We are the martians: Nigel Kneale

❉ Transdiffusion’s Russ J Graham looks back on the godfather of post-war British telefantasy’s legacy

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Andrew Kier as Professor Bernard Quatermass

Television and science fiction were made for each other. The two fit so well together – especially in black and white – that it’s hard to imagine that science fiction as a genre existed at least two hundred years before the cyclops in the corner made its debut. But it took a certain level of genius to realise this, and a certain higher level of genius to turn this realisation into truly amazing (and scary) television.

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Nigel Kneale was the genius television had been waiting for. His work, spanning the BBC, ATV, Thames and Hammer, still stands the test of time sixty years after it first aired.

The trick is the paradox – turning your story inside out. Now if it is something that appears to be of total normality and then suddenly turns inside out and is a different thing all together then that’s fun to write. – Nigel Kneale

Thomas Nigel Kneale (18 April 1922 – 29 October 2006) had been an actor and a playwright for BBC radio before becoming a staff writer in the Drama Department of the reborn BBC Television Service after World War II. His first play adaptations were screened in 1953; his first hit, fresh from his imagination, came later that year.

‘The Quatermass Experiment’ brought small-scale fear and high drama into the drawing rooms of the small public audience for television. Following hot on the heels of the founding-event of TV as a mass-medium, the coronation, and of the creation of television’s first star in crusty Gilbert Harding, ‘Quatermass’ pushed audience – and television – boundaries further than they had gone before.

Professor Bernard Quatermass, played by Reginald Tate, is leading the British Experimental Rocket Group, with eyes on sending men into space and ultimately to the moon and Mars. His first experimental launch sends a crew into orbit, from which only one will return… Over six weeks, the comparatively tiny audience – television was still a minority pursuit amongst a population that still preferred radio – was hooked. ‘Appointment viewing’ had been created, and at last television was something everybody needed to have, rather than just thought they might get round to.

Kneale followed it up with an adaptation of George Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’, complete with a repeat – both performed live by a cast including Peter Cushing as the doomed hero Winston Smith, André Morell as the traitorous O’Brien and Donald Pleasence as the vaporised Syme – and his place in television history was sealed.

‘Quatermass II’, this time featuring John Robinson as the professor, in 1955 was another hit for the BBC Television Service, whilst Hammer’s Val Guest-directed ‘The Quatermass Xperiment’ of the same year was a further hit, this time on the big screen with suitable mid-Atlantic casting of Brian Donlevy as Quatermass. Kneale went on record to condemn the film version for many reasons, but collected the royalties and continued to work for Hammer, suggesting his condemnation was little more than skin deep.

More film and television Quatermass adventures followed before Kneale switched away from science fiction to become an accomplished screenplay writer, including working on the classic stage-to-screen adaptation of ‘Look Back in Anger’.

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By 1968 he was back on TV, this time for BBC-2, with the gaudy-coloured but strangely accurate ‘Year of the Sex Olympics’, charting how television of the future would be obsessed with making real people perform for ‘reality’ television and how the viewing public would become obsessed with and then repelled by the relentless parade of sex and flawed personalities set before them. Leonard Rossiter starred, and it’s a crying shame only a black and white copy has survived in the archives, the original master having been wiped.

His next big sci-fi adventure was truly terrifying ‘The Stone Tape’ for BBC-1 in 1972. More horror than sci-fi, it used the mise-en-scène of sci-fi to scare the hell out of its audience, this time using Michael Bryant and Jane Asher to bring forth the horror – Asher being particularly, but strangely never uncelebrated as such, suitable for frightening the nation when she puts her considerable talents to it.

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By 1976 Kneale was at ATV making the soon-forgotten ‘Beasts’ and then at Thames Television subsidiary Euston Films in 1979 for the not-terribly-well received ‘Quatermass Conclusion’ (aka ‘Quatermass’ as on the title card or ‘Quatermass IV’ in the publicity) with Sir John Mills at the height of his blank-eyed, playing-for-money middle years.

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The 1980s were less good for Kneale: his star waned with TV executives who, finding television unexpectedly entering a new golden age, were keen to dump science fiction as a genre to concentrate on fiction-past – olde worlde costume drama and gin and tonics in India were certainly not his forte. Work in the 1980s was patchy, with what did make it to screen never hitting his previous heights.

His talent was recognised and remembered by the BBC, with the then-new BBC Four celebrating his work with a documentary in 2003 and following it up with a live remake of ‘The Quatermass Experiment’ in 2005 – sadly digested down to just one episode, which itself ran at such a clip as to end early, having also been slightly spoiled by needing a banner across the screen halfway through to advise people that they might like to turn to BBC News 24 (Pope John Paul II having chosen that moment to make his exit after a good fortnight of people queuing in St Peter’s Square).

But that’s live television. And Kneale himself would no doubt have been the first to note that the immediacy of live TV benefited the genre of science fiction more than the odd distraction acted as a detriment.


❉ A earlier version of this article appeared on Transdiffusion in 2006.

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2 Comments

  1. I think much of Kneale’s output is hugely under-rated; it could be argued that his early work with Rudolph Cartier shaped the future of television drama more profoundly than anyone else. Quatermass and the Pit is almost sixty years old. Editing may be somewhat tighter today, but in every other respect this feels like a modern production, still highly engrossing.

    Kneale’s ‘During Barty’s Party’ (from Beasts, and available on DVD) is also one of the most splendidly terrifying hours of television ever made.

  2. It may just be that Kneale tapped into properly uncanny seams from the off, peaking early. The Quatermasses were spoken of in hushed, reverential tones in my family, & imagery as primal as the Wild Hunt or the Martian avatar from …Pit is perhaps lightning which can’t be truly revisited. I’m with you that his later career is under-rated, but read as more modest & specific explorations of his major themes, there are proper sparkles in there. Speaking of which…

    You mention Beasts in your comment, & I suppose it’s due to happenstance that I regard that series so highly. There’s always those gateway-drug shows you stumble upon at the most impressionable age; I was 8 when Beasts first aired, & recall them with startling clarity from babysat viewings. (Agreed upon During Barty’s Party, but I’d also give props to Special Offer, perhaps my favourite episode – a fantastic central performance from Pauline Quirke which is IMHO the best of the whole run).

    But chuffed as I was when Network issued Beasts on DVD, joy was unconfined when I spied Kneale’s teleplay Murrain (Against The Crowd, ITV 1975) as an extra feature. If we’re talking under-rated Kneale, this is the cherry on the cake.I saw this on a strange afternoon, off school with some feverish complaint, lolling about in front of Mavis Nicholson with Lucozade & duvets to hand… & spent the next thirty years desperate to see it again. Beautifully, it was just as powerfully ambivalent in 2006 as it had been in 1975.

    A tale of folk hysteria & local emnity, boasting a great bewildered turn from David Simeon at its heart, it follows Kneale’s usual trope of the battle between science & superstition, but for once without the “other” being actualised at any point. More of a character study than a fable (albeit with some yokelly dumbshow at times), it fascinated & chilled me as a nipper, & it still moves me as a miserable middle-aged bleeder, perhaps because as a cynical adult I know that perceptual bias can be actually destructive, & the idea that the voice of reason may also be along that line of bias is truly unsettling.

    I could wax pompous about what it was like to be able to just happen across great drama on seventies’ telly, but then I’d have to bring myself up short by admitting that Pennies From Heaven still freaks me out to the point where I’ve never been able to rewatch it. You were often out of your comfort zone as a telly-gazing child back then, & the actual kiddietraume can be too easily glossed over with yer spangles’n’choppers pub blah. Nevertheless, some chance meetings landed true & properly challenging, so in the spirit of WAC, I propose Murrain here as an essential cog in Kneale’s machine. The anti-Kinvig, in fact.

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