This guide to Quatermass, that quintessentially British SF hero, ran in Death Ray o4‘s Time Trap feature.
The Original TV Series
The Quatermass Experiment
1953, a Saturday night in late July. The streets are empty, bar a few figures hurrying home. There is no-one in the pubs. The country has fallen silent.
The Quatermass Experiment is on telly, and the nation is gripped. It has been described as one of the finest thing the BBC ever produced, is often referred to as a benchmark of quality television, and Quatermass is widely acknowledged as being the UK’s first television hero. Three sequels followed it, and three of the four series were made into films by Hammer.
Bernard Quatermass was the creation of Nigel Kneale, a young writer hired in 1951 by the BBC as one of their first general purpose staff writers (this despite fact that Kneale had never seen any television before being hired). The following year, impressed by Kneale’s work, the BBC’s Head of Drama Michael Barry recruited him as a full-time writer of drama at the cost of his entire year’s script budget – £250. The same year an Austrian director named Rudolph Cartier joined the BBC’s department. He and Kneale worked together on the play Arrow to the Heart. This led to the formation of a lasting creative partnership. Both were hired partially on the basis of their criticism of the department’s output, which they regarded as too theatrical, and did not make use of the youthful medium’s strengths. In order to shake the BBC out of this dramatic lethargy, they turned to science fiction, a genre that was becoming increasingly popular in entertainment at the time.
The result of their collaboration was the first Quatermass serial, a six-part story of 35 minute installments broadcast in July and August. The first real British SF TV show for adults, it enthralled a huge audience.
The story introduced Professor Bernard Quatermass (played by Reginald Tate), a scientist cast in the old mould; a moral, decisive man of reason. Quatermass is the head of the British Rocket Group, and responsible for the launching of the first manned mission into space, launched from Tarooma, Australia (the real life test ground for British Rocketry was at Woomera). But the ship goes far beyond of its intended orbit. When it returns, it crashes into Wimbledon. Only one astronaut has survived – Victor Carroon. Over time it becomes apparent that Carroon has been infected by alien spores, absorbed the other two astronauts and is slowly transforming into a vast, plant-like alien monster. After rampaging round London, it enters Westminster Abbey where Quatermass appeals to the vestiges of the astronauts’ psyches trapped within the creature, convincing it to destroy itself.
The story presented the audience with a set of complex and believable characters. Unlike in much other SF with a scientific disaster at its heart, Quatermass is not some hubristic or bumbling fool meddling with forces he does not understand, and though he is ultimately responsible for the tragedy, finds a solution to it, though the loss of life troubles him deeply.
In reality, manned space flight did not take place until 1961, and was achieved by the Russians. The British abandoned any pretension to a solo space programme in the 1970s, despite having some degree of proficiency with rocket technology (and despite one or two abortive efforts since, such as the HOTOL craft). The dream of British space exploration faded away, but the power of Quatermass has helped ensure that the nightmare of what could go wrong has never died.
Made in 1955, this first follow-up to The Quatermass Experiment followed the same six-episode format, but starred John Robinson, as Tate had died suddenly of a heart attack just prior to screening. Quatermass is still the head of British Rocket Group, which is discussing establishing bases on the moon. The story takes Quatermass to the North of England where aliens have infiltrated the population in collusion with the higher ranks of society. These aliens are capable of possessing and controlling human beings, and their centre of operations on Earth is a mysterious technological complex. In the end, Quatermass travels into space to destroy their asteroid base.
Though Robinson turned in a somewhat robotic performance as the professor, the series was just as popular as the first, and it has been widely praised for its use of political allegory, where the ruling elite ruthlessly exploit the common man, a brave and controversial theme at the time. Quatermass II was the last thing Kneale wrote for the BBC as a full-time writer, though he continued to create scripts for them on a freelance basis.
Quatermass and the Pit
The third and final Quatermass series produced by the BBC was screened over December/ January 1958-1959. This time André Morell, who had been offered and declined the role once before, played the professor. He is considered the best of the BBC Quatermasses.
Quatermass has become embittered by this point, as the military are muscling in on the British Rocket Group, his funding is being cut, and he is due to be replaced by a Colonel Breen. Wranglings over The Rocket Group’s fate however, take a back seat when what appears to be a World War II bomb uncovered as a new Tube tunnel is being excavated actually turns out to be a Martian spaceship. When its dormant energy source is reactivated, London is plagued by a series of paranormal events as the racial memories of the city’s populace are reawakened. The Martians had visited Earth aeons in the past, and altered the apes they found there, giving rise to humanity. Our image of the devil is a race memory of our antennae-bearing erstwhile masters, and as chaos descends on the streets a huge apparition of this extra-terrestrial Satan looms large over the city, inciting the people to acts of great violence as they begin to act out the Martian’s habit of culling their own species.
In a neat twist that combines SF and folklore (there are many such touches, such as the tunnel being located in Hobb’s – an archaic name for the devil – Lane), Quatermass uses cold forged iron, in the shape of a large crane, to earth the apparition’s energies and save the city.
Kneale pronounced that he did not intend to make any more Quatermass series after Quatermass and the Pit – he felt that, having had the Professor save the world three times, he would be repeating himself if he did it again, and he moved on to other projects (though he did work on the 1967 Hammer adaptation of Quatermass and the Pit).
Nevertheless, in 1972 the BBC announced that Quatermass would return. But though some model shots were completed, budget restrictions forced the abandonment of the project. It was eventually made by Thames Television, being broadcast seven years later, a shortened version of it going out abroad as a film under the name The Quatermass Conclusion.
Celebrated actor John Mills took on the role in this series of four 60 minute episodes. Quatermass has retired to Scotland, but comes back to London in search of his missing daughter. There he discovers a society undergoing collapse, as out-of-control youths join street gangs or wander the countryside, being drawn to ancient stone circles. The professor discovers that this societal breakdown is being caused by aliens, who are harvesting these errant adolescents for their scent. Older people are unaffected by the waves put out by the invisible, alien craft so he assembles a crack team of oldies, including an ancient perfumier, to replicate the scent and thus lure the aliens into a trap. He discovers his granddaughter at one of the stone circles, and is forced to remain behind in order to detonate the nuclear bomb that will destroy the aliens, killing them both in the process.
This is widely regarded as the weakest of the series. Mills is, as always, excellent, but his Quatermass is a used up old man, confused and confounded by the way the world has changed. The plot about out-of-control hippies not only reflected Kneale’s increasing curmudgeonly nature as he aged, but was also terribly dated by the time the series was actually made, and its unmarred countryside, full of flower children, does not gel realistically with Kneale’s depiction of a run-down, violence bedevilled London.
The Quatermass Films
The three earlier Quatermass films were made into movies. Kneale had little involvement in the first film, which was retitled The Quatermass Xperiment (a pun on the fact that Hammer were sure the film would get an X certificate, which it did). Released in 1955, Kneale disliked the film greatly. He objected to the change in the ending, where the creature is electrocuted rather than reasoned to death, and despised the casting of Brian Donlevy. This American actor was brought in to make the film appeal to US audiences, but Kneale felt he did not care for the role, and portrayed the supposedly bright, inquisitive man as “a mechanic, a creature with a completely closed mind.” Comparisons between the two are not easy to make. The original TV show was broadcast live and though it was filmed, the results were deemed so bad that only two episodes were kept.
Kneale had a much larger hand in the second movie, also called Quatermass II (1957), co-scripting it with the director of the first two films, Val Guest. Some see the film as a high point of British SF cinema, but again it is hard to judge, as Kneale withdrew the film from circulation in 1965 when the rights reverted to him. He was not happy with the way Guest changed his script, and objected strenuously to the retainment of Brian Donlevy who was, ironically, the only man to have played Quatermass twice on screen. Like the first film, the ending had a different ending to that of the TV series, and excised Quatermass’s mission to the alien’s asteroid base.
The Quatermass and the Pit film, made ten years after number two (in 1967), is the one that Kneale was most happy with and is, in Death Ray‘s opinion, the best of the three. This time Roy Ward Baker directed, Kneale wrote the script himself, and he was well pleased with the performance of British actor Andrew Keir as Quatermass. (Keir played Quatermass again, in an audio drama).
The films had a big influence beyond their immediate success. Hammer saw money in horror, and began to make its classic run of spine-tinglers as a result.
The Quatermass Experiment – The Remake
In 2005, the then new channel BBC4 broadcast a new version of The Quatermass Experiment. Trimmed down to two hours, the show updated the science, made the spaceship a privately funded affair, removed the original’s Cold War references (now long in the past) and chopped out what producer Allison Willett refers to as “a couple of extraneous subplots”. In a move worthy of the show’s name, they show was broadcast live, as part of the “Television on Trial” series. Actors with theatrical experience were employed. Most were considerably younger than the venerable originals – the lead role was taken by 39-year-old Jason Flemyng.
Aside from these changes, the show remained true to the 1952 version, whose themes, on the whole, remain relevant 50-plus years on.
Did you know?
Nigel Kneale was inspired to choose the name of Quatermass by the prevelance of names that begin with QU on his native Isle of Man. He picked the name out of the London phonebook – they real Quatermasses were a family of fruiters. The professor’s first name, Bernard, comes from Bernard Lovell, the astronomer and founder of Jodrell bank.