1953 - United Kingdom

Arguably the original bedrock foundation for British episodic television science fiction, the Quatermass serials also undoubtedly represent a high watermark of excellence for television drama in any genre. Few characters have had as much impact, or have been as influential as the brilliant, driven, but still very humanly fallible, Professor Bernard Quatermass.


The story of the four Quatermass serials span three decades of television history, the original three being produced by the BBC in the 1950s and the belated fourth and final adventure for the independent company, Thames Television in 1979. The original trio were also adapted for the big screen by the legendary Hammer studios, whilst the third, and possibly the best of the serials, Quatermass and the Pit gained a video release in 1988, allowing its darkly disturbing tale to be appreciated for the first time by an entire generation to which it had hitherto been only an oft mentioned, but never seen legend. A legend that had began in the year 1953, with the first broadcast of a new serial. A serial titled:


The Quatermass Experiment

The summer of 1953, had seen the BBC's then new head of drama Michael Barry allocates his entire first year's budget for new scripts - the princely sum of £250 - on a single author, a young staff writer (and winner of the 1950 Somerset Maughan Prize for Literature), named Nigel Kneale. The scripts ultimately delivered by Kneale were for an imaginative, atmospheric, and innovative six-part science fiction thriller very much different from the somewhat staid, theatrical productions that at the time were very much the standard template for the BBC's television drama output. Kneale's dark and disturbing story was basically woven around a simple but highly effective framework. The Quatermass Experiment told the tale Professor Bernard Quatermass (Reginald Tate), head of the British Rocket Research Group, and the deadly after effects which arise when an experimental spaceship with a three-man crew is deflected hundreds of thousands of miles off-course, before finally returning to Earth. The survivor, Victor Caroon (Duncan Lamont) had been contaminated with an alien life-form that caused him to metamorphose into a hundred-foot-tall vegetable creature capable of infinite reproduction. After a tense cat and mouse manhunt, that saw the alien wreak havoc on London, it was finally cornered by Quatermass in Westminster Abbey and ultimately destroyed in time to save the world.

Kneale allegedly found the unusual and memorable name of his central character randomly from a telephone book. The Quatermass Experiment was to be the first of several successful collaborations between the writer and celebrated producer/director Rudolph Cartier. Cartier and his production team exhibited great faith and ingenuity to bring Kneale's literate and complex scripts to the television screen. At the time, Television drama was broadcast live, and the art of small screen special effects were virtually unknown. Indeed, the horrific elements required by Kneale's story had to be created 'on the night' itself, within a tightly limited series budget of just over £3500. Such were the limitations to be overcome for the serial, that Kneale himself 'played' the monster during the tense climax, using his own rubber gloved hands, covered with bits of vegetation and leather and pushed up through a simple blown-up still of Westminster Abbey. Only too well aware of the technical limitations placed upon him, Kneale relied on the basic dramatic strengths of a tight coherent plot and well-drawn three-dimensional characters to tell his story.

Once broadcast, the serial's impact was immediate, and tremendous. The combination of it being aimed, as it was, at an adult audience, as well as being the first episodic production of its kind, ensured it as an instantly popular success as well as being the basic template for the serials to follow. (The first of the popular Hammer Quatermass adaptations was released in 1956 and starred imported American star, Brian Donlevy as Quatermass. The film was re-titled for the U.S. as The Creeping Unknown).


Quatermass 11

Broadcast in 1955, just two years after the original triumph, Kneale's second serial is not really a sequel as only the central character of Quatermass himself was carried over from the first series of episodes. (This time John Robinson, replacing the originals Reginald Tate following the veteran actor's death a few weeks earlier portrayed Quatermass). Time had moved on, and in the two years that had passed since the fateful events of the original Quatermass Experiment, space exploration had become an inescapable fact, although the path to it was dogged by near constant frustration and failure. These technical 'doldrums' provided the basic framework for Kneale's second set of scripts, with Quatermass's work on his technically sophisticated prototype Mark II Moon rocket languishing at a standstill.

With a proven track record, the allocation of a much larger budget (£7,500) and the facilities of the BBC's brand new Visual Effects Department' (run by the legendary Bernard Wilkie and John Kine) open to them, Cartier and his writer found themselves with the resources to fashion a very different type of story from the original, cleverly inverting the man into monster concept, Kneale constructed a darkly paranoiac story of a covert Martian invasion of Britain by the infiltration of human minds and bodies. The production boasted a host of now-familiar names in supporting roles, notable amongst them being Rupert Davies, Roger Delgado and Wilfred Bramble, the latter already threatening to corner the television market in low-life roles following his 'old drunk' in the first Quatermass serial and 'old man' in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

The six 30-minute episodes (which inevitably overran slightly) were transmitted live on Saturday nights, and enjoyed a tele-recorded repeat the following Monday. This second outing for the redoubtable professor had the effect of polarising the viewing audience, with them either applauding its 'thrilling story and effects', or loathing its 'horror comics' plot. Nevertheless, Quatermass II's darkly sinister and atmospheric tale of alien body snatchers was deemed a success, spawning a second Hammer film version (aka Enemy From Space) in 1957, once again with Brian Donlevy in the lead role. Much more importantly however, the success of this serial paved the way for the character of Quatermass's greatest television adventure, and writer Kneale's most evocatively potent set of scripts.


Quatermass and the Pit

By the arrival of Quatermas And The Pit in 1959, the world had been ushered into a genuine space age, and as a consequence, viewer expectations had grown more aware and sophisticated than they had been during the pioneering rocket project of the first Quatermass 'experiment'. However, the basic character of Professor Bernard Quatermass himself, plagued by his realistic bouts of conscience and disdainful loathing of short-sighted bureaucracy, was still very much far from obsolete, and the fortuitous timing of the first episode of the new serial, broadcast just before Christmas 1958, was clear evidence that the powers that were at the BBC at that time realised that they had a sure fire ratings winner on their hands.

The Pit of the title squarely roots the events of the story firmly in its time. A time when the last of London's blitzed areas were being rebuilt, and the face of the entire country was undergoing a radical change to reflect the onset of a new decade, and in certain respects, the end of an old way of life. Contemporary real life events of the time had seen the unearthing of Roman and medieval remains within the capitol, during renewal excavations. Using these as an inspiration, Kneale's basic premise for the serial's story saw something much stranger, more sinister and unimaginably dangerous being unearthed from within the mud of the city. As Quatermass the highly skilled Andre Morell (who had been a chilling O'Brien in the earlier celebrated and controversial Cartier and Kneale adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four), here became the third, and arguably the definitive, television incarnation of the Quatermass character who finds himself drawn into the deadly investigation of an alien spacecraft. A craft that contains clear, unequivocal evidence that Earth had been visited millennia ago by Martians. Insect-like creatures that had manipulated man's simian ancestors, genetically altering them to become receptacles for their own otherworldly faculties.

Drawing on standard elements of demonology and the occult fields, Kneale's concept daringly and intelligently fused all manner of unexplained superstitions and phenomena, from poltergeist activity to second sight and race memories into a persuasive and creditable whole. Over the course of the serial, Kneale orchestrates the incident packed, intelligent and thoughtfully provoking beats of his story with consummate flair, finally drawing every thread together into a chilling and action packed climax, as the dormant Martian influence reasserts itself to potentially devastating effect. As with its predecessors, although much of the drama was once again presented live, Quatermass and the Pit made the greatest use yet of filmed inserts and refined special effects. Notable amongst such scenes are when the workman, Sladden, frantically attempting to flee from the seemingly demonic forces that have assailed him, the ground rippling threateningly beneath his hand. The celebrated, and for its time -technically daring animated 'wild hunt' sequence, which depicts the characters experience of the genetically encoded alien, "Race Memory", locked within humanity, and especially the spectacularly memorable climactic appearance of the Martian energy force rising up to loom demonically over the London skyline.

This serial also marked the first major contribution by the BBC's then newly formed Radiophonic Workshop. Who produced an arrestingly imaginative array of bizarre and otherworldly sound effects, which went a long way towards establishing the convincing mood of the story's events. As was now traditional, Hammer produced an accomplished Technicolor film adaptation of the story in 1967, with the excellent Andrew Keir memorably taking on the mantle of Quatermass. (U.S. title Five Million Years to Earth.) By turns dark, brooding, horrific and intelligently memorable, Quatermass And The Pit, was not only both a critical and ratings success, it was also the quintessential example of adult British science fiction television drama at its most imaginative, expertly produced, peak. At the time, it also seemed to mark the end of the career of television's foremost scientist. However, following a period in the television wilderness that was to last for exactly two decades, the character of Professor Bernard Quatermass emerged once more into the viewer's consciousness. The channel had changed, but in hindsight, the Quatermass Conclusion was inevitable.


The Quatermass Conclusion

The year was 1979, and although twenty years had passed since his last adventure, Professor Quatermass's final appearance was as much rooted in -and reflected the anxieties and paranoia of a new generation, as the previous three had for the generation before. For this serial, Kneale opted to chronicle a bleakly fearful vision of a dystopian near future where civilisation is staggering inexorably towards total breakdown. Fossil fuels are running out, law and order has given way to thoughtless and utter lawlessness where violent street gangs, christened the Badders, are battling it out behind the makeshift barricades, while the impotent remains of the once great superpowers bicker and squander precious resources on a pointlessly hopeless space project. Into this chaotic social nightmare, Kneale presents us with an older, cynical and world-weary Quatermass (Sir John Mills, giving an expectedly professional performance), who has willingly exiled himself from the madness and has been living as a recluse in Scotland. Now, forced to return in a quest to find his missing granddaughter, Hettie, Kneale teams the elderly professor up with a young Jewish astronomer, Joe Kapp (Simon McCorkindale), to face and defeat an unknown alien force, which, on the surface, appears to be 'harvesting' the young of the planet, by means of transporting them up in beams of light during gatherings they are impelled to attend at ancient ritual sites, such as stone circles.

As with its earlier predecessors, the series was intended from the outset to be the depiction of 'science fiction with a human face'. But ironically, its massively increased budget, (£1,250,000) combined with the greater expectations of its audience in terms of effects and locations, meant a more lavishly scaled production, which fatally lacked the intimacy and immediacy of the original live serials. Its makers, Euston Films, (then a division of Thames Television), undertook extensive location shooting, using Wembley Stadium for one key climatic scene where the so-called, "Planet People", young, anarchistic hippies, congregate en-mass to await the beam they believe will take them to another and better existence on the alien home-world in a distant galaxy. However, the ultimate truth is, while terrible, hardly as imaginative or as creditable as that of the earlier Quatermass adventures. The aliens were, in reality, harvesting humanity as a source of food. Although Quatermass eventually defeats the threat as he had done so often in the past, this time the price paid is the ultimate one, as the strain causes the professor to succumb to a final, fatal heart attack.

Although the final chapter in the Quatermass saga made a promising start, ultimately the serial as a whole was deemed to be something of comparative disappointment when compared with the early brilliance of the originals. Perhaps slightly unfairly, expectations were somewhat inflated, as the first episode was the main offering of ITV's first night back on the air after a mammoth 75-day strike. Kneale, as he had also done with the previous three Quatermass adventures, adapted the story as a novel, which included slightly different material.

The legacy and on-going influence of Nigel Kneale's masterly creation has continued to cast its massive shadow across the generations of both viewers and television producers alike. Adult, intelligent, bold and thought provoking, the Quatermass serials are a byword for imaginative adult televisual science fiction at its zenith.

Published on January 24th, 2019. Written by SRH (2000) for Television Heaven.

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