Our Mutual Friend (BBC, 1958/59) – Simply Media DVD Review


Following the death of a rich miser, his substantial fortune is willed to his estranged son, John Harmon (Paul Daneman), on one condition – that he marries, sight unseen, Miss Bella Wilfer (Zena Walker).  But when Harmon is believed drowned on his journey home to England, the inheritance passes to Mr and Mrs Boffin (Richard Pearson & Marda Vanne), the loyal and faithful former employees of Harmon Snr.

The Boffins are good-hearted people, happy to share their new-found wealth with others.  To this end they adopt Bella as their daughter and employ the one-legged pedler Silas Wegg (Esmond Knight) to read to them in the evenings.  They also engage a mysterious young man now going under the name of John Rokesmith (who in reality is John Harmon) as their secretary.

Our Mutual Friend was Charles Dickens’ final completed novel and was originally published in nineteen monthly instalments between May 1864 and November 1865.  The thorny topic of inheritance, a familiar Dickens theme, is a major feature of the story as is the notion that wealth can have a corrosive effect on those it touches.

Film or television adaptations of Our Mutual Friend have been fairly thin on the ground with this 1958/59 BBC adaptation by Freda Lingstrom marking the first time the novel was tackled (two further television adaptations, in 1976 and 1998, would follow).

Things begin a rather arch way, as the Wilfer family consider their lack of money. George Howe as Reginald Wifer, the nominal head of the family, has a nice henpecked comic touch but Daphne Newton, as Reginald’s domineering wife, does declaim in a somewhat stagey fashion.

The Wilfer Family

The first episode also allows us an early insight into Bella’s character. She tells her father that she’s “nether reasonable nor honest. One of the consequences of being poor and of thoroughly hating and detesting it”. She then goes on to describe herself as a horrid, mercenary little wretch.

Compare and contrast her attitude with that of John Harmon. On his way back home to England via a sea journey (the onboard sequences are effectively mounted, despite the confines of the studio) he explains to a fellow traveller that his inheritance is dependent on his marrying Bella. The fact he’s returning to England suggests that he’s considering acceding to his late father’s request, but he then explains this is dependent on Bella’s character. If she turns out to be an objectionable person then he’d be happy for his old friends, the Boffins, to receive the money instead.

This might suggest that John is a wiser and more noble person than Bella, but since he has the choice of returning to his vineyard in South Africa it’s plain that he has options, whilst she doesn’t.

Both Paul Daneman and Zena Walker make strong early impressions whilst Bruce Gordon, as George Sampson, gives a nice turn as Bella’s devoted suitor. When Bella breaks the bad news that she’s planning to marry for money, he’s a picture of angst (sucking his walking stick as a child might suck his thumb!).  George contributes little to the story, but can be guaranteed to pop up from time to time in order to provide a spot of comic relief.

Richard Leech casts a menacing shadow as ‘Rogue’ Riderhood, a waterman who was part of a conspiracy to murder John (another of the conspirators – Radfoot – planned to take John’s place, marry Bella and claim the inheritance). Leech gives a performance that’s somewhat on the ripe side but after a few episodes either he settles down a little or I just became more accustomed to it.

But if there’s ripeness from some, there’s subtler playing from others. Peggy Thorpe-Bates makes an immediate impression as Miss Abbey, the innkeeper of a raucous riverside tavern. Miss Abbey may be physically slight but she’s more than capable of dealing with her customers, even the intimidating Riderhood.

The first meeting between Bella and John isn’t auspicious. She later confesses that there were few people she disliked more at first sight. It might not be a surprise to learn that her feelings change as the serial wears on ….

As the episodes progress we’re introduced to all of the main characters. Richard Pearson is very agreeable as the generous and good-natured Nicodemus Boffin whilst Esmond Knight has delightful comic timing as Silas Wegg, an untrustworthy wooden-legged vagrant with a veneer of literary education.  Malcom Keen (whose career began in silent movies, Hitchcock’s The Lodger amongst them) also impresses as the sympathetic Jewish moneylender Riah.

Esmond Knight

David McCallum (whom the credits inform us was appearing courtesy of the Rank Organisation) plays Eugene Wrayburn, a well-educated barrister who falls in love with Lizzie Hexam (Rachel Roberts). Eugene is a somewhat arrogant person to begin with but, as with Bella, over time he grows and develops. It can’t be a coincidence that, like John, he is nearly drowned in the river (his near-death experience seems to trigger something of a rebirth in him, just as it did with John).

Eugene’s pursuit of Lizzie is complicated by Bradley Headstone (Alex Scott), who is also besotted with her (although she has little time for him). This love triangle, along with John’s continuing close observation of Bella, are major main plot-threads whilst other subplots (the machinations of ‘Rogue’ Riderhood and Silas Wegg amongst others) also simmer away nicely.

Although John Harmon might be the nominal central character, the conflict between Eugene Wrayburn and Bradley Headstone for Lizzie’s hand in marriage is another highlight of the serial (both McCallum – even though he’s sporting a silly beard – and Scott provide standout performances).

Considering the limitations of this era of television, Our Mutual Friend is a polished production. If it wasn’t broadcast live, then it would have been recorded as-live (with only limited opportunities for retakes and editing). But across the twelve episodes there’s few obvious production stumbles (fluffled lines, miscued shots, etc) which is impressive.

Paul Daneman

That studio space was at a premium can be surmised by the fact that each episode restricts itself to a handful of locations. A sprinkling of filmed material helps to open the production up a little, although a number of backdrops, used in the studio to create the illusion of scale and depth, aren’t always terribly convincing. But that’s hardly a problem unique to this serial and after a while it ceases to be an issue.

There are many fine performances scattered throughout the twelve episodes. Paul Daneman had a fairly thankless task, since John Harmon/Rokesmith is a very colourless sort of fellow (often a fate suffered by Dickens’ heroes) but he still manages to make something out of the role. David McCallum has more to work with, as Eugene is a complex, dissolute character who eventually finds redemption and love.  Esmond Knight is simply a treat, meaning that whenever Silas Wegg shuffles onto the screen you know that something entertaining is going to happen.

Many strong character actors – Rachel Gurney, Basil Henson and William Mervyn, amongst others – pop up from time to time. Another brief but vivid performance comes from Wilfred Brambell as Mr “Dolls”, the alcoholic father of Jenny Wren (Helena Hughes). Hughes herself is also noteworthy as the young, crippled dolls-clothes maker who has reversed roles with her father (she calls him a “bad child” and bosses him about without mercy).

The picture quality is pretty good throughout. The telerecording might show the limitations of the original 405 line transmission, but it’s still perfectly clear (some blurring on the bottom of the frame in the penultimate episode is probably the most visible fault). The soundtrack, apart from the odd crackle, is quite audible.

Freda Lingstrom’s adaptation manages to retain the flavour of Dickens’ dense novel and the generous running time (twelve half-hour episodes) is more than sufficient to ensure that all the characters are dealt with sympathetically. The serial-like nature of the original novel is kept intact, meaning that some characters may feature heavily in one episode but then not appear in the next as others take their place.  It’s true that everything gets wrapped up rather too neatly at the end, but that’s a criticism that needs to be laid at Dickens’ door rather than Lingstrom’s.

Lingstrom was a fascinating character. She created the BBC Radio strand Listen with Mother in 1950 and shortly afterwards became Head of BBC Children’s Television. Watch with Mother was a logical development for television and Lingstrom, in partnership with Maria Bird, would devise two of the most enduring of all pre-school children’s programmes – Andy Pandy and The Flower Pot Men.  This adaptation was therefore an unusual entry on her CV (and also her final television writing credit).

It’s fascinating to observe how the production battled to transcend its limited production values (most notably the lack of studio space) and whilst it may feature a few broad performances from the minor players there’s little else to find fault with here.  With so little 1950’s BBC drama available, it’s very pleasing to see Our Mutual Friend released and despite the six-hours running time the story rarely seems to flag.  Highly recommended.

Our Mutual Friend is released by Simply Media on the 3rd of July 2017.  RRP £19.99. It can be ordered directly from Simply here.

Marda Vanne & Richard Pearson

1950’s/1960’s BBC Charles Dickens Classics to be released by Simply Media – July 2017


It’s very pleasing to see that a number of 1950’s/1960’s BBC Classic Serial adaptations of Charles Dickens’ novels are due shortly from Simply Media.  Three have been confirmed for release on the 3rd of July 2007 – Our Mutual Friend, Great Expectations and Dombey & Son.

Below is a little more detail about them.

Our Mutual Friend.  Adapted by Freda Lingstrom and broadcast in twelve episodes during 1958/59.  Paul Daneman, Zena Walker, David McCallum, Richard Pearson, Rachel Roberts and Robert Leach head the cast, whilst many other familiar faces – Rachel Gurney, Peggy Thorpe-Bates, Wilfred Brambell, Melvyn Hayes and Barbara Lott – also appear.

Great Expectations.  Adapted by Hugh Leonard and broadcast in ten episodes during 1967.  Gary Bond, Francesca Annis, Neil McCarthy, Richard O’Sullivan, Peter Vaughan and Bernard Hepton are the major players in this one whilst there’s also plenty of quality to be found lower down the cast-list (Ronald Lacey, Jon Laurimore and Kevin Stoney amongst others).

Dombey & Son.  Adapted by Hugh Leonard and broadcast in thirteen episodes during 1969.  A typically strong cast is headed by John Carson as Mr Dombey with Clive Swift, Pat Coombs, Ronald Pickering and Davyd Harries amongst the other familiar faces appearing.

And with three further releases to come in late August – Barnaby Rudge (1960), Oliver Twist (1962) and Bleak House (1959) – the next few months look to be good for those who enjoy classic BBC B&W drama.

Quatermass and the Pit – Episode Six – Hob

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All three of Nigel Kneale’s 1950’s Quatermass serials had ambitious final episodes.  However, since no visual or audio copy of the last episode of The Quatermass Experiment exists, we can only surmise how good the climax was.  Kneale’s description of how they achieved the creature’s final manifestation in Westminster Abbey does sound endearingly low-tech though!  He recalls that somebody “bought a guidebook to the [abbey] and blew up one of the photographs and cut a couple of holes in it.  Then I stuck my hands through, which were draped with rubber gloves and various bits and pieces, and waggled them about.  It looked very good, actually, surprisingly effective.”

The last episode of Quatermass II had to be made on the cheap (since most of the budget had already been used for the previous five installments).   Unfortunately this meant that some parts of the finale were rather compromised – for example the surface of the asteroid was created by covering some chairs with a tarpaulin!  Once you know this, it’s difficult to watch those scenes without it being very apparent.

By the time Quatermass and the Pit went into production, lessons had obviously been learnt.  Hob brings the story to a very effective conclusion – and there’s no signs of penny-pinching here.  It, like the rest of the serial, had a very generous amount of film work (which really helped to give it a glossy, expensive look).  It’s a pity that all of the series wasn’t made on film, as the film sequences we do have demonstrate how good a director Rudolph Cartier was.

However, an all-film production was clearly outside of the BBC’s budget at the time – although it’s slightly curious that they didn’t mount all the pit sequences in Hob on film.  The majority are, but there’s the odd scene back in the studio – and the cuts between the two are rather jarring.

Notwithstanding this little niggle, Hob is a good exercise in making the limited resources you have stretch as far as possible.  It’s possible that when Rudolph Cartier received the script he may have despaired – as Kneale was asking for feature-film production values (we see London in flames after the majority of the inhabitants find themselves under Martian control and forced to re-enact the “wild hunt” – a purging of anything or anybody not like themselves).

But Cartier is able to achieve this very well with only a limited number of extras, stock shots of cities in flames (presumably from WW2) and other clever story-telling devices – such as the observations of a pilot above the city.  The pilot is able to describe to us what he can see, and whilst it’s an old trick (somebody telling us about something, rather than seeing it ourselves) it still works.

With London devastated, what’s happened to Quatermass and the others?  The Professor had been deeply affected by the signals from the pit and it took Roney some time to bring him back to normality.  Roney, like Potter and Fullalove, isn’t particularly affected – but they’re very much in the minority.

It’s somewhat disturbing to see Quatermass quite so disheveled and lost.  He’s been the logical, calm centre of the story – so when he’s incapacitated it’s quite a shock.  Colonel Breen is dead – he remained transfixed by the object in the pit and the last time we see him he’s been calcified.  Miss Judd and Captain Potter both make it out alive and the romantic in me likes to think that their relationship blossomed afterwards (there certainly seemed to be an interest on Potter’s side – whether this was scripted or business added by John Stratton in rehearsal isn’t clear).

The crisis is brought to an end by Roney making the ultimate sacrifice.  And the story ends with Quatermass broadcasting to the nation.  It’s a key scene, which concludes the serial terribly well – especially after Quatermass has finished and we see him walk away (leaving the other people looking slightly nonplussed).  Amongst them are Sladden and the Vicar, and it’s a nice touch that they’re both there (even though neither of them speak a word!)

Quatermass and the Pit is an amazing programme – script-wise, acting-wise and also technically.  It’s hard to believe that most of it went out live, since everything ran so smoothly.  Compared to the slightly more rough-and-ready Quatermass Experiment and Quatermass II it’s certainly on another level.  Morell is superb and he’s supported by a quality cast.

Mark Gatiss once said that Quatermass and the Pit  “with its brilliant blending of superstition, witchcraft and ghosts into the story of a five-million-year-old Martian invasion – is copper-bottomed genius.”  I see no reason to disagree with this.  If you’ve got it on your shelf but haven’t seen it for a while, maybe it’s time for a re-watch.  If you don’t own it or have never seen it, then you’re missing out on a true television classic.

Quatermass and the Pit – Episode Five – The Wild Hunt

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Quatermass returns to the Museum and tells Roney about the meeting he’s just had at the War Office.  Needless to say, he’s not best pleased and concedes that the Minster is “scared stiff.  Scared of the press, scared of being blamed for something, scared of his colleagues.  All he wants are easy answers.”  As we saw in the last episode, the Minister is happy with Breen’s theory that the object is a German propaganda weapon and that the insects are fakes (Quatermass ironically says that if you look closely enough, you’ll be able to see little swastikas on them!)

There’s no time to brood though, as Barbara Judd arrives and tells them both about the strange experience in the pit.  Shortly after this, Quatermass and Barbara set off for the vicarage where Sladden has ended up.  The conflict between religion and science is a familiar one in science fiction and it’s played out in this episode.  The Vicar (Noel Howlett) is convinced that Sladden has been in contact with spiritual evil (later he comes to the pit with an exorcism kit – “bell, book and candle” as Fullalove says) but although Quatermass agrees that they are dealing with evil, he simply disagrees about the nature of it.  For the Professor, there’s a rational, scientific explanation.  The Vicar also has an explanation – but for him, it’s a matter of faith.

The scene in the vicarage is nicely lit (with a flickering fire) and Cartier’s use of close-ups on the agitated Sladden really help to focus the audience’s attention on his plight.  In a rather incoherent fashion he’s able to explain what happened.  “I remember.  It started and then … then I couldn’t see anything but them!  Like you took out of the hull!  With eyes and horns!  They were alive!  Hopping and running.  Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds!”

Quatermass is convinced that Sladden had a vision of life on Mars – five million years ago (a race memory that may lay dormant in all of us).  He plans to record these visions via an invention of Roney’s (the optic encephalograph).  It was mentioned in passing a few episodes ago and now we can see that it wasn’t a throwaway moment – as it’ll have a fairly important role in this episode.  When attached to a user, it can record visual impressions in the brain and Quatermass uses it (via Barbara Judd) to record a “wild hunt”.  The Doctor Who story The Ark in Space would later use a very similar device to establish how the insect-like Wirrn came to be aboard the Ark.

Quatermas later arranges for the film to be shown at the War Office, in front of Colonel Breen, the Minster and various other interested parties.  He tells them that “you’re going to see a race purge, a cleansing of the hives.”  The short sequence (a nightmarish series of shots of the insects) is very effectively done (and is as good, if not better, than the similar sequence mounted for the Hammer film a decade later).

The Minister receives it with mild interest (“most curious”) but once more he’s able to rationalise it away.  Miss Judd has been in a nervous and excited state and therefore he considers the pictures to be nothing but hallucinations.  So again Quatermass is unable to make him understand just how dangerous the situation is.  The aliens may have died millions of years ago but there’s still a lingering power remaining – which is able to unleash primal forces.

It’s all to no avail though and that evening the press, radio and television are invited down to the pit.  We switch to film once more for the final few minutes of the episode (so we can guess that another set-piece sequence is about to begin).  This scene is also of interest as we see a typical BBC outside broadcast vehicle and camera (which does demonstrate just how bulky and cumbersome the cameras of this era were).  It’s also nice to see John Scott Martin (who would spend the best part of twenty five years playing many Doctor Who monsters, including the Daleks) as the tv technician.

There’s a cracking confrontation between Quatermass and Breen.  “Is Colonel Breen an imbecile or a coward?  Is Colonel Breen afraid of something, so afraid that he resorts to the thinnest rationalisations?”  Sadly, there’s no time for the argument to heat up any more as there’s been a death inside the capsule.  The last shot is rather oblique – “something” seems to be growing inside the capsule.  But we’ll have to wait until the next and final episode to find out what.

Quatermass and the Pit – Episode Four – The Enchanted

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The discovery of three insect-like creatures sends Colonel Breen into something of a tale-spin.  His moods have fluctuated wildly so far (although at the end of the last episode he seemed more reasonable and coherent) but coming face to face with these creatures clearly does nothing for his peace of mind.

He asks Roney why, if they’ve been dead more than a few years, they haven’t decomposed.  Quatermass explains to him that the “compartment was sealed.  If the things inside were completely sterile, without bacteria of any kind, they’d be free from corruption.  They could stay in there for a year or a million years.  Remain as they are, unchanged, until our atmosphere got in.  Filthy London air.  Then they’d rot as they have done.”  Needless to say, Breen doesn’t believe him.

Another sign that he’s starting to lose his grip is demonstrated when he orders Potter to eject Fullalove from the pit area.  It’s reasonable that Breen wouldn’t be keen on the presence of the press (although it’s equally understandable that Quatermass is keen for the story to get out) but it’s the way he does it – barking the order to Potter (who looks slightly askance at him) – which is quite telling.

We then move to the museum, where Quatermass and Roney muse over the creatures.  Roney points out that their antennas look somewhat like horns, something which Quatermass finds significant.  “Yes.  The horned demons in those old prints and manuscripts.  Do you remember?  As if that image were somehow projected into men’s minds.  That face, it’s like a gargoyle.  Roney, that’s not just a simile.  Haven’t you seen it before carved on walls in a dozen countries?  Is is somewhere in the subconscious?  A race memory?”

Fullalove’s exclusive – “Monster insects found”! – causes consternation at Whitehall, so Quatermass and Breen are called to the War Office to explain.  This scene demonstrates Kneale’s jaundiced view of politics and government as both Quatermass and Breen offer explanations – and the Minster chooses to believe Breen’s version.  Actually, it’s probable that he didn’t believe it, instead it was the story he felt would be most acceptable to both his political masters and the general public at large.  As the saying goes, in war, truth is the first casualty.

In Quatermass II, the Professor also made various assumptions about the threat that faced them – though back then he didn’t preface his remarks by conceding that he might be wrong.  At least here, Quatermass is a little more honest.  “You’re demanding explanations that I can’t give or prove.  All I can give you are guesses.”  It’s another splendid scene for Morell, who paces around the desk – hands in his waistcoat pockets – as he delivers his theory.  Five million years ago, there may still have been life on Mars.  If the Martians knew their planet was doomed, what would they do in order to perpetuate their existence?

Quatermass’ theory is that, on numerous occasions, they visited the Earth and took ape specimens (which they then experimented upon) before returning them back into the wild.  In time, these augmented apes would become the dominant species, and the Martian influence would live on, but in another race and on another planet.  The Minister isn’t pleased with this – the idea that the human race owes their existence to alien interference would clearly be a hard sell, so Breen’s suggestion that the object is a German V2 weapon (complete with fake aliens to create panic) is much more palatable to him.  This allows him to announce that the panic is over, reports can be distributed to state that the object is a fake and the bomb disposal team can pack up and go home.

But with two episodes to go, we clearly haven’t got to the end yet.  The last four minutes or so of The Enchanted are shot on film and they’re a real highlight of the serial.  Rudolph Cartier’s studio direction was always hamstrung by the bulky and unresponsive television cameras (like all productions of this era, they were slow to manuouvere and couldn’t zoom in or zoom out – that had to be done manually).  But shooting on film allowed him a much greater freedom and it’s the film sequences which contain many memorable and stylish visual images.

Sladden, the last man left in the pit, has entered the capsule to retrive his equipment.  As he’s doing this, Miss Judd comes back to collect her notes from the hut.  Then, as it were, all hell breaks loose.  Objects move by themselves and Sladden is deeply affected by this – exiting the pit in terror.  He has to run in such a way that seems to have been designed to mimic the aliens’ movement (a race memory coming to the fore?).  On the one hand it looks comic, but it’s played totally straight which gives it a sense of menace.  The night-shooting is incredibly evocative and once again we can be grateful that the original film inserts were kept.  Eventually, he ends up in the grounds of a vicarage.  As the lays on the floor (looking for sanctuary?) the ground around him ripples.

It’s a striking sequence, very well performed by Richard Shaw, and once again Nigel Kneale concludes an episode with a memorable cliff-hanger that lives long in the memory.

Quatermass and the Pit – Episode Three – Imps and Demons

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The unfortunate Private West (John Walker) has seen something strange inside the capsule.  His collapse agitates Breen considerably – it’s another inexplicable happening and therefore something that the Colonel hasn’t been trained to deal with.  But it is interesting to see that later in the episode he does calm down and his relationship with Quatermass, whilst still a little spiky, is more settled.

Quatermass is intrigued by the composition of the capsule.  “Ceramic material of some kind, resistant to heat to over three thousand degrees, harder than diamond.  It’s what every rocket engineer has been searching for.  A heatproof casing to get through the earth’s atmosphere.”  Although the inference is plain that this is some kind of spaceship, it’s not overtly spelled out at this time – as with six episodes to play with, there’s no need to rush.  Quatermass is also able to mock Breen’s faint hope that it may be a German device.  “You think the Germans made it in 1940 and then lost the secret?  Ask them.  Ask von Braun.”

Observing the activity around the capsule, Corporal Gibson (Harold Goodwin) wonders if Quatermass knows what he’s doing and decides that “he doesn’t.  None of ’em do this time.”  This is quite true as Quatermass is as much in the dark as everybody else.  By the time we reach the end of the story we’ll be able to consider just what the cost of Quatermass’ scientific curiosity was.  He wants to see inside the sealed chamber (as does Breen) and it’s this desire which causes all the problems from hereon in.  But, of course, had he not then the story would have been a good deal shorter!

Quatermass and Breen agree that a borazon drill might have a chance of making an impression on the door.  It would mean hiring a civilian contractor, but it’s judged to be worth the risk.  Sladden (Richard Shaw) turns up and prepares to set to work.  He’s a cheerful chap, although subsequent events wipe the smile off his face somewhat, especially in the next episode.  Sladden’s initial drilling certainly generates a reaction – creating an unearthly sound which affects everybody – especially Sladden, Quatermass and Breen.  Quatermass grabs Roney and leaves the pit area in a hurry, urging Potter to tell Breen not to continue with the drilling until he returns.

Whilst this is going on, the press (in the shape of James Fullalove) begin to take more of an interest.  The character of Fullalove had featured in The Quatermass Experiment and it had been hoped that Paul Whitson-Jones would reprise the role, but as he was unavailable Brian Worth took over.  Fullalove attaches himself to Quatermass and Roney and the three of them set off to do some research.  In the previous episode, we saw how Hobbs Lane had featured in the newspapers (back in 1927) when the story of the ghost surfaced.  Imps and Demons delves even further back into the past as it becomes clear that mysterious sightings and disturbances have been recorded for centuries, dating back to medieval times.

Returning to the pit, Quatermass finds that a hole has been made in the capsule, but not by Sladden – it just simply appeared.  Breen is still attempting to find a logical explanation for this strange occurrence.  “I suppose the vibrations of the drill must have affected all this material in some way.”  But even he can’t explain what he sees within the chamber.  He allows Quatermass to look and the Professor is equally surprised and shocked – there’s a telling moment between the two of them (for once, we see no bluster from Breen – he simply has to accept the evidence of his own eyes).

When the door is finally opened, the occupants of the capsule are exposed for the first time in five million years.  Quatermass reassures Breen.  “It’s all right.  They’re dead.  They’ve been dead for a long time.”  It’s another striking cliff-hanger which only adds another layer of mystery to the story.  If the strange inhabitants are dead, where do the centuries worth of disturbances emanate from?

Quatermass and the Pit – Episode Two – The Ghosts

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Quatermass and the Pit is as much a ghost story as it is a science fiction one.  This is a theme that Kneale would re-use in the years to come (The Stone Tape) and it’s easy to see why – the clash between science and superstition is a very potent one.  Doctor Who would also draw heavily from this Kneale template over the following decades (The Daemons is a prime example and Image of the Fendahl is probably the Doctor Who story most indebted to QATP).

Whilst the work to uncover the mysterious object continues, Quatermass is intrigued by the derelict house at the nearby Hobbs Lane.  This disrepair wasn’t caused by bomb damage (as it’s clear that only a handful of incendiary devices fell in this area during WW2.  Which also makes Breen’s claim that the object is a previously unknown German weapon rather unlikely).

The discovery that the object is emitting radioactivity (although at a very low level) is enough to ensure that operations are suspended whilst tests are carried out to verify whether it’s safe to continue.  At something of a loose end, Quatermass heads over to the abandoned house to have a look around.  He’s joined by P.C. Ellis (Victor Platt) who knows the history of the place and confirms that it’s been empty since 1927 due to a ghost scare.  Although Ellis was only a child back then, he still remembers the stories and whilst he tells Quatermass that it’s clearly all nonsense, he displays a palpable sense of unease as he moves through the house with Quatermass.  Victor Platt is terribly good in this scene, it’s mostly just exposition (laying the groundwork for the tale of the haunted house which Mrs Chilcott will explain in more depth later) but Platt is able to give Ellis a real sense of character.  Good performances from the minor players are one of the main strengths of this serial.

Two residents, Mr and Mrs Chilcott (Howell Davies and Hilda Barry) have been evacuated nearby, so Quatermass pops in to speak to them.  Barry had previously appeared in Quatermass II (as Mrs Large) and she gives another nice cameo performance here.  It’s obvious that she’s the dominant partner in the marriage, particularly since Mr Chilcott seems to be rather poorly.  “I couldn’t find his long woolies, you know, his clean ones. He may have to wear two pair at once. It’s cold.”  As the majority of the story is set amongst the military, her appearance does lighten the mood a little.

The Chilcotts are staying with Miss Groome (Madge Brindley).  When Quatermass enters, Miss Groome is telling Mrs Chilcott’s fortune with tea leaves.  This tells us that Miss Groome is a believer in the supernatural and is therefore somebody who holds diametrically opposed views from the rational Quatermass.  So his interest in the haunted house does surprise her.  “I thought all you scientists were sceptics” she says.  “We’re open-minded, most of us, or we try to be” he replies.  Mrs Chilcott’s story – mysterious noises, objects moving by themselves, a ghostly figure – is fairly typical, but what’s the explanation?  Miss Groome would no doubt be adamant they were manifestations from the other side, but the obvious inference being drawn is that it may have something to do with the mysterious object – which has apparently lain undisturbed for five million years.

The discovery of another ape skull – this one actually in the object – gives Colonel Breen even more pause for thought.  Anthony Bushell is very solid as the blinkered solider.  He likes things to be logical and rational and as the evidence begins to pile up to the contrary, he begins to lose his grip.  It’s only expressed in a subtle way during this episode, but it becomes more pronounced as the story progresses.  His reluctance to believe the evidence in front of him is highlighted by a report that confirms the radiation dates from five million years ago.  Since he finds this impossible to believe, he’s quite happy to dismiss it – anything that’s outside of his understanding he ignores.  If Quatermass and the Pit is something of a puzzle, then Breen is the sort of man that will desperately try and make the pieces fit – even if it’s clear they don’t.

Quatermass later tells Roney exactly what he feels about his new colleague.  “I told you my Rocket Group’s been taken over.  Well, he’s the official receiver.  He’s a career militarist of the worst type.  Cold, efficient, just biding his time.  That’s my colleague.”  Breen elects to use excavators to quickly unearth the object and its eventual reveal is an impressive moment.  It’s a wonderful piece of design work from Clifford Hatts – it looks substantial and solid.

Whilst some people may feel that this episode hasn’t advanced the plot very far, I’d disagree.  It’s been more about character and atmosphere – and both have been delivered in spades.  The cliff-hanger is also very striking and provides a strong hook into the next episode.  One of the soldiers, upon entering the object, reacts in terror at the sight of a mysterious figure who walked through the wall.  Instantly this recalls to us the stories of the haunted house in Hobbs Lane and the connection helps to tie the various story threads a little tighter together.

Quatermass and the Pit – Episode One – The Halfmen

pit 01

For many people, including myself, Quatermass and the Pit is the pick of the Quatermass serials.  Partly this may be due to familiarity (an edited compilation was released on VHS in 1988) but it’s undeniably a quality production.  It’s certainly the best-looking of the original trilogy, thanks to advances in the late 1950’s with the telerecording process as well as the existence of the original film sequences.

Quatermass II was telerecorded with a suppressed-field recorder, whilst Quatermass and the Pit used a stored-field film recorder. The upshot is that the picture quality of this third serial is much more detailed and smoother (plus the original video look was restored for the DVD release).  The film sequences, as per usual for the time, were shot on 35mm film and the majority of them have scrubbed up very well.  Comparing the pristine film inserts here to the blurry ones from Quatermass II is pretty much a night and day scenario.

So it looks very good, but what about the story?  It’s a very different beast from Quatermass II.  QII hopped from location to location and had a fairly large cast.  Whilst various characters come and go in QATP, the action centres on just three individuals – Professor Quatermass, Dr Matthew Roney and Colonel Breen.

After the wooden performance of John Robinson, it’s clear within a few minutes that we’re in very safe hands with André Morell.  Morell’s Quatermass has many traits that Robinson’s take on the character sorely lacked – a wry sense of humour and personal charm, for example – whilst he still exhibits the same steely determination. As we’ll see in this episode, this is an older, more embittered Quatermass. The rocket group that he founded is still active, and establishing bases on the moon is still the intention, but the military now have the upper hand and Quatermass faces being reduced to a mere bystander.

Dr Matthew Roney (Cec Linder) is, like Quatermass, an expert and enthusiast in his field. The opening scene shows us the discovery of a strangely-shaped skull, unearthed during the redevelopment of a site in Knightsbridge. There’s a nice piece of visual shorthand used after this – as the camera tracks across a series of newspapers, each displaying related headlines (“Apemen at Knightsbridge”, “Further discoveries at Knightsbridge”, “Knightsbridge Apemen – More Finds” and “Three More Bodies Says Scientist”) which significantly advances the plot in a matter of seconds.

Roney, together with his devoted assistant Miss Judd (Christine Finn), calls a press conference to try and drum up some publicity for his finds – he’s also trying to force the contractors to give him extra time to continue the excavations. Roney unveils an impression of what he considers the apeman (who he believes has lain undisturbed for at least five million years) could have looked like.  Later he receives some good-natured ribbing from his friends and colleagues about this.  “You know, a lot of people may think it’s a trifle improper to publicise wild guesses”.  Roney agrees, but it was a gimmick that sparked press interest – and publicity is what he needs.  Afterwards, he runs into Quatermass.  Quatermass is off to the War Office and tells him that “for all your troubles you’ve got one thing to be thankful for.  There’s no military value in fossil apes.”

Colonel Breen (Anthony Bushell) has just been seconded to Quatermass’ rocket group as deputy controller.  Breen is the personification of everything that Quatermass despises, so it’s pretty clear that their partnership will be an uneasy one.  In this episode, Breen appears to be a straightforward, capable officer.  As the serial develops, we’ll see how he reacts when faced with events that are outside his strict frame of reference ….

The meeting at the War Office therefore couldn’t have gone worse for Quatermass.  He’s essentially lost control of the rocket group (the Minister makes it clear that whilst there’s no call for his immediate resignation, it’s something that will probably happen in the not too distant future).  Quatermass created the rocket group for peaceful, scientific research and he’s horrified to find it appropriated by the military for their own ends.  “From the very start we’ll be going into space with one thought – war!  We’re on the verge of a new dimension of discovery.  It’s the great chance to leave our vices behind us, war, first of all.  Not to go out there dragging our hatreds and our frontiers with us.”

Needless to say, this speech (delivered to mostly military types) is treated with stony indifference.  So it’s maybe something of a relief when Roney turns up with a problem.  The excavation has been halted – due to the discovery of what looks like an unexploded bomb.  Roney isn’t happy with the officer in charge, Captain Potter (John Stratton), and wonders if Quatermass can do anything to help.  Quatermass rather neatly manages to persuade Breen to take a look, so the three of them head out to the site.

Stratton would be a familiar television face for decades (much later he would turn in a ripe performance as Shockeye in the Doctor Who story The Two Doctors).  He’s much straighter here (and barely recognisable) as the young officer.  There’s also some familiar faces in his squad, such as Harold Goodwin as Corporal Gibson and Hammer Films stalwart Michael Ripper as the Sergeant.

By the time we reach the end of the episode, many of the blocks of the story are in place, but there’s plenty of facts that are still unclear.  What’s interesting is how the pieces of the puzzle are slowly assembled – basically Quatermass and the Pit is a detective story and we’ll see Quatermass and the others uncovering information in the later episodes by various means (via books, talking to people, experiments, etc).  This is far removed from the thriller-like Quatermass II which operated in a much more straightforward way.

What appeared at first to be an unexploded bomb now looks increasingly odd.  It’s far too large, for one thing.  And the other important fact that Quatermass alone seems to have grasped is that it was below where the skull was found.  And if the skull had lain undetected for five million years, how long has the “bomb” been there?

Quatermass II – Episode Six – The Destroyers


The Destroyers is something of an epilogue to the main story.  Quatermass II would have worked equally well as a five-parter and the conclusion of the previous episode (which saw the destruction of the creature at the plant) could have served very well as the end of the serial.  Instead, in episode six we see Quatermass and Pugh head out in their rocket to rendezvous with the asteroid.  The plan is to jettison the rocket’s nuclear motor and therefore destroy the alien menace once and for all.

The main problem was that by now the budget had virtually all been spent.  The first five episodes had cost around £7,000 (small change today, but quite a substantial sum for television drama sixty years ago).  This meant that The Destroyers had to be realised with just £600 – and there are times when the lack of money is rather obvious ….

But there are good points – the modelwork is, at times, quite effective (although some of the other shots are less impressive).  But the main problem with the episode is that the bulk of it takes place on the rocket with Quatermass and Pugh.  So far, we’ve seen that John Robinson tended to work best when he had actors of character to bounce off.

There’s no doubt that Hugh Griffith was a very good actor indeed, but as Pugh had been taken over by the aliens at the end of the fifth episode he doesn’t contribute a great deal until the climax – meaning that Robinson has to shoulder the majority of the dialogue and action up until then.  And since Robinson wasn’t the most charismatic or involving of actors, this tends to make the scenes drag a little.

Before this though, he fares a better when attempting to appeal to the humanity buried deep within the controlled Dillon.  He spells out what will happen if they can’t destroy the incoming aliens.  “There’s a possibility, no more than that, to reach the parent body from which these creatures come. If I’m not able to make this attempt, they’ll come again in their thousands and their millions. New colonies are being made ready for them elsewhere in the world. There they can develop, expand, breed, protected by their victims! Men like you Dillon! Guarding and feeding them until they spread all over the Earth!”

Quatermass and Pugh set off, although it’s hard to believe that Quatermass didn’t realise much earlier that something was wrong with Pugh.  True, he didn’t develop the very bad acting that affected most the controlled humans, but there was clearly something off-key about him.  By the time Quatermass does twig, it’s far too late and the pair of them have crash-landed on the asteroid.

Pugh attempts to shoot Quatermass, but the recoil from the rifle (and how would bullets react in zero-gravity anyway?) causes him to drift off into space.  The sight of a slowly spining Pugh, getting smaller and smaller, is a nice shot – it may be fairly simple effect, but to be inlaid onto a live production was clearly a challenge.  The end of the story is rather perfunctory though.  Quatermass fires the chemical motor, wipes out the aliens and this seems to instantly break their hold over the affected humans (if Dillon is anything to go by).

Whilst the last episode does have its problems, overall this is a serial that’s aged remarkably well.  You have to make allowances for the nature of live broadcasting, some of the effects are crude (and others are non-existent) but it’s certainly much more than simply a historical curio.  For most of the time it’s a very decent piece of drama with some good performances.

As previously mentioned, John Robinson is a something of a weak-link. Robinson’s Quatermass is a cold and remote man with whom it’s difficult to emphasise with.  Monica Grey is a little hard to take as well, and the reason for making her Quatermass’ daughter is never really developed – there’s very few displays of familial devotion from the pair of them.

The serial really comes alive with the supporting actors – and there’s plenty of familiar faces who liven up proceedings (such as Wilfred Brambell, Rupert Davies, Roger Delgado and – in the last episode – Cyril Shaps).  It’s a very pulpy sort of story and although the script does sometimes make impossible demands on the limited resources available, they manage to get away with it.

Apart from the slightly damp-squib of an ending, this is a piece of drama that firmly deserves its iconic status.

Quatermass II – Episode Five – The Frenzy


One of the impressive things about Quatermass II is that there isn’t an episode where the action sags.  Normally, with a six part serial you’d expect it to tread water during the middle, but we’ve reached episode five and it’s still ticking along nicely.  This is probably due to the variety of supporting actors that we’ve seen.  As I’ve previously touched upon, any ally of Quatermass tends to have a fairly limited life expectancy – therefore most only feature for an episode or two.

The plus side of this is that there’s a constant influx of new characters to keep the narrative moving.  And in The Frenzy, the likes of Paddy (Michael Golden), Mac (John Rae) and Ernie (Ian Wilson) take centre-stage.  In the decades to come, television drama would be taped out of sequence (which would mean that an actor could appear throughout a serial like this but record all their scenes in a few days).  But back in days of live television this obviously wasn’t possible – hence actors pop up in a few episodes and then aren’t seen again.

Paddy, Mac, Ernie and a number of others make their way down to the plant to demand answers.  The zombie-like guards aren’t able to reassure them, so a fight breaks out.  Although the film sequences for this episode are quite murky (and somewhat murkier than the other episodes) it seems pretty clear that Paddy initiates things.  He grabs a rifle from one of the guards and begins firing.  What’s particularly interesting is that when Quatermass meets up with the men later (they’ve barricaded themselves into one of the rooms in the plant) Paddy insists that the guards fired the first shot.  Quatermass agrees with him, but does he believe Paddy or is he simply happy to agree in order to keep the men on his side?  There’s several different ways the line could have been spoken, but Robinson’s delivery is rather rushed and flat – a pity, since there’s seems to be a little bit of subtext here which was never developed.

Quatermass and the others are able to cut off the gas supply to the dome.  This begins to have an effect, as witnessed by the messages relayed to them via the tannoy.  The voice offers various inducements if they come out, such as promising that nobody will be harmed and that the injured will be taken care of.  “Music while you work” is also pumped through (a sequence that Kneale remained fond of).  Whilst Quatermass is desperately attempting to find a solution, it’s a nice counterpoint to have the scene scored with the sort of easy listening music that would be played during their normal shift patterns.

Eventually, the voice makes an offer that Mac finds irrestiable.  It offers to show them any part of the plant – Mac wishes to look at the main dome.  Quatermass tries to tell him that he’s going to his death, but he doesn’t believe him.  Along with a few others, he leaves the room and shortly after it’s clear that there’s a blockage in the pipeline.  It becomes horrifyingly obvious that Mac and the other men have been shoved down the pipeline (and turned into a pulp) in order to try and stop Quatermass’ sabotage.  After this, events lose a little coherency – as Quatermass is able to escape quite easily (and he finds Dr Pugh outside, waiting for him).  They return to the rocket and debate their next move.

Throughout the later part of The Frenzy there’s a very sharp sense that the world is tightening around Quatermass and his small group of friends.  It’s difficult to trust anybody now (and Dr Pugh is acting a little oddly at the end, which implies that he’ll be the next to go rogue).  Although the plant at Winnerden Flats has been largely destroyed, there’s still several more in other parts of the world, so the danger is far from over.  The rocket appears to be their only hope – but the return of John Dillon seems to scupper that.

Dillon, under alien control, has taken possession of the rocket.  Given what I said earlier about the number of actors who only appear in an episode or two, his re-appearance here does come as something of a surprise (he hasn’t been seen since the opening moments of episode two).  With the rocket now in alien hands, everything seems lost – which sets us up nicely for the sixth and concluding episode.

Quatermass II – Episode Four – The Coming


The opening few minutes of The Coming sees Quatermass speculate about the form, nature and intention of the aliens.  He surmises that each meteorite contains some form of life, which expires seconds after it’s been exposed to the Earth’s atmosphere.  But within that short period of time it’s able to latch onto a human host and essentially take command of them.  He further speculates that it’s probably a colonial organism.  “Imagine a group mind. A thousand billion individuals, if you like, with a single consciousnesses.”  This was yet another element cribbed by Robert Holmes for the Doctor Who story Spearhead from Space (the Nestene Consciousness existed in a similar way).

If these points are fairly reasonable deductions, others seem to have been plucked out of the air somewhat – such as his reasoning that in its own atmosphere the alien could change in size, mass and shape.  And his suggestion that they come from one of the moons of Saturn is another surmise that seems to have no particular evidence to back it up.  Since the theme music for the serial is Holst’s Mars – The Bringer of War, it seemed a missed opportunity not to have them originate from Mars.  Even odder is that when the Martians feature in Quatermass and the Pit, it doesn’t use Holst’s theme!

This opening scene is a little bit of a nightmare for Robinson, who stumbles on several lines.  But the nature of live television is that you simply have to keep ploughing on, which he does and eventually things get back onto a more even keel.  We then see the Quatermass II rocket for the first time since episode one.  The prototype Quatermass II rocket exploded in Australia, but there’s a second one – currently being worked upon in the UK.

Quatermass tells Dr Pugh to make it ready.  Pugh, remembering the explosion in Australia, is naturally incredibly reluctant.  He tells Quatermass that it could very well turn into an atomic bomb, but maybe that’s what Quatermass wants.  Is he planning to use it as a weapon?  Quatermass is remarkably angry during this scene, barking out “I’m not listening to reason!” to Pugh and generally acting in a pretty foul manner (he’s also very abrupt to Paula).

He only perks up when he receives a call from a journalist called Hugh Conrad.  Quatermass believes that Conrad can help him to break the story, so he arranges to meet him at Winnerden Flats. Conrad was played by Roger Caesar Marius Bernard de Delgado Torres Castillo Roberto, better known as Roger Delgado.  Delgado was, of course, best known for playing the Master in Doctor Who between 1971 and 1973 and prior to that had enjoyed a successful career, again mostly playing villains.  So his appearance in QII, as a good guy, is a nice change.  Anybody who’s interested in more detail on his career should check out the documentary on the DVD of the Doctor Who story Frontier in Space.  There’s a wealth of clips from his many BBC appearances, of which far too many, sadly, are not yet available on DVD.

A new ally, like Conrad, is obviously what Quatermass needs, since his old ones have been dropping like ninepins.  The latest to succumb is Fowler, who finds himself gassed by an alien booby trap once he’s back at the ministry.  It’s a slightly sloppily directed scene (but as previously mentioned, it’s live television – so cutaways and effects shots were simply not possible).  We see the device and we see Fowler react – but we never see anything emerge from the device, so we have to use our imagination and assume that something did.

Quatermass shows Conrad the plant and afterwards the two of them visit the pub on the outskirts of the prefab town.  The prefab town houses the plant workers and both Quaternass and Conrad hope to pump them for information.  They share a drink with Paddy (Michael Golden) and Mr and Mrs McLeod (John Rae and Elsie Arnold).  Mr and Mrs McLeod are celebrating the eve of their silver wedding anniversary and Quatermass congratulates them, buys them a drink and tells them that a silver wedding was something he never had the fortune to reach.  This is the first time his wife’s been mentioned, but whether she’s dead or if they were divorced isn’t clear – although it’s interesting that Mrs McLeod says he has a sad face.

The regulars view the questions of Quatermass and Conrad with suspicion, although when a meteorite falls through the pub roof it does give them pause for thought.  Security guards enter, take it away and Quatermass and Conrad follow them.  This is a slightly odd part of the episode, as somehow Conrad’s been infected – although it’s difficult to see when this happened.  Even odder is that whilst he’s clearly not the same man he was, he’s not completely taken over and later he’s able to phone his paper in London and provide them with a succinct summary.  “Subjugation to the intention of the thing is widespread. It’s given rise to the production of a protected colony at a place called Winnerden Flats. It’s not synthetic food! It’s the re-creation of a world 800 million miles away!”  Did Conrad glean the last piece of information from Quatermass earlier or is this something he’s learnt from his association with the group mind?

Quatermass has re-entered the plant.  The last few minutes of the episode, shot on film, are very effective  – there’s no dialogue, just an ominous toiling sound as Quatermass ventures deeper and deeper into the plant.  Eventually he opens an inspection hatch and is greeted by the sight of a strange creature.  True, it’s obviously only a few pieces of plastic slowly moving about – but thanks to the music and Cartier’s shot selection, it’s still a rather eerie sight and a good cliff-hanger.

Quatermass II – Episode Three – The Food


Quatermass finds it difficult to make any headway at the enquiry (naturally enough, since all the members are under alien control).  When he produces a replica of a meteorite that does trigger a reaction, but he leaves the room having made little progress.  There’s an interesting moment in the next scene, as Quatermass confides to Fowler that in “the last few minutes I was there, seconds really. I was afraid, Fowler. I was suddenly sharply aware of menace.”  This would imply that Kneale scripted the scene to be played much more naturally – whereas Cartier’s direction makes it obvious from the start that something’s seriously wrong (when any of the committee members speak, it’s in such an unearthly tone that the sense of danger is driven home rather unsubtly).  Had Kneale’s scripted intentions been adhered to, this scene would have played out more satisfactorily.

Whilst the early episodes of Quatermass II were attracting a sizeable audience, not everybody was happy.  Cecil McGivern, Controller of Television Programmes, conceded that the programme was “being ‘shot’ with considerable skill by Rudolph Cartier, but what he is ‘shooting’ is just not good enough.”  Kneale defended his work by explaining how it differed from the first serial.  “Instead of a normal world with one sinister element moving in it (as per The Quatermass Experiment) we have one normal protagonist moving in an increasingly abnormal world.”

This is borne out by the following scene when Quatermass and Fowler return to the committee room.  They find Broadhead alone, slumped on the desk and clearly now under the malign alien influence.  The notion that allies can be dealt with so swiftly helps to raise the stakes in the audience’s eyes – they now know that if Quatermass is going to persevere, then it’s going to be thanks to his own ingenuity and also with the help he can receive from a small group of trusted people.

Quatermass and Fowler meet with Rupert Ward (Derek Aylwad).  Ward is a public relations man who’s been to the plant on several occasions – his job was to look after selected parties of VIPs, who were shown around the installation.  This explains how the members of the establishment were brought under control, as it’s hard to imagine the alien being able to direct meteorites to each of their front doors!  For those keeping score on our Doctor Who watch, this is very similar to how the Cybermen were able to influence key people in the 1968 story The Invasion.  There, they entered the headquarters of International Electromatics and were very different when they came out ….

There’s a nice scene in this episode between Paula and Dr Pugh.  It doesn’t advance the plot very far, but it gives them both some welcome time to develop their characters.  Pugh laments the mechanical/electronic age.  “Too many machines, that’s what we’ve got. They spoil one from grasping a clear concept. I joined your father as a mathematical genius. That’s not boasting, I was once. A calculating boy.”  It’s a good moment for Hugh Griffith (a quality actor with a substantial acting career – he won an Oscar as best supporting actor in Ben Hur, for example).  Monica Grey is also allowed a little space to emerge as more of a character, although she’s still somewhat stiff and lacking in emotion (Paula’s still remarkably unconcerned about the fate of Dillon, which seems a little hard to accept).

The following scene is a very unsettling one, as we see a family (mother, father, child) settling down to enjoy a picnic, close to the installation.  Armed guards arrive and insist that they leave, but we don’t see the conclusion to the scene – as a car races past and the camera refocusses on them (the car contains Quatermass, Fowler and Ward, who are going to try and get into the installation).  It isn’t until later in the story that we hear gunfire and then see the family’s car being towed inside (with one of their arms limply visible).  As Quatermass drives back to London, he passes the shattered remains of their picnic – there’s no words spoken, but the pictures tell their own, powerful story.

This section is a good example of how ruthless Quatermass can be.  When they pass the family’s car on the way in, Fowler wonders if they should stop and try to help.  Quatermass decides not to, as the fact that some of the guards are outside could be of benefit to them when they try and gain access.  He’s right of course, but it does mean that their deaths may have been prevented if they had intervened.

Another death follows, once they gain admittance, as Ward enters one of the food domes and emerges covered in a sort of corrosive slime.  This is a nicely shot sequence, as we see the dazed figure of Ward slowly staggering down the staircase of one of the impressive location structures.  It’s just a pity that all of this scene couldn’t have been shot on film, as the cut to the studio when he reaches the bottom is a little jarring.  It’s hard to see any emotion from Quatermass as he frantically urges the dying Ward to tell him what he saw.   Was this as scripted or was it simply because Robinson wasn’t an actor capable of delivering a subtler performance?  It’s hard to imagine Reginald Tate being quite so brusque.

Back in London, Quatermass surmises that the domes may be for food after all – but not food for human consumption.  He explains to Fowler.  “Try to imagine a complete reversal. An organism for which oxygen is not a necessity of life, but a destroyer. Unable to survive in our atmosphere for more a few seconds. Safe only in a shell, a shell of stone. But with power, Fowler. Power to compel.”

Quatermass II – Episode Two – The Mark


Whilst we’ve previously touched upon the debt that Doctor Who owes to Quatermass, it’s clear that Quatermass II was influenced by various stories published during the mid 1950’s.  Invasion of the Body Snatchers, written by Jack Finney in 1954, was one possible influence.  It tells of an stealthy invasion which sees alien duplicates of people grown from seed pods.  Quatermass II would mine similar territory – whilst the concept of an alien invasion is frightening enough, how much more frightening would it be to realise that it’s already happened?

In Finney’s novel (and the subsequent 1956 film) the drama derives from the possibility that your nearest and dearest (next-door neighbours, parents, etc) may be alien duplicates.  As the book was written during the early years of the Cold War, it’s hardly a stretch to say that there’s a fairly clear allegory at work here.  It’s bad enough to find out that people close to you are actually aliens, but it could be worse – they might be communists.  Quatermass II also has the hallmarks of a story crafted during the Cold War, but here the aliens have infiltrated the higher echelons of government and are directing the unwitting humans to service their, at this time, unfathomable ends.

The Cold War was different from conventional conflicts such as WW2 (which ended just ten years prior to the transmission of QII) due to its lack of large-scale battles.  Instead, the “fighting” occurred beneath the surface of normal society, so most people simply wouldn’t have been aware that it was happening.  In QII we see a good example of this – as the aliens have effectively won, without a shot being fired.  The drama is therefore driven by the growing realisation of Quatermass that nobody can be trusted – just how widespread is the alien influence?

Whilst Kneale would later claim that he wasn’t a particularly political writer, QII certainly has some interesting points to make.  There’s a general theme that the authorities are suspect (which is fair enough, since they’ve been infiltrated by aliens) but it’s possible to see this as an allegory for a more general swipe at the post-WW2 secretive nature of government.  There were certainly research projects carried out at the time which were not publicised (but if they had would presumably have been claimed by the authorities to have been “for the greater good”).  The chemical warfare research carried out at Porton Down is one such example (and some of their research work carried out in the past, and their work continuing now, has never been made public).

Episode Two, The Mark, sees Professor Quatermass begin to understand what’s happening.  We see Dillon affected by the gas which seeped out of a meteorite at the end of episode one and which also left a mark on his cheek, which will be an important plot-point later in the episode.  Guards from the mysterious nearby plant take Dillon away, despite Quatermass’ protests.  He seems unable to communicate with them, as they appear to be operating in a zombie-like state.

We can assume that the guards are under alien control (although, of course, at this stage it’s not clear that aliens are at the bottom of this – it could be that first-time viewers simply assumed the guards were very bad actors!).  Like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the emotionless nature of the suspect humans is something of a giveaway – dramatically it would have been more satisfying for the controlled humans to act normally, but there is a certain eeriness to them – thanks to their monotone speaking voices.

Powerless to prevent Dillon’s removal, he doesn’t have much time to ponder his next move before he discovers a tramp (Wilfred Brambell) emerging from a hole in the ground.  Brambell seemed to spend most of his career playing old men, even when he wasn’t terribly old (in 1955 he was forty three).  Rudolph Cartier had previously cast him in the 1953 Kneale-scripted production of Nineteen Eighty Four, and he would later admit that, like many directors, he liked to employ a “rep” of regular actors in his productions.  Another actor cast by Cartier in Nineteen Eighty Four (André Morell) would later have an important part to play in the Quatermass story ….

If it’s possible to wonder why the guards didn’t simply kill Quatermass, rather than let him walk away, then you could also regard the appearance of the tramp (who points Quatermass in the right direction to continue his investigations) as a slightly clumsy piece of plotting.  Yes, it is – but it’s also necessary to keep the story moving so it’s best not to worry too much about it.  The tramp mentions that some five miles away from Winnerden Flats is a prefab town that’s been built to house the workers employed on the plant.

The Camp Voluntary Committee Duty Office has a number of posters on the wall (“Remember, Secret Means Sealed Lips” and “Talk About Your Job And Lose It”).  The committee are disinclined to help Quatermass and they explain why.  “We’re doing all right. A lot more than all right. We’re asked to co-operate by keeping our mouths shut. Just like in the war.”  The posters are an obvious nod back to similar ones used during WW2 and it’s clear that the workers, whilst they may be aware of strange occurrences, are happy to keep quiet for the reasons stated.  Partly because they’re being well paid, but also because this sort of blind obedience to authority was something they were used to in wartime and therefore it’s easy to see how it could be used to manipulate people in peacetime.

The police are also unable to help, so Quatermass turns to the ministry.  Fowler (Austin Trevor) is a civil servant with something of a sense of humour (“we’ve had dealings for a number of years.  You as a driving force as an enterprise of the future, I as one of the obstructive civil servants you have to contend with.”)  Since he has a personality he’s clearly not been taken over and he’s able to advance the plot by telling Quatermass about Winnerden Flats.  It’s used, he says, to produce synthetic food – considerable money and absolute secrecy has been required since it’s a revolutionary new process.

He introduces Quatermass to Vicent Broadhead (Rupert Davies) who’s an ambitious MP making his own enquries into Winnerden Flats.  Later to become a household name in Maigret (1960-1963), Davies is a strong addition to the serial, although his part isn’t particularly large.  But he is able to tell Quatermass that identical plants have been built in other countries (so whatever they’re doing it can’t be revolutionary).

Quatermass insists that Broadhead calls him as a witness in the enquiry he’s been running.  Broadhead agrees and the two take their place in the meeting room.  This is where the emotionless nature of the controlled humans works well as it’s rather eerie to see the six men sitting around the table, all of them hardly showing any reaction.  And when Quatermass spots that one of them has a mark on his face, the pieces of the puzzle seem to be slowly falling into place …..

Quatermass II – Episode One – The Bolts

q2 - ep 01

For those people, like myself, who like to tick off the elements of the Quatermass serials that were later “borrowed” for Doctor Who, episode one of Quatermass II is a very happy hunting ground.  This story clearly made a strong impression on Robert Holmes, as some fifteen years later he lifted key elements from it when scripting Jon Pertwee’s debut, Spearhead from Space.

The opening, with a radar technician tracking a mysterious object, is one such blatant lift – as is the sight of the object (a meteorite) landing in a field and its subsequent discovery by a local yokel.   The fact that the meteorite was intact before it hit the earth (an extremely rare occurrence) is also common to both series as is the notion that it was hollow.

The Bolts is an efficient opening episode as not only does it have strong continuity links to The Quatermass Experiment, it also very effectively sets up the premise of the new story.  Captain John Dillon (John Stone) was the army officer on the spot when the meteorite was tracked.  It’s not the first time that such objects have been observed and he’d like to investigate further – but there’s a complete ban on such investigations.  He surmises this is because of the flying objects scare of the previous year, which generated panic stories in the newspapers and suicides from people who feared that the end of the world was nigh.  The real reason will be uncovered later in the story ….

Dillon is curious and luckily he knows just the man to help him – Professor Quatermass.  Dillon is going out with Quatermass’ daughter, Paula (Monica Grey) so he’s able to speak to the Professor straightaway.  Monica Grey is another rather clipped, emotionless actress (similar to Isabel Dean) but Stone’s Dillon is rather more natural and he works well with Quatermass during this episode.

As for Quatermass himself, John Robinson stepped into the role at the last minute (following the sudden death of Reginald Tate).  It’s probably fair to say that Robinson wouldn’t be many people’s favourite Quatermass – as there’s something rather off-putting about his rather wooden delivery.  It’s been suggested that his rather uncomfortable performance was due to the fact he was a last minute replacement for Tate, but as he gives a similar performance in other series it seems to be just his acting style.

Although QII moves away from the concept of space exploration via rockets, as seen in the first serial, it’s still touched upon in this first episode – and this provides a strong link to TQE.  In TQE we saw the problems with the first rocket (resulting in the deaths of the three astronauts) and there’s a similarly unhappy fate for the second rocket (named Quatermass II). It exploded seconds after it was launched from its Australian base and the resulting nuclear fallout contaminated a wide area, as well as killing everybody within its immediate radius.

It’s another bitter blow for Quatermass and he confides to Paula and Dr Leo Pugh (Hugh Griffith) that this disaster spells the end for the rocket programme.  Its ultimate aim was to produce a fleet of rockets to build a colony on the Moon, but this dream is now in tatters.  “It won’t be easy, will it, to face the fact that we’re out of the race?”

Whilst the history of the space programme during the 1950’s and 1960’s tends to concentrate on America and Russia (for obvious reasons) there were times, especially during the 1950’s, when the British space programme had brief moments of life (such as the Blue Streak project).  But rising costs meant that by the late 1950’s the Blue Streak was cancelled, and QII was somewhat prescient in forecasting that lack of government funding would be the major reason why Britain never developed a credible presence in space.

With the future of his rocket looking grim, Quatermass seems only too pleased to see Dillon and be presented with a mystery.  Together they travel down to talk to the man who discovered the meteorite, Fred Large (Eric Lugg) and his wife (played by Hilda Barry).  Fred’s in a very uncommunicative state and Quatermass and Dillon beat a hasty retreat.  Although we don’t see Mr and Mrs Large again, their closing scene (with Mrs Large worriedly wondering what’s happened to her husband) is a slightly uncomfortable one, since it raises the possibility that these meteorites have the ability to change people’s personalities.

Stopping off at a local pub, Quatermass questions a local man, Robert (Hebert Lomas).  He seems to have a bee in his bonnet about “government men” and how they ruin everything – but Quatermass is intrigued by the news that a secret installation has been built nearby, at Winnerden Flats.  Admittance is strictly forbidden and there are armed guards to reinforce this.  Quatermass and Dillon nevertheless decide to take a look.  The complex (like the Quatermass II rocket earlier) is rendered with some nice modelwork by Jack Kine and Bernard Wilkie, but there’s little chance to take it all in before the pair find another meteorite.

This leads into the cliff-hanger, which is a little bodged, but still quite effective.  Quatermass looks at Dillon and reacts in horror.  “There’s something on your face!”  Unfortunately, John Stone doesn’t react at all until after Robinson has spoken, which is a bit sloppy (but it’s live television, so you can’t expect perfection).  Robinson then has to hold his expression of shock for about ten seconds whilst the first few credits roll (this was a skill that you’ll often see performed during the 1950’s and 1960’s – as actors had to stop dead whilst the credits were overlaid.  The closing credits of Police Squad! are an excellent parody of this).

John Robinson may be a bit of a cold fish, but otherwise this is a good opening episode with plenty of mystery and the promise of some further twists to come.

The Quatermass Experiment – Episode Two – Persons Reported Missing

quat 2

Given the iconic nature of the serial, it comes as something of a surprise to learn that Nigel Kneale didn’t have the time to carefully craft it – instead it was written to a very tight deadline.  When a hole appeared in the Saturday evening schedules, Kneale agreed to write a six part serial to fill the gap, but by the time the early episodes were airing he still hadn’t written the concluding episodes.  In one way, this was an advantage – since he was able to watch the performances of the cast (especially Reginald Tate) and then tailor the finale to best suit their abilities.

Episode two opens with Victor Carroon taken away to the hospital, whilst Quatermass explains to a curious police officer exactly how the rocket functions.  This is a slightly awkward example of info-dumping – it’s important that the audience has some understanding of how the rocket works, but had Quatermass discussed this with his colleagues it would have seemed false (since they would obviously know as well as him how it operates).

Quatermass gives the policeman a guided tour.  “Food supplies. Recording apparatus. Transmitter. Vision Monitor. Remote Control. Bunks for the crew. They’re strapped down on those during take-off.”  Given the disaster that seems to have befallen two of the crew, Quatermass is extremely affable to stop and give the inspector all this information – but whilst he has moments of stress, he is generally a fairly polite chap (witness how he stopped to speak to the reporters before entering the rocket.  It’s hard to imagine Donlevy’s Quatermass being quite so understanding!)

What’s noticeable about this episode (apart from the rather poor quality of the telerecording) is how basic the majority of the sets are.  The hospital room, the police station, the arrivals area at the airport, etc are all fairly small sets and quite sparsely furnished.  Given the limited space in the studio, it’s understandable that the sets wouldn’t be terribly large and maybe the limited definition of the television service at the time meant that it wasn’t considered necessary to go overboard with the set dressing.

Producer/director Rudolph Cartier would later say that he always attempted to give the Quatermass programmes a cinematic feel, but it’s not really evident in this episode (which is mainly a series of conversations set in a number of rooms).  Given that the remaining four episodes don’t exist, it could be that they open out the story a little more – or maybe the cinematic stylings didn’t really start until Quatermass II, which benefited from a larger budget and extensive location filming.

The human interest of the story is given a twist when Judith Carroon reveals that she had planned to leave Victor, as she loved another member of the team – Gordon Briscoe.  This allows Reginald Tate to raise a surprised eyebrow.  Tate’s very good in this scene, restrained and resigned – whilst Isabel Dean is, alas, rather more animated, shall we say.

Overall, it’s a good episode for Tate.  He gets to display some flashes of anger – especially when he’s questioned about how hard he’s pushing Victor to remember what happened on the fateful flight.  Why does he want to know?  Is it for the sake of the families of the two missing astronauts, or so they can build safeguards for future flights or is it just because Quatermass doesn’t like a mystery?  The single-minded nature of the scientist is a cliche, but it’s one that’s touched upon at various points during the Quatermass serials (though Kneale generally is able to make some good use of this familiar material).

Duncan Lamont was an excellent actor, with a lengthy career in films and television (one notable film appearance is as Sladden in the third Hammer Quatermass adaptation – Quatermass and the Pit in 1967).  In this episode, he’s largely incomprehensible, just mumbling the odd word.  And the shell of the man he now appears to be is reinforced when Quatermass plays him the film of the pre-launch chat.

Here, we see Victor cracking a joke with his two colleagues, Dr Ludwig Reichenheim (Christopher Rhodes) and Charles Greene (Peter Bathurst).  Since we know the disaster that awaits them, it gives their relaxed banter a dark feeling – which is the point.  I didn’t spot Bathurst at first through the murk of the telerecording and he’s certainly unrecognisable from his later television appearances, such as Chinn in the Doctor Who story, The Claws of Axos.

Speaking of Doctor Who, the episode ends with Carroon speaking to Quatermass in perfect German and giving his name as Dr Ludwig Reichenheim.  This apparent assimilation is a mystery that will be revealed in the later episodes and it clearly made an impression on Robert Holmes, who included something very similar in his Doctor Who story The Ark in Space.  The same story also has a crib from QATP, which we’ll probably discuss at a later date.

And sadly, that’s all that exists of this serial.  There’s several different ways to get a feel for the rest of it though.  The scripts for episodes three to six are on the DVD as PDFs and there’s also the Hammer film (pretty good, although Brian Donlevy isn’t most people’s idea of Quatermass) or the 2005 live remake (pretty bad).

Next time, we’ll move on to Quatermass II, where a new actor (John Robinson) takes centre-stage in an ambitious production that plays on the Cold War paranoia of the mid 1950’s and has a familiar theme of alien invasion (or rather, the realisation that the aliens are already here).

The Quatermass Experiment – Episode One – Contact Has Been Established

quat 1

One morning, two hours after dawn, the first manned rocket in the history of the world takes off from the Tarooma range, Australia.  The three observers see on their scanning screens a quickly receding Earth.  The rocket is guided from the ground by remote control as they rise through the ozone layer, the stratosphere, the ionosphere, beyond the air.  They are to reach a height of 1,500 miles above the Earth and there learn what is to be learnt.  For an experiment is an operation designed to discover some unknown truth.  It is also a risk.  (Opening narration)

Contact Has Been Established opens with Professor Quatermass and his team anxiously checking for news of the rocket.  It’s an early opportunity to see the main members of the British Rocket Group in action.  John Paterson (Hugh Kelly) and Peter Marsh (Moray Watson) are, at this time, fairly anonymous button-twiddlers and they don’t really have a great deal of opportunity to establish specific characters (although Watson does have a memorable moment at the end of the episode when he reacts with horror at the news that two of the three astronauts are missing.  Had this not been live then possibly another take would have dialed down his intensity – but alas, this was live and there were no second chances).

Isabel Dean played Judith Carroon, wife of Victor (one of the astronauts).  She had the sort of cut-glass accent that was still common at the time (although it was slowly vanishing).  Her rather stilted delivery does play against the emotion she had to express – but it’s a difficult role anyway, so it’s probably wise to cut her some slack.

The obvious man in charge is Quatermass (Reginald Tate).  Tate is probably the forgotten Quatermass (due to only two episodes from this story existing).  Had he not died suddenly, just before production of QII, then that obviously wouldn’t have been the case, since there was every indication he would have carried on with the role as long as Kneale had continued to write it.  Certainly Kneale himself had envisaged Tate continuing, both on television and on film, and in time it’s probable that he would have been synonymous with the role of Professor Quatermass.

It wasn’t to be though, so we’re left with just these two episodes to gauge how he played the role.  It’s certainly very different from Brian Donlevy’s take of the character in the Hammer film (which Kneale strongly disliked).  Whereas Donlevy was brash and loud, Tate is quiet and thoughtful – but there’s nevertheless an intensity about him.  Would he have been as good as André Morell in QATP, playing the older, more embittered Quatermass? It’s difficult to answer, but the evidence we have with these two episodes suggests that he would have been more than decent.

Technical imperfections are always going to occur during live broadcasts and there’s a few in this episode, although nothing too terrible.  The first sight of the rocket, crashed into the house, is impressive – but it appears that the grams weren’t cued up straight away, as there’s a pause of about five seconds before we hear any sound effects (dogs barking, babies crying, the sound of fire, etc).

If Isabel Dean gives a performance that to modern eyes seems somewhat unrealistic, then the same could be said of Iris Ballard as Mrs Matthews (“oh my gawd Len, it’s something dreadful”).  It’s a character drawn from a stock type (frightened working-classes) and it doesn’t really convince.  The first few minutes of the scene with the crashed rocket are rather tricky anyway – there’s some wobbly camera-work and the sound is indistinct at times (it seems that the boom microphones couldn’t get close enough to the actors).

Thankfully, Katie Johnson as Miss Wilde is on hand to liven up proceedings.  Best known as Mrs Wilberforce in the classic Ealing comedy The Ladykillers (1955), Johnson is delightful as the little old lady more concerned about the safety of her cat than the fact that a rocket has crashed into her house!

The area quickly becomes a circus, with reporters (headed by the foppish James Fullalove, played by Paul Whitsun-Jones), policeman, fireman, barrow-boys and drunks.  But whilst there’s chaos all around them, Quatermass’ team work on, attempting to establish contact with the crew within the rocket.

One of the pleasures of watching the BBC Quatermass serials is to observe how many times the makers of Doctor Who later ripped off/lovingly paid homage to (delete as applicable) Kneale’s story concepts.  Nigel Kneale famously loathed Doctor Who and refused the offer to contribute a script for the series, but that didn’t stop the programme (at various points in its history) borrowing heavily from the Quatermass canon.

The end of this episode, when the rocket is opened and it’s discovered that two of the astronauts are missing, is very similar to the Jon Pertwee story The Ambassadors of Death (although they went one better and had all three astronauts vanish!)  The sole survivor, Victor Carroon (Duncan Lamont) must hold the answer to the mystery and maybe in the next episode things will become clearer.

Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass Serials – Introduction

quatermass experiment

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
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
Third Test Match followed by a short summary of the day’s play

Bruce Gordon in Gordon Gets Going

‘The Appleyards’
A family serial
3-‘ Flying Visitors’ by David Edwards
Settings by Michael Yates
Produced by Kevin Sneldon

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 ‘

After the third day’s play, Brian Johnston, with some cricketing personalities, considers the state of the fight for the Ashes


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.

BFI DVD of Nineteen Eighty Four (BBC 1954) now cancelled


It’s disappointing that the BFI DVD of Nineteen Eighty Four, adapted by Nigel Kneale, produced by Rudolph Cartier and starring Peter Cushing, is still in limbo.  The original release date was planned for the end of 2014, then it was pushed back to March 2015.  At the time of writing this update (07/03/15) the DVD is no longer listed on the BFI’s website and the provisional release date has vanished from e-tailers such as Amazon, which indicates that it’s not going to appear any time soon.

This isn’t the first time that a DVD has been mooted only for it to never materialise.  The story starts in 2004, when it was announced that it would be released by DD Video.  This was exciting news and when DD issued a press release it became clear that considerable effort had been expended in order to present the programme in the best possible quality.  Their 2004 press release is reproduced below –


Classic TV specialist DD Home Entertainment claims to have set a new quality benchmark on its restoration work for the 1954 BBC drama Nineteen Eighty-Four.

This early landmark of British television, which will be available for the first time ever on DVD and video on November 8th, required extensive work on it, but viewers will – according to DD – find the restored picture even better than when it was first transmitted.  In December 1954 videotape recorders (even for broadcast use) were two years away and existed, if at all, only in prototype form in research laboratories.

Since 1947 BBC engineers had been able to make crude recordings of TV pictures simply by pointing a film camera at a monitor screen.  However, dramas were not recorded until 1953 and Nineteen Eighty-Four remains one of the earliest surviving examples of the art-form. It was recorded at the time using an ingenious system of modified telecine machines.

New transfers of the film recording were commissioned from BBC Resources using its highest quality Spirit datacine equipment. Special arrangements were made with the BBC Film and Videotape Library for access to the archive master material, which cannot normally be used.

The new copies of the play were graded. This is the process of taking each shot (or even part shot) and adjusting the brightness and contrast. Dirty cuts (where a frame is made of superimposed and distorted pictures from two cameras) were removed or, where possible, repaired using paintbox techniques.

Next, every frame of the play was examined and film dirt, scratches and other defects were laboriously re-touched and pointed out by hand. Finally a video process was applied to give the studio sequences the fluid motion appearance that they would have had on original broadcast.

The result – one of the earliest surviving examples of British television has been restored to exceptional quality.

Nineteen Eighty-Four will be available from November 8th 2004

But the DVD was never released in November 2004, instead it was announced that it had been postponed due to a dispute with the Orwell estate.  The 1984 film of Nineteen Eighty Four, starring John Hurt and Richard Burton, had been released on DVD in 2004 and it appears the Orwell estate didn’t want the BBC version to be available at the same time.

After this, everything went quiet until the BFI’s press release in July 2014 announced they would release it as part of their Days of Fear and Wonder SF season.  And the even better news was that they intended to use the restored master prepared in 2004.

It could be that it’s been delayed in order for the BFI to source more special features.  There’s some interesting material that could be added, most especially the 1965 version starring David Buck (a remake of the 1954 script).  Although it’s missing a few minutes, it would still be a very worthwhile (and long!) special feature. Further information about this production can be found here, in an article written by Kim Newman.

Or it could be that the Orwell estate are once again flexing their muscles.  If so, it’s their last opportunity, since in a few years their copyright claim to this production will have expired and they’ll no longer be able to block it.

It does seem bizarre that the BFI would announce the release without ensuring that all the necessary clearances had been obtained (but then the same thing seems to have happened a decade ago, with DD Video having spent money on a restoration that remains unseen).  Whilst it’s hardly difficult to source a copy of the unrestored print via the internet, it was the restored programme (along with some decent special features to place it in context – like the Out of the Unknown and the forthcoming Douglas Wilmer Sherlock Holmes DVDs) that the majority of us were keen to see.

For now, we’ll just have to wait and see if any more hopeful news surfaces in the future.  Anybody who is interested in more detail about the production may find this of interest.

Edit (Jan 2016).  Unfortunately the BFI DVD has now been cancelled.  The reason why isn’t known (possibly problems with the Orwell estate).  It does seem remarkable that both DD and the BFI prepared DVD releases which stumbled due to unspecified complications.  It possible that someone will try again in a few years time, but for now the restored version remains locked in the vaults.