Quatermass and the Pit
Classic TV

Kneale Before Nigel: Quatermass and the Pit in HD

Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass and the Pit is arguably the point at which TV became capable of doing science-fiction well. Kneale had, of course, transformed British TV with first his adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984 and then given us two previous, genre-defining Quatermass serials – Kneale established the “we go to them” genre with The Quatermass Experiment and “they come to us” with Quatermass II. However, let’s just say the technology wasn’t quite there yet and maybe directors were a little too theatrical still.

But Quatermass and the Pit, TV’s first “they were always here”, arrived in 1958, at a time when film was really starting to influence TV and productions no longer needed to be performed completely live. Instead, parts of it could be pre-recorded, opening up location filming and the chance to do more complicated special effects. There were also well established BBC departments for creating special effects and sound, as well as greater budgets available to make things that didn’t look like tatty gloves instead of aliens.

Nevertheless, most TV was still performed live and recorded on 405-line videotape, if at all. But as the previous Quatermass serials had had such an impact, The Powers That Be decided that while Quatermass and the Pit would mostly be performed live, albeit with copious filmed inserts, it would be preserved for posterity by being ‘telerecorded’ on 35mm – that is, a film camera was aimed a TV monitor.

That means something rather exciting: despite being shot for British TV in 1958, large parts of Quatermass and the Pit were HD-ready, provided someone took the time to clean them up. Which is what the BBC has done. Out this month is an actual, honest to goodness, Blu-Ray release of Quatermass and the Pit.

Wondering what it looks like and whether it really is HD? Wonder no more.

I should also point out that you can watch the entire thing on the BBC iPlayer in SD for the next seven months, if you so desire. But really, get the Blu-Ray.

The Weekly Play: The ITV Play – Gentry (1988)

Nigel Kneale went to Hollywood. He headed off after Kinvig in 1981, after initially being approached by director John Landis to work on the screenplay for a remake of Creature from the Black Lagoon. The movie never went into production, but while in the US, Kneale met director Joe Dante, who invited him to write Halloween III: Season of the Witch for him. Kneale agreed, on the proviso that it would be a totally new concept unrelated to the first two films, which he had not seen and he did not like what he had heard about them.

Kneale’s treatment for the film met with the approval of John Carpenter, the producer of the Halloween series. However, financial backer Dino De Laurentiis insisted upon the inclusion of more graphic violence and a rewrite of the script from director Tommy Wallace. Kneale was displeased with the results and had his name removed from the film. 

He didn’t return to writing for UK TV until 1987. Part of the virtually forgotten ITV Play drama strand, it sees  affluent young couple Duncan Preston (Surgical Spirit, Dinnerladies) and Phoebe Nicholls (The Elephant Man, Brideshead Revisted) inspecting a shabby town house that’s up for sale. Nicholls is less than impressed by it, but Preston has plans to renovate it and sell it for a big profit. However, their plan quickly turns into a nightmare when three criminals led by Roger Daltrey (Tommy, Highlander: The Series) arrive, searching for the money they hid in the building years ago.

Although ‘gentrification’ was a theme of the Thatcherite years, with certain councils famously importing affluent yuppies into impoverished areas in an effort to improve the area (and make it Tory), this is arguably Kneale’s prescience at work again – he’d anticipated Big Brother by several decades with The Year of the Sex Olympics, and Gentry was here predicting the advent of Property Ladder and its ilk.

But following on from Kinvig and as with the later Ladies’ Knight, Kneale writes Gentry as much as a comedy as it is a drama – the name is a mocking of middle-class cluelessness and arrogance at thinking it can just enter a working class area and do what it likes, without caring about that area’s history. The horror here is the discovery for the middle class that the working class might not like that and would fight back through the middle class’s weak spot – their homes.

Gentry also has a point to make about the effects of gentrification on the existing locals. Daltrey’s character may be a criminal and have a gun; he might even take the couple hostage. But he’s sympathetic, he and his gang returning to their childhood homes to find the area ‘gentrified’, their loved ones and community gone.

And it’s this week’s play. 

PS Three of Kneale’s one-off plays, including Gentry and Ladies’ Night are coming out on DVD in September

The Weekly Play

The Weekly Play: Unnatural Causes – Ladies’ Night (1986)

Blog god Nigel Kneale might not immediately strike you as a feminist writer. Or even one with especially feminist leanings. It’s not like 1984, Year of the Sex Olympics or any of the Quatermass stories are jam-packed with strong female characters and there’s barely a female lead to be found.

Not until the 70s, that is. Just as the UK was rediscovering feminism at the time, so Nigel was awaking to the potential of female characters. Squint a bit at The Stone Tape or Murrain and you can see that the female characters have been elevated to co-leads, and some of his plays for Beasts had actual female leads and were concerned with female issues, with Baby and During Barty’s Party dealing with wives’ feelings of isolation when their husbands are unable to help them.

By the 80s, Kneale is becoming more overt about his new concerns. 1981’s Kinvig doesn’t seem at first like a feminist work, but Kinvig’s ridiculous fantasies about frequent shopper Prunella Gee are a reasonable satire of the male gaze in science-fiction. 

By 1986, he’s actually quite explicit about it. Ladies’ Night, which aired in 1986 as part of ITV’s Unnatural Causes anthology series (you can probably guess what each episode had in common), hints at its themes in the title. It features a tradition-bound gentlemen’s club that’s thrown into chaos when women are allowed in during ‘ladies’ night’ in order to raise money and attract new members. However, one member resents the intrusion of women so much that when she starts mocking the club’s antediluvian nature, he resorts to murder.

Directed by Herbert Wise and starring Alfred Burke, Bryan Pringle, Ronald Pickup, Fiona Walker and Nigel Stock, it’s only half an hour long and it’s this week’s Weekly Play. Unfortunately, it’s not available for embedding, but it’s over here on YouTube.

BFI events

The Wednesday Play/Kneale Before Nigel: Murrain (1975)

Any TV buff worth their salt can name at least one or two of the most famous play series: The Wednesday Play, The Play For Today, Armchair Theatre – these were all justifiably famous thanks to the quantity of classics they produced.

However, the annals of TV history are littered with failed TV play series that almost no one can remember, usually because they never yielded a single great piece of work, even when they had great authors writing for them. Indeed, whenever I’m combing YouTube and the Internet for plays for this strand of the blog, I’m usually coming across one or two new ones each time that I’ve never heard of before.

ATV’s 1975 series Against The Crowd – an annoyingly self-consciously titled show if ever there was one – is one such unmemorable series. Heard of Against The Crowd? Neither had I and neither has the Internet, it turns out. It’s not been released by Network, the home of obscure TV that only seven people will buy on DVD. It doesn’t have a Wikipedia page. Its IMDB page is sketchy at best and even lists it under “partially lost”, since two of its seven episodes, Tell It To The Chancellor and Blind Man’s Buff, are both missing from the archives, probably having been wiped by ATV/ITV. Even the BFI offers nothing beyond “anthology drama” in its database of TV shows. 

I did discover that:

  1. It may have aired in the afternoons
  2. Dennis Potter resented the name of the series, since that imposed a house style, and he didn’t like that.

So why mention it at all? Well, it did have some very famous names writing for it, including Fay Weldon (Poor Baby); Howard Schuman (Carbon Copy); and Kingsley Amis (We Are All Guilty). But no one, it seems, is interested in carrying a torch for their lost works, though. No. You have to have a specific kind of nerdy motivation to dredge up old TV from 40 years ago, and that usually means a love of sci-fi, fantasy or horror.

Don’t be surprised then that the only episode of Against The Crowd that anyone is interested in is Murrain, written by a certain Nigel Kneale, after he fell out with the BBC after they abandoned Quatermass. That’s the one everyone cares about and that’s the only one that’s been released on DVD, bundled with Beasts, Kneale’s subsequent ITV anthology series that he wrote for Against The Crowd writer/producer Roger Marshall. It’s also the only one the BFI has shown in the past decade or perhaps ever, as far as I know.

Murrain, named after an antiquated term for various infectious diseases affecting cattle and sheep, is a standard piece of Kneale fare in which superstition (in the form of a pig farmer who thinks a local woman is really a witch) meets science (a vet who wants to protect the little old lady from him and the other nasty bumpkins who believe). Who’s right, who’s wrong or are they both right? Everything’s an option with Kneale…

Shot on location on the then in-vogue cheap-as-chips video, it lacks the atmosphere of Kneale’s BBC plays and proves that DoPs in the 70s shouldn’t have got ambitions above their stations so many years before the invention of the Steadicam. All the same, a decent cast, including Bernard Lee (M from the early Bond movies) and Una Brandon-Jones (Withnail & I), and Kneale’s dialogue and gift for ideas means it’s not a total loss. 

Classic TV

Kneale Before Nigel: Quatermass/The Quatermass Conclusion (1979)

QuatermassStarring: John Mills, Simon MacCorkindale, Barbara Kellerman
Writer: Nigel Kneale
Director: Piers Haggard
Price: Blu-ray £29.99 (Amazon price: £21.75), DVD £19.99 (Amazon price: £14.75)
Released: 27 July 2015

In the last quarter of the 20th century, the whole world seemed to sicken. Civilised institutions, whether old or new, fell… as if some primal disorder was reasserting itself. And men asked themselves, “Why should this be?”

Professor Bernard Quatermass is one of the most important characters in TV history. Created by blog god Nigel Kneale back in 1953 for the BBC, Quatermass was the hero of The Quatermass Experiment, a ground-breaking piece of adult science-fiction television, created at a time when all the US had to offer the world was Captain Video.

The Quatermass Experiment saw Quatermass, the head of the ‘British Rocket Group’, sending into space a rocket containing three astronauts, only for it to come back down again with two of them missing and the survivor strangely changed. What happened to the missing astronauts is for the coldly scientific Quatermass to find out and his investigations are set to change the way we think about ourselves.

The six-part serial was so popular that despite being broadcast at a time when very few people actually owned a TV, it was able to empty the streets. The result was not only a movie adaptation by Hammer Films, but a 1955 sequel appropriately called Quatermass II. If The Quatermass Experiment was “we go to them”, Quatermass II was “they come to us”, with Quatermass discovering that his plans for a base on the moon have already been put into practice… in England. But what’s inside these domes and how is it that no one’s noticed them until now?

The popularity of this new serial was again sufficient for both a movie adaptation and another lavish sequel, Quatermass and the Pit, to be approved, the latter being broadcast in 1958. This saw a WWII bomb discovered during building works in London. However, subsequent examination reveals that the discovery is a lot, lot older than anyone could have guessed.

“We go to them”, “They come to us” but now it turns out that they have always been here – and that we are the Martians.

However, that was the last of Quatermass for a while. Although Kneale was asked in 1965 to write a new Quatermass story for the BBC2 anthology series Out of the Unknown, he declined the offer, which meant that the first new Quatermass the 1960s got to see was a Hammer adaptation of Quatermass and the Pit in 1967.

The success of this movie prompted Hammer to ask Kneale to write a new Quatermass movie for them, but that got no further than initial negotiations, meaning Quatermass and the Pit was also the only new Quatermass story of the 1960s. But following the success of The Stone Tape in 1972, the BBC asked Kneale for a new Quatermass serial… and he agreed.

Kneale completed the script in February 1973, after which preliminary filming work began. However, for various reasons, the BBC got cold feet, and the serial was cancelled in the summer of that year.

The BBC’s rights to the serial expired in 1975, by which time Kneale was working for ITV on projects such as Murrain and Beasts. Then, in 1977, Star Wars arrived on the scene and suddenly everyone was interested in science-fiction again. In particular, Euston Films, an ITV film subsidiary, became interested – perhaps, in part, because it was overseen by blog goddess and famous Doctor Who producer Verity Lambert. And Euston wanted both a four-part TV series and a movie.

Guess what’s going to be released on Blu-Ray next week. Yes, after the jump, we’re going to be looking at the forthcoming release of Quatermass and The Quatermass Conclusion – the final adventures of Professor Bernard Quatermass (almost)

Here’s a trailer or three.

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