinyl and loved it on TV. I loved the humour and the DIYness of the way it looked, even though the effects were really cheap. And I totally believed it all. The Restaurant at the End of the Universe [the follow-up] was my favourite of the five books. I loved the idea of the map of the universe that said 'You Are Here', and because it was presented as an intergalactic encyclopaedia it came across as a subversive educational programme. It felt like it was cocking a snook at real education."

A Clockwork Orange

Written by Anthony Burgess in 1962 and made into a film by Stanley Kubrick in 1971, A Clockwork Orange is a miserable vision of future Britain, where young thugs drink drugged milk, commit random acts of "ultra-violence", listen to Beethoven and talk in an Anglo-Russian slang called Nadsat.

"When I wrote Attack the Block, I was looking for things in the modern world that connected to sci-fi – things that had a secret science-fictional feel – and the language the kids of south London used reminded me of Nadsat. The magic of A Clockwork Orange is the way the language seems indecipherable at first but gradually, through osmosis, you start to understand and then the connection you make is even deeper because you feel attuned to a secret code. I spent months talking to kids, going home and transcribing interviews and learning it like a foreign language. There's something extra absorbing about it, you feel that you've got another layer of connection."

The Fog

The breakthrough success by British horror/sci-fi writer James Herbert, The Fog was published in 1975 and featured a sentient fog that travelled across the UK sending people insane.

"I find it interesting that there's no censorship or rating system for the written word. It's a rare pocket of liberty. I remember as a kid going to jumble sales and buying James Herbert books for 50p and reading this incredibly transgressive stuff that was OK because it was books, even if it was horrific porn like The Fog. Some horrific shit goes down in that book but quite rightly it isn't censored. Why is it considered more real to see something rather than read about it? I would say it's the opposite. I'm almost afraid to say it out loud in case it gives people ideas, but I think it's wonderful and it shows how reductive people are about censoring other art forms. There's an in-built snobbery about novels that means people don't fuck with them. It is seen as a basic fundamental right: if you burn books you're a Nazi, but you can fuck with films as much as you like."