February 19, 2006

THE QUATERMASS EVOLUTION

It wasn’t exclusively down to the 1960’s and 70’s that produced all the genre gems. There can be some real gems previously, as far back as the 1950’s.

The first popular appeal programme first reached British Shores as far back as 1953 with ‘The Quatermass Experiment’. It was penned by the highly talented Nigel Kneale.

Kneale scripted some absolute gems for the BBC, ‘The Stone Tapes’ and ‘The Road’ could be classed as exemplary examples of their time. What Kneale was well skilled at achieving without confusement and general mess was blending portions of the occult ‘ghost story’ with science – fiction which often lead to a jaw dropping twist.

I always seem to be pleased overall with Nigel Kneale adaptations and very rarely if never seem short changed.

Unfortunately some of Kneales stories for the seminal science fiction anthology series ‘Out of the Unknown’ (1965 – 1971), have mercilessly been wiped due to the purge and junking of important television milestones in the 1970’s. From various recollection accounts and television historian reports there seemed to have been a few corkers that no longer exist some were penned by Kneale.

Quatermass was the first craze to sweep Britain over a decade before Dalekmania, week by week they tuned in to witness what thrill would happen next as Professor Bernard Quatermass, played by Reginald Tate, thwarted Martian threat and cold war paranoia.

Quatermass and His Frantic Beginnings

Kneale began working at the BBC in the early 1950’s. Due to a gap in the schedules Kneale was recommended and asked if he could pen a quick-fix. This fortunate error enabled Kneale to pen the very first Quatermass instalment ‘The Quatermass Experiment’. Kneale professes to have found the wonderfully ‘powerful/unearthly’ surname from a London telephone book.


The series steamed ahead in popularity as well as production as Kneale was penning the concluding two episodes whilst 1-4 were being broadcast.

In the first tale, Professor Bernard Quatermass has to oversee the welfare of an astronaut recently returned to Earth. The astronaut is mutating into ‘something’ and whatever it is it isn't remotely humanoid. The climatic ending had the poor astronaut turn into a mammoth organic life form that gets its come-uppance at Westminster Abbey.


The creature itself was nothing more than a pair of gloves covered in all sorts of twig and twines that when seen works effectively well. The ending was a little bit of a let down as I expected something much more elaborate but hey it’s 1953 BBC , so considering the limitations of the studio I think all involved done very , very well.

Quatermass Goes From Living Room to National Stardom

So thought the public as knock-out audience share consequently guaranteed two follow up tales in the 1950’s, Quatermass II (1955) and Quatermass and the Pit (1957) John Robinson headlined in the former whilst Andre Morrell headlined the latter. In the late 1970’s Quatermass IV; the Final Conclusion with John Mills rounded off this superb quartet rather messily I recall with Prof. Q being atomised or blown up or something. So much so he will never return in fresh adventure.

Despite the first two having whole chunks wiped courtesy of the BBC or simply no recording facilitation was available to preserve the live performance; we can glimpse the missing chunks courtesy of Hammer Films. The trilogy also won over audiences too and provided some genuinely uneasy moments. As part of Hammers publicity the ‘X’ in ‘Experiment’ was enlarged to emphasise the ‘adult nature’ of the movie. This hit the British Screens in 1955, QII 1957 and QPit finished on a Technicolor apocalyptic high in 1967.


Despite Kneale being ousted out of having anything to do with the productions (which is why there is such a long delay tween the second and third movie, Kneale when asked if Hammer could have his consent for ‘Quatermass and the Pit’ to be filmed he told them a flat no!) I feel these abridged preservations are rather nifty little representations of what is now photo, script and memory recollection.


Another Kneale casualty of the mass wiping / non preservation was’ The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas’ in 1955; this was remade into a movie by Hammer in 1957 as just ‘The Abominable Snowman’.

Admittedly we can see that the movies are predominantly aimed at the Yanks. In order to pretty the package stateside Brian Donlevy was requested for the role of Quatermass in the first two. The Quatermass Experiment was re-titled ‘The Creeping Unknown’ and Quatermass II the glib ‘Enemy from Space’. Although his portrayal is watchable one cannot help but noticing how ‘dull’ it was. There was some sort of character but not as memorable as he could have been I feel. Donlevys’ uncaring demeanour can be glimpsed periodically; allegedly Donlevy didn’t really want the part but took it anyway and had a slight drinking problem at the time too.

He did take the second opportunity to play the part in my personal favourite of the trilogy, Quatermass II, this really seems to hype up the menace and it’s quintessentially English pubs and attitudes adds to a wonderfully ‘cosy’ tone; only to be blown right out of the water when we discover that synthetic food is in fact Martian radioactive mud.

There are some startling sequences in both the BBC and the big screen versions, real nightmare inducing stuff too, especially when one of Quatermass’ assistants gets contaminated by the toxic goo-gas and staggers down the industrial steps, steaming. He screams in pain as the mud burns into his flesh as any caustic substance would burn into the skin. Death visits an industrial nightmare. Kneales skill is withholding the gore without ruining the shock. These Armageddon visions, nods to cold war paranoia, are most nightmarish but so chillingly accomplished.

Quatermass Wraps Up

Finally after a decades absence Quatermass returned in ‘Quatermass and the Pit’ this time Kneale wrote the screenplay and took the little screen to huge, polychromatic proportions. The title was changed for U.S export as ‘Five Million Miles to Earth’. This is the first evidence of Kneales well crafted super-sci-fi-natural stories. It deals with alleged poltergeist activities happening on an excavation dig in the London Underground. A powerful spaceship is revealed as the culprit, it is full of mummified inhabitants that fell to Earth many centuries ago from one hell of a distance. The excavation creates an ‘opening’ for the energy to be released that had been pent up for all this time until, quite frankly, all ‘hell breaks loose’. Chuck in some folklore and sightings of Beelzebub and you have quite a uniquely different story mixing contrasting opposites to an understandable whole.

Quatermass’ final cinematic outing was in the capable hands of Andrew Keir who seemed much more humanitarian in his approach. Gone were the obnoxious traits of his predecessor producing a more likeable elder Keir would settle an argument rationally and intellectually whilst the other would just have ignorantly lumped you one.

Kneale went on to produce some classics for the BBC after the success of his Quatermass episodes. Kneale also penned the little known supernatural chiller ‘Beasts’ for British television in 1977. This featured short dramas of the occult all linked to an animal. I have never seen this series so would not be able to comment, I have read somewhere that it was a ‘mediocre’ affair.


1989 saw Kneale produce a ghost story for the BBC ‘Woman in Black’.

Why some of his stories haven’t been re-made by now is beyond me. The script to ‘The Road’ is still in existence, come on BBC 4 you accomplished an update on M.R James why not another treat?

Come to think of it, it was only last year Quatermass was made ‘live’ on BBC 4 although I thought it was awful but a brave attempt couldn’t money used for a failure as this be utilised for re-makes next time ? One day perchance……..

Quatermass in Town

All the aforementioned movies and telly programmes are available on DVD in wonderful prints. The monochrome really has been lovingly touched up (!!!!!). The original BBC TV series, or what’s’ left of it has been unleashed on to the great unwashed who haven’t really raved all too much about it, because of no football, tits or guns I would imagine. Whether brainless or boffin these classics are available for us all to see at a price tag. Fortunately all episodes exist of Quatermass and The Pit so you don’t feel left being too short changed. The movies are available too whether purchased stateside or here in England and will not fail to disappoint.

They really are the ultimate Sunday afternoon film, definite cups of tea, bacon sandwiches some Madeline’s and duvet accompaniment works well when viewing these weenie bits of bravery. Go find for that rainy “not-sure-what-to-do” afternoons you’ll be terribly glad you did.


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