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Quatermass

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
1979
Studio: 
Network Distributing
Genre: 
Sci-Fi
Format: 
Blu-ray
Region: 
B
Aspect Ratio: 
various
Directed by: 
Piers Haggard
Cast: 
John Mills
Simon MacCorkindale
Ralph Arliss
Rebecca Saire
Barbara Kellerman
Movie: 
4
Extras: 
2
Bottom Line: 
4

At nine O’clock, on the evening of Wednesday the 24th of October, 1979, slightly less than seven months after the election of the first Conservative Government led by Margaret Thatcher, and eleven weeks after industrial action had knocked out almost all commercial broadcasting on the network, ITV audiences finally settled down to watch episode one of the first new Quatermass serial to be broadcast on British television for twenty-one years. Back when the character was first created by writer Nigel Kneale in the early-fifties, while he’d been working as a BBC staff writer and occasional script doctor, the heroic Professor Bernard Quatermass had been the dogged and determined head of Britain’s Experimental Space Rocket Group.  Employed by Head of Drama Michael Barry in 1953, in the days before the advent of commercial television, to come up with an adult science fiction drama serial to fill a gap in the BBC summer schedules for Saturday nights, Kneale’s six-part story, “The Quatermass Experiment”, was transmitted live from the BBC’s studios at Alexandra Palace. It has since come to be thought about as one of the first instances of what is often referred to as ‘event television’ -- with each instalment capturing the imagination of the general public and emptying the streets and pubs every weekend as people rushed home to catch a new episode. Kneale subsequently wrote two more Quatermass serials for the BBC, each directed by German émigré Rudolph Cartier, and all three subsequently proving incalculably influential on the development of British science fiction, both in its TV incarnation and on film.

Nigel Kneale’s forte as a writer, and not just in his work on the Quatermass serials, resided in his ability to craft intelligent, evocative and thought-provoking drama out of often quite wildly fantastical material, incorporating speculative science and popular mythology with wit and imagination and in often eerily prescient fashion; but Kneale also grounded his work in the social, cultural and political issues most pertinent to the outlook of the times in which he was writing: his three 1950s Quatermass serials for example, touched on then-current fears relating to space research, and,  in “The Quatermass Experiment”, new advances in rocket and satellite technology … as well as a generalised fear of the unknown dangers that might be lurking beyond the Earth’s atmosphere; the emerging paranoia about secret research establishments popping up all across hidden corners of the English countryside in post-War Britain provided a backdrop for Kneale’s follow-up, “Quatermass II”; and, in “Quatermass and the Pit” – the third instalment, which was inspired by the still fresh-in-mind Notting Hill race riots -- social issues such as racism and a perceived break-down in law-and-order were the themes of a story that imagined the ingrained Xenophobia in human nature to be a quality shaped at the dawn of Man by the residual inheritance of mixed Martian genes whose influence has supposedly long since become mangled through the ringer of ancient folklore, superstition and hearsay and produced as a result our modern belief in the occult, the existence of paranormal phenomena and traditions of satanic imagery. One running theme throughout the trilogy seemed to be the dawning realisation of Britain’s diminishing role in world affairs: Quatermass begins the sequence-of-three as a confident British boffin whose work with the rocket group signals British parity, if not superiority, with the US and the Soviet Union in the space race. By the time of “Quatermass and the Pit” The Suez Crisis had pretty much destroyed any such illusions of holding one's own, and Quatermass spends most of that series battling the militaristic mind-set that’s now calling the shots instead of the disinterested idealism of science.

Kneale first began branching out as a freelance writer in the sixties, moving into screenwriting for movies, which was an option opened up to him largely because of the success of Hammer’s pared-down screen adaptations of the first two Quatermass serials. BBC producer Irene Shubeck approached Kneale about the possibility of resurrecting the franchise as part of her ground-breaking adult sci-fi anthology series “Out of the Unknown”, but only after the positive reception of his 1972, Peter Sasdy-directed paranormal drama “The Stone Tape” did it look as though the fourth instalment in the saga was ever likely to become a reality at the BBC -- although Kneale was by this time becoming increasingly disenchanted with the corporation’s attitude to his work. When he first began outlining the new series, the scripts were contracted to be delivered to the BBC  by February, 1973. As has been well documented since, the political backdrop of the day played a hugely important role in determining the content of this instalment of the Quatermass story, just as had been the case in all three previous series: this decade, though, was characterised by a general feeling of impending doom and despondency gathering throughout the land: in Britain, the oil crisis and an escalating strike by the miners’union led to a state of emergency being declared by Prime Minister Ted Heath, and then with the subsequent Three-Day Week, constant power cuts became a defining feature of daily British life; a sense of there being  increasing political violence and social disorder in modern life had long since taken hold, along with a culture of student demonstrations and sit-ins spreading amongst the youth of the western democracies, where the proliferation of such a weird and (to older generations) not-so-wonderful new youth culture expressed itself in the  ‘drop out’ philosophy being pursued in the late-sixties/early-seventies by the hippies of the ‘flower power’ generation. All seemed to signal a general decline in standards as well as social order, while the institutions of civil society appeared to be in a state of near collapse all round. With this milieu as his context, Kneale had plenty of social angst to tap into, in what turned out to be one of the bleakest TV dramas of the decade. Yet it is also one that, when looked at anew as a product of its age, seems to sum up the flavour of the period as well as anticipate something of the atmosphere of social depravation and urban decay that characterised the early results of the economic policies pursued during the first of Margaret Thatcher's  three terms in office as Prime Minister.  

However … the BBC eventually pulled the plug on the project before all but preliminary filming for some of the effects shots had even got off the ground. The corporation had become concerned about the increase in cost involved in mounting a story that had the world famous Wiltshire prehistoric monument site Stonehenge as one of its primary locations, especially when the production was refused permission to film on the actual heritage site. Nonetheless, the BBC retained its option on Kneale’s work until it eventually expired in 1975. By this time Kneale had found a new home at Independent Television, creating the experimental paranormal anthology series “Beasts” for ATV in 1976. The following year, in May 1977, Euston Films, the subsidiary of Thames Television responsible for the gritty police drama “The Sweeney”, announced it had picked up the lapsed option on the unmade Quatermass scripts.

Unlike most of the TV drama Kneale had previously been involved in creating, this production was not going to be a cheaply made, video-taped studio set-up with 16mm filmed inserts, as was then still industry standard for most British TV drama. Euston was committed to a budget of £1. 25 million for a lavish production that was to be entirely shot in  35mm Panavision, fully on location in London and Hertfordshire, and with one key sequence even taking place inside a devastated Wembley Stadium suitably decked out with graffiti and Nazi swastikas! The detailed, expensive-looking sets were constructed by production designer Arnold Chapkis, and included a full-scale mock-up of a radio telescope situated near the 18th century folly-like observatory owned in the story by Quatermass’s colleague, the astronomer Joe Kapp. There is also a convincing artificial megalithic stone circle gathering site, made to be used as the story’s Stonehenge replacement, known as Ringstone Round; and a series of dystopian decaying London backdrops that are on a par with anything Kubrick presided over in “A Clockwork Orange” lend a shabby sense of authenticity to the doom-laden proceedings.

 Euston Films conceived the series to be seen by British television audiences in the format of four hour-long filmed colour episodes, one to be screened each week. But to recoup some of the huge costs involved in the production it was also shot by director Piers Haggard with enough headroom to be matted in either the TV friendly 4:3, or the theatrical 1.85:1 aspect ratios, and was written with enough leeway so that it could also be edited down to a 100 minute feature film length for distribution in North America theatres, where it was known under the snappy title of “The Quatermass Conclusion”. Network’s new two-disc Blu-ray edition features both versions, lovingly restored in high definition, and each worthy of considered reassessment after now over thirty-five years of lukewarm critical reception.

That poor reception started when the series was first transmitted: after years of social and political strife throughout the country, the last thing sci-fi audiences expected from the creator of British television’s ‘grand old space boffin’ was a tale of such unrelenting anguish and despair that was so firmly rooted in the very realities they were hoping, in the age of space opera Star Wars fantasy, to escape from. Neale himself later joined-in the chorus of disapproval, complaining that the demands made on the creative process in trying to get the story to fit completely different formats resulted in two versions ‘neither of which was the right length for the story’. In the years since, criticism tends to focus on the outmoded special effects (they now possess a certain amount of ‘period charm’, it has to be said) and the fact that Neale had started writing the series in the early-seventies so that, by 1979 when it was finally broadcast, the focus on lay line-following hippies and Baader-Meinhof-like street terrorists seemed out of date in the post-punk, New Wave era of 1979. In fact, Neale’s roaming drop out Planet People (the name given themselves by these wandering bands of itinerant youths when they reject modern society and congregate, chanting, at ancient standing stone structures in the belief that they have been chosen to be transported to paradise on an alien planet) anticipate social trends just around the corner, like the idealistic 'crusty' traveller community and the Heaven’s Gate cult, whose leader promised his followers, in return for their unquestioning loyalty, a similar reward to the one promised for the Planet People here.

The social decay and bleak, nihilistic despair on offer in scenes of marauding muggers menacing pensioners on derelict city streets, motorways crowned with burning vehicles, and violent armed street gangs at war (not to mention its vision of a privatised police force whose helmeted cops have to be paid a fee to provide cover on gang-infested streets), seems all of a piece with the general environment described in the recent punk movement, and the pitched battles that took place at the time between National Front and anti-Nazi League supporters which those of Bernard Quatermass’s generation would have doubtless found just as confusing as the Hippies, The Red Army and violent student protesters that had been Neale’s original inspiration. And even though Thatcher came to power on a wave of reaction against the disruptive prevalence of strikes and out of control union power, the industrial disputes and lengthy stoppages which had characterised the Heath and Callaghan Governments of the seventies continued to be a feature of early-eighties life, so it is hardly as though the near-future dystopia of a collapsing society at war with itself that is depicted in the serial by Kneale would have felt at all anachronistic to viewers at the time of the serial’s original transmission.

One of the most oft cited criticisms of the drama, though, centres on the casting and performance of the then-recently knighted Sir John Mills, who takes the title role of Quatermass in what would turn out to be Kneale’s final outing for British sci-fi’s  ‘father figure of space research’. Presenting the opposite extreme to the equally disliked characterisation by American actor Brian Donlevy (who played Quatermass as a bullish, insensitive technocrat in two movies for Hammer studios in the fifties), Mills’s gentle, elderly old duffer was felt to be too weak and insipid a take on an iconic character by those who preferred to think of Bernard Quatermass in terms defined by Andre Morell or Andrew Keir’s solid portrayal for the respective BBC and Hammer versions of “Quatermass and the Pit”. This time, such a criticism comprehensively seems to miss the entire point of this latest entry in the series: for this is supposed to be an elderly, decrepit Quatermass, broken down by time, who no longer recognises the world he once knew, and has been left out to pasture too long to be able or willing to fully understand or engage with it.

Mills’ amiable, tweedy, be-whiskered old codger, fully fits this new brief: having long since retired to the west of Scotland, Quatermass is only now coaxed back into the fray in search of his missing granddaughter (Rebecca Saire) and is only interested in using his invitation from a London TV station to provide live commentary on a new Apollo-Soyuz-like spacelab mission between the US and the Soviet Union, as a means of spreading the word in the hope of finding her. In fact, this Quatermass is positively jaundiced about his former profession; after being mugged by well-spoken louts who assault him on the way to the studio, Quatermass discovers for the first time that the rule of law and all social order have completely broken down in the capital (a fact evidently downplayed in what remains of the media): here the elderly are forced to fend for themselves without social support, living rough in scrapyards where they are terrified of the gangs of scavengers and yobs who now prey on them on their former suburban streets; armed militias – the Badders and the Blue Brigade – stalk the ruins of cities, whose dirty inhabitants regularly gather at Wembley Stadium, not for nation-defining sporting events but for similarly intentioned exercises in national bonding centred on mass executions!

Quartermass is disgusted and horrified by what the world has become -- and the last thing he now cares about are self-aggrandising space missions of the kind his whole life and career had previously been founded upon. His former self – the dashing, energetic scientist who still wants to understand the world and hopes, optimistically, to find technologically innovative ways of improving it – is instead represented in this story by the youngish astronomer Joe Kapp (Simon MacCorkindale), who rescues Quatermass from the street gangs and offers him refuge in the English countryside, where this dedicated scientist now lives, near his observatory workplace (staffed by a team that includes David Yip and Brenda Fricker), in a converted WW2 army pillbox with his archaeologist wife Clare (Barbara Kellerman) and two infant daughters. Here it becomes evident that the powerful signal from deep space the observatory team has been intermittently detecting on its scanners, also coincides with the shocking destruction of the American/Soviet spacelab, and with the blinding light Joe’s team and Quatermass witness at a nearby ancient stone monument Clare has been investigating for her research on ancient Peoples of the British Isles. Bands of nomadic young drifters who believe in a cosmic religion that preaches that they are all destined to be saved from the horrors that are all about them by being transported to what they refer simply to as ‘the Planet’, seem to have their utopian belief confirmed when a crowd of chanting hippies at the Kapps’ local stone megalithic site, Ringstone Round, vanish in the blink of an eye after this sky-borne light appears to blot out the entire landscape.

Soon the same phenomenon is being repeated all over the world at all kinds of human gathering sites, each time the space signal is detected. Quatermass and Joe’s team come to realise that the world’s youngsters are actually being harvested for trace elements of human protein, then vaporised by a machine created by an unimaginably powerful alien intelligence that has no use for the rest of them. In a typically disturbing Kneale-like leap of logic, the human impulse, throughout history and in all kinds of contexts, for people to come together in celebration and reverence, is actually merely the influence of alien ‘marker’ technology, hidden in the soil of any place traditionally associated with worship or the urge to congregate for whatever reason. Its aim is to herd enough people into one place when the time comes to harvest the minute quantities of human-being that the aliens are for some reason after. The dispassionate logic is unsparingly laid out in terms that have nothing to do with good or evil: the aliens are not trying to invade or rob humanity of its resources ... they probably don’t even so much as recognise us to be sentient beings, so far down in the pecking order on their cosmic scale of existence do we rate.

There’s a somewhat reactionary, even Lovecraftian impulse in this strangely compelling idea: the sudden mass crazes of crowds, the uncompromising political beliefs and cultural enthusiasms that drive the creativity of young people, are just the result of an ancient alien mind manipulation that doesn’t affect the old  -- which means that there’s a reason why the world seems to no longer make sense to older generations, and which says that it is ultimately only the elderly folk who are able to see the truth and who therefore have the ability to save humanity from itself. At the same time Kneale is too cynically despairing not to recognise that part of what drives the old is their resentment of youth, a resentment based in regret at the memory of their own vanished past and what they are now missing. In a sequence from episode three (entirely cut out of the theatrical version of the story), Quatermass meets a rag-tag band of elderly refugees forced into re-living their experiences of the Blitz in makeshift underground scrapheap hovels while taking spiritual refuge in an simplistic evangelical Christianity. When Quatermass tells them about the Planet People and explains the cult’s belief system, their reaction betrays an underlying jealousy at the idea that this alien paradise is reserved just for the young: ‘they want everything, don’t they! Well, they got everything … they got it all off us! Why should it all be for them?!’

But there is a wider theme being dramatised here, though, beyond just the generational conflict between those who came of age and were shaped by the hardships and responsibilities instilled in them during the Second World War, and the baby boomers who created the social revolution of the 1960s partly as a reaction against having to live in its shadow: it’s most starkly played out in Joe Kapp and the Planet People’s mutual antipathy. Kapp hates the hippy mobs for being against everything that makes humanity worthwhile, because of their rejection of reason in all its forms: they hate science and those who practice it (‘stop trying to know things!’ screams one of them at Quatermass, at one point) while Kapp sees the Planet People as being just as violent, but in a different way, to the street gangs: ‘violent to human thought’. Rational thought is to Kapp ‘all that separates us from the dark’, while the Planet People represent the exact opposite view, expressed by their spokesman Kickalong (Ralph Arliss), namely that only by rejecting human logic and rationality and embracing intuitive forms of knowledge unmediated by thought will they truly ‘come out of the blackness of this word.’ Quatermass, in his latest elderly but empathetic incarnation, represents the middle-ground: searching for understanding and rapprochement  between the two sides; realising and agreeing that science is being corrupted, perverted and misused in the modern world, but also understanding that for humans to fully engage and understand one-another requires the intellect as well as the emotions and intuition. It’s the combination of these qualities that in the end enables kindness; and it is Quatermass’s desire to help one of the young Planet People victims of the first harvesting (caught at the edge of the blast site, she is parcially horribly petrified by the alien death beam) that drives him to look beyond his immediate interest in being reunited with his granddaughter and totry to understand what is going on. Kapp eventually comes to this realisation too, but in the hardest way possible after his wife and two daughters become victims of the alien holocaust (pretty much everybody dies in this bleak production; and the more sympathetic and innocent they are, the more horribly they die … In the last episode the sky even turns a greenish vomit colour because of the particles of ground-up human remains left floating in the atmosphere after the vaporisation of a full-to-capacity Wembley Stadium!) and in his grief begins to explore first the rituals of his Jewish heritage and then the anti-thought manifesto of the Planet People after Kickalong tries to help him expel language (and therefore human thought) from his mind in order to escape the sheer mental anguish of what has happened to him.

In the end, Kneale’s sympathies are more evidently aligned with Kapp than Kickalong -- the latter soon revealing himself to be nothing but a demagogic cross between Charles Manson and Robert Plant, who uses the rabble-rousing charisma of his rock star looks to grant himself power over others while violently enforcing his petty dogma at the point of a gun (a young Toyah Wilcox is made one of his victims for humanely wanting to stay and help the mentally unravelling Joe when the Planet People first find him alone in the remains of his observatory, soon after the death of his family). Coming at the end of a decade-long run of British TV dramas and films that explored and interpreted the iconography and historical meaning discernible in the residue of myth and heritage buried beneath the landscape of the British Isles, such as can be found throughout Alan Garner’s body of work, sundry MR James-inspired BBC ghost stories, and a dark pastoral strain of English folk horror that prominently includes Piers Haggard’s own “Blood on Satan’s Claw” among its best offerings -- this final instalment of the Quatermass legend brings little in the way of hope and transcendence to the franchise beyond the simple climactic expression of a grandfather’s love for his lost granddaughter: only Kneale in the wistful, nostalgic mood of despair we find him in here could locate this emotional simplicity in the suicidal nuclear annihilation of his main character after this reunion, but still this Euston Production’s most powerful and lingering idea is actually grounded in the deep history anchored to a palpable sense of time and place that's conjured from the use of a fake sing-song nursery-rhyme skilfully woven into the associated history of the stones (the Stumpy Men) at Ringstone Round: we see it morph throughout the episodes from a simple child’s song taken from a picture book (‘Huffity-puffity Ringstone Round …’)  into a protestors’ traditional marching song that unites all the gang factions and sends them all to their doom together; then, finally, ending up as a monolithic football terrace chant reverberating around Wembley Stadium – a simple device powerfully illustrating the idea of all communal activities throughout the history of human culture being driven by the same alien mind control markers, planted thousands of years before at sacred sites.

With its despairing, apocalyptic portrait of contemporary British society coming apart at the seams  -- from its adversarial politics, decaying social institutions falling into anarchy, and its impoverished take on popular culture (Kneale’s view of the telly of the day can best be gauged from his parody pop magazine show ‘Tituppy Bumpitty’, shown being recorded at one point as Quatermass arrives at the embattled TV studios, and which today looks like every lousy piece of 1970s broadcasting you can think of combined in to one incomprehensible, mind-numbing melange) – this long underestimated TV drama now plays like a secret history of the cultural anxieties and divisions that were powering the British psyche in the late-seventies and early-eighties, and is a neigh-on-essential piece of popular drama from the time.

This wonderfully restored new version combines a HD print sourced from the original camera negative with a new 5.1 soundtrack and the inclusion of a music-only option that foregrounds Marc Wilkinson and Nic Rowley’s evocative analogue synth score. Disc one includes all the episodes of the British TV version, while disc two is dedicated to the US theatrical version which was edited down from the four fifty minute episodes into a single 100 minute feature film. Although this latter version excludes much of the serial’s character development and rejigs some of the chronology of events, it works perfectly well as a stand-alone feature. Episode recaps and textless titles are included separately along with an image gallery of stills and publicity materials. A booklet by historian of archive British TV Andrew Pixley is another essential addition to this writer’s burgeoning oeuvre and is included with the set; a limited edition first run of Blu-rays will  also feature four different coloured collectable covers. A DVD edition featuring the same re-mastered transfer is also available. 

 

Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!

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