Tuesday, July 18, 2006


Happy Birthday Professor Quatermass

One of the most important pieces of television ever made was broadcast 53 years ago today, and anyone who loves TV should say ‘thank you’. It was the first episode of The Quatermass Experiment, not just the BBC’s first science fiction but, in days when its limited drama transmissions consisted almost entirely of theatrical adaptations, almost the first original drama on British TV. Not only do the Quatermass serials still hold up today (particularly the third, Quatermass and the Pit, a strong contender for the best TV drama ever made) but their influence is colossal, not least on Doctor Who. Thanks to the DVD revolution, too, you no longer have to squint at 23rd-generation bootleg copies, as almost all of it’s been cleaned up and made available to buy.

Professor Bernard Quatermass headed the British Experimental Rocket Group, pioneers in space exploration but with more to say about our human condition than about their never-reached other worlds, more terror than glamour and more intelligence than ‘schlock horror’. Across three hugely popular thriller serials in the ’50s, another in the ’70s, three Hammer films, a radio drama / documentary series in the ’90s and even a BBC4 live remake of The Quatermass Experiment last year, he’s been played by quite a few actors: Reginald Tate, John Robinson, Andre Morell, Sir John Mills, Brian Donlevy, Andrew Keir and Jason Flemyng. For my money, the definitive Quatermass is a choice between Reginald Tate’s original, a grim, careworn engineer, and Andre Morell’s flamboyant scientist and speechmaker, much more the template for Doctor Who; a superb actor with real star quality, my heart says he’s the best but my head thinks Tate’s more downbeat portrayal is the most believable. As it happens, you can see Andre Morell today on Channel 4 shortly at 1.35, starring in Seven Days to Noon, a tense, thoughtful early nuclear thriller (and an influence in itself on The Quatermass Experiment).

To put the importance of The Quatermass Experiment into context, in 1953 award-winning author Nigel Kneale was given the BBC’s entire annual budget for original scripts – a whole £250 – to come up with it. He’s still going as a famously grumpy old man, and deserves statues across the country. As crucial and innovative a writer as HG Wells, amongst his other work he managed in a roundabout way to both create and warn against Big Brother; his 1954 adaptation popularised Orwell’s 1984, and 1968’s The Year of the Sex Olympics predicted reality TV and how ghastly it would be. In fact, ‘how ghastly it would be’ is his running theme – Mr Kneale’s not the cheeriest of bunnies, with dystopian paranoia his hallmark in stories dripping with ‘it could happen here’ totalitarianism, pig-headed militarism, space being filled with inscrutable terror, old superstitions coming to get you, mass hysteria, the collapse of civilisation, ‘young people today’ being unbearable and science the only light in a dark world / hostile universe, though it won’t save you. League of Gentlemen member, Doctor Who writer, Quatermass guest actor and fan, Mark Gatiss says in a documentary included in The Quatermass Collection DVD set that:
“I think Nigel should have a five-minute slot on TV where the Epilogue used to be, entitled ‘I Told You So’.”
The Quatermass Experiment

It’s rather scary to think that it’s exactly 53 years now since 1953’s ‘Contact Has Been Established’ introduced us to Quatermass. There’s a lot worth watching in that first episode, though you can see how early the BBC’s drama-making was; it’s very slow and technically primitive, like a play on the visual wireless. It livens up in switching from frightfully posh leads to the lost, crashed, first British spaceship, surrounded by TV cameras and bewildered ordinary people, then really gets going in the second part, which is so much faster and so fizzing with ideas and characters it’s as if it’s a completely new show. Look out for a charismatic journalist and Quatermass hitting his stride as he takes on the police, who jump to the obvious conclusion when three men go up and only one appears to have come down. It’s not the obvious answer. The writing is full of brilliant detail, from the wife’s affair but now feeling she can’t leave her sick astronaut husband, to the building tension of what happened to his co-astronauts, to the eeriness when it’s found that his fingerprints are merging into theirs. In short, they encountered something in space that assimilates any life, and what’s come back is an amalgam of the three that goes on the run as it starts to change into something horribly alien. Not that you can see this, of course, as it all went out live and the BBC didn’t record the last four parts.

All is not lost. The DVD set thoughtfully provides the script, and you can also buy the Hammer version and last year’s BBC4 remake. You’ll notice from the script that BBC4 abridges it, while Hammer butches it up and, essentially, lobotomises it. The Hammer film – often called The Quatermass Xperiment – has a fantastic performance by the possessed astronaut and a terrible one by American tough guy Brian Donlevy as the suddenly macho professor. It starts with more verve, but loses all the subtlety, and while there’s good stuff in it, the ending misses the point entirely. To see how it ought to be (oh, how I wish I could have seen Tate in it), go straight to the BBC4 live version. Originally, the climax took place in Westminster Abbey, to terrify viewers who’d just seen it for the Coronation; now it’s switched to the Tate Modern, possibly in tribute to the original lead. While it sometimes feels curiously dated – where the original pushed the boundaries, this is as backward-looking as a modern-dress Shakespeare – there are many good scenes in the new version, not least where David Tennant gets called ‘Doctor’ on screen for the first time (cheating, they’ve now removed another actor fluffing his lines on the night). Perhaps Jason Flemyng’s a little young for Quatermass, but his final scene was one of the most gripping TV moments of the year. Instead of letting the army blow up the ‘monster’ (disappointingly unseen) he goes inside the gallery to talk to the men absorbed inside it and appeals to them to die, to dissever from it. It’s an enthralling piece of utterly human drama, and he’s absolutely superb.

Quatermass II

Possibly the most famous thing about this serial is the continuity announcer; while at the end of one of the first story’s episodes we glimpse a 1953 announcer in ballgown, so cut-glass she makes Maureen Lipman seem like a chav, here there’s an unseen but thrilling male voice intoning:
“Before we begin the fourth episode of Quatermass II, we’d like to say that, in our opinion, it is not suitable for children, or for those of you who may have a nervous disposition.”
Though it starts slowly and falters in the final episode, whenever I watch the middle instalments of this 1955 drama of zombie-like possession and official conspiracy overwhelming a huge industrial plant, I can’t help feeling the announcer is still quite right. It’s probably the most terrifying television ever made. Look out for the family paddling near the plant and what happens to them for it; the Select Committee marked for possession; the PR man who falls into the burning slime; the journalist fighting alien influence to make his final call; Quatermass creeping down to see the ammonid things in the tanks; the truly horrible use of human pulp in the pipes… Even the weaker closing episode, with the action removed from the monstrous technological location, has a fantastic monologue as Quatermass tries to persuade a possessed friend suddenly returning that his kind will be disposed of too, or the terrified screams of a man lost forever in space.

This is the most paranoid and disturbing of the lot, as the mostly friendly authorities helping chase the infected man on the run in the first serial turn obstructive, murderous and under alien control and it’s Quatermass who becomes the lone man. It’s also perhaps the one Hammer captures best, with its trimming of the script getting in the way of the plot least and probably improving the climax, though Donlevy is still terrible (Nigel Kneale constantly bitches about him, from his drinking to his hairpiece being blown off to hover like a giant bat). I still prefer the original’s nail-bitingly horror, with The Doodling Man showing you how to do more with a conspiracy in three hours than The X-Files managed in nine years…

Quatermass and the Pit

Watch this. Very simply, get it and see it. It might not beat the heights of Quatermass II for sheer terror, but for style, inventiveness and sustained quality, it might just be the greatest piece of television ever made. It’s hard to believe, seeing how polished the production is, that it was made only a few years after the brilliant but primitive first story; and it’s not only a highly intelligent piece of drama, but explicitly champions intelligence over brutish instinct. Again, it takes the stakes deeper: at first, we went into space; then they came to us; now we find they’ve been here so long that we’ve become them. ‘Aliens interfering with the course of human development’ has since become a tiresome sci-fi cliché to dodge responsibility for human actions, but here it’s fresh and enthralling. Five million years ago, Mars was dying. Unable to adapt Earth to their needs, its inhabitants adapted Pliocene apes with a Martian inheritance of bigotry and violence. The discovery of the ancient spaceship at the bottom of ancient superstitions of black magic is brilliantly counterpointed by Quatermass’ disgust at the all-too modern military takeover of his exploration project, no longer to found colonies but to site bases and missiles on the Moon and, of course, Mars.

Look out for the pig-headed Minister who refuses to listen, preferring to rationalise a German propaganda scare to accepting the implication
“That we owe our human condition to the intervention of – of insects?”
Watch jaw-droppingly unearthly sequences like the engineer who ‘wakes’ part of the spaceship’s psychic potential being hounded by it, as wires and plates throw themselves at him, and even when he collapses in front of the local church, the ground ripples as if to swallow him… There are terrifying riots as even Quatermass succumbs to the herd instinct, with Andre Morell terrific in the lead, whether possessed or giving his final speech to camera, brimming with moral authority, that if we don’t learn to control our Martian inheritance,
“this will be their second dead planet.”
That 1958-9 story was the end of the three awesome originals, though there was rather a good adaptation by Hammer, this time fortunately starring dour Andrew Keir as the professor. Keir also took the part in the radio mix of drama and documentary of the times The Quatermass Memoirs, broadcast a decade ago and just out on CD. These bridge the gap to the final TV series…

Quatermass (sometimes called The Quatermass Conclusion)

Worth a look, though lacking the inspiration of the BBC serials, this took most of the ’70s to get on screen and was eventually made by ITV (a ‘big event’ to relaunch the channel in 1979 after a long strike). Set a few years into a hideously dystopian future, everything’s gone to hell in a handcart, with rotten governments, the streets awash with young gangs and Quatermass an embittered old exile (a part for which John Mills has the authority but is really too lovable). Crowds of superstitious young people are wandering to stone circles to be beamed to another world; or, perhaps, just harvested for aliens who like us as caviar, or perfume. It’s less about the unknowable alien and more about Mr Kneale’s fears of a sick society, and savagely anti-superstitious, if slightly confused by a sideline in ‘but religion’s all right’. Though there are flashes of brilliance and some terrific sequences – notably the old Wembley Stadium as a great stone circle – the tone’s uncertain, meandering (there are two versions, one twice the length of the other, both recently out on DVD though now apparently deleted) and far too reverent. There’s not enough tension and too much that’s ponderous, not least in the over-solemn electronic music that plays a large part in making it so relentlessly downbeat and not all that entertaining. There are some good actors along the way to the very final conclusion, including a pre-Manimal Simon McCrocodile, but the underlying message that ‘Young people are evil. All of them. They'll destroy the world, you know,’ gets rather wearing. And that's just what Nigel Kneale thought of hippies. Goodness knows what he'd have said if he'd peered out of his window at any passing youths more recently than ten years before this was made, and spotted any punks.

The Quatermass Connection

Any Doctor Who viewer, of course, will find Quatermass not just outstanding but uncannily familiar. Mr Kneale has frequently castigated Doctor Who for, er, paying homage to his ideas and for terrifying children (imagine!) and once sniffed that “I could have thought of something better in the bath.” Given how carefully he’s cultivated his curmudgeonly public image, there are strong reasons to believe he secretly rather likes the show. The show certainly likes him, borrowing half-hour episodes with cliffhangers and the horror of possession in the ’60s, giving us lashings more possession and Earth-bound ancient horrors with alien explanations blowing up tensions between science and the military in the ’70s, then starting the ’80s with numerous stories of Kneale-ish mass hysteria and even direct references to ‘Bernard’ and the ‘British Rocket Group’ by the end of the decade. While all the stories have ideas and twists of their own, the similarities perhaps reach their peak in stories such as The Ark in Space and The Seeds of Doom (borrowing from The Quatermass Experiment), Fury From the Deep and Spearhead From Space (borrowing from Quatermass II), The Dæmons and Image of the Fendahl (not unlike Quatermass and the Pit), Frontios for several of them and of course Mark Gatiss’ novel Nightshade, centring on a fictionalised version of a Quatermass actor. There are definite signs, too, in the new series (not only in the stories by Mark Gatiss, though one of those even had an accompanying Doctor Who Confidential documentary with a section celebrating Quatermass); the emphasis on domestic detail and TV to ground a story in reality found throughout Kneale’s work is remarkably, ah, prescient of Russell T Davies’ approach to Doctor Who. Some fans may also note another anniversary, as it’s ten years today since the publication of the first Who novel by Lawrence Miles, another grumpy man bursting with ideas that have been thoroughly pillaged by other Who authors, including for the new series. But he’s for another article, another day.

So pick up a copy of The Quatermass Collection DVD set, and don’t be put off by the tacky packaging. What’s inside is sheer class, with some splendid extras. If you’ve ever wanted to see any TV drama with ideas, start here. It’s where British TV started on it, after all.

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I remember enjoying Quatermass 4, but your criticisms are all too valid. I tend towards Andre Morell as my favourite (although in my head he has turned into Frank Muir...) and I probably enjoyed Quatermass II the most.

And wild horses couldn't make me sit through that BBC4 adaptation again.
I enjoy it too, but boy, it's hard work. That long sequence with the green sun, for example, is technically rather good, and Joe Kapp hallucinating that his family are still alive is movingly played, but it's as if they've decided the first few episodes weren't depressing enough. The others have a much better balance of exciting ideas and sheer terror on all the ways things might go wrong; with the last one, it seems Mr Kneale's given up on the world.

I have Seven Days to Noon on in the background, and am enjoying trustworthy Police Inspector Morell being preposterously posh ("I'll be frank with you, sir. It concerns... The national security"), as well as sneery Joan Hickson with a fag hanging out of her mouth. I can see Frank Muir, though. It's the 'tache, isn't it?

I know a lot of people didn't like the BBC4 Quatermass at all. I did, but I'd encourage people at least to watch the climax scene. I think it's terrific, and makes you realise exactly what's wrong with Mr Donlevy.

I was just reading your comments on the lovely Mr Cornell's analysis of Love and Monsters, by the way, and as well as thoroughly agreeing with you it struck me that that, too, borrows from the end of The Quatermass Experiment. Not traditional Doctor Who? Pah! ;-)
Yes, it's the tash. Joan Higson is always fun when she's playing that sort of role, although I can't pluck an example from the air - a Carry On maybe? I'm also suddenly reminded of Thora Hird in The Entertainer...

When the BBC4 was live, we turned it off through sheer boredom, but I did watch a repeat more recently. I'm not a big fan, dramatically, of that sort of finale, and I did think Flemyng (son of Gordon!) was too young to pull it off - and made a similar criticism about A for Andromeda.

I'm not sure I see the similarity with Love & Monsters, but I have a pretty poor memory for Quatermass - I've seen so many different versions of the different stories, they're all a bit jumbled in my head...
I was thinking of Thora Hird, too. Probably at the Tart With a Heart who befriends the troubled nuclear-blackmailing boffin, though I may just have been feeling echoes of
Went The Day Well?

I thought A For Andromeda was more patchy, but still quite enjoyed it. Looking forward to seeing the bits of the original, with Packer as the romantic lead. No, really.

The Love and Monsters connection I was thinking of is to be found in that final Quatermass Experiment scene where the creature that's absorbed humans is destroyed by an appeal for them all to remember their humanity and fight back from inside it, though not in the brain-dead Donlevy version.

Though I'm not going to say "But at least Jason Flemyng's better than Brian Donlevy!" because that's in danger of becoming a typical "You have to admit we're marginally better than the worst thing in the history of the world, so you can't criticise us!" defence of the sort New Labour always use ;-)
Just remembered something I meant to include earlier. Are you aware that Kneale's anthology series Beasts is out on DVD now?
Thanks - I've only seen a couple of them, but I'd like to see the rest and am meaning to get hold of the DVDs. At the moment, I have too many DVDs I've not watched yet and am trying to get them a bit under control before getting more (though I have broken that once or twice). Apparently Kinvig is out as well - a Nigel Kneale sit-com. He's such a happy-go-lucky man that I feel strangely wary.

I was slightly wrong earlier, by the way. It turns out Police Inspector was way too plebian for Mr Morell's part; he was, of course, a superintendent. But jolly trustworthy, all the same.
Given how important Quatermass has been to British sci-fi - no Prof Q, no Doctor Who, no Doctor and no generations inspired etc. to the 201st domino - and bizarrely the path my own life has taken, I was delighted to read your fantastic post. Happy birthday Quatermass indeed.
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