Conflicts in the work of screenwriter Nigel Kneale

From Quatermass to The Year Of The Sex Olympics, the voice of classic British screenwriter Nigel Kneale is still resonant and exciting...

Conflict drives drama. What people want and how they set out to get it makes for the best entertainment: Chief Brody wants to make Amity Island a safe place for his kids; Indiana Jones wants to find the Ark of the Covenant; Mark Watney wants to survive on Mars, A giant shark, a bunch of Nazis, and a planet without an atmosphere respectively stand in their way.

But conflict isn’t only a device from which to hang big action sequences. The tension between ideas can make for brilliant drama – the kind of film and television that you think about for years afterwards – and one of the best screenwriters for this conflict of ideas was Nigel Kneale.

Kneale was born in 1922 in Barrow-in-Furness and, upon leaving school, trained first as a lawyer before deciding to pursue acting instead. He studied at RADA, and did work briefly as a professional actor, but had already started to write. His first collection of short stories won the Somerset Maugham Award in 1950 and that was when he decided to become a full-time writer. The BBC employed him as one of their first staff writers in 1951, and from that point on he concentrated on television, both by creating original screenplays and adapting the work of other writers.

It was in the genres of science fiction, fantasy and horror that Kneale made his mark, writing with an amazing economy and clarity. Very difficult subjects could be discussed in detail through his terse dialogue, cutting to the heart of the matter while still managing to create believable characters. The science in his fiction never felt rushed or unlikely.

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Kneale died in 2006. He had led the way in terms of introducing speculative fiction to the small screen, and his influence in bringing some of the big questions of our time to the attention of a TV audience was huge. Here’s a look at some of the major conflicts that we find in his work, and why they mean the dramas he wrote continue to have meaning to us today.

Science vs the paranormal

Kneale’s most famous creation was a man of science who had to deal with the kind of inexplicable scenarios that would have had a lesser person running for the hills. Professor Bernard Quatermass first appeared in The Quatermass Experiment on BBC TV in 1953, in a six-part serial about the first manned space flight and an organism that returned from space with an unsuspecting astronaut. The uncovering of things unknown formed the core of the story; could our knowledge of science help us to defeat a terrible fate we brought upon ourselves?

This is the question that lies at the heart of all the Quatermass adventures: Quatermass II (1955) posited alien infiltration at the highest levels of government, and Quatermass And The Pit (1958/9) delved into humanity’s distant past to discuss where our barbaric tendencies might have originated from. From politics to psychology, Quatermass used science fiction to discuss issues that affected us all.

What was particularly affecting about Quatermass as a character was how easily we could empathise with him as the voice of reason, and this store of goodwill towards him was twisted very effectively in his last appearance – Quatermass IV (also known as The Quatermass Conclusion or simply Quatermass). John Mills plays an aged and forgotten Professor in the 1979 drama for ITV, who is out of touch with a world that no longer values science. It’s a challenging end to his story. Paranormal events happening around the world, focusing upon ancient stone circles, are embraced by the younger generation, and Quatermass cannot understand their carelessness for their own humanity.

This last outing for the Professor was perhaps too downbeat to be popular, but the earlier serials were huge successes. Unfortunately the first series does not survive in its entirety, but you can revisit the other series today and still find them very watchable, if dated, only because so many of Kneale’s ideas have been used by others since. Their popularity was certainly a factor in Hammer’s decision to turn the adventures into films. Kneale did not write the script for The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), a title which played on the X-Certificate it specifically requested from the British Board of Film Censors. It was hugely popular, even if critics were appalled and disgusted. The Hammer version of Quatermass II followed in 1957, and Quatermass And The Pit turned up in 1967. This final film made great use of large-screen colour, and Kneale penned the script itself, removing a sub-plot from the series and making the action more cinematic. Quatermass And The Pit had a horrifying subject matter that unfolded implacably, and is, I think, the most thrilling and thought-provoking of the Professor’s adventures, in both TV and filmic form.

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Kneale’s trick of examining the paranormal through a scientific lens did not stop with Quatermass. In 1972 the BBC showed The Stone Tape, a ghost story in which scientists become aware of a strange presence within their research facility, and try to use technological equipment to isolate and explain it. Kneale’s screenplay was a popular and critical success, and gained a reputation for being one of the scariest television programmes ever made. This reputation has lasted; a radio version will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 this coming Halloween with Romola Garai playing the role that Jane Asher, due to cameo in the audio adaptation, made her own in 1972.

The question of whether science can truly explain a paranormal event dominated many of Kneale’s screenplays, and has had a lasting effect on those that came after. John Carpenter, Steven Spielberg and Tobe Hooper have all acknowledged his influence, and The X-Files was a natural successor to Kneale’s writing, with its touchstone in the same rivalry. The Fox series was first broadcast in 1993, and divided that rivalry neatly between the two main characters of Mulder and Scully. Faith, science, and the inexplicable captured the imagination of its huge audience throughout its nine year run. In fact, Kneale was approached by the producers and asked to write for The X-Files at one point, but he declined.

Whether the revived X-Files will concentrate on Kneale’s key idea once more, and how it might choose to revitalize it for a modern audience, remains to be seen. Do we still think that there are events out there that science cannot explain? Do we hope science will save us, or worry that it will condemn us? It’s a subject that surely still has mileage.

Human vs animal

It might also be accurate to describe this rivalry as our primitive instincts against our evolved sensibilities. What parts of our animalistic natures do we suppress, and what does it take to make them resurface?

The Year Of The Sex Olympics (1968) was shown on BBC2 and remains a incredibly challenging and frightening piece of television, even more so now that it could be argued that some of its prophetic statements have come true. In a society divided into an artistic elite and a more primitive, baser element, the elite make endless television programmes in order to keep the primitives docile. Sex, violence and gluttony are available twenty-four hours a day because of the discovery that seeing such acts stifles the impulse to do them in reality.

But the cost of this docility is a lack of basic emotions, and of the things that make us human, such as the ability to empathise with others. Love, hate, anger and happiness have all disappeared; instead there is only a shocking, empty laughter at the suffering of others. The truth is that we cannot remove our animal instincts without losing the best of ourselves. The Year Of The Sex Olympics had a wonderful cast, with Brian Cox and Leonard Rossiter amongst those actors making the strange, stilted language of the elite work. Only a black and white version remains of what must have been an explosion of on-screen colour, but even in that format it remains an overwhelming experience.

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Later in his career Kneale penned a six part series for ITV that looked specifically at the bestial elements of man’s nature. Beasts (1976) shows just what a great writer can do with a linking theme. Each hour-long episode dealt with a different aspect of this oldest rivalry within ourselves, with quick-moving action and his trademark sparse but effective dialogue.

There are some standout episodes dealing with the animal within. What Big Eyes features an eerie, mesmeric performance by Patrick Magee who is a self-proclaimed scientist experimenting on wolves in an attempt to understand lycanthropy. A local RSPCA Officer (played by Michael Kitchen) becomes involved and attempts to intervene, but much of the action remains, wisely, in our own heads. The Dummy is also very watchable nowadays as a kind of macabre black comedy. It’s a look at an actor who starts to identify too closely with the rather shabby monster he plays in a series of cheap horror films. It leads up to the kind of conclusion that Hammer would have loved.

Speaking once more of Hammer, a TV script of Kneale’s that was broadcast on the BBC in 1955 as The Creature became another one of their films in 1957. Released as The Abominable Snowman, it benefited greatly from having the always dedicated Peter Cushing in the starring role (as did so many Hammer productions). The Abominable Snowman is more of a psychological horror than a gory extravaganza, and asks, in the face of man’s aggression towards the other creatures with which it shares a planet, who is the monster? The Evening Standard reviewed it as “one of the best of British science fiction thrillers” and although it won’t surprise anyone nowadays with its message, it remains a chilling piece of work.

Man vs woman

In The Year Of The Sex Olympics there’s a brilliant moment when an elite couple who have been selected to breed in the past, and now have a child together, realise that they know nothing about each other in this society that dulls all emotion. The opposite sex is one of those mysteries in which deep, dangerous feelings lurk. Can they learn to share the same objectives, the same hopes and fears?

A deep rivalry often exists between men and women in Kneale’s plays, lurking under the surface of the action. It’s particularly noticeable in some of the Beasts episodes. For instance, both Baby and During Barty’s Party rely on the sense of isolation experienced by a lead female character who has a husband that does not begin to understand the psychological terror they are going through.

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Baby is a very strong piece of television horror at its best, with loads going on in a static setting without any need for special effects. A pregnant young wife and her vet husband move into an old house in the country and discover an urn contained within one of the walls. Within it is a set of bones for some unidentifiable foetus; the vet husband is fascinated but the wife feels a deep foreboding. They can’t find a way to communicate their feelings to each other, and so she is at the mercy of her fears. During Barty’s Party pulls a similar trick with an older couple; when a mass migration of rats takes place and their country home is en route, the housebound wife cannot explain to her husband why she is unable to cope.

But none of Kneale’s work addresses this conflict in such overt fashion as a one-off drama he wrote for the ITV series Unnatural Causes in 1986. Titled Ladies Night, it was set in a club for men with dinosaur misogynist members who are forced to open their doors to wives and girlfriends once a week in order to raise money and attract new members. When one of the wives makes fun of their establishment violence erupts in a very black humour that Kneale used rarely, but did extremely well. It’s not a character-driven piece at all; in fact, every single character is very unlikeable, including the wives, which gives the viewer an enjoyable distance from the action to observe how ridiculous this rivalry is. It wouldn’t work with a longer piece, but for thirty minutes this is madly entertaining stuff.

Kneale’s conflicts are classic themes, and he used them with great economy of action and dialogue which suited television from the 1950s to the 1980s perfectly. This doesn’t only apply to his own ideas and scripts; he also wrote brilliant TV versions of Orwell’s 1984, John Osborne’s The Entertainer and Look Back In Anger, Susan Hill’s The Woman In Black, and Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights amongst other projects. He understood what makes great television – it wasn’t just a case of plot, but also underlying motivations that make levels of tension that the viewer understands, and feels. So when we watch Quatermass trying to make sense of our own primitive instincts, or a young couple attempting to really communicate their emotions to each other, or even a person hoping to interpret scary events in their life in a way they can understand, then we are in territory that we recognise. Conflict drives drama – and Kneale understood that conflict comes from both without and within. His great gift as a writer was to give conflict in these forms a clear voice. A voice that is still resonant and exciting to hear today.

Essential Nigel Kneale Viewing (Original Scripts only):

Quatermass And The Pit (TV serial, 1958/9)Quatermass And The Pit (Hammer film, 1967)Quatermass IV (TV Serial, 1979)The Year Of The Sex Olympics (TV drama, 1968)The Stone Tape (TV drama, 1972)The Abominable Snowman (Hammer film, 1957)Baby, Beasts (TV serial, 1976)The Dummy, Beasts (TV Serial, 1976)Ladies’ Night, Unnatural Causes (TV drama, 1986)

The Stone Tape, a new audio adaptation, airs on BBC Radio 4 on Saturday the 31st of October at 10pm.

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