TV50 (BBC 1986) – Quatermass and Doctor Who clips

That’s Television Entertainment was a three hour programme broadcast in 1986 as part of the BBC’s TV50 season (which celebrated fifty years of BBC television).

I’ve just uploaded to YouTube the brief section covering Quatermass and Doctor Who.  Ringo Starr and Cliff Richard discuss their love of Quatermass and whilst there’s no celebs on hand to talk about Doctor Who, there is a generous three minute selection of clips.

Most of the sixties and seventies footage is taken from the 1977 documentary Whose Doctor Who.  I’m not sure how they selected the post 1977 material (since it’s bizarre to see a clip of Mestor from The Twin Dilemma – hardly one of the series’ high-points!).

Today, this is a nice selection of clips, but nothing more.  Back in 1986 though it was a tantaslisng glimpse into mostly unobtainable Doctor Who history.  The VHS range was still in its infancy (only a handful of tapes were available).  Stories from the 1970’s were still airing in certain parts of the world (not in the UK alas) but everything that existed from the 1960’s was pretty much out of circulation.  There were pirate videos of course, but even those were fairly restricted then.

These three minutes of clips seemed to be the closest we’d ever get to accessing a large part of Doctor Who’s history.  The idea that everything that existed would one day be available at the touch of a button was mere science fiction back then.

Timeshift – Live on the Night: The Story of Live TV Drama

I’ve uploaded some bits and bobs to my YouTube channel over the last few days and one of them is this Timeshift documentary from 2004.

It tells the story of live British television drama – from the early days and then right up to date.  Covering programmes like the original Quatermass serials, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Dixon of Dock Green and Z Cars and featuring interviews with Nigel Kneale, Peter Byrne and Brian Blessed amongst others, it ties neatly into some of the shows that I’ve written about in recent months.

Quatermass II – Episode Six – The Destroyers

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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 – hence 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 does tend to make the scenes drag a little.

Before this though, he does fare 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 that something was wrong with Pugh.  True, he didn’t develop the very bad acting that most the controlled humans displayed, 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 Pugh to drift off into space.  The sight of a slowly spining Pugh, getting smaller and smaller, is a nice shot – it’s a 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 and this wipes out the aliens and seems to instantly break the 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.  Yes, you have to make allowances for the nature of live broadcasting and 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 I’ve previously mentioned, John Robinson is a something of a weak-link.  He never seemed to be at ease as an actor and this was carried over into his performance.  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 – as there’s very few displays of familial devotional 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

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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

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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

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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

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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 …..