(You may be interested in the section Actors as well).
The Quatermass Problem
It’s common knowledge, at least in Quatermass Territory, that creator Nigel Kneale strongly and actively disliked Brian Donlevy in the role of Professor Bernard Quatermass, a role which the actor played in two movies for Hammer Films in the 1950s. In the greater world, meaning that not of Nigel Kneale only, there seems to be a split over Donlevy’s casting and performance. Many side with Kneale, many think of Donlevy as the true Bernard Quatermass.
The role has, to date, been played on screen (movies and TV) by seven actors: Reginald Tate, John Robinson, Brian Donlevy, Andre Morell, Andrew Keir, John Mills, and Jason Flemyng.
How do the performances compare? How do they differ? What is the … gulp … best performance? Those are the questions we’re going to look at here.
The fact that I was an actor myself for half a century both qualifies me as something of a judge of acting while simultaneously not meaning a damn thing. The value of a performance, ultimately, is how it serves the story and how it is received by the audience. That audience is made of individuals. Some like sweet, some prefer sour. Some favor spicy food, others want mashed potatoes, light on the butter. Same with actors. If it works for you, that’s good. Whoever you are.
What the acting background does give me, hopefully, is some insight into the nuances and the details of the performances. That’s what I can bring to the table. So off we go.
Before we get too tangled up with Brian Donlevy yea-or-nay, let’s just jaunt through all seven of those Quatermassi and see what they do or do not have to offer. In chronological order …
The Quatermass Experiment (TV), 1953
Reginald Tate gives a realistic, naturalistic performance, it’s clean and professional but a bit of a bore, being rather stuffy in the subdued English style of the day. But … it’s somewhat difficult and very unfair to judge based on ⅓ of a performance (only two of the six TV episodes survive). The guy may have given the greatest performance in the history of man in those missing segments. Probably not, but … who can say?
We must also give him some leeway for the production’s manner of presentation. It was performed live on national TV, with all the attendant difficulties of that form. In movies, actors may not have a lot of rehearsal, but they do have the option of doing it again. Getting it right. On live TV you get one shot at it. Just like on the stage. The difference is that, on stage, you may have a hundred or a thousand people watching you. On live TV, you have a nation.
Tate’s is a stalwart, intelligent piece of acting. Just a little constrained to these 21st Century all-American eyes.
Here’s a line of dialogue which jumped out at me: “Thirty years ago I’d almost decided to devote my life to land-surveying in the tropics. That at least would have harmed only myself”. There’s nothing special about the line except for its simple Englishness. I can’t imagine Brian Donlevy speaking that line. Of course, he didn’t speak it because it wasn’t in Hammer’s script. Had it been there, along with some of the other starkly English dialogue, perhaps it would have altered Donlevy’s entire approach, and that possibility, however remote, presents another difficulty in comparison. It’s not simply a matter of comparing actors, it’s also that they are not playing exactly the same role.
Quatermass II (TV), 1955
Again, John Robinson (in for the suddenly deceased Reginald Tate) is a veddy British sort. His voice is deeper, more stentorian than Tate’s. It’s also more emphatic which tends to render it less real, more stagey. Maybe less like a scientist than a radio announcer, which is not such a great thing. But it does impart an instant authority which Tate had to work harder to achieve.
In the hour of so still extant of the first serial I didn’t notice Reginald Tate fluffing any lines at all. On the other hand, in the first 15 minutes of the second serial, John Robinson trips over at least two lines. Please regard this more as an observation than as a criticism. The actor in me can well appreciate the difficulty of getting it all right on a national live TV broadcast.
So the first two Quatermass actors were professional, stiff upper lip British sorts. Solid, straightforward … unexciting. I have no doubt that Tate was the better actor, but Robinson is not a huge step down.
The Quatermass Xperiment (The Creeping Unknown) (Hammer Films), 1956
Now comes before us one Brian Donlevy. Stand back, he means business.
Donlevy had never been a big star, but he’d been a familiar and dependable presence on screen for twenty years when the Quatermass role came his way.
Surely the reason for his hiring was the old “playing to the American audience” notion. Hammer, generally in concert with Robert Lippert, had already made use of Lloyd Bridges, Robert Preston, Howard Duff, Paul Henreid, Barbara Payton, Lizabeth Scott, Don Taylor. Even, in their neolithic days, Bela Lugosi. Dean Jagger and Forrest Tucker were in the offing, with Stuart Whitman, Elliott Gould, and Richard Widmark coming in at the end of the run.
So, at its most basic, that’s why Brian Donlevy turns up in this role. It’s doubtful that anyone would have looked at the character as seen on the BBC and thought, “Brian Donlevy IS Bernard Quatermass!” No, this was a commercial decision.
Donlevy has been described as a bulldozer, a battering ram, a blunt instrument. Extreme descriptives perhaps, but not entirely unfair. Donlevy had always been that sort of loud, brusque, take-no-nonsense actor. He carries his movie history with him and in that history he’s more often a brute than a brain. Ironically, in his few career chances to play comedy, he seemed to have a real knack for it. But that’s not why folks hired him. They wanted that blunt instrument.
More than anything else, Donlevy was American. Aggressively, undeniably, almost stereotypically American. No question, no doubt. Well … that’s what they wanted at Hammer: an American actor, an American presence. And that is what they got. In spades.
I like Donlevy’s Quatermass in this movie. It’s not great acting, but it’s a believable, consistent character. He maybe doesn’t seem the brilliant scientist, but he very much seems the sort of strong leader who could inspire – or force – his underlings to git ‘er done.
Quatermass 2 (Enemy From Space) (Hammer Films), 1957
Brian Donlevy again, so more of the same. Almost.
In this story, Quatermass is almost more action hero than big brain, and once upon a time this would have been right up the macho actor’s alley. But in 1957, watching the aging, overweight Donlevy running … well, it’s not a happy sight.
There are moments in this film during which Quatermass appears to be a little confused, even sort of addled. This is not expected of the character and not comfortable for the actor. Strangely, in those addled moments, Donlevy sounds a deal like Lon Chaney Jr. If you can picture that, it’ll give you a fair approximation of what Donlevy has on offer here.
Quatermass and the Pit TV (TV), 1958-59
Full disclosure – I was a proud Andre Morell fan long before I saw his Quatermass. He was one of the finest of all Dr. Watsons (in Hammer’s Hound of the Baskervilles), he absolutely held up his end of the bargain in such major films as Bridge on the River Kwai and Ben-Hur, he partnered with Gene Evans for a great odd couple in The Giant Behemoth, and even in the dire Hammer horror The Mummy’s Shroud he (and fellow Quatermass veteran Michael Ripper) managed to be worth watching. So I very much loved the guy.
That said, I don’t think his Quatermass was his finest hour. Oh, he’s fine. I prefer him to both Tate and Robinson (there’s no sense in comparing him to Donlevy.). He’s like a sturdy bridge between the disparate trio who came before him and the upcoming Andrew Keir.
But, while just fine in his own right, he comes across as somewhat neither here nor there. Less “pip pip cheerio” than the first two Bernards, but coming up short of the vivacity which Keir would bring. I found myself wanting more.
“Unfair,” one might say. “Unfair,” I’d say myself. But there it is. Morell is just not what I expected him to be. He certainly seems smart enough, and his strong work in the last chapter, when “possessed” by the Martians, is highly effective. This is both exciting stuff for an actor to play …and also very difficult. Morell aces this part. But … I simply expected more of him.
Three little actor-y things I noticed: On at least three occasions, Morell starts a line with “Well … uhh …” … I haven’t read the script, so maybe those lines are written exactly like that. But it felt to me like an actor trying to humanize a character by hemming and hawing just like “real folk” do.
He also has a habit, in at least two lengthy scenes, of thrusting his thumbs into the pockets of his vest and keeping them there. Could be a conscious character choice, but it felt to me as if Morell was a little uncomfortable and those pockets were his life preservers. It’s worth noting that, in both of those scenes, Morell was directed to stay in one spot, facing more or less directly at the camera through some long speeches. I imagine that if he’d been allowed to move around, take a stroll, sit down … he wouldn’t have needed those pockets.
There was also one funny little slip of the tongue. The reporter, James Fullalove, returns from The Quatermass Experiment – and why on earth would Nigel Kneale give a major character a name like Fullalove? Isn’t that begging for a laugh? Oh, never mind.
At one point, Quatermass is wondering about Fullalove’s whereabouts. Morell says, “Where’s Willalove?” Yes, he got the name wrong. I rewound to make sure I’d heard correctly. And I did. Cec Linder instantly accepts this as his cue and jumps on to the next line, and we still don’t know where “Willalove” is.
These are just the tiniest of nits. I mean, this was live TV. That the performances and the production went this remarkably smoothly is kind of a miracle.
I still love Andre Morell. If he wasn’t at his absolute best here, he was still probably the best Quatermass to that date. He also may have been the most “regular guy” Quatermass ever. If he’s not Andrew Keir, well …
Quatermass and the Pit (Five Million Years to Earth) (Hammer Films), 1967
Andrew Keir … ahh, Andrew Keir. This should be the Quatermass to satisfy everyone! Or maybe no one.
Keir is definitely British, so check that box. But he’s a much more broad-shouldered, take charge Brit than Reginald Tate or John Robinson was. He might not be Bulldozer Donlevy, but he’s a forceful, loud, tough guy. Seems as if he should be the perfect middle ground between the tea-sipping Brit and the ugly American. To this viewer, he’s just that. This is my choice for Quatermass #1. He’s a good actor, a likable personality, and a believable character. Aces all around.
Quatermass (The Quatermass Conclusion) (Thames Television), 1979
These four episodes were later edited into a “movie” for the U.S.
John Mills is the only knight of the realm to have played Quatermass and the only Oscar winner. There can be no doubt of the man’s talents. There’s a long filmography behind him; movies in which he was always reliably solid, sometimes brilliant.
So we should just move on, I guess. No, let’s linger a moment. Sir John is good here, a fine job. But this is a different Quatermass. He’s aged, he’s mellowed. He’s a family man, for cryin’ out loud (and how on earth did we get there?). Mills hits all the right notes, but this just doesn’t feel like good old Bernard Quatermass. Feels like a different person altogether. So, let’s just say the actor did a solid job, despite having lesser material to work with than in the earlier scripts, but it’s pointless to compare him to men playing, essentially, a different character altogether.
The Quatermass Experiment (BBC TV production) 2005
Harking back to the character’s origins and back on the Beeb, this was a live production. It’s now available on video just as if it was a genuine movie.
Jason Flemyng plays Quatermass here. He’s a much younger man than any of his predecessors. As befits a modern-day Englishman, he wears the sort of casual dress that old-time Quatermass wouldn’t even have at the back of his closet. He’s also a more easy-going, smooth dude. A modern, happ’nin’ guy.
As an actor, Flemyng needs to speak up more, enunciate more. If this had been a movie, Flemyng’s vocal production would probably have been fine. The sound engineer could fiddle his knobs both on set and in the editing room and we could hear it all. But with a live TV presentation, even in the 21st Century, there’s only so much that technology can fix on the fly.
In larger matters, I don’t buy Flemyng as the brainy Quatermass. Not that he seems stupid, because he doesn’t. But he doesn’t project as either the genius or the bulldog. He’s just a cool guy, more likely to be mistaken for James Bond than for Bernard Quatermass.
And that’s it. Six actors in seven productions. As already stated, Andrew Keir is my choice for prime Quatermass, but that’s not really the point is it? The point is Nigel Kneale and Donlevy or not Donlevy, that is the question. Where does that stand?
In simplest terms, it’s the difference between British style and American, at least as they were 65 years ago. British movies, at the time, still, for the most part, clung to the old traditions. Staid, upright, beholden to the stage and to Empire.
In America, the casualness of Humphrey Bogart and Jimmy Stewart was yielding – overnight it seemed – to the brute naturalism of Marlon Brando. American movies were more free, less disciplined than the standard British film.
And Nigel Kneale was an Englishman down to his tweeds, while Brian Donlevy was as American as baseball and White Castle. There’s no world I can imagine in which Kneale could ever have approved of Donlevy. The question is rather this: Could Nigel Kneale have approved of any American actor in the role?
I don’t have the answer to that, but my best guess would be that there were very few American actors he would have found acceptable. Probably it would have been more difficult for him to criticize someone like Spencer Tracy or Henry Fonda, because they were big stars. At the same time though, both of those actors were at least as purebred Yank as Donlevy.
Did Kneale really object because Brian Donlevy didn’t match the character he’d created, or did he object because Donlevy wasn’t Reginald Tate or John Robinson? Had Kneale fallen in love with those so-English actors’ take on his character? Or was it still the character on the page that he wanted?
All actors are different, take different approaches. John Robinson is about as close as one could get to matching Reginald Tate … but they’re still different. Not as different as that next bulldozer would be but I think what mattered to Kneale was less their talent or their similarities than their basic proper Englishness.
My take, for what minuscule bit it might be worth, is that Brian Donlevy was just fine as Quatermass. It wasn’t Kneale’s British Professor, but it was acceptably a boss, a guy who could achieve difficult things by force of a powerful will.
But I didn’t write the scripts, I didn’t create the character. Nigel Kneale had every right – more right than anyone else – to object to Brian Donlevy, just as he had the right to object to directors, screenplays, any aspect of the productions. So I’m not going to say that the writer was wrong, because it’s all opinion, after all. And, in a very real sense, Nigel Kneale’s opinion should carry more weight than anyone else’s.
Did Kneale really object because Brian Donlevy didn’t match the character he’d created, or did he object because Donlevy wasn’t Reginald Tate or John Robinson? Was Andre Morell as far as the author was willing to stretch? Had Kneale fallen in love with those so-English actors’ take on his character? Or was it still the character on the page that he wanted?
For me, Donlevy is fine. Tate and Robinson and Mills are also good. Morell is better. Flemyng isn’t up to it. And all hail Andrew Keir, my choice for the role.
The real star of the Quatermass saga, though, is Nigel Kneale, writer and thinker extraordinaire. Whoever played the role, Kneale created Professor Bernard Quatermass and fans of science fiction on film cannot thank him enough. Let me be the most recent.
Thank you, Mr. Kneale.