As a kid, I remember being impressed by the Hammer version of Quatermass and the Pit on television. I think the fact that the horror took place in (artfully constructed) recognisably real urban surroundings and that the suspense built up gradually before the alien was fully realised were the things that appealed to me. Years later, my interest was reignited when I attended a university lecture given by David Pirie (now a writer for television (The Murder Rooms, Murderland); then a writer of A Heritage of Horror: The English Gothic Cinema), during which he talked about his love for the movie adaptation of Quatermass II. He was particularly impressed by the way Kneale picked up on the changing political and social landscape of post-war Britain and he highlighted the use of the new town, the uncertainty about the role of science in the nuclear age, the application of martial law by the sinister soldiers dressed in black (more menacing than those in the television version) and the secretive domed industrial installation that resembled the atomic energy and chemical complexes that were springing up around contemporary Britain. Ultimately, of course, he plays on the fears that the government does not care about its people, although in the movie, this is because they have been infiltrated by an alien life form! Shades of The X-Files almost 40 years later; in fact Kneale was invited to write for that show, its creator, Chris Carter, being a huge fan; unfortunately, he turned the offer down.
Although Kneale wrote far more than the Quatermass serials and adapted works by other writers for television and cinema, it is for the creation of Bernard Quatermass and the fast-paced, atmospheric serials and movie adaptations in which he featured that he is best known, and this being the third anniversary of his death, the following seems appropriate.
Kneale joined the BBC as a staff writer in 1961 and his final script was for ITV in 1997 and has been described as "one of the most influential writers of the 20th century, "and as "having invented popular TV" (Gatiss, 2006).
On 25 March 1946 he made his first broadcast on BBC Radio, performing a live reading of his own story "Tomato Cain"; further broadcasts followed and he had short stories published in magazines such as Argosy and The Strand. Continuing to write in his spare time, he had a collection of his work, entitled Tomato Cain and Other Stories, published in 1949 and in 1950 it won the Somerset Maugham Award.
Trained as an actor, he gave up acting to write full-time when his work became successful, although he took voice only roles in some of his 1950s television productions, such as the voice on the factory loudspeaker system in Quatermass II (1955), for which he also narrated. While his publisher was keen for him to write a novel, Kneale was more interested in writing for television, believing the audience being able to see human faces was an important factor in storytelling.
His first professional script-writing credit came was for his radio drama The Long Stairs, broadcast by the BBC on 1 March 1950 and based on a historical mining disaster on the Isle of Man, where he was born. Although Kneale was, at first, a general purpose writer, adaptating books and stage plays and writing material for light entertainment and children's programmes, in 1952, Michael Barry, the Head of Drama at BBC Television, spent his first year's script budget of £250 to hire him as a full-time writer for the drama department. His first credited role in adult television drama was providing "additional dialogue" for the play Arrow to the Heart, broadcast on 20 July 1952; this was adapted and directed by the Austrian television director Rudolph Cartier, who had joined the drama department in 1952. It was the beginning of a successful working relationship that would lead to some of Kneale's best known work. His adaptation of the science fiction story Number Three was successful enough for the head of BBC Drama to commission a six part serial in the same genre.
Neither Kneale nor Cartier were impressed with the state of BBC television drama. They were frustrated at the theatricality and slow and boring styles of television drama production, which wasted the potential of the medium. Cartier felt that “If the TV director knows his medium well and handles it skilfully, he can wield almost unlimited power over his mass audience; a power no other form of entertainment can give him – not even the cinema” (Wake, 2005). Together they would help to revolutionise British television drama and establish it as an entity separate from its theatre and radio equivalents, which were the prevalent contemporary models for BBC drama; Jason Jacobs, lecturer in film and television studies at the University of Warwick, wrote in his history of early British television drama that "It was the arrival of Nigel Kneale... and Rudolph Cartier... that challenged the intimate drama directly... Kneale and Cartier shared a common desire to invigorate television with a faster tempo and a broader thematic and spatial canvas, and it was no coincidence that they turned to science-fiction in order to get out of the dominant stylistic trend of television intimacy" (Jacobs, 2000).
Jacobs was, of course, referring to The Quatermass Experiment, a series of six live half-hour episodes in July and August 1953 that told the story of Professor Bernard Quatermass (Reginald Tate) of the British Experimental Rocket Group and the mysterious tragedy that befell a mission when only one one of the crew of a spaceship returned from space. It was a critical and popular success, one of the most popular and influential television programmes ever made; indeed, it probably spawned the Brtish horror movie boom of the 1950s and 1960s, via its Hammer Films remake. The Museum of Broadcast Communications felt it reflected "a new range of gendered fears about Britain's post-war and post-colonial security" (Dickinson, 2007).
Quatermass’ success not only ensured Cartier and Kneale’s reputations but inspired the BBC to produce more original drama for adults; despite the low budget, poor special effects and the fact that Kneale was still writing the later episodes when the first was broadcast live, they tried to make television in a more cinematic fashion away from the small-scale dramas viewers were so used to.
Apart from Quatermass, Kneale and Cartier’s major collaboration was a controversial version of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (broadcast on 12 December 1954), again starring Peter Cushing, that led to questions being asked in parliament about the suitability of some material.
His next work was The Creature — an original script by Kneale concerning the legend of the abominable snowman, which was later turned into a movie by Hammer Studios starring Peter Cushing (who played the same part in the television version) and Forrest Tucker. In 1955, he was commissioned to write Quatermass II, to lure audiences away from the new commercial channel, ITV. It was a massive success with audiences of nine million. The serial was inspired by fears about UK Ministry of Defence research establishments such as Porton Down, the growth of new towns and the development of secretive atomic energy installations like Windscale.John Robinson took on the role of Quatermass, folllowing the death of Reginald Tate.
Kneale had no hand in the first movie adaptation of a Quatermass serial, The Quatermass Xperiment (known in the USA as The Creeping Unknown), released by Hammer Films in 1955 and he made no sceret of the fact he didn’t like the film, particularly Brian Donlevy as Quatermass.Casting an American ‘star’ was a common means of securing American funding and a release in the USA, although they tended to be second tier stars or those whose best years were behind them: think Forrest Tucker in Kneale’s The Abominable Snowman – past the days when he could challenge for a big role but before he was a hit on Broadway; think Dana Andrews in Night of the Demon. In 1986 Kneale explained his objections: "[Donlevy] was then really on the skids and didn't care what he was doing. He took very little interest in the making of the films or in playing the part. It was a case of take the money and run. Or in the case of Mr Donlevy, waddle" (Pixley, 1986).
The success of the film encouraged Hammer to ask Kneale to pen an immediate sequel. He refused, but the studio went ahead with the cheekily titled X The Unknown (1956) in which American actor Dean Jagger played the pseudo-Quatermass character Dr Adam Royston, investigating a radio-active entity living beneath the earth’s surface.
Leaving the BBC in 1956 – though he still contributed on a freelance basis - he wrote his first film screenplay, an adaptation of his own Quatermass II for Hammer Films, along with producer Anthony Hinds and director Val Guest. The film was critically and commericially successful and remains the favourite of writer and critic David Pirie because of its reflection of contemporary political and social concerns, its use of the changing manmade landscape of Britain at this time and the documentary-like cinematography of Gerald Gibbs. Kneale, perhaps inevitably, was dissatisfied, particularly by Brian Donlevy reurning as the professor, but the following year, he and Val Guest worked on the Hammer adaptation of his 1955 BBC play The Creature as The Abominable Snowman.
Kneale was contracted by the BBC to write Quatermass and the Pit in 1957, a six-week serial broadcast over 1958-9.Starring Andre Morell as Quatermass, this expressionistic, shadowy drama was supposedly inspired by race riots in the UK; it was another success, with audiences of 11 million; the British Film Institute included it in its "TV 100" list in 2000: "In a story which mined mythology and folklore... under the guise of genre it tackled serious themes of man's hostile nature and the military's perversion of science for its own ends" (Duguid, 2000).
Having felt he had taken Quatermass as far as he could; Kneale moved on to other work; for example, he adapted John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger and The Entertainer in 1958 and 1960 respectively, for director Tony Richardson and was BAFTA-nominated on both occasions.
However, he started work on an adaptation of Quatermass and the Pit for Hammer Films in 1961 and it finally reached the screen in 1967 (known in the USA as Five Million Years to Earth), directed by Roy Ward Baker and starring Andrew Keir as Quatermass.Unlike the majority of the studio’s productions from the late 1960s and beyond, it did not rely on graphic violence and low-cut dresses to draw in the audienceand in 2006, The Independent wrote that it was "one of the best ever Hammer productions" (Jury, 2006), yet it was Kneale's final credited film work.
Writing for the BBC again, Kneale’s play The Road was broadcast in September 1963. This haunting drama was about the population of an 18th century village who have visions of a future nuclear war; several one-off dramas for the BBC and ITV followed. One particular achievement was BBC2’s The Year of the Sex Olympics in July 1968. Prefiguring the success of reality broadcasting some thirty years later, this was set in a future where the population are kept in a docile state by diets of pornography and other reality television.
In 1972, the BBC approached Kneale to write another Quatermass serial, set in a future overrun with crime, martial law and youth cults, but problems with budget and the unavailability of Stonehenge – necessary to the script – led to it cancellation.
On Christmas Day 1972, Kneale had another success for the BBC with The Stone Tape , a ‘scientific’ ghost story marred by some special effects that wouldn’t be out of place in a poor epiosde of Doctor Who (a series that owes a considerable debt to Kneale, even though he disliked it). His final BBC work was 1974’s Jack and the Beanstalk for Bedtime Stories, a series featuring adaptations of traditional fairytales into adult dramas.
Kneale's later television work was all for ITV and included Beasts, six stories of the macabre, but as was ITV’s wont, the broadcasting of the series was a mess: episodes were shown in different orders in different regions and some franchises showed them in different timeslots to the others.
In 1977, Thames Television commissioned the production of Kneale’s fourth Quatermass drama – just known as Quatermass - as as a four-episode serial for UK and a 100-minute film version for cinema release overseas, The Quatermass Conclusion. John Mills starred as Quatermass in a dystopian near-future and its budget of over one million pounds was more than 50 times the budget of 1958’s Quatermass and the Pit. However, while it has its admirers, it was not well-received and seemed to lack the atmosphere and the tension of his earlier work. Although Kneale, perhaps typically, later declared himself unhappy with the whole idea and its execution (including Mills’ acting), he produced a novelisation of the series – his only full-length novel.
In 1982, at the behst of director Joe Dante, Kneale wrote his only Hollywood movie script, Halloween III: Season of the Witch. Producer John Carpenter approved of his script, but one of the film’s backers, Dino De Laurentiis, wanted more graphic violence, so Kneale insisted that his name was removed from the film.
Kneale returned to writing for television, including an atmospheric adaptation of Susan Hill's ghost story, The Woman in Black for ITV. Ironically, considering Kneale’s views of treatments of his own work, Hill objected to some of the changes he made, such as changing the name of the hero from Kipps to Kidd.
In 1996, BBC3 broadcast his drama-documentary The Quatermass Memoirs , consisting of the writer looking back at the writing and production of the original three Quatermass serials, illustrated with archive recordings and a newly recorded dramatic sequence set just before the ITV Quatermass version, with Andrew Keir making his second appearance as the professor.
He considered the possibility of a Quatermass prequel set in 1930s Germany while working on the commentary for the 1997 DVD release of The Quatermass Conclusion. The storyline concerned the young Quatermass helping a Jewish woman escape from the Nazis during the 1936 Olympics, but it was never produced, although his final script was an episode of Kavanagh QC concerning a Jewish woman who had been subjected to horrific experiments in a concentration camp. It is possible that these storylines were coloured by his friendship with the Jewish Rudolph Cartier, who had fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s.
In 2005, he acted as a consultant when BBC4 produced a live (if dull) version of The Quatermass Experiment starring Indira Varma, Jason Flemyng as the professor, Kneale-fan Mark Gatiss and the-soon-to-be ubiquitous David Tennant.
Kneale lived in Barnes, London, until his death on 29 October 2006 at the age of 84.
Talking about the roots of his own work, he pointed out: “There was dread in the real world in the 1950s. The forces of annihilation were in the hands of fallible, panicking men, yet official propaganda was still jaunty… The BBC didn't have any special effects then. My stories had to be told through characters, and were better for it" (Ezard, 2006). Although the first Quatermass serials have action, suspense and fast-paced narratives, the foes are beaten, ultimately, by the exercise of human free will and in the last, the enemy is human mass destructiveness itself.
Writer and actor Mark Gatiss claimed Kneale is “absolutely as important as Dennis Potter, as David Mercer, as Alan Bleasdale, as Alan Bennett" (Gatiss, 2006). The orthodox view of the development of British television drama, however, is that the move away from classic novel and theatrical adaptations was inspired by the rise of the working class kitchen sink drama on stage and in the cinema. Thus we would eventually get popular drama like Coronation Street and Z Cars and the influence would also be felt in comedy with shows such as The Likely Lads, Steptoe and Son and Till Death Do Us Part, whereas Kneale’s contribution – other than the creator of exciting genre work - is largely ignored, probably “because of a strange snobbery about fantasy or sci-fi" (Gatiss, 2006). This is particularly ironic considering that the first Quatermass serial was broadcast the same year as the publication of John Wain's Hurry on Down, thought to be the first example of the 'kitchen sink' novel, and the first two serials predate Look Back in Anger (generally considered to be the first key play in this genre) and, of course, Kneale later adapted Osborne for the big screen.
Sergio Angelini, ‘Nigel Kneale’, http://www.screenonline.org.uk/people/id/458926/index.html
Sergio Angelini, ‘The Stone Tape’, http://www.screenonline.org.uk/tv/id/898626/index.html
Sergio Angelini, ‘The Woman in Black’, http://www.screenonline.org.uk/tv/id/1156541/index.html
Gavin Collinson, ‘The Quatermass Experiment’, http://www.screenonline.org.uk/tv/id/471469/index.html
Gavin Collinson, ‘The Year of the Sex Olympics’, http://www.screenonline.org.uk/tv/id/560006/index.html
Robert Dickinson, ‘Quatermass’, 2007 http://www.museum.tv/eotvsection.php?entrycode=quartermass
Mark Duguid, ‘Beasts’, http://www.screenonline.org.uk/tv/id/1232046/index.html
Mark Duguid, ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’, http://www.screenonline.org.uk/tv/id/438460/index.html
Mark Duguid, ‘Quatermass (1979)’, http://www.screenonline.org.uk/tv/id/442672/index.html
Mark Duguid, ‘Quatermass II’, http://www.screenonline.org.uk/tv/id/441212/index.html
Mark Duguid, ‘Quatermass and the Pit’, http://www.screenonline.org.uk/tv/id/438573/index.html
Mark Duguid, 'Quatermass and the Pit', http://www.bfi.org.uk/features/tv/100/list/prog.phpid=75, 2000
John Ezard, ‘Nigel Kneale’, The Guardian, 2 November 2006
Mark Gatiss, ‘The Man Who Saw Tomorrow’, The Guardian, 2 November 2006
Jason Jacobs, The Intimate Screen: Early British Television Drama. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000
Louise Jury, ‘Nigel Kneale, creator of cult TV figure Quatermass, dies aged 84’, The Independent, 1 November 2006
Jim Linwood, ‘The Quatermass Trilogy: A Controlled Paranoia’, http://webspace.webring.com/people/gj/jlinwood/quaterma.htm
John Oliver, ‘The Quatermass Xperiment’, http://www.screenonline.org.uk/film/id/525280/index.html
David Pirie, A New Heritage of Horror: The English Gothic Cinema, London: I. B. Tauris and Co., 2008
Pixley, Andrew; Nigel Kneale (1986). "Nigel Kneale—Behind the Dark Door" http://www.the-mausoleum-club.org.uk/timescreen/Trial%208/darkdo.htm
Andrew Smith, ‘How Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass Changed Television’, from http://www.quatermass.org.uk/kneale/unidentifiedspecies.htm
Oliver Wake, ‘Cartier, Rudolph’, 2005 http://www.screenonline.org.uk/people/id/1181098/index.html
Will Wright, ‘The Face of Quatermass: National Identity in British Science Fiction Film’, http://www.offscreen.com/biblio/pages/essays/face_of_quatermass
Most of the key works discussed here are easily available; the notable exceptions are The Beast, Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Woman in Black (Susan Hill preferred the stage version, which is undoubtedly more subtle); The Year of the Sex Olympics and The Stone Tape are available but seem to be unfeasibly expensive!