Quatermass Review

Quatermass was the fourth and final outing for Nigel Kneale’s legendary rocket boffin Professor Bernard Quatermass. The first three serials, The Quatermass Experiment, Quatermass II and Quatermass and the Pit, were made by the BBC in the 1950s, but this story was produced by the independent company Euston Films (The Sweeney) and shown on ITV. Premiering with much publicity after an unprecedented 75-day strike by ITV technical staff, it was shown from October to November 1979. Reviews at the time were muted, but looking back on it now there’s no doubting what a powerful piece of television drama it is. (I was 12 at the time and was overwhelmed!)

The events of Quatermass take place in the near future. The social order has collapsed. Criminals have organised themselves into rival gangs and are waging open battle in the streets of London. There are power cuts daily, food is scarce, bodies lie in suburban streets. Old people barricade themselves into their homes for fear of attack, while the younger generation have joined a hippy cult called The Planet People and believe they will be transported to a distant world. Police have become ‘pay cops’, gun-wielding thugs who will only cooperate through bribery; there is only one UK television station, whose most popular programme is an inane soft-porn variety show; the government has taken to hiding in a bunker in Whitehall. No-one is taking responsibility.

Into this world comes Professor Quatermass (John Mills), leaving his Scottish cottage retreat to search for his grand-daughter Hettie (Rebecca Saire). Ostensibly booked to appear on a television show about an American-Soviet space link-up, he uses the opportunity to criticize the vast sums of money wasted on this futile effort while the world’s problems grow steadily worse. Appealing to the public to help him track his granddaughter down, he is cut off in mid-rant by the producer. Shortly afterwards, a mysterious force affects the link-up and the astronauts are killed. Fellow scientist Joe Kapp (Simon McCorkindale) takes him home to stay with his wife (Barbara Kellerman) and children. Their small but friendly home is near an old observatory where Kapp works, alongside a small stone circle. A few miles away there is a bigger circle - Ringstone Round. It is here to which hundreds of Planet People flock, following ley lines, thinking they will be ‘beamed up’ to a better world. A blinding beam of light descends on the circle and they all disappear, but to Quatermass and Kapp’s horror, their charred, ash-like remains are left scattered on the ground.

There is one survivor, a girl on the periphery of the circle. Quatermass takes her back to London for tests, but she levitates from her hospital bed and explodes (a terrifying sequence, despite the visible wires). Soon there are other reports of mass killings in stone circles, meeting places or stadia around the world. After a brief sojourn in a shelter for old people, made, bizarrely, out of disused cars, Quatermass is rescued by the army and meets with the Government cabinet. He tries to persuade the Prime Minister (Kevin Stoney) that this alien force is harvesting young people - but for what end, he can only guess at. The Americans and Soviets join forces and try to communicate with whatever force is out there in a space shuttle, but they fail and are destroyed. In London, thousands of Planet People descend on Wembley Stadium (remember that?). The inevitable happens - a powerful beam of light engulfs the whole building, decimating every one of them.

Finally, Quatermass is allowed to take charge. Faking a mass of people arriving at the small circle by Kapp’s home (Kapp's family, meanwhile, having been killed by an earlier energy beam there), he intends detonating a nuclear device that will send a shockwave back to whatever is sending out these ‘probes’. To do it, he may have to sacrifice his life, as well as that of his granddaughter…

Quatermass is probably the most convincing slice of telefantasy you will ever see. The first episode is incredibly well done, painting a picture of war torn urban Britain that is at once eerily prophetic and wildly satirical. Images of street-fighting in Northern Ireland are juxtaposed with Union Jack-wearing tramps selling piles of books labelled ‘Guaranteed to Burn Well’. Public schoolboys have become street-fighters, graffiti proclaims ‘Kill HM the King’ (there is a very youthful-looking picture of Prince Charles in the old people’s shelter), and the deserted motorways are littered with burnt-out cars and what look uncomfortably like dead bodies.

With a budget of £1.5 million for the four episodes, what Euston Films have achieved is nothing short of fantastic. Hundreds of extras, realistic scenes of mayhem and destruction, the creation of an 18th century observatory and two huge satellite dishes from scratch, the hiring of Wembley Stadium, a cast of stellar proportions - this really is an extraordinary piece of television. Director Piers Haggard doesn’t put a foot wrong, creating a dynamic sense of pace throughout the story, while praise must be heaped on Director of Photography Ian Wilson for his sterling work in making the Britain of the future so believable. There are many small touches, that while not immediately noticeable, add enormously to the production (such as signs in the TV station listing the national power cuts schedule and men wearing 'dog collars' rather than conventional neckties). Special mention must go to composers Nic Rowley and Marc Wilkinson who provide a starkly memorable theme tune and some terrifying synthesised incidental music - their work adds enormously to the whole production.

Acting is excellent across the board. John Mills gives a career-defining performance as a disillusioned old man out of his depth, while Simon MacCorkindale and Margaret Tyzack are very strong in supporting roles. There is a nicely judged 'almost romance' between Mills and Tyzack that adds resonance to their friendship. Other reliable ators include Donald Eccles, Kevin Stoney and Neil Stacy: recognisable faces even if you don't know their names. Toya Wilcox is there somewhere as a Planet Person, and old Coronation Street star Chris Quintin features briefly as a soldier who throws down his beret to join the cult. Only Tony Sibbald as the American astronomer Chuck Marshall fails fully to convince.

Production values are generally high, with only the shuttle interior set looking stagey. The London location filming is stunning, especially the Wembley Stadium scenes - "The Sacred Turf they call it," muses Quatermass. "I wonder what's underneath?" In fact, the recent ITV two-parter The Second Coming obviously used this sequence as inspiration for its key scene, that of Chrisopher Ecclestone revealing his divinity to the masses; but despite the large scale of the latter production, the 24-year old Quatermass serial eclipses it at every level. In some ways, television has become more sophisticated, in others it is trailing a long way behind the halcyon period of the 1970s.

Episode Four is probably the weakest part, as suddenly we're introduced to a cliched Brigadier character with a simplistic 'nuclear device' with a big red button. Shades of Doctor Who methinks, and it is a pity that nothing more original than a big bomb could have been used to deter the alien force. Speaking of which, the force itself is rather vaguely described - variously it is a 'machine probe', a skin around the world, or a sort of straw for extracting human 'life essences' to titillate the jaded palates of some alien species. This episode also seems more dated than the others, with quaint WWII imagery (sandbags, tin helmets) that seems at odds with the futuristic decay seen previously.

As well as the original episodes, the box set also has an edited-down theatrical version called The Quatermass Conclusion. This moves along very well, although of necessity it sacrifices much character detail for the sake of plot. Cut entirely is the 'OAP shelter' scenes (where, admittedly, the story does descend into mawkishness)and substitutes various new or changed linking sequences to paper over the cracks. (Quatermass, for instance, appears in the hospital sequences for this version.) It's an oddity that's worth watching once, but the episodic version is significantly more involving.

The original serial was shot on 35mm film, and thus the quality on these discs could have been superb. Not as good as the remastered UFO perhaps - after all, Quatermass’ cinematography was deliberately grittier - but impressive none-the-less. What has actually happened is that Clear Vision has just used a video master of a 16mm dupe (you can tell it’s a video because of the occasional video offlock that occurs in the form of a blurred horizontal band across the screen). It’s far better than the previous VHS release, but nowhere near as good as it could have been. There is plenty of film dirt, lots of jumpy splices, some terrible film damage and many examples of film weave that, while not especially distracting, do betray the lack of care taken with transferring this onto DVD. The colour balance is muted and looks even worse on the final episode, where an intermittent electronic effect has been added to turn the sky a sickly yellow, the colour, as Quatermass remarks, of "vomit"!

Disc One contains Episodes One: ‘Ringstone Round’ and Episode Two: ‘Lovely Lightning’, as well as the first half of a Production Notes text article by the appropriately named Andrew Screen of Action TV magazine. Similarly, Disc Two contains Episode Three: ‘What Lies Beneath’ and Episode Four: ‘An Endangered Species’ along with the conclusion of the Production Notes feature. Each episode is divided into ‘Play Chapter’, ‘Scene Selection’ (six chapters per episode), ‘Cast & Credits’ (the end titles) and ‘Chapter Information’ (a one line synopsis and tx date). Each episode is prefaced by the old Thames logo, although, disappointingly, all the original advert bumpers are missing.

Disc Three has The Quatermass Conclusion (divided into 12 chapters) along with an 18:15 interview with Kneale from the Sci-Fi Channel (which is very blandly presented, presumably because it is raw studio footage prior to the finished programme). This is a fascinating little item, demonstrating that the writer would have made for an insightful commentator had he been asked. It’s a grave disappointment that his talents weren’t utilised.

Considering that the box set is going for about £30, you definitely do not get your money’s worth. The inclusion of The Quatermass Conclusion (try saying that quickly) does not really justify the hefty price tag, especially as the quality on this is marginally worse than the bona fide episodes. If this was a budget release, people wouldn’t have had much to complain about - you get what you pay for. But when there’s so much quality archive telly out there for under twenty quid, you do have to wonder at Clear Vision’s motives. As a piece of quality SF, it is unbeatable - but not at any price.

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