On the 18th July 1953 the BBC broadcast the first episode of “A Thriller In Six Parts For Television”. Heralded by Holst’s “Mars, The Bringer of War”, Nigel Kneale’s “The Quatermass Experiment” grabbed the public hard right from the start. Blessed with the finest collaborator he could have had in the shape of the redoubtable Rudolph Cartier, Kneale’s tale of just what happens when mankind encounters the unknown was an immediate success. Cartier was not a man to let limitations stand in the way of the execution of his partner’s ambition. Technical shortcomings of the period were overcome with simple ingenuity – Kneale’s hands made a cameo in the final episode playing the fronds of a monster which had invaded Westminster Abbey. It was cast to the hilt, beautifully designed and all surviving evidence (sadly, only the first two episodes survive, and one of those features a somewhat unwelcome distraction in the form of a 1950s fly wandering over the telerecording screen) suggest an accomplished, confident production. With André Morell – Kneale’s original choice for Quatermass – unavailable, Reginald Tate made a marvelously world-weary, troubled anti-hero. A sequel was inevitable, and the success of the original serial can best be illustrated by this memo from Cecil McGivern, BBC Television’s Controller of Programmes. Commercial television launched in the UK on September 22 1955 and McGivern knew the BBC had to come up with something special –
Had competitive television been in existence then, we would have killed it every Saturday night while [The Quatermass Experiment] lasted. We are going to need many more ‘Quatermass Experiment’ programmes.
Kneale and Cartier had been busy in the intervening period, scandalising the nation with their version of Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, and hopes were high for the new serial. Sadly, tragedy struck the production less than a month before location filming began when Reginald Tate collapsed and died. As the man chosen to replace him, John Robinson had a huge task ahead. “Quatermass II” had a lot riding on it. It more than delivered. More expansive than the first serial, with luxurious location filming and memorable set pieces which unsettled many who saw it (a young Ringo Starr, for one). Although Robinson looks terribly uncomfortable in the early installments (and indeed, appears to be reading from cue-cards in several scenes) he settles into the role and by the end of the serial he’s a confident, accomplished Quatermass.
December 1958 saw the arrival of “Quatermass and the Pit”. By this time the BBC was more than able to match the demands placed upon them by Kneale and Cartier (the final episode of “Quatermass II” suffers a little by being visibly strapped for cash, with an audibly wooden space ship and a spacesuit so unwieldy that Robinson has to be carried across the set by effects whizzes Jack Kine and Bernard Wilkie), and “Quatermass and the Pit” remains by some considerable distance my all time favourite television serial. Everything about it works. Kneale finally gets his wish with André Morell taking over from Robinson as Quatermass, and he’ s perfect in the part. It’s a definitive performance – I don’t think Morell could deliver a bad one if he tried – and he’s more than matched by Cec Linder’s Matthew Roney, Anthony Bushell’s Colonel Breen and Richard Shaw as Sladden.
It’s eerie, unsettling, has an underlying concept that refuses to let go and features nightmarish recreations of a Martian civilisation that – precisely because they’re so fragmentary and dreamlike – you’d be hard put to better today. This one gripped the public even harder than the previous two serials – as evidenced by Neddie Seagoon as Quatermass OBE in The Goon Show’s “The Scarlet Capsule” and Hancock terrified out of his wits by the last episode in Hancock’s Half Hour’s “The Horror Serial” – but Kneale felt it was time to rest the character.
It would be twenty years before Quatermass would be seen again and this time he was on ITV. Soaked in bitterness, pessimism and cynicism, this concluding serial (simply titled “Quatermass”) gave us a poisoned civilisation, with Britain slowly grinding to a halt and reverting to savagery whilst something harvests young human beings from beyond the atmosphere. As Quatermass John Mills stumbles through the whole thing like a man battered repeatedly by circumstance. His Professor is an old, tired, enfeebled gentleman – almost forgotten by civilisation but somehow bravely pushing on. The ending is a shocker and pretty much ends the character for good. The serial is flawed – in its original four part version it wanders all over the place, with an unwelcome diversion in episode three into televised erotica which has to be seen to be disbelieved – but Mills, aided by Bruce Purchase, Simon McCorkindale and Barbara Kellerman – delivers a barnstorming performance. The bleakness was always there in Quatermass – whilst fundamentally optimistic about humanity, Kneale was all too aware of the dangers inherent in the human condition. The shattered Britain is an all too realistic extrapolation of what might happen if the instincts that cause The Wild Hunt from Quatermass and the Pit were allowed to fester unchecked. Looking back, it’s difficult to see how else it could have ended.
As was common in the 1950s and 60s, the Quatermass serials were adapted as cinema films. Hammer did the job, compressing Kneale’s three hour epics into less than half that running time and while much of the subtlety is lost – particularly in the initial film, where much of the psychological drama of the original is jettisoned in favour of a hunt-and-kill-the-monster-secenario – all three have much to recommend them. Kneale famously loathed Brian Donlevy as Quatermass and whilst those criticisms have some justification, particularly in the first film where he is almost entirely unlikeable, striding through scenes barking orders and refusing to listen to anyone no matter how sensible the advice – by “Quatermass II” he’s settled down a bit. There’s some warmth in Donlevy’s performance, and he seems a lot more confident.
Seen from this remove both films are perfectly serviceable, competent and enjoyable science fiction thrillers. Yes, the creeping paranoia and anything-can-happen dread of Kneale’s original scripts is somewhat diluted but there’s a momentum, a breathless headlong rush to both films that keeps things moving. They’re snappy, concise retellings of the original stories and although the brush-strokes are broader there’s much to enjoy – not least when Sid James pitches up in “Quatermass II” in a part originally played by Roger Delgado.
Following a delay of some years Hammer returned to Quatermass in 1967, belatedly adapting “Quatermass and the Pit”. Lessons had obviously been learned. Although still a snappy 90 minutes or so the film adaption of QatP is every bit as good as the television original, albeit stylistically completely different. Where the original moves in shadow, the film – in colour for the first time in the history of Quatermass – is louder, bigger, noisier and none the worse for it. Andrew Keir replaces Donlevy as Quatermass and he nails it. This Professor doesn’t suffer fools gladly, but there’s a twinkle and a warmth to the man that with the best will in the world Donlevy doesn’t quite manage. Keir is almost as glorious in the part as Morell and his return for Radio 3’s “The Quatermass Memoirs” in the 1990’s makes him and Donlevy the only actors to have played the part more than once. I’m so glad he came back. He deserved to.
That would appear to have been that. However, Quatermass refused to die. BBC4 commissioned a live remake of the original serial and on 2nd April 2005, Professor Quatermass returned to British television one last time. Jason Flemyng took on the part – a younger, tougher, stronger Professor than previously seen, but still the conflicted and troubled scientist that Kneale originally envisaged. No matter who plays the part that always shines through and Flemyng played with the contradictions wonderfully, none more so than in the final scenes (now transplanted to The Tate Gallery) where he indulges in a one-to-one dialogue with the creature who was once his friend and colleague. Beautifully shot and underlit, Flemyng virtually soliloquizes the agony and guilt he feels for what he’s inadvertently unleashed and all of a sudden the pyrotechnics of the same scene in the Donlevy version seem a million miles away.
It has been said by those much wiser than I that the initial three Quatermass serials laid down the template for more or less all television science fiction which came afterwards – covering as they did three main plot strands which would serve countless writers well down the ages: 1. We go to them. 2. They come to us. 3. They were there already. Twenty years later, Kneale laid down a fourth with his belated conclusion to the Quatermass saga – 4. Hippies – especially youngsters – are bad, and the best thing for them is to lead them to a stone circle and evaporate them. That one’s not so influential, but the initial point stands.
Quatermass changed the face of British Science Fiction. Kneale – notoriously resistant to the accusation of ever writing Science Fiction – would have balked at that but without Kneale, without Cartier, without Quatermass, much of what we’ve enjoyed through the years probably wouldn’t exist. If you like your science fiction to jolt you in your seat, to fire your imagination with concepts that have a way of gnawing their way into your brain and never letting go, Quatermass is for you. Almost uniquely in television, Quatermass offers an unparalleled opportunity to watch multiple actors interpret the same role. I’ve often wondered if the forced recasting of the Professor might not have – in some tiny way – smoothed the path for the producers of “Doctor Who” when the time came to recast William Hartnell. Maybe not, but the troubled scientist with the heart in the right place and horror of what might happen if knowledge remains untempered by humanity – well, he’s there wherever you look. He’s in “A For Andromeda”. Kneale would be disgusted at the idea, but he’s there in “Doctor Who” (Kneale never had much time for Who, even putting the phone down on one script-editor who asked him if he’d be interested in writing for the series). The surreptitious invasion from the outside can be found all over the place, not least in “Counterstrike” and “Undermind”. You’ll find echoes of Kneale’s plots in countless television serials, but in many ways the originals remain definitive.
So much greatness followed in Kneale and Cartier’s wake. Generations of creators have been influenced by their work and will continue to be for a very long time to come. Kneale himself would continue to cast an enormous shadow with “The Road”, “The Year of the Sex Olympics”, “The Stone Tape”, “The Witches”, “The Crunch”, “Wine of India”, “Bam! Pow! Zapp!”, “Beasts” and many more still to come. The original serials remain high-water marks in television science fiction. They’re unmatchable, untouchable, and all these years later remain the very greatest of the great. Bernard Quatermass endures. He always will. Happy Birthday, Bernard.