The Quatermass Collection Review
“In our opinion, it is not suitable for children or for those of you who may have a nervous disposition.” Words, which five decades ago, which were the signal for people countrywide to gather around the small TV set in the corner of the room. Then, as the opening chords of Holst’s Mars crashed out of the set’s speaker, they would settle down for another half-hour episode of science-fictional chills.
Unless you’re over sixty-five or so, it’s hard to grasp the impact the three serials written by Nigel Kneale and directed (or “produced” as the credit has it) by Rudolph Cartier must have had. What was once not suitable for children – and, despite popular belief, that warning was first used on Quatermass II, not on the original Quatermass Experiment – now bears a PG certificate, with the first serial earning a U. For many people television was a new experience, with a lot of sets bought for Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation that same year. But by the time Quatermass and the Pit was broadcast, streets were cleared so that no-one could miss an episode. Eleven million people watched the final episode of that third serial. Although that’s not a record - two years later, thirteen million tuned in for the final episode of A for Andromeda (a serial now sadly lost for the most part) - that would be a very high audience nowadays, let alone at a time when there were only two channels to choose from, and only one when the first serial was broadcast.
The other factor which bedevils the study and appreciation of vintage television is that great swathes of it no longer exist. There is secondary material available, such as scripts, audio recordings, stills, listings in back issues of Radio Times, not to mention increasingly elderly memories, but that doesn’t replace the experience of being able to watch it for yourself. Sadly, in many cases, we will never have the opportunity to do so. Although entirely prefilmed series were made even then (more commonly for ITV, which began in 1955), in the 1950s the great majority of television was live, beamed out into the ether once and once only. Repeats consisted of regathering the cast and having them perform the script a second time. The Quatermass serials were themselves live, though with an increasing use of pre-filmed location work in between the studio scenes. Sometimes the result was “telerecorded” (or “kinescoped” as the Americans call it) by means of a film camera pointed at a TV monitor. The two episodes of The Quatermass Experiment which survive are amongst the earliest recordings of live television.
Born in 1922 on the Isle of Man, Thomas Nigel Kneale began writing for radio in the late 1940s and for television in 1952. Looking at the filmography here, he was prolific from the outset. Eight plays for BBC TV are listed in almost exactly a year between the broadcast of the first of them and that of the opening episode of The Quatermass Experiment. But it was Professor Quatermass which made his name. Afterwards, he wrote further plays on SF/horror themes, notably The Road (now lost), The Year of the Sex Olympics, The Stone Tape and, for ITV, the anthology series Beasts and The Woman in Black. He returned to his most famous creation in 1979.
Professor Bernard Quatermass is very much a Fifties figure. You can see the influence on later series, notably Doctor Who (a series Kneale disliked and declined to write for), but there are key differences. Quatermass is an establishment figure, a member of a benevolent elite, more intelligent, educated and clear-sighted, and better qualified to make decisions on behalf of an excitable, easily led mass. Yes, there are evildoers in the ranks of the establishment, and they are rightly found out, and people tend to trust authority a little too readily - but the existence of an establishment is not called into question. That would happen in the following decade, and the Doctor is more of that time. Even William Hartnell’s version had his moments defying authority. In fact, the Time Lord who most clearly resembles Quatermass is Jon Pertwee’s take on the character, and his adventures – many of them set on Earth battling foes from elsewhere – do show the Professor’s influence most strongly. His first serial, Spearhead from Space, has a premise strongly reminiscent of that of Quatermass II.
Watching these three serials now, you do have to make some allowances for the way they were made. They were designed to be watched in half-hour instalments a week apart, not in one three-hour-plus session. Due to their being broadcast live, some material, or some shots may be held longer than would today be necessary to give actors time to get to the next set in time for the next scene. I’d suggest watching them one or two episodes at a time. Few allowances need to made for Quatermass and the Pit, which is one of the finest SF/horror serials ever made for the small screen.
The Quatermass Experiment (no rating)
The “Experiment” of the title is a rocket that Quatermass has been involved with developing. On a test flight, three astronauts go up into space. When the rocket crashlands, only one remains – Victor Carroon (Duncan Lamont). But what happened to the other two? And what has come back to Earth? Quatermass (Reginald Tate) becomes gradually aware that Lamont is slowly mutating into an alien life form…
And then, when the closing credits of Episode Two have rolled, a BBC announcer in an evening dress appears on screen to say, “You’ll be able to see the next episode of The Quatermass Experiment next Saturday at a quarter to nine.” Except that this is 2005 and not 1953 and, just as this serial is establishing its grip, that’s your lot. If you want to know what happens in the remaining four episodes you can read the scripts which are included as PDFs on this DVD. Or you could watch the film version made by Hammer in 1956, with a superb performance by Richard Wordsworth in the Carroon role. Or see the 2005 BBC live broadcast (itself available on DVD) which used an updated version of Kneale’s original script. Or develop broadcast-quality memory retrieval and test it on an aged relative. Or invent a time machine and bring back many other lost programmes while you’re at it.
Of course, we’re lucky that two episodes survive at all, as these are among the earliest surviving TV recordings. (Others include another Cartier production, It Is Midnight, Dr Schweitzer, broadcast earlier the same year and also featuring Reginald Tate, and of course the then-controversial Kneale/Cartier adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four, the DVD release of which is held up, as I write, by problems with George Orwell’s estate.) There are a number of theories as to why only two episodes were recorded, the most convincing being that this was abandoned as the film copy of the second episode was substandard. (See the review of the DVD below for more on this.) But watching them now is an inevitably tantalising experience. It’s impossible now to say how good a Quatermass Tate was, as we only have two thirds of his performance as opposed to all of André Morell’s, nor how Lamont’s performance compares to Richard Wordsworth’s. Ealing Comedy fans should note a supporting performance from Katie Johnson, a couple of years before The Ladykillers.
Quatermass II (7/10)
A series of meteor showers lands in Britain, which takes Quatermass (John Robinson) on a trail to Winnerden Flats, a village next door to a factory supposedly set up to manufacture food. But what is inside the factory is something else entirely…
Quatermass II may be the first sequel to have a “II” in its title, though Kneale justifies it further by it being the name of the rocket being developed in this serial. Like the first serial, it was filmed by Hammer. Although it survives in its entirety, the TV serial has been hard to see in recent years (apparently Kneale was unhappy with it) so this DVD release gives many of us their first opportunity to see it. Although there’s much to commend about it, it’s probably the weak link of the three (bearing in mind it’s impossible now to fairly judge the first one). Reginald Tate was due to reprise his role but died suddenly in August 1955 of a heart attack (aged only fifty-eight). John Robinson took over the role of the Professor at short notice, and does a capable job in what must have been trying circumstances. His acting seems a little dour and low-wattage, and pales compared to André Morell’s definitive take on the character in Quatermass and the Pit. Here, it’s a good thing that Hugh Griffith is along to lighten the tone. Further down the cast you’ll find a clean-shaven Roger Delgado, fifteen years before his own fame as Doctor Who’s adversary The Master, in a single-episode role as a journalist who meets a nasty end.
More people watched Quatermass II than the earlier serial – 7.9 million increasing to 9 million over the six-week run – but it hasn’t lasted in the memory as much as the serials either side of it. You can sense a greater confidence in both Kneale’s and Cartier’s work, the latter making good use of a genuine Thames Estuary oil refinery. But for Kneale and Cartier, their masterpiece was yet to come.
Quatermass and the Pit (10/10)
Hobbs Lane, London. As post-war rebuilding and renewal takes place in post-war London, a building site digs up what is at first thought to be an unexploded bomb…but one buried so deeply that it is thought to be five million years old. It turns out to be a Martian spaceship. Meanwhile, ghosts and poltergeists are seen in nearby houses…
In terms of its premise, Quatermass and the Pit is by far the most ambitious of the three serials. It remains very sophisticated by today’s standards, interweaving SF speculation with Jungian archetypes. Did the Martians encode racial memories in human brains all those centuries ago? Is the popular image of the Devil a distorted memory of a Martian, with horns instead of the original antennae? Is the Wild Hunt of folklore a memory of a racial culling? And what happens when the spaceship returns to life?
The ambition of the scripts is matched by an increase in scale of Cartier’s production. Although the studio scenes were still performed live (in the larger Riverside Studios in Hammersmith instead of the previous Lime Grove), there is a much greater use of pre-filming. As well as location shooting in London, the scenes of the “bomb” in the pit were shot in a large set at Ealing Studios. André Morell – who had played O’Brien in the 1954 broadcast of Nineteen Eighty-Four - had been offered the lead in Quatermass II but had been committed elsewhere. Here, he gives the definitive take on the character, both paternalistic scientist and committed man of action, seriousness leavened with humour. His great moment is his final speech: “We are the Martians”. Cec Linder gives strong support as the Professor’s Canadian sidekick Roney, and there’s a strong supporting cast. And the story grips like a vice.
The Quatermass Collection comprises three DVD-9 discs, one each for the two complete serials, with a third containing the surviving episodes of The Quatermass Experiment and the extras. The discs are encoded for Regions 2 and 4 only.
As you would expect from television material, the three serials are all transferred in their original 4:3 ratio. The transfers were all done from 35mm recordings, and if nothing else this box set shows the advances in such technology over a space of just five years. The two episodes of Experiment are very blurry, with low contrast – still watchable, but distinct allowances will have to be made. The second episode is of lower quality than the first, and it’s quite easy to believe that recordings of the remaining episodes were abandoned as the results here were so substandard. At one point the image collapses, and turns negative for a moment. For much of the second half of the episode you can see an insect sitting on the monitor (it’s in the screengrab above). Quatermass II is better, though still lacking in contrast. However, Quatermass and the Pit is a revelation. The film inserts are pin-sharp (for an example, see the first screengrab), while the studio material (second screengrab) benefits from the first use of the enhanced version of VidFIRE software. This restores an interlaced-video “look” to film recordings and had been previously used by the Restoration Team on the BBC’s Doctor Who DVD releases. Given that this serial was intended to be broadcast over a 405-line TV system and watched on sets far smaller than we have now, it’s fair to say that it has never looked as good as it does here. My mark for video takes all three serials into account, but Quatermass and the Pit on its own would earn a 10. (For further details of the restoration of the Quatermass serials, see the Restoration Team’s website.)
The soundtrack is the original mono and are all very well restored from the original film recordings, with surface noise and crackles removed or reduced. Given the material’s age the tracks sound a little rough and lacking in dynamic range, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. The dialogue is almost always very clear. Subtitles are provided for the hard of hearing, on the feature and on the extras. There are five chapter stops per episode.
There’s one small extra on the Quatermass II disc: the continuity announcer’s warning quoted at the head of this review (original audio, over a remade version of the BBC logo of the time), which plays before the start of Episode 4. Otherwise, all the extras are on the Quatermass Experiment disc. I’ve already mentioned that the scripts for the missing episodes are available as PDF files. These are the actual shooting scripts, with shot descriptions down the left hand side, directions and dialogue on the right. Some of the pages are “dirty” from multiple copying, but elsewhere some of the typing is faint, but none of it is unreadable.
Next up is a documentary on Kneale made for BBC4, “The Kneale Tapes”. This is an excellent summary of Kneale’s career, although it does ignore his non-BBC work. Interviewees include Kim Newman, Mark Gatiss and Jeremy Dyson of The League of Gentlemen and the now-octagenarian Kneale and his wife. He shows us the original monster prop from The Quatermass Experiment, operated by Kneale itself as a glove puppet through a hole in a large still photograph of Westminster Abbey. The documentary runs 39:34 and is in 16:9. I particularly appreciated that it respects the ratio of the 4:3 clips, which are windowboxed instead of being cropped to fit the wider format, as is too often the case.
“Cartier and Kneale in Conversation” (11:36) is an extract from the BBC’s retrospective The Lime Grove Story from 1990, four year’s before Cartier’s death. “Making Demons” (7:08) is a brief look at the BBC’s Special Effects Unit, interviewing the founders, Jack Kine and Bernard Wilkie, both of whom have since died. It’s an affectionate look at two pioneers, who worked on 1984 and the two later Quatermass serials, frequently overcoming the restrictions of tiny budgets with considerable ingenuity. They also worked on Doctor Who.
The final episode of Quatermass and the Pit was broadcast on 26 January 1959. Over the following Christmas and New Year, it was repeated, edited into two 90-minute parts. Included on this DVD are the opening and closing credits of these omnibus editions (2:11). Finally, there is a stills gallery with a simple back-and-forth navigation system, comprising black and white production stills and some sketches from all three serials.
There is no commentary on any of the episodes. Kneale is one of the few people involved in the production to be still alive, and he is represented in the extras already. Secondly, from an informational point of view, Andrew Pixley’s booklet would make any commentary redundant. This booklet is forty-eight pages long and deals in great detail the making of the three serials, interspersing the narrative with extracts from interviews and articles, and ending with complete cast lists, transmission dates and viewing figures. This is one of the most comprehensive DVD extras of its kind I’ve ever seen, and everything you will ever need to know about the serials is in here.
The Quatermass Experiment disc contains one Easter Egg. Highlight “The Kneale Tapes” on the Special Features menu, then click left and enter. What plays appears to be a skit (source unknown to me), dubbing footage from Quatermass II with comic dialogue. It runs 1:45.
The Quatermass serials are a landmark in British television. They held a nation in their grip and they have had considerable influence on later television SF and horror. The third of them is a masterpiece in its own right. This BBC release has the serials looking and sounding as good as they are ever likely to, given the primitive state of technology at the time, and the extras are substantial indeed. For any fan of vintage television, this DVD set is an essential purchase.