Monday, 30 January 2012

Quatermass at the BBC (1953-1959)

Hammer's trilogy of Quatermass films are so revered in the annals of British Cinema, it's easy to forget that all three pictures were preceded by much longer (and some might say, better) television serials made by the BBC between 1953 and 1959. By the fifties, science fiction was firmly the domain of children's television with the likes of poverty row adventure series Captain Video and His Video Rangers ('49-'55) and the short lived space opera Buck Rogers ('50-'51), but a talented young writer rising through the ranks of the BBC named Nigel Kneale was about to change the science fiction landscape forever when in 1953 he began work on a teleplay entitled Bring Something Back! later to become known as The Quatermass Experiment...

With its stirring theme music taken from Gustav Holst's orchestral suite, The Planets, and it's sinister smokey title card, The Quatermass Experiment was an entirely new kind of television serial. An adult science fiction thriller spread over six episodes between July and August of 1953, the series introduced the mysteriously named Professor Bernard Quatermass, a brilliant rocket scientist who's latest project, a manned test flight into space appears to be in jeopardy when the rocket goes astray. Eventually the rocket returns to Earth, but something has gone wrong, and the traumatised sole surviving member of the three man crew begins transforming into something not of this Earth...

Reginald Tate - the first Quatermass

Unfortunately, only a fragment of The Quatermass Experiment has survived today. The BBC had intended to record the complete six part series, but the recording process was deemed so poor, the plan was abandoned after the recording of episodes 1 and 2, which were preserved in the BBC's archive. Produced and directed by Rudolph Cartier, the series was filmed live, as was the convention of television drama of the day, and was something of a high wire act for the cast who had to deliver Kneale's scientific dialogue and a technical crew who had to perform elaborate creature effects. Aside from a rare fluffed line or a miscued camera move, the series maintained a high quality throughout, although the production wasn't immune to some unexpected technical gremlins, most notably in the final few minutes of the series climax when one of the boom microphones in the main studio failed forcing the show to take an agonizing 5 minute break while BBC technicians frantically engineered a fix. It mattered little to the public who were gripped by The Quatermass Experiment, and two days after the final transmission, Hammer Films made inquires about the rights to make a feature film adaptation.

Following the success of The Quatermass Experiment, Kneale and Cartier made a series of important television works, including their now legendary adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1954 (starring Peter Cushing) and The Creature in 1955, (later remade by Hammer in 1957 as The Abominable Snowman). In March 1955, Kneale began work on a new Quatermass serial, simply titled Quatermass II which expanded on the original series both in scope and production. While investigating a strange meteor shower, Professor Quatermass discovers a large industrial facility in the British countryside is being used as a base for an alien civilisation. Quatermass learns that a large meteor about to pass near the Earth's atmosphere is carrying more alien invaders, and forms a plan a destroy the meteor using a dangerously volatile new test rocket...

John Robinson - the second Quatermass

Like its predecessor, Quatermass II was filmed live during October and November of 1955, and as a mark of its importance, director Rudolph Cartier augmented the series with sequences that had been pre-filmed, like the scenes inside the Shell oil refinery which stood in for the alien base, lending Quatermass II a distinct cinematic touch. Some weeks before filming began, the original Professor, Reginald Tate died unexpectedly, and stage and television actor John Robinson was recruited to become the second Quatermass. Robinson apparently had difficulty with some of Kneale's technical dialogue but he equips himself marvellously, as does Robinson's co-star veteran Welsh actor Hugh Griffith playing Quatermass' disheveled assistant. Kneale's teleplay was itself a wellspring of brilliant ideas, like the alien's infiltration of government ministries, or the industrial complex recreating the poisonous primordial atmosphere for the aliens to live in on Earth. Occasionally, the special effects creak somewhat especially in the final episode when the action switches to the rugged surface of the meteor, but overall Quatermass II remains a gripping 3 hours of television.

In 1955 ITV was launched in Britain and ushered in the era of commercial television. The BBC was now locked in a war with ITV for ratings, with the corporation routinely emerging bruised and battered from the encounter. The BBC were fighting back - with the popularity of the Quatermass character (Hammer's film adaptation of second serial was released in April 1957), the BBC commissioned Nigel Kneale for a third serial, which became known as Quatermass and the Pit, Kneale's most ambitious work to date, a dazzling inventive mix of science fiction and horror which questioned the origins of mankind itself and its propensity for destruction. In this latest saga, Professor Quatermass is asked by an archaeologist friend to advise on some skeletal findings uncovered during some routine building work. The remains point to the existence of a unique species of ape man, but later the dig uncovers a large elaborate vessel, initially believed to be an exploded German missile, but is in fact an alien spaceship which holds disturbing clues to mankind's ancient past, as well as a Pandora's Box of paranormal forces...

André Morell - the third Quatermass

Quatermass and the Pit continued the tradition of the live broadcast, with the first of six episodes going out on December 22nd 1958. In the previous month Cartier and his crew had begun work on the extensive pre-filmed sequences and thanks to the improvement in camera technology at the BBC, as well as the corporation's new studio, large enough to accommodate the elaborate pit set, the new serial would not only better the previous serials, but rival Hammer's own Quatermass outings in terms of scope and scale. As well as the conventional score, the newly opened BBC Radiophonic Workshop supplied strange and disturbing alien soundscapes to enhance the eerie atmosphere. André Morell who had worked with Kneale and Cartier on Nineteen Eighty-Four (and was briefly considered as the original Quatermass), was chosen to play the Professor, an inspired choice as Morell is arguably the greatest Quatermass, caring, commited and with the unmistakable air of aristocracy leavened with humour and kindness.

If the production was on an epic scale, so too was Kneale's writing which quite brilliantly examined the alien within, when Quatermass discovers that mankind's evolutionary leap foward from the primate was in fact carefully engineered by Martians to colonise the alien world of Earth. Kneale had been deeply affected by the racial violence that erupted on the streets of Britain in the summer of '58, and factored it into the serial with Quatermass unlocking a dormant residual memory of Martians killing each other in a ritual culling of its species, a trait that was passed on to mankind. Kneale even suggests the fascinating idea that these buried memories were the inspiration for images of devils and demons which appeared in ancient cultures throughout the world, based on the locust-like appearance of the Martian forefathers, with horns standing in for antennae. Seen today Quatermass and the Pit still seems utterly fresh and original and remains an extraordinary ambitious three and a half hours of television.

Quatermass creators - left Rudolph Cartier; right - Nigel Kneale

The Quatermass series was a triumph for the BBC. Although the series finale of Quatermass and the Pit had failed to trump ITV in the viewing figures, the series set a new benchmark in television drama, which would resonate for years to come. In 1967 Hammer adapted the third series for a major cinematic production, and in 1979 Kneale took the Professor out of retirement for a new 4-part adventure (this time for ITV), simply entitled Quatermass (or in a version trimmed for theatrical screenings, The Quatermass Conclusion), starring John Mills. Quatermass returned to the BBC in 2005 for the live 90-min remake The Quatermass Experiment, with Mark Gatiss, David Tennant and Jason Flemyng as the Professor. The Hammer Quatermass films had done much to influence Sci-fi Cinema in the years that followed with many of Kneale's ideas turning up in Alien (an ancient derelict spaceship containing a deadly cargo) or 1977's The Incredible Melting Man which remade The Quatermass Xperiment in all but name. As for the BBC series, it paved the way for the likes of Doctor Who and Blake's 7 (which always seemed to be set in a very Quatermass II style industrial plant), and one wonders if Stanley Kubrick was a fan - a shot of someone helplessly adrift in space (from the second serial) turns up in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and more significantly, the set of lunar excavated monolith looks remarkably like the set of the pit in the third serial. Even relativly recent sci-fi fare like Armageddon was riffing on Quatermass, during the climax where a nuclear device is detonated on an asteroid, much like the finale of Quatermass II.

The Quatermass Collection, a 3-DVD set from 2005 collects the three original Quatermass serials as well as some worthwhile extras, including an excellent 47-page booklet which covers the Quatermass saga in exhaustive detail. The b/w image quality of the three serials is variable but should be judged on its own merits. The surviving episodes of The Quatermass Experiment look the worst, the picture often blurry and tends to flare around the edges of the frame. Given the technical limitations of the day it's fortunate these episodes still survive, and while the image is rough, once you acclimatize yourself, it's very watchable. (Worth noting that during the second episode a small bug can be seen wandering around the monitor from which the recording was taken from, although this seems strangely appropriate.) Quatermass II is on much better form although the image tends to look a little blown out and while detail is often very good, the disc itself has at times a heavy digital appearance. Fortunately, Quatermass and the Pit looks tremendous with a gorgeous sharp image and excellent contrast. Audio for a three serials is fine, a little hissy in parts but dialogue never lacks definition. (According to the liner notes, much restoration work was done on the audio to remove a lot of extraneous noise that came with the original broadcasts like coughs and various studio clamour.)

For the extras, first up is the excellent 40-min BBC4 documentary The Kneale Tapes from 2003 in which the 81 year old Nigel Kneale looks back on some of his most famous works including Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Year of the Sex Olympics (1968) The Stone Tape (1972) and the 1979 Quatermass serial. Kneale is interviewed again along with Rudolph Cartier for the 11-min Cartier and Kneale in Conversation, while the 7-min Making Demons interviews two of the founders of the BBC's Special Effects Unit who worked on the 2nd and 3rd Quatermass serials. The original shooting scripts of the four lost episodes of The Quatermass Experiment are included as pdf files, plus there's a two minute credit wrapper for the omnibus edition of Quatermass and the Pit, as well as an on-set stills gallery, which is worth seeing as it shows what The Quatermass Experiment could have looked like has the technology been better. So, a fine set for a landmark television series, this is simply unmissable.

Nigel Kneale catches up with an old friend in The Kneale Tapes


  1. Fantastic post Wes, truly epic. One forgets that TV dramas like Quatermass and Z Cars were filmed live in the 1950s. The atmosphere onthe studio floor must have been electric. I haven't seen any of the BBC Quatermass but vividly remember as a kid watching the 1979John Mills Quatermass that ITV made. I saw it again recently and it wasn't too bad. It's weathered quite well. The BBC boxset looks great.

  2. Thanks Jon. I was thinking the very same thing as I was watching the series - what it must have been like to be an actor on set awaiting the broadcast. I'm not sure if my nerves would have held up. The live transmission seems to be something from a bygone era these days - I wouldn't be a television expert by any means but the only contemporary example I can think of is Stephen Frears 2000 update on Sidney Lumet's Fail Safe starring George Clooney, Richard Dreyfus and Harvey Keitel... I would definitely like to check out some more classic television - there's a very good Criterion boxset out called The Golden Age of Television which rounds up some key works of 50's American television, and I can personally recommend the complete
    Twilight Zone series and Thriller, Brian Clemens' excellent British anthology series from the 70's...

  3. The Golden Age of Television looks pretty good. Yeah, I remember Thriller. It was one of those shows that I used to hide from when it came on. Also, Beasts. And a great BBC serial called Supernatural. Some good children's stuff too: Sky, The Changes, King of The Castle, The Georgian House. A lot of childhood trauma there!