‘Quatermass and the Pit’ at 60

❉ The enduring appeal of Nigel Kneale’s telefantasy masterpiece, which first aired 60 years ago this week.

One of Quatermass and the Pit’s legacies is a rather good episode of The Goon Show which spoofed the serial. In it, a skull is unearthed at a building site and the ancient and wizened Henry Crun tells the gathered crowd that it is five million years old… ‘Happy birthday to you…’ they begin to sing.

The drama which the BBC produced in the 1950s is barely remembered today, mainly because so little survives or is accessible. They preferred single plays or the odd serial of which the three Quatermass productions are arguably the best remembered and easiest to access. The police series Dixon of Dock Green was, of course, made by the Light Entertainment people, in case you weren’t wondering! I remember buying in 1990 the BBC video release of Quatermass and the Pit, which was cut together as two very long episodes with a baffling Intermission slide appearing in the middle! The later DVD release gave us the uncut episodic version, and now it is available on blu-ray.

Quatermass and the Pit could be called science fiction because it deals with a crashed Martian spaceship, dead alien astronauts (which makes a change from dead human astronauts as seen in earlier Quatermass serials) and genetically altered specimens of our ancestors. But the script is steeped in eerie myth, uncanny legend, mysterious folklore and current affairs. The current affairs deals with race riots which is apparently nothing new under the sun either on Earth or Mars. Add to that the encroaching menace and paranoia of the military, who are wanting to stick a couple of missile launchers on the Moon, despite the protests of Professor Quatermass who is losing civil control of his own rocket group.

It is a now familiar tale of science versus superstition – either of the tea leaf divination type or the official state superstition which wears a dog collar, both of which people needed for comfort during the story. Nothing is mocked, although they are presented as crutches. The scientific method cannot offer comfort. Hardly surprisingly, scientific understanding, and dire predictions of the future are dismissed when it is presented to official ‘rational’ bodies in case it leads to public hysteria or mockery. This is a relief really because otherwise we would not have had as quite a spectacular final episode as the world crumbles around them and the evil Martian influence starts the ultimate race riot in London. The burning city was a familiar image to viewers over the age of twenty who may have remembered the Blitz. Bomb sites were still just round the corner.

The pace of the serial is at times quite achingly slow in the earlier episodes. Long panning shots of newspaper hoardings advancing the plot or scene setting slides. This was still the time of small television sets showing a live performance. What we see is a remarkably smooth production considering how even the pre-recorded television of its day, say a Hancock’s Half Hour (which also spoofed the serial) had more than its fair share of bloopers and fluffs. It probably helped just how much of the serial was pre-filmed, not just for location work but for logistical reasons. The first half of the story deals with the excavation of what is thought to be an unexploded bomb at a building site. They begin with the first discoveries and then the whole ‘bomb’ is eventually exposed and cleaned up. Therefore the last part of an episode suddenly switches to film to show the next stage of excavation. Must have been hell for the continuity person, trying to match it all up. It also looked to be a very muddy and dirty set for the actors, often crawling and digging up bone fragments with their bare hands!

This was a very expensive production for its day and it is hardly surprising by the sheer size of its cast. Nigel Kneale had been a BBC staff writer for five years and now was a much respected and in demand freelancer. He clearly gave budget very little thought. That was producer and director Rudolph Cartier’s department. If you ever get to see a budget breakdown for any television production, it is usually the cast which claims the biggest share of the money. Well, Quatermass and the Pit has so many characters walking in, some with only a couple of well-characterised lines and are never seen again. , as well as quite a large number of characters who straddle the production, such as the ministry officials and the bomb disposal team. No wonder the original BBC video release saw many of these cameos cut, presumably to avoid paying them a fee. I remember the same thing happened with the BBC’s original release of House of Cards.

Some of these brief cameos were designed to give other actors a chance to get from one set to another! Here’s an example. After the wonderful Cec Linder who plays the anthropologist Matthew Roney has to get from his press conference scene to a bar where he is drowning his sorrows, Arthur Hewlett and another actor discuss a newspaper headline until Linder is ready to be seen in shot. There are some rather odd performances to be seen in the serial, some deliberate (how else do you run like a man possessed by a grass-hopper like Martian?) or the clipped tones of a civil servant who when asked to kill a telephone call simply puts a hand under his nose and that, apparently, reduces his talk to silence! Christine Finn has an odd way of delivering her lines at times but at least it makes her noticeable.

Andre Morrell is the third actor to play Quatermass (or the fourth if you include Brian Donlevy who played him in the two recent Hammer films), and for some this is the definitive portrayal: authoritative, bow-tied, witty and resilient against the brutal and ugly militaristic ignorance presented by the Colonel Breen played by the fantastic Anthony Bushell. Morrell seems to have been a favourite of Cartier’s having appeared in a number of his plays before including Kneale’s famous adaption of 1984. The original Quatermass, Reginald Tate, died just before Quatermass II went into production and John Robinson was cast in his place. Audiences of Pit would only have had their memories to go by (if they had watched the earlier productions).

In fact, watch all three Quatermass serials (only the first two episodes of The Quatermass Experiment were tele-recorded) and you are watching the evolution of BBC television drama during the 1950s. Beginning with the pioneering, but limited technologies available in Alexandra Palace for The Quatermass Experiment, Quatermass II saw the introduction of the BBC’s special effects unit which created meteorites, alien organisms, exploding refineries and rockets ensnared by alien tentacles, while Pit introduces us to the remarkable sounds of the Radiophonic Workshop which adds to the terror of the production, not least the echoes generated by the Martian spaceship and the poltergeist scenes at the end of part four where the driller Sladden is seemingly pursued by a poltergeist, with plates, planks and stones thrown at him by hidden BBC design teams.

The execution of the special effects created by Jack Kine and Bernard Wilkie are still magnificent. In fact when I watched the Hammer film version back in the day, I found their attempts at a Martian massacre somewhat lacking in comparison. It is not just the incredible Martians themselves but the capsule in all of its stages. Where the film did get one over on the TV production was the method in which the menace was finally ‘earthed’. Very, very clever! The only thing it did not possess was an original score, but the music selected from ‘Trevor Duncan’s music library is absolutely pitch perfect, especially the music chosen to introduce each episode (farewell Holst’s Mars, Bringer of War).

The next time the BBC produced a science fiction serial it was far more contemporary – A for Andromeda dealt with radio telescopes, computers and genetic engineering. When its sequel, The Andromeda Breakthrough, was transmitted in 1962, it went out in the same week as The Big Pull, another serial which dealt with astronauts attacked by an alien intelligence that could reach Earth now that the Americans had exploded a nuclear bomb in the Earth’s protective Van Allen belt and created a hole. The plot was reminiscent of The Quatermass Experiment in places with disappearing astronauts and merged identities. It is a tragedy we cannot watch this one now.

It has sometimes been said that it is a pity that Nigel Kneale never wrote for Doctor Who. It would never have had happened. There is no way on Earth he would have written to someone else’s format. Kneale wrote original plays or adapted novels in his own way. For example, he did briefly look into adapting The Kraken Awakes shortly after Quatermass and the Pit. Although one can imagine Serials department Head Donald Wilson mentioning the idea to Kneale in the BBC bar one day in 1963. Kneale worked at the BBC in the day when a writer worked with his producer (who was usually the director) and that was it. Things had changed by 1963 and there were writers who resented a script editor vetting their work…

Apparently Kneale did not like the idea of frightening children deliberately – although that was never in Doctor Who’s original remit, it just happened. He preferred terrifying adults or those with a ‘nervous disposition’ (such as Tony Hancock), although children made sure they got in on the act when they were allowed.

Happy birthday Quatermass and the Pit. Much imitated, seldom bettered.

❉ The HD Remastered ‘Quatermass and The Pit’ Blu-ray (BBC Studios) was released Nov 12, 2018. Running time: 204 mins plus extras. Rated PG. RRP £19.99. Available to buy and download from Amazon UK. 

❉ Writer Michael Seely is a regular contributor to We Are Cult, and is the author of acclaimed biographies of director Douglas Camfield and Cyberman creator, scientist Kit Pedler, as well as Prophets of Doom: The Unauthorised History of Doomwatch.

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