The history of Quatermass

Beginning with a live TV broadcast in 1953, the Quatermass specials and movies were a high point in British sci-fi. Mark takes a look back…

The history of Quatermass

The British television landscape was a very different place in 1953. ITV had yet to start broadcasting, and a second channel by the BBC was still more than ten years away. Also, although television was already a very popular medium for the citizens of the Unites States, the UK populace in its more austere post-war period was slower to embrace the expense of a television set, when a perfectly serviceable wireless set would meet their entertainment needs.

All that, of course, changed with the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in June of 1953. Although still very much an extravagance, more and more people justified the cost of a television as it was their personal invite to the historical event, and the total viewing public almost doubled within a twelve month period.

Of course, once the excitement of that happy day faded from memory, the great British public (or at least the more affluent sections of it) wanted something else to watch on their 12 inch screens. Luckily for them all, a year earlier had seen the start of a BBC career for both Nigel Kneale and Rudolph Cartier.

Ad – content continues below

Kneale was a BBC staff writer who had already made a modest name for himself writing unusual short stories, generally with a slightly unnerving quality which was to find its way into his later work. Cartier, on the other hand, was a screenwriter, producer and director who had left his native Austria when the Nazis came to power. The two created a very successful symbiotic relationship when they realised they felt the same way about the state of the BBC’s drama output at the time.

Remembering that television was still a very new art, there were a lot of conflicting feelings about what worked best on the small screen. The majority of the BBC staff at that time were well versed in the production of radio, and felt that the ‘moving pictures’ side of a television production could be a hindrance to the production. On the other side of the fence, ex-film staff were frustrated that a TV programme could never live up to a feature film in terms of its budget or other constraints, and members of staff schooled in the theatres of Britain wanted just to point a camera at a stage and call it TV drama. Kneale and Cartier between them wanted to produce something ideally suited to this new, drama-hungry TV audience.

Although the BBC had produced science-fiction in a limited way prior to 1953, it was usually either a children’s serial or a theatrical piece based around a literary work. Much like the BBC management of the early 90s came to believe, they felt that the genre just wasn’t particularly suited to television, at least not in the UK.

Kneale decided to prove them wrong, with a claustrophobic, imaginative and chilling tale of alien possession. The Quatermass Experiment was the product of his work, and it was broadcast between July and August 1953. Performed live, as was the norm in those days, the serial was an instant success and saw its viewing figures rise steadily from the initial 3.4 million watching the first episode.

In addition to these very healthy figures, and a product of the one channel environment of the time, was the power of word of mouth. Essentially, every single person in the UK who had their set turned on at the time would have seen the show, and this lead to whispered unbelieving conversations in the offices and schoolyards of the day. By the time the final episode broadcast, with its horrifying monster, the converted astronaut, Carroon, over five million terrified Britons were glued to their sets.

Ad – content continues below

The instant success of the story refused to die down, with newspapers, letters to the Radio Times and even internal BBC memos eager to see more of Professor Bernard Quatermass of the British Experimental Rocket Group. Although fans would have to wait two years for more of the same, 1955 gave them a double treat; not only a sequel to the TV serial, but also a Hammer film adaptation of the first story.

The Quatermass Xperiment (The X to highlight the X rating of the movie) was released in August of 1955 and featured star, Brian Donlevy, in the title role. Sticking fairly closely to the original plot, but featuring an amended ending in which the Carroon monster is killed by Quatermass himself, rather than committing suicide, the movie was a success on both sides of the Atlantic. Still considered a well made film for the time, it’s filmed in a more realistic and documentary style by Val Guest, perhaps losing a little of the more unusual quality of the Cartier TV original.

1955 was also to see the release of the slightly less originally named, Quatermass II. Sometimes considered the poor relation of the other two 50s serials, for me Quatermass II works very well as a comment on the mid-50s western world, with its fear of ‘reds under the bed’ and loss of the individual man amongst large scale industrialisation.

The plot describes alien meteorites falling over Britain and controlling various people with the aim of growing a strange alien creature in a factory. Reginald Tate, the star of the first BBC story, was very happy to reprise the role for this edition, but regretfully, passed away before filming started, and was replaced by a less impressive John Robinson. The Hammer adaptation of this story was released two years later, again with Brian Donlevy playing Quatermass, who remains the only actor to have portrayed the character on screen on more than one occasion. Kneale contributed to the film script with Hammer’s blessing, as he was unhappy with the changes to his original storyline for the first film.

Ad – content continues below

By the time the BBC decided that they wanted a new Quatermass story, Nigel Kneale had left his post as a staff writer. He agreed to write the story for them, however, with  Cartier again directing the serial.

This time Kneale was influenced by the rebuilding and bomb defusing work still going on in London as a result of the Blitz bombing, and imagined what else may be uncovered amongst the rubble. This thought was developed into a plot involving an alien spaceship buried for millennia, and how these creatures first started life on Earth.

Titled Quatermass And The Pit, this became the most popular and well remembered of the original BBC stories, and combined science fiction with a war-time feel popular in movies of the time, with elements of witchcraft, horror and a strong anti-nuclear war sentiment. Rightly considered a masterpiece, it influenced several writers including Stephen King, and was strongly responsible for elements of several later Doctor Who stories. André Morell portrayed the good professor on this occasion, with a performance widely considered the definitive portrayal.

The inevitable Hammer version of the story followed, although on this occasion not until nine years later. This time starring Andrew Keir and directed by Roy Ward Baker. The script’s faithfulness to the original, together with its colour presentation and superior effects work, mark it out as being arguably the best way to experience the story, even if Keir doesn’t quite out-Quatermass Morrel.

Sadly after this high, the Quatermass story takes a turn for the depressing. Hammer tried to get Kneale to write them an original instalment, but regretfully, this never materialised. The next time the character was seen was on ITV, a channel not even conceived when the first story was shown. Simply entitled Quatermass, the four part story was broadcast in October and November 1979, this time with John Mills playing the man himself.

Ad – content continues below

The storyline was originally intended for the BBC, but they lost faith in the project when the costs started to escalate. The story itself is a very different beast to the originals, but still retains the uncomfortable element Kneale was known for. Taking place in the near future when society is on the verge of collapse, Quatermass focuses on a cult called the ‘Planet People’ and their belief that aliens will take them to an idyllic planet where they can start again. I don’t want to spoil the story, if anyone hasn’t seen it yet, but suffice to say it doesn’t end well.

The new serial was a bit of a disappointment all round, failing to attract a new audience and not living up to the older viewer’s memory of the original. Even its executive producer, Verity Lambert (former Doctor Who producer), or a limited theatrical release of an edited movie version couldn’t save it from swift ignominy.

A radio play was the final piece of Quatermass fiction written before Nigel Kneale’s death in 2006. Aired on Radio 3 in 1996, The Quatermass Memoirs married together a documentary style with a fictionalised account of Quatermass being interviewed for his biography. Although Kneale wasn’t very happy with the finished product, it was well received at the time, and was a return to the role for Keir, the only actor living, aside from John Mills, to have played the part.

Bringing us up to date, to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the original programme, in 2005, BBC4 broadcast a live remake featuring Jason Flemyng as a much younger version of Quatermass. As worthy as the idea was, perhaps it’s more enjoyable viewing this version for the challenge it presents to its cast and crew, (more than one actor dries and David Tennant slips over at one point). Truly an ‘experiment’ at heart.

Ad – content continues below

So, will the professor return to our screens? We can but hope, as he’s become one of British televisions great icons, well known to people who’ve never even seen any of the 1950s originals. The character and his adventures are so closely associated with Nigel Kneale and his imagination, though, that, if he does, it will certainly be in a very different form.

For anyone who hasn’t had the pleasure, I’d heartily recommend the BBC DVD collection. Although only a couple of episodes of the original story survive, the other two stories are complete and still gripping today, as are all of the Hammer films.

Beware, though, once you’ve seen these stories’ you may not view the rest of science fiction in quite the same way again. For the majority of series you may enjoy, from Torchwood to the X-Files, it’s pretty safe to say that Nigel Kneale got there first.

Follow Den Of Geek on Twitter right here. And be our Facebook chum here.