If you wanted to make the case that Nigel Kneale and his BBC trilogy of plays featuring Professor Quatermass were key moments in the development of British television drama, then there’s plenty of evidence to back that up.
The fledgling BBC television service launched in 1936. Its reach was initially restricted to a fairly small radius around the London area (since only one transmitter – at Alexandra Palace – was in use). It therefore made little impact during these early years, which wasn’t helped when WW2 forced it off the air (it ceased broadcasting in 1939 and only resumed in 1946).
Post war, more transmitters began to pop up around the country – so that by the early 1950’s the majority of the country could now receive television. And as the familiar story goes, it was the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II on the 2nd of June 1953 that provided the impetus for many people to purchase a television set of their own.
With the launch of ITV still two years away, the BBC had a captive television audience. So what did the average television schedule look like in 1953? Thanks to the BBC Genome website (a wonderful resource for the researcher and the merely curious) we can find out. This is the complete schedule for the 11th of July 1953 (the week before episode one of The Quatermass Experiment made its debut).
13.15 : Cricket
ENGLAND v. AUSTRALIA
Third Test Match
The third day’s play at Old Trafford, Manchester
Commentators : E. W. Swanton and Brian Johnston
15.15 : AQUAVIEW
A glimpse of the preparations for this evening’s cabaret on land and water
15.25 : Athletics A.A.A. CHAMPIONSHIPS
Some of the events in the Amateur Athletic Association’s Annual Championships at the White City Stadium, London
Commentators: Peter Dimmock, Jack Crump and Geoffrey Dyson
16.30 : Cricket
ENGLAND v. AUSTRALIA
Third Test Match followed by a short summary of the day’s play
18.30 : CHILDREN’S TELEVISION
Bruce Gordon in Gordon Gets Going
A family serial
3-‘ Flying Visitors’ by David Edwards
Settings by Michael Yates
Produced by Kevin Sneldon
19.15 : THE WEEK’S NEWSREELS
This week’s Television Newsreels
20.25 : Interlude
‘Making a Posy’ by William Powell Frith
20.30 : Betty Paul and Andrew Osborn in ‘STAND BY TO SHOOT’
A serial play in six episodes by Donald Wilson
Produced by Dennis Vance
6-‘ Double Take ‘
21.00 : THE TEST MATCH
After the third day’s play, Brian Johnston, with some cricketing personalities, considers the state of the fight for the Ashes
21.15 : ‘EVENING ALFRESCO’
22.30 : Weather Forecast and NEWS (sound only)
Sports fans were obviously well catered for, but drama is pretty thin on the ground – with only the concluding episode of Stand By To Shoot (and Quatermass would take its place in the schedules the following week). Generally, drama was fairly sparse at this time – there would be serials during the weekend and one-off plays during the week, but it only formed a small part of the BBC’s output.
Why was this so? Partially, it was due to resources. BBC television was still a relatively new organisation and in the early 1950’s it was still finding its feet. One problem was that drama was broadcast live, as there was no effective way to pre-record. This would be solved in the years to come, but in the early 1950’s if a play was to be repeated then the cast would have to reassemble and perform it again! With a limited number of studios, and live broadcasting, drama therefore had to be somewhat restricted.
The drama output of the BBC of this time also owed a heavy debt to the theatre. The majority of television directors had come from the theatre, as had the actors, and virtually all of the plays were adapted from existing theatrical works. With the added pressure of live television, it’s not surprising that most BBC drama tended to look stagey (many consisting of a single set, for example, with actors making their entrances and exits).
The Quatermass Experiment was a conscious effort by Nigel Kneale to produce something new – not only was it a serial not adapted from a play, it also had a scope and scale that hadn’t been seen up until that point. Multiple sets, pre-filmed inserts and a heightened pace of storytelling all helped to make this something unusual.
Of course, what exists of the first serial (episodes one and two) does look somewhat clunky to modern eyes. This isn’t helped by the fact that the recording of the serial used the BBC’s oldest and least effective cameras (the Emitrons) as well as the primitive nature of the telerecordings. Indeed, it’s generally assumed that because the telerecordings of the first two episodes were deemed to be of such poor quality it was decided not to record the remaining four – hence they were broadcast live and are gone forever. Some people do cling on to a faint hope that they were recorded and that copies may exist somewhere, but I’m not holding my breath on that one!
If The Quatermass Experiment was a little rough-and-ready then Quatermass II (1955) was a major step up in quality and Quatermass and the Pit (1958/1959) was yet another major advance. It’s therefore possible to get something of a feel for the development of BBC television drama during the 1950’s by watching the three original Quatermass serials in sequence. Quatermass and the Pit was the best of the three, both dramatically and technically. Although still predominantly live, QATP was by far the most polished production, helped no end by the assured performance of André Morell.
The Quatermass story concluded some twenty years later with the Euston Films production of Quatermass, starring John Mills. Originally developed as a BBC serial in the early 1970’s, it was certainly no easy exercise in nostalgia – not surprising, since that was never Kneale’s style.
I’ll shortly be starting a rewatch of all the existing episodes and blogging my thoughts as I go along. For anybody who hasn’t yet seen the BBC episodes, the DVD is ridiculously cheap at the moment and also has some good supplementary material, such as documentaries and viewing notes from Andrew Pixley. Any collection of British archive television is the poorer without Quatermass on its shelf.