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The Quatermass Influence

By David A. Sutton

Nigel Kneale (1922-2006)

In 2005 Nigel Kneale was honoured with the British Fantasy Society ‘Karl Edward Wagner’ Special Award, for his contribution to the genre. In his introduction to the Ferret Fantasy edition of The Year of the Sex Olympics and other TV Plays (1976), Kneale wrote: ‘I find it hard to think of these three television plays as Science Fiction’. It’s true that he never considered himself as a genre writer, even if the fans fell in love with his exceptional, innovatory forays into SF and ghost stories. I am one of those who came to the genre because of his outstanding work.

Nigel Kneale was for many years one of the foremost scriptwriters in British television. He began writing for the small screen in 1952, where he met director Rudolf Cartier. In an enduring collaboration, the two came together not only for the three Quatermass serials, but also adaptations of Wuthering Heights and the controversial (for its time) Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Nineteen Eighty-Four

Peter Cushing and Donald Pleasance in Nineteen Eighty-Four, 1954

Kneale was born in 1922, the son of the owner-editor of an Isle of Man newspaper. He studied law, but became disillusioned and turned instead to writing fiction and to acting. His first collection of short stories, Tomato Cain, won him the 1950 Somerset Maugham Award. Kneale joined the staff of the BBC shortly after wards and scripted a wide variety of programmes before he penned The Quatermass Experiment (1953), Quatermass II (1955) and Quatermass and the Pit (1958). All three were bought by Hammer Films and made into feature films in 1955, 1957 and 1967 respectively. In 1954 the BBC screened Kneale’s adaptation of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, which had an unexpectedly sensational effect when questions about its broadcast were raised in parliament. Apart from the three Quatermass serials, his original TV scripts include The Creature (1955), Mrs Wickens In The Fall (1956), The Road (1963), The Crunch (1964), The Year Of The Sex Olympics (1967), Bam: Pow: Zap: (1969), Wine Of India (1970), The Chopper (1971), The Stone Tape, (1972), Jack And The Bean Stalk (1974) and Murrain (1975). In 1976 ATV produced his six-part anthology with the umbrella title Beasts. Individual titles were, Buddyboy, During Barty’s Party, Special Offer, The Dummy, Baby and What Big Eyes. 1979 saw his final Quatermass serial on British television, screened in four weekly episodes.

The Stone Tape

From The Stone Tape, 1976

In 1979 Kneale spoke as a guest of that year’s World Science Fiction convention in Brighton, and knowing he didn’t consider himself a genre writer, I wondered what he thought about all the attention. “First of all, don’t count me in as a science fiction writer. The bulk of my TV scripts don’t fit into that category at all. I like to think of them as strange or mystifying stories but they can be anything from social satire like The Year of the Sex Olympics and Wine of India to what I like to think of as funny or just plainly human. What was interesting about the Quatermass TV shows was that they were aimed at a big general audience who didn’t even recognise them as science fiction and would certainly not have thought of themselves as science fiction buffs. I was asking them to use their imagination and use it hard, because the whole story was put over in terms of implication and hint. And those millions of viewers did what was needed. They made an imaginative investment in the story, and when people do that they’re committed. You’ve really got them on your side. You’ve won them.”

The original Quatermass scripts were innovatory, but given that in the 1950’s television plays were performed live, it must have been difficult to convince the BBC to commission a second and third instalment? “Well, I didn’t intend any sequels. As far as I was concerned that [The Quatermass Experiment] was it. But a couple of years later the BBC said they’d like another and after some hesitation I wrote one. The obvious problem was to avoid dropping into a repetitive formula, and I think I managed it. The Experiment had had an alien-infected crew returning to Earth to spread chaos. In Quatermass II an alien colony had been established here for a year before Quatermass realised the horrid fact. Then with Quatermass and the Pit we had a Martian colonisation of the Earth that had happened not one, but five million years before. In tackling that, Quatermass was having to fight against his own heredity.”

It was inevitable that such a successful series should transfer to the big screen and Hammer Films were perhaps predictably the company that took up production. Kneale did not script the first of them, so it’s interesting to find out how he regarded the film adaptations. “Well, the last one, Quatermass and the Pit, is the only one I can bear. The Experiment I detested. It had almost none of my dialogue in it and the whole idea was coarsened and lost. I think it’s a terrible film. Quatermass II is if anything worse – the leading actor was dire. Quatermass and the Pit I quite like. I think it was by far the best directed and acted. Of course the advantage of the TV versions was that they were much fuller. They were twice as long and you could be far more subtle in approach.” And what about the various actors who played his eponymous character in the films? “Brian Donlevy played in the first two films and I didn’t like his performances at all. He turned my troubled professor into a hectoring bully. Andrew Keir played in the Pit and I liked him a lot. An intelligent rendering. Of course the TV professors were the originals. The first was Reginald Tate, a good actor with a lot of intelligence and vigour. Unfortunately he died before we made the second serial or he would certainly have played again. John Robinson took over. Well, then we have a long gap and Sir John Mills plays the new one in a way that’s exactly right for the story. I find his performance very moving.”

(Note: Parts of this article are extracted from The Quatermass Conclusion, a much longer interview I conducted with the author, published in Fantasy Media vol. 1, no. 5, January 1980).


Sutton, David A. “The Quatermass Influence.” Prism, March 2007.