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.

The Quatermass Experiment – Episode One – Contact Has Been Established

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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.

The Quatermass Experiment – Episode Two – Persons Reported Missing

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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).