❉ Andy Murray on legendary scriptwriter Nigel Kneale.
Andy Murray is Film Editor for Northern Soul and a regular contributor to Big Issue North. He’s also the author of the Nigel Kneale biography Into the Unknown: The Fantastic Life of Nigel Kneale, which has just been published in revised and updated form by Headpress. Andy talks to We Are Cult about Into the Unknown and its subject, legendary scriptwriter Nigel Kneale.
Hi, Andy. For any of our readers who aren’t aware of your work, can you tell us a little about yourself and your background as a writer?
I’m from Manchester and I’ve been working as a freelance writer since about 1999. I’m interested in the arts generally, but specifically film, music, comedy and TV, particularly the culty end of things. Cult is very much my bag.
In 2006 Headpress published your biography of Nigel Kneale, Into The Unknown: The Fantastic Life of Nigel Kneale and they’ve just published a revised and updated second edition. How did you go about putting together this new edition; did you rebuild it from the ground up?
It’s really been a case of sprucing up and expanding the first edition. Sadly, Kneale himself has died since the book originally came out, so in that respect alone it begged a new closing chapter. But there’s also been a lot of Kneale-related activity in the past ten years, too, with even more on the cards. His life may be over, but his work is definitely going on. Also, it was an opportunity to include an extra layer of information about his earlier projects that I’d discovered since back in 2006.
What was the initial impetus for writing a biography of Kneale’s life and work? Did you take any cues from existing books or articles?
I’d always loved his work – I was the sort of geeky 16 year-old who got terribly excited by the BBC Quatermass and the Pit being released on video back in 1988! Many years later I had the pleasure of inviting him to a screening event at Cornerhouse in Manchester. It was a thrill to actually meet him and he was full of great stories about his career. I thought, ‘Why has no-one ever written a book about him?’. Then it was just a matter of taking that leap and thinking, ‘Why don’t I try to write one?’. There had already been some fine articles written about Kneale, so in some ways I took my cues from them. Probably most of all, a great series of interviews by Julian Petley and Kim Newman.
Did you gain any fresh insights or come across any surprising new information while writing and researching this new edition?
Plenty of bits and pieces along the way. Amongst other things, there are details on the recent plans to revive Quatermass in one form or another. And it turns out that the first involvement Kneale ever had with television, just before he joined the BBC, has never been documented before, so I’m quite proud to have unearthed that.
Can you remember how you first came across Nigel Kneale’s work?
He would have been horrified, but like many fans I first came to Kneale via Doctor Who: reading in the likes of Doctor Who Magazine (nay, Monthly) that so many Who stories cribbed ideas from his work. I was too young to be allowed to see the Thames Quatermass at the time, so I suspect I’d have seen the film version of Quatermass and the Pit as a late-night TV screening some time in the mid 80s. And a home rental copy of Halloween III around the same time, though I might not even have known that Kneale had anything to do with that.
Your book goes into some detail about Kneale’s contributions to the first draft of Halloween III: Season of the Witch. The end product became something quite different to Kneale’s original intentions, with Universal asking Carpenter to ramp up the violence and Kneale had his name removed from the film, and yet Kneale’s fingerprints are all over it: ancient evil, superstition vs technology, etc. What’s your take on this infamous piece of Kneale apocrypha?
Kneale was no fan of the first two Halloween films, which he thought were crass and unsubtle. He agreed to write an unrelated third film and was particularly proud of the script, but after the falling-out it was rewritten… and became much more more crass and unsubtle. Yet what makes it so interesting and memorable is the strength of Kneale’s ideas. The sinister businessman with the secret factory, the masks designed to cause chaos at Halloween… They stay with you, despite the re-write. It’s perhaps just a shame that it’s one of the most widely-available, widely-seen things that Kneale ever wrote. Or at least, kind of wrote.
Was Carpenter alone in being a stateside afficionade of Kneale’s uniquely British work?
A whole generation of American writers and directors grew up as Kneale fans – not just Carpenter, but also Stephen King, Joe Dante, John Landis, Dan O’Bannon. Spielberg seems to know the Quatermass films, too: there are lots of little nods in his work.
Kneale’s sitcom Kinvig was less well received than his drama work. Where do you think it sits in his record of achievements?
It’s certainly worth a watch if you’re a fan and it’s generally been neglected, but I don’t think it’s anything like as good as his best work. It’s simply not in the same league. It just doesn’t quite land with the audience and make you laugh like it should. A typical Kneale move in its way, though, which you could either call daring or just plain awkward. It’s almost hard to imagine now: An experienced, respected TV dramatist suddenly decides, ‘I think I’m going to have a crack at a studio sitcom’.
Us cult aficionados love a “what if?” and one of the big ‘what if’s of Kneale’s work is the unproduced The Big, Big Giggle, which was rejected by both the BBC and 20th Century Fox (at the behest of the BBFC’s John Trevalyan). Lost classic or curate’s egg?
It’s a very strong, inventive script, actually, and although it went unmade, strong echoes of it are there in subsequent projects, especially the fourth Quatermass serial. The mind boggles to think what kind of impact it would have had if it had been produced. It might even have changed the course of his career. We’ll never know. Mind you, anyone who gets wound up by Kneale’s distrust of youth culture is best just forgetting all about it…
One of your previous books was T is For Television, a similar overview on the life and work of Russell T. Davies. Did you find any interesting contrasts or comparisons between these two giants of British TV writing in their outlook, philosophies or working methods?
There are certainly similarities. They both like to ground any fantastical elements in a believable, contemporary reality: Kneale in post-war London, the countryside and the suburbs, Davies in council estates, family homes, hospitals and schools. Both are atheists who nevertheless have a fascination with things they don’t believe in – religion for Davies, the supernatural for Kneale. Both have dealth with very popular, mainstream science-fiction on television. And Russell is an admirer of Kneale’s. But there’s one big fundamental difference between them, I think. Russell remains an unapologetic fan of popular science fiction – not least Doctor Who, of course. Kneale didn’t much like popular science fiction at all and usually tried to distance his work from it.
Throughout the book, you signpost recurring themes and obsessions in Kneale’s writing, from sci-fi and satire to sitcom, and comparisons are made to other television auteurs such as Dennis Potter. What are the overriding motifs through his work?
He’s often drawn to the clash between science and superstition, ancient and modern, young and old. In some of his work, generational clashes are very significant. The spectre of the Second World War looms over much of his work, too – more and more so in later years. But I think the major theme of his writing, which crystalises all of the above, is the idea of something old, something buried, coming to the surface and causing chaos. Sometimes it’s literal, sometimes it’s metaphorical, but it’s right there in Quatermass and the Pit, The Year of The Sex Olympics, The Stone Tape, The Road, Beasts…
It’s fair to say that Kneale could be described as the godfather of post-war British telefantasy, from the obvious influence of Quatermass on Doctor Who, to the prophetic The Year of The Sex Olympics (a clear antecedent of Black Mirror); and Beasts and The Stone Tape becoming key texts of the folk horror revival. Just what is it about Kneale’s work that makes it both of its time and yet has such an enduring appeal, for both viewers and writers?
Often they’re ‘of their time’ because he used contemporary settings and reacted to current events. The ’50s Quatermass serials are very much about post-war Britain; The Road and The Crunch are about early ’60s fears about nuclear armageddon; The Year of the Sex Olympics responds to late ’60s permissiveness. He might deal with elements of science fiction but he very rarely sets work in the future and never bothers will alien worlds. But his work endures because his ideas are so strong, original and vivid. It’s perfectly possible to take the core story of, say, The Quatermass Experiment or The Stone Tape and retell them in some form for a modern audience. His work transcends the times in which they were written and his actual ideas don’t date.
Into The Unknown is as much the story of Kneale as a family man as well a writer, and his wife Judith Kerr – best known as creator of the Mog books for children and her trilogy of junior fiction inspired by her wartime experiences – figures heavily in the narrative. What would you say was Kerr’s contribution to Kneale’s life and work?
She was the love of his life, full stop. For decades they worked in twin workrooms at the top of their house and would discuss what they were both working on. Kerr often credits Kneale with dreaming up titles for her books, or useful bits of plot. I don’t think she had the same kind of input on his work, beyond fuelling his fascination with the horrors of World War II, which she’d experienced a little too closely as a child. But it doesn’t really matter. She was much more important to him than any script he could ever have written.
How can readers discover more about you and you work?
I’m on Twitter as @MrGeetsRomo. Also, a lot of my recent journalism can be found at http://www.northernsoul.me.uk/blogs/northern-electric/
Thanks for taking time out to speak to We Are Cult, Andy!