Following the critical and popular success of Quatermass and the Pit, Nigel Kneale was asked if he would write any more Quatermass stories. He didn’t rule it out, although he also conceded that the three serials made a satisfying trilogy. In the mid 1960’s, Irene Shubik asked him to pen a new Quatermass tale for the flagship BBC2 science-fiction anthology series Out of the Unknown. Kneale declined (although he would write a non-Quatermass story – The Chopper – for the fourth and final series. But like many of the later episodes, this was sadly wiped).
By the early 1970’s Kneale had begun to draft a fourth Quatermass serial and, like his previous work, it was offered to the BBC. It didn’t generate a particularly favourable response from them though – and this seems to be a major factor in Kneale deciding to move to ITV (who would produce his later series, such as Beasts and Kinvig).
Euston Films (a subsidiary of Thames Television) were interested in his Quatermass story and in 1979, some twenty years after Quatermass and the Pit, the Professor made his final bow. During those twenty years both television and society had both changed enormously – and Quatermass reflects this. It’s by no means perfect (and it’s always been the most polarising of the serials) but there’s enough going on to make it a rewarding watch.
We open on a Britain that’s close to collapse. The opening narration fills in some of the blanks, but it’s never made clear in the first episode exactly why the world is teetering on the brink.
In that last quarter of the twentieth century, the whole world seemed to sicken. Civilised institutions, whether old or new, fell. As if some primal disorder was reasserting itself. And men asked themselves, why should this be?
Quatermass is on his way to a television studio to take part in a discussion celebrating the link-up in space of the two great powers – America and Russia. But he has another motive for taking part – his granddaughter has disappeared and he wishes to appeal to the public for information. He nearly doesn’t make it to the studio though, as he’s waylaid by a group of thugs.
They’re very well-spoken thugs though and this is an interesting wrinkle from Kneale. Civilisation has collapsed – with vast areas of the country seeming to operate on a feudal basis – and the upper-class muggers demonstrate that all the different classes of society are now existing on the same level. We later see some very polite graffiti scrawled on a wall (calling for the death of the King) which seems to make the same point.
Quatermass is rescued by Joe Kapp (Simon MacCorkindale). Like Quatermass, he’s appearing on the show and he’s also a scientist who’s well aware of the Professor and his reputation. Kapp clearly identifies with him (he later admits as much to his colleagues) and he takes it upon himself to look after the old man.
And this is a very different Quatermass from when we last met him. His sharp intellect seems to have been blunted by being away from the centre of things for too long (he’s been living in a cottage in the Highlands of Scotland and was therefore unaware just how dangerous the cities had become). But it’s interesting to see that as the story progresses he gradually recovers much of his authority (once he has a problem to solve). In this first episode though he’s quite a passive figure – and it’s Kapp who’s the more forceful, driving individual.
Quatermass’ appearance on television certainly causes a stir as he delivers a remarkable tirade. How much of this was Kneale’s own thoughts I wonder? “What we’re looking at there is a wedding. A symbolic wedding between a corrupt democracy and a monstrous tyranny. Two super-powers, full of diseases. Political diseases, economic diseases, social diseases. And their infections are too strong for us, the smaller countries. When we catch them, we die. We’re dying now. And they mock us with that thing? Well their diseases are in there too. It’ll come to nothing. Sooner than they think.”
Minutes later. the link-up ends in tragedy and all the astronauts are killed. The Americans naturally want to know how Quatermass knew this was going to happen. He maintains he didn’t, it was just his feeling – but it’s clear that he’s going to be hounded, so he gladly escapes to the country with Kapp. There he meets Kapp’s wife Clare (Barbara Kellerman), their children, and the three people who help Kapp with the work at his observatory – Tommy Roach (Bruce Purchase), Frank Chen (David Yip) and Alison Thorpe (Brenda Fricker).
The second part of the episode resolves around the Planet People. You can view them as new-age travellers (although when Kneale first wrote the scripts back in the early seventies, it was clear that they were meant to resemble hippies). Kneale himself regarded their appearance in 1979 as somewhat anachronistic and thought they should have been dressed as punks – although their mystical utterances would have seemed rather out of place had this been the case.
The Planet People regard Quatermass with disgust – bad enough that he’s a scientist but he worked with rockets (which is even worse). Quatermass is interested in them and tries to understand their beliefs. They tell him that they will be saved and transported to another planet. This enrages Kapp who attempts to make them see the folly of this. He doesn’t succeed and a large number of Planet People converge on Ringstone Round (like Stonehenge, it’s a fashionable place for those with new-age beliefs).
What Quatermass, Kapp and Clare observe at Ringstone Round fills them with horror. A beam of light obliterates almost all of the Planet People. It’s certainly an arresting image which showed that Kneale still knew how to craft a good cliff-hanger.