When Roy Ward Baker died last year, all the obituaries concentrated on “A Night To Remember” (quite rightly too), his definitive version of the Titanic disaster, vastly superior to James Cameron’s epic, but it didn’t have Leonardo Di Caprio, Kate Winslet or Celine Dion. However the wrong was put right this year when five British films were chosen to be shown in five weeks in new digital prints on the big screen (Passport To Pimlico, The Plague Of The Zombies, The Man Who Fell To Earth, Hobson’s Choice and Quatermass & The Pit).
When we get round to choosing our definitive TV programmes on Dirk, one name will loom large for me, Nigel Kneale, The most important screen writer of his or any generation. Next year will be 50 years since “The Quatermass Experiment” stopped London traffic and redefined what could be achieved with good writing on a limited budget followed by the even more impressive “Quatermass II” (the first time a number had ever been used on a sequel name) and then, the genius that is “Quatermass & The Pit”. In the midst of these he adapted a definitive version of “1984”, a brilliant play called “The Creature” (later refilmed at Hammer under the title “The Abominable Snowman”) and this was followed in the 60s with the fantastic “The Year Of The Sex Olympics” which envisioned a time when we would be watching what people were doing in a house on television, sound familiar Big Brother?. “The Stone Tape”, “Beasts” and “Quatermass” were highlights of the 70s and in the 80s he made the rarely seen TV adaptation of “The Woman In Black”, all would loom high in my list of the greatest TV works of all.
A small company named Hammer bought up the screen rights to “The Quatermass Experiment” (retitled “The Quatermass Xperiment” to cash in on the new X certificate) and it made a lot of money for them. “Quatermass II” quickly followed, leading them directly into the Horror genre which they became famous for, however, Kneale was not happy with what they had done to his work and wanted to wait until it was right for him to adapt “& The Pit” himself for Hammer, ten years passed.
An American, Brian Donlevy, had played Bernard Quatermass, the head of British Rocket Group, in the first two films. Hammer had needed an American star, but he was a faded star and had a problem with drink plus he didn’t even know the Quatermass from Television.
Andre Morrell had been brilliant as Quatermass on BBC-TV and Andrew Keir stepped into his shoes for the big screen. There is an extension of the London Underground, a skeleton, some skulls and a sort of craft are found, the digging stops. Colonel Breen (Julian Glover) takes charge of the situation and makes an announcement that it is a German weapon from the war, but how did it get down so far and how did those skulls around it remain intact? Quatermass aided by the lovely Barbara Shelley has another theory. When a compartment is found in the craft, it opens to reveal “insects” that start to decay fast, it appears that the craft and it’s contents could be millions of years old. With a professor they reveal, they believe this to be a Martian spacecraft that visited earth millions of years ago to experiment on humans and develop them, so as such “the human condition” is due to intervention of “insects”. After the whole craft it exposed, it seems that it is a living substance and seems to come alive…..
This is probably the most important piece of Science Fiction that was ever broadcast on BBC-TV , it led directly to “A For Andromeda” and “Doctor Who”. As a film , it broke the Horror / Science Fiction crossover genre (something that has started with “The Thing From Another World”) and was Hammer’s most important product of the 60s.
I have seen it once before on the big screen, at the Cornerhouse in Manchester, when they used to have a wonderful “Darkness Over Britain” weekend every Halloween, in the presence of Nigel Kneale himself, I never got the chance to meet him again, but my armiration for him can sill be seen on the BBC Website obituary for him.
- ‘Quatermass and the Pit’: The original, classic TV series by Nigel Kneale (dangerousminds.net)
- The impact of the V-2 rocket (alastairsavage.wordpress.com)
- Hammer YouTube Channel (attheflix.com)
Hi there! It’s nice to see someone else is also interested in the 60th anniversary of Quatermass next year. With all the excitement over the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who, the original British sci-fi series is being a bit overshadowed. I’m going to do a blog on Quatermass and Kneale again sometime next year too, just to spread the word.
Thanks, when I was getting into Doctor Who 30 years ago, my dad introduced me to Nigel Kneale and Quatermass, will look forward to your blog!
I have to admit my enthusiasm for Kneale was seriously challenged by the 1979 ‘Quatermass’, which is (sorry Dom) one of the most hilariously reactionary and outdated pieces of shit ever written for television. And I mean outdated *for 1979*, not 2012: according to Kneale, power cuts and Johnny Rotten saying rude words on TV spells the end of civilisation itself, but everything might be OK again as long as the bloody kids behave themselves and listen to the nice old men sent by the government who can fix everything. I mean, it’s not very contentious to say there is a strong vein of conservatism running through all of his work, but it’s problematic for me to hold him up as some kind of visionary when so much of his work comes across as the Daily Mail With Monsters: not so much dreaming about the future but overreacting to the present.
That he refused to write for ‘Doctor Who’ because he claimed it was just a rip-off of his own ideas just speaks volumes about how little he understood it (or maybe, to be fair, how little he actually watched it, I don’t know). Sure there are stories that follow the Kneale template where the evil alien others arrive to spread paranoia and panic amongst the masses and so have to be exterminated, especially during the Pertwee era, but what’s more notable is how often it did completely the *opposite* in one way or another. Pretty much the only stories in the first three years of the programme that follow the Kneale template are ‘The Dalek Invasion of Earth’ and ‘The War Machines’. Even the Quatermass story that departs furthest from the others, ‘Quatermass & The Pit’, ends with Quatermass appearing on television to tell us that we’re all savages and just need to bloody well behave ourselves. You can’t even imagine William Hartnell’s Doctor saying that, never mind any of the others.
Please don’t hit me.
I wasn’t expecting much from ’79s Quatermass, but when I saw it, it was a lot better than I thought. Maybe because i’d shelled out £40 for it, it appeared to be better than I thought! Whatever the impact of the 50s Quatermass, The Stone Tape and The Year Of The Sex Olympics can not be taken away.
I really like his adaptation of ‘The Woman in Black’ actually. It’s not available because Susan Hill owns the rights and she doesn’t like it because she complains that Kneale changed too much of the book, by which she means ridiculous things like the sex of the dog being different. Then she gave her full support to ‘Harry Potter and the Woman in Black’, in which the wife is now dead and the WiB controls an army of zombie children.
I have concluded that Susan Hill likes money.
I heard a lot of bad things about 1979’s Quatermass, so when I saw it, I didn’t think it was that bad or maybe I just didn’t think it was that bad as I had shelled out £40 for it!
I didn’t know that was the reason it wasn’t available. I have tracked down a Sharpe, because he wrote it, not watched it yet though. Maybe I’ll suggest it for the next Dirk night!