Saturday, 19 September 2015

Rocketry in the UK

A British-based titular scientist hero starring in several science fiction television serials, also adapted for the big screen by a British horror film studio, and played by a procession of different actors. Who?

A new series of Doctor Who has just begun, which I hope to see eventually.  But I've decided to mark the occasion by looking at the BBC's original scientific adventurer to whom the Doctor owes a considerable debt: Professor Bernard Quatermass. 

Reginald Tate
Preceding Doctor Who by ten years, creator Nigel Kneale introduced his character to the world in a live six-part television series which screened in 1953 called The Quatermass Experiment. Played by Reginald Tate, this serial gripped the imagination of a Britain which was still experiencing post war rationing and eager for escapism which also played to the growing unease of nuclear science. The tragedy of astronaut Victor Caroon and his eventual fate in the rafters of Westminster Abbey became an instant classic of the genre. 

John Robinson
The sequel, inevitably called Quatermass 2 screened two years later in 1955. This time taking cues from McCarthy-ist hysteria against the perceived communist threat.  In the first of many re-castings John Robinson took the title role this time, (at very short notice after Reginald Tate's sudden death), and the Professor's struggle against an insidious extraterrestrial incursion once again captured the imagination of the British public. A third series was soon commissioned.

Andre Morell
Quatermass and the Pit (1958) was written by Kneale as a response to the shocking appearance of race riots in Notting Hill, London. Quatermass is this time portrayed by Andre Morell (first choice for the role since 1953 and justifying this preference with what many regard as the definitive portrayal), takes less of a lead role this time. The story itself is perennially praised - an eerie and prescient examination of otherworldly genetic engineering, race memory and Lovecraftian manipulation of humanity. 

It was to be twenty years before Quatermass returned to television. Having tried to sell the BBC on a fourth Quatermass serial since the early 70s, Kneale finally took his most successful creation to Thames television.  The result was a four part mini-series simply called Quatermass (although it was also edited together as a 100 minute film titled The Quatermass Conclusion, intended for overseas cinema release).
John Mills
I have very fond memories of this production (which I seem to recall was somehow broadcast over two nights here - perhaps it was the 100 minute version?) and the dying Professor's climactic sacrifice, aided by his long-sought granddaughter, was one of the most moving sequences I had ever seen.  Although averaging eleven million viewers in Britain, the production was deemed a disappointment and Kneale himself was dissatisfied with John Mill's performance. Personally, I enjoyed him very much, and visually, can draw a straight line to Andre Morell's depiction two decades prior. 

Jason Flemyng
In 2005 BBC four undertook what was to be the second remake (see 'under the Hammer') of The Quatermass Experiment as a live 2 hour production. It actually under-ran by 20 minutes due to nervous adrenaline speeding up the actors' performances, but was well-received due to the quality cast.  An upcoming actor called David Tennant (Dr John Briscoe) accepted the lead in Doctor Who during filming, causing Jason Flemyng (the fifth TV Quatermass) to change a line and greet him as "Doctor" instead of "John". Flemyng himself is the son of Director Gordon Flemyng who helmed the Amicus Dalek films in the early 1960s, the second one co-starring Andrew Keir who would go onto play Quatermass himself (also see below).
I thought this live production was an entertaining 'experiment', but missed the presence of the monster which they elected not to attempt. (I'm shallow that way). 

Under The Hammer

Having originally created a niche adapting beloved radio serials like Dick Barton, Hammer moved on to doing the same for popular television productions.  Nigel Kneale's teleplay The Creature, starring a well-known television actor called Peter Cushing, was successfully remade for cinema as The Abominable Snowman, and soon eyes turned to Kneale's most famous creation...

Brian Donlevy
The 1955 big screen adaptation of The Quatermass Experiment highlighted the horror aspects of the script (the first E in experiment is deliberately dropped from the title) and is a very memorable production, if not always for the right reasons. An American actor was deemed necessary for overseas appeal, so Brian Donlevy was cast in the title role.  Playing the Professor as a spectacularly rude and single-minded US steer in an English china shop, his bullying portrayal repelled Kneale but has won fans due to it's sheer audacity. As one character ruefully remarks after a fiery confrontation with the famous space program pioneer: "I think we've just been given the rocket!" 
The film was successful enough to encourage Hammer to write their own Quatermass script. Kneale refused the rights to use his character however, so X the Unknown went ahead the following year with Dean Jagger playing a Dr Adam Royston.

In 1957, Donlevy was back - making him the only actor to have played Quatermass more than once on-screen, in a tense and atmospheric retelling of the second television serial.

Andrew Keir
It took ten years for Hammer to adapt the third Quatermass serial, but it was worth the wait. Quatermass and the Pit (1967) was the character's first appearance in colour, and the result is a tight, exciting and genuinely scary realisation of what is probably the best Quatermass story. It is also regarded by many as one of the very best Hammer films, and even Kneale was happy, finding Andrew Keir to be a far more acceptable leading man.

Hammer made the 'Pit's' mummified Martians more Gargoyle-like (right),
but the original TV version remains the more iconic (left)

Radio times

Having killed off the character, Kneale saw no reason to revisit Quatermass, until the BBC approached him in 1995 with the idea of a one-off radio play as part of series looking back at the 1950s.

This grabbed the writers attention and the result is a fascinating docu-drama, The Quatermass Memoirs, which inspired me to write this post.  Andrew Keir plays Quatermass for the second time, in retirement but reluctantly consenting to an interview where he recalls his first three encounters with the unknown, interspersed with audio clips from the original television serials. At the same time, Nigel Kneale himself talks about the concerns and fears prevalent in the 1950s which inspired him to write the serials: the atom bomb, cold war conspiracies, racial tension and general mistrust of the advancement of science are all touched upon, also punctuated with contemporary news recordings.
It is a brilliant and compelling piece of writing: a master story-teller utilising the audio medium to it's fullest to summarise and farewell his best-known character.

The Quatermass Memoirs concludes on a poignant note, with the ageing Professor preparing to leave his cottage in the Highlands to return to London, precipitating the events which we know will soon lead to his death.
Kneale himself was to pass away in 1996, the same year The Quatermass Memoirs was broadcast.  In an obituary, the Guardian wrote:

"(Kneale's) place is secure, alongside Wells, Arthur C Clarke, John Wyndham and Brian Aldiss, as one of the best, most exciting and most compassionate English science fiction writers of his century."

Nidel Kneale: 1922 - 2006


  1. Those Martians remind me of Foamasi, I presume the inspirational link is well documented somwhere?

  2. Hi Jamas - you're so right, and I do recall it being brought attention to in print somewhere (can't for the life of me recall where though)...