Starring: 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)
Given the sad passing of Sir Christopher Lee this week, it seems appropriate that this week’s The Wednesday Play should be Vampires, a 1979 BBC Play For Today, about the power of horror movies to affect the imagination. One of the slot’s best remembered plays, it nevertheless features mainly untrained, child actors and was written by an unknown, Liverpool writer Dixie Williams.
One of only two film productions BBC Pebble Mill could afford to make that year, Vampires tells the story of three boys who stay up late to watch Lee’s career-launching role – Hammer classic Dracula: Prince of Darkness. Suitably entranced, they soon end up playing at being vampires, but down the local cemetery, they become convinced that a lone man dressed in black is a real-life vampire. As the play progresses, increasingly spookier and macabre events transpire and the play continues to suggest that maybe they’re not wrong and that vampires are the least of their worries…
Directed by John Goldschmidt, who was best known for his documentaries at the time and who gives the play a distinctly matter-of-fact approach to its supernatural subject, Vampiresalso includes moments of great fun, including a schoolboy discussion of the difference between horror and science-fiction that invokes The Quatermass Experiment, as well as more traditional Play For Today themes, including the difficulty of bringing up kids when you’re a poor, working class mother living in Liverpool in the late 70s.
It’s time for our regular look at the TV that the BFI is showing, this time in December 2014. And it’s Christmas, everyone, because we have the continuing science-fiction season, which will give us a Blake’s 7 evening and several Quatermass evenings, there’s a Doctor Who movie, a Maggie Smith season, The Boy From Space complete with appearance by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, some recently recovered missing episodes of At Last The 1948 Show, introduced by John Cleese no less, and previews of the forthcoming Mapp and Lucia and The Boy In the Dress. How can you turn all that down?
The work of Nigel Kneale is some of the finest and most prophetic to have appeared on British TV. It was sufficiently good that he has been elevated to God-like status on this ‘ere blog.
However, for a large part of his career, television was regarded as an ephemeral medium, one that would be watched and then forgotten about, never to be revisited. Indeed, had his pioneering 1953 adaptation of 1984 not proven so controversial, its second performance would never have been telecorded and the whole thing would have been lost forever, rather than released on DVD to be enjoyed by subsequent generations.
Even once telerecording and then prerecording and filming, rather than live performance, became standard, broadcasters’ attitudes towards archive material was variable, with the BBC famously purging its archives in the 60s and 70s, bar ‘representative examples’ of particular shows.
Naturally, many of the corporation’s play strands were among the purges, which meant that several Nigel Kneale productions were ‘disappeared’. Among these is perhaps one of his best: The Road. His first piece for the BBC since Quatermass and the Pit, it is set in an 18th century village, whose inhabitants are haunted by visions and sounds along a nearby road. Are they ghosts, demons or something else? All is revealed at the end, in one of the most troubling revelations of Kneale’s entire body work.
The original, which starred Norman Kaye, Joy Mitchell, Alexander Archdale and others, is with us no more, unless somebody, somewhere has managed to save a copy that hasn’t yet been returned. But that doesn’t mean the script has gone. And if you have the script for a play, it can be re-performed, which is precisely what some fans of the original have done. And you can watch it below in this week’s Wednesday Play.