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Quatermass II (1955): A Flawed Gem

Title and writing credit for the first episode of Quatermass II, written and performed live on the BBC in October and November 1955. It survives in its entirety, only the second Nigel Kneale and Rudolph Cartier (producer) serial, the first being their version of Nineteen Eighty-Four (shown in December 1954).

1955 was only ten years after the end of World War II. The British population had been accustomed to secret military facilities springing up all over the country, together with the "Careless Talk Costs Lives" and "Loose Lips Sink Ships" mantra that kept folk from gossiping too much about what was happening in them, even if they were right next door - or they worked in them. Who knew if the enemy was listening into someone's conversations... The Cold War began in earnest with the Berlin Airlift, and intensified once the war in Korea saw a polarisation between Western Europe, America and Canada (plus their allies in Australia and New Zealand) on one side and the forces of Russia - and China - on the other. Those secret military installations started springing up once again in the early 1950s, and as some of them involved important radar systems or facilities connected with atomic weapons, they were heavily guarded and casual onlookers were discouraged.

Nigel Kneale set his sequel to The Quatermass Experiment in this world of secrecy, silence and subterfuge - and it works exceedingly well. Cue Gustav Holst's Mars: The God of War, the jarring and menacing music that accompanied the titles (and on Experiment). Some slight spoilers to follow:

No, Captain Dillon (John Stone) isn't eating an apple. It's part of a meteorite. Or at least that's what he thinks it is. Northern England is experiencing huge falls of them and no-one appears to be that bothered, particularly his Army radar unit based out in the country.

Episode One is titled "The Bolts". We start with an Army radar unit situated somewhere in Northern England, one which tracks the fall of unidentified flying objects - which are even mentioned in passing "from the previous year" - during routine scanning of the skies. It's evident that Kneale was aware of, if not entirely convinced that UFOs were real - but for the purposes of his story, they fitted right in. One of these falls occurs quite close to the temporary site the Army are based at - their radars are contained in vehicles, not a fixed building. Captain Dillon and his sergeant decide to investigate as although the previous year's falls were "explained away", this new event close by clearly troubles them.

They come across a farmer who has stumbled across one of the "meteorites". It had a funny smell, "like dirty stables". His wife is worried sick as her husband is becoming non-responsive, just sitting in the field. Dillon collects fragments from the meteorite the farmer picked up and tells his sergeant he "knows a man who might be able to help". Of course, that's Professor Bernard Quatermass.

The Quatermass II rocket on its launch pad somewhere in southern England. For 1955, the model work was extraordinary, although it doesn't really show here due to the blurry focus of the early television cameras as they zoom in during the shot. For me, though, it all serves to make the scene more atmospheric and intriguing than a "perfect" take would have created.

Quatermass has his own problems. The problems he had encountered during The Quatermass Experiment aren't referred to at all, although the inference is that the disaster with the Quatermass I rocket didn't affect the British Experimental Rocket Group too badly as an improved version has been constructed. Except it's not improved. There are two prototypes, one in the UK which hasn't been launched and one that was supposed to be fired from the Tarooma site in Australia (a slight name-change from the real-life Woomera Rocket Range facility) but which blew up due to the instability of its atomic reactor. Yes, Quatermass strapped a nuke to his rocket. Cue shots of large explosion and men with suits and Geiger counters walking around the (presumably) irradiated now Arid Lands of Southern Australia.

With an identical and equally potentially lethal rocket located in southern England, Quatermass is forced to abandon any plans to launch it. He sees the end of his plans to create a base on the Moon, materials for its construction to be delivered by a fleet of up to 50 Quatermass II rockets. None of that will happen now...

Signs like this one would have been all-to-familiar to the audience watching the serial in 1955. Kneale had a happy knack of utilising the here and now and twisting it to suit his scripts, but he would carve out a name by almost predicting the future - for instance, reality television in his "The Year of the Sex Olympics" (1968), shown on BBC 2's "Theatre 625".

Quatermass badly needs a distraction and one immediately drops in his lap courtesy of the arrival of John Dillon and his "meteorite fragments". Dillon, who has exchanged his captain's uniform for a natty blazer and slacks, is going out with the professor's daughter, Paula, who happens to be part of Quatermass's team at the BERG control centre, so that covers any awkwardness in dealing with the Army captain's arrival, although it's obviously a little bit of a contrived plot. But that's television drama for you. Happy coincidences are usually the order of the day.

Since he's got an un-launchable rocket on his hands and nothing better to do, Quatermass decides to investigate the fragments, and drives to the farmer's house with Dillon. The farmer is withdrawn, uncooperative and angry when questioned. They come away left with more questions than answers but call into the nearby pub, where they're told that the farmer is a good man and their description of his behaviour is out of character. An old man tells them about Winnerden Flats, a village on the coast which was the scene of a small government facility ("a few old huts") but somewhere which had recently changed out of all recognition.

It looks like Quatermass's Moon project has been located on Earth, at a place called Winnerden Flats...

Quatermass and Dillon decide to drive the short distance out to Winnerden Flats to see the place for themselves. Passing Danger: Do Not Proceed Beyond This Point signs and spying a gap in the hedge, the professor pulls the car over and they get out, looking down on what appears to be - well, Quatermass thinks he's going mad. His Moon Project, doomed before it could even get off the ground (literally), seems to have been writ large on a coastal strip of land in northern England. What's more, in the dunes along the shoreline next to where they're standing, Dillon finds more "meteorite fragments". There are dozens of them, broken up, presumably by the impact of them hitting the ground. Or not?

The army captain, in mufti of course, spots one which is half-buried, appearing to be intact . He draws Quatermass's attention to it and starts digging it out of the ground, despite the professor's warning not to touch it. (If everyone on screen obeyed well-meaning warnings, we'd have far less drama, wouldn't we?) A gaseous blob is suddenly emitted from the intact object and Dillon is suddenly overcome, Quatermass shouting "Dillon! There's something on your face!" The screen fades to black before the titles start to roll...

The "zombies" come to take Dillon away despite Quatermass protesting that he's sick. Their bedside manner is appalling. Dressed like paramilitaries rather than soldiers, their helmets seem oddly small for their heads, although not as tiny as the ones that would appear in the Hammer movie version a couple of years later.

For 1955, Quatermass II told a tale of intrigue, immeasurable conspiracy and intent to subvert the very pinnacles of power. It's a pre-Invasion of the Body Snatchers, albeit without the pods. Remembering the success of Experiment two years earlier, the BBC had specially commissioned Nigel Kneale to write a sequel as a way of enticing viewers away from the new upstart commercial channel in Britain, Independent Television (or ITV), which started in September 1955. The BBC knew it needs quality programming to ensure its dominance in a market which was no longer a monopoly - and it was hoped another Quatermass serial would fit the bill.

An increased budget was provided - £7,552, which equates to around £211,000 in 2022 money. That doesn't seem a lot, but for 1955 this was definitely pushing the boat out. BBC productions at that time were made on a tiny fraction of that sort of dosh. The BBC Controller at the time, Cecil McGivern, later stated "Had competitive television been in existence then, we would have killed it every Saturday night while it [Experiment] lasted. We are going to need many more 'Quatermass Experiment' programmes."

A particularly unhappy-looking "zombie". Well, none of them looked happy in any case, but this one definitely wasn't too chipper. However, his chin would have given David Coulthard's a run for its money, or maybe it was just the chinstrap making it look more impressive than it was.

Although much of the serial was performed live at the BBC's Lime Grove Studios in London, pre-filmed 35mm inserts were included to depict the on-location shots. These included the scenes described above next to the fictional (and destroyed) village of Winnerden Flats, the facility itself (the Shell Haven oil refinery complex at Stanford-le-Hope in Essex being used for filming, and would be again for the Hammer movie version) and a still under-construction New Town which stood in for a "pre-fab" housing estate which was part of the plot. There was much more of this type of footage, an ambitious part of the production.

The extra number of 35mm inserts compared with The Quatermass Experiment also meant that the actors didn't have to rehearse as much for the live segments - although John Robinson allegedly had to be helped with some of his lines, particularly with the more technical terms. Legend has it that Monica Grey, who played his screen daughter Paula (and who had - again allegedly - only been cast in the role because she was the wife of the head of BBC Radio drama), also learned some of Robinson's lines in case he needed to be helped during the live performances!

Echoes of World War Two abounded in the look and feel of Quatermass II. Posters like this one were used as set dressing for the "Camp Committee" headquarters building in the New Town next to the Winnerden Flats facility, ones that mimicked those seen during the war. They would have been extremely familiar to most of the audience.

Despite this, any deficiencies in the actors' performances aren't too noticeable as the depth and breadth of the plot more than makes up for these. Yes, Paula Grey is a bit wooden and stilted, but that was because she hailed from that cosy clique of character dramas that BBC Radio shovelled out by the dozen. Television wasn't much better at that time, so accents were still rather cut-glass and dialogue was more often than not delivered in Received Pronunciation or a slightly watered-down version of it. Robinson doesn't always look entirely comfortable, but this is probably due to his last-minute appointment as a result of poor Reginald Tate's unfortunate demise. And yet he's not the shouting, bawling, burly bully that American screen "heavy" Brian Donlevy would portray in the Hammer version.

I haven't mentioned the Hammer movie yet, so better dispense with it. Yes, Kneale wrote the script for it too - due to the huge success of The Quatermass Xperiment, the film company had gone out and bought the rights for Quatermass II (which they renamed Quatermass 2) even before the BBC had aired the serial themselves. However, Hammer only allowed Kneale to come up with the first draft, which director Val Guest (who had also been at the helm of Xperiment) then rewrote - and rewrote. It ended up being essentially the same plot but with some significant differences, especially in terms of the first 20 minutes of the serial being condensed into five for the film (no doubt due to time constraints) but also the ending, with effectively the final episode of the serial being done away with and a different finale being included - though with the same end result.

I'm sure that's a six-wheeled car in the background. Was Lady Penelope's Rolls-Royce even thought of back in 1955? And that's not her driver, Parker, especially as he's toting what looks like a Thompson M1928A sub-machine gun. No, it's another one of those "zombies", the guards at the Winnerden Flats complex. His helmet seems rather snug too...

Quatermass 2 features a reporter in the shape of Jimmy, played by Sid James. Yes - that Sid James, the one from the "Carry On" films with that unforgettable dirty laugh. I'm serious. It's a tad difficult trying to see him playing a semi-serious part (the character here is partly intended as a little bit of light relief at first), akin to watching Leslie Nielsen being somewhat po-faced in Forbidden Planet and that movie where he wrestled a bear in a forest, before his comic turns in Airplane and The Naked Gun series. He plays a sozzled hack looking for a story who ends up finding one with the help of Donlevy's Quatermass - funnily enough, rumour has it that the American was fond of a sherbet or two. An award should have also gone to his toupee, which did a runner during one scene which involved a wind machine, some of the film crew having to chase after it as it made a bid for freedom across the South Downs. Donlevy wasn't in Gone With The Wind as far as I'm aware, but his syrup nearly was... I'll get my coat.

In my blog about The Quatermass Experiment, I mentioned just how some of the Doctor Who serials had pinched ideas lock, stock and barrel from Nigel Kneale's creation. Quatermass II was no exception. The whole initial scene with the radar trucks was essentially copied for the beginning of Spearhead From Space, albeit in a radar station rather than a temporary vehicle park in a field, and the whole Invasion of the Body Snatchers aspect of subverted government would pop up later in that particular Whovian serial.

No, you're not seeing a screen capture from a Doctor Who serial. Yes, that's Roger Delgado, who would go onto play The Master in various Who shows. Here, he's playing Hugh Conrad, in a role which was much more interesting than Sid James playing a hack n Quatermass 2, the film version. Rather than phoning in his performance, Delgado gave an at first measured and then frantic depiction of his character.

Another link with Doctor Who was Roger Delgado, who played a veteran journalist and one who soon succumbs to the subversion of society, right under Quatermass's nose. He would go onto achieve infamy in the eyes of Whovians across the globe as The Master. If you stretch the infiltration of power further, you end up with the sort of conspiracy at the heart of The X-Files. Was Chris Carter influenced by Nigel Kneale's early work? Kneale was certainly invited to write for the 1990s series, but turned the offer down.

Each of the half-hour episodes were shown by the BBC at 8 pm on a Saturday night, being telerecorded so they could be repeated without the actors having to perform live once more on the Monday night following transmission, as had occurred with The Quatermass Experiment. The quality of the BBC's camera equipment had improved significantly in the two years since 1953 and the tapes were not wiped, so all six survive in the BBC archives. As they were live, the shows often overran their allotted 30 minutes by a fair margin, much to the chagrin of BBC executives. At least a couple of scenes were performed again by the cast after the first performance and also telerecorded, Rudolf Cartier being unhappy with some technical or acting aspects. These changes were then used to replace the original scenes for the Monday evening repeats.

One particular scene was probably not for the faint-hearted in 1955. Tame now by comparison, it no doubt made some of the audience wish they hadn't gorged on that fish and chip supper on the way home from the pub to watch it. Pubs recorded a drop in attendance when the Quatermass serials were being transmitted. For their day, they were really popular.

Given that they didn't succumb to the Great Wiping during the 1950s and 1960s - although even the better camera gear suffered from a lack of focus and there are some other technical defects at times due to the age of the film - the BBC released all six episodes on a DVD in 2005, together with the two surviving episodes of The Quatermass Experiment and all six from Quatermass and the Pit.

Paula Quatermass is stilted, Quatermass's scientist colleague Dr. Pugh (Hugh Griffith) has some startling insights in order to move the plot along and Robinson doesn't look 100% all of the time - but in terms of a serial that portrayed a sinister conspiracy that reached into the heart of the UK establishment and appeared to be replicated around the world, it's absolutely top-notch. The script was released as a Penguin book in 1960 and reprinted by Arrow in the late 1970s (another of my treasured possessions as a teenager)

The cover of the Arrow paperback from 1979 didn't exactly give the game away as the representation of the outside influence looks more like a case of rampaging and severe pimples than what was actually shown in the 1955 BBC television series. These are script books - not novels - they have the stage directions too, but are still a great read, and if you've got the DVD, you can turn the sound off and get your family to play the characters complete with Received Pronunciation accents! I haven't done that - yet, honest!

If I have one real criticism, it's that the serial falls apart a bit halfway during the last episode. This doesn't actually affect the telling of the story, since it's obvious that things are moving in the right direction by then, and the last half-hour occasionally seems like it's just an afterthought. It isn't, and there's a reason for this, but you can't help think that it could have been wrapped up a little better. There is also an incredibly cringe-worthy set for one of the scenes which, well, I won't spoil it for you here. Suspend your disbelief and it works on some sort of level, but at least it's very brief and the next set of events bring everything to a climax - another one, since we've already had one at the end of the penultimate episode.

Is that reason enough not to watch Quatermass II? No, not at all. II is definitely worth seeing for the plot and script alone, even if the production values aren't anywhere near today's capabilities. And therein lies part of its charm. Quatermass II is a bit rough and ready in places. The special effects - particularly in the rendition of the Winnerden Flats facility when the professor first sees it - definitely looks like a model to the discerning 21st Century onlooker, but think back to the time and realise just how they would have come across to an audience who hadn't seen such a level on the small screen before. In the booklet that accompanied the DVD release, Monica Grey was likened to "less an actress than a finishing school on legs." It's painfully accurate, but you have to view it in the restrictions of the time - and the fact that she'd probably been inflicted on Rudolph Cartier as the price of an increased drama budget due to the "old boys network" in the BBC.

The scenes in the secret Winnerden Flats facility were actually filmed in the basement of Broadcasting House in London, where the boiler house, electrical generators and water pumping station were located. It ensured a really atmospheric scene for the shots inside the complex, especially when the "zombies" and another plot element which will remain nameless at this point were included.

The DVD is worth having to add to your collection. It's special because it represents the start of BBC television SF and Kneale's stellar visions in terms of storytelling. There was nothing like it anywhere else in the world at the time, and in terms of the conspiracy element, it holds up today against similar works - and in most cases rises above them. Yes, three hours might be a lot to sit through, especially since it's in black and white, the quality is occasionally a little off and the performances a bit patchy in places. But it's a flawed gem, particularly when compared to what came next in the form of Quatermass and the Pit, arguably the best ever British science-fiction serial.

There are some really jarring moments - again for 1955 - involving murders of otherwise innocent families and one memorable scene where the dialogue itself describes a truly appalling way to die. Neither is actually shown, merely hinted at with sound, language and a panning shot that lets you imagine just what had actually happened. Both Kneale and Cartier knew the limitations of what could be depicted on screen - not simply down to production capabilities but also what the BBC would let a producer get away with showing. With clever use of dialogue and imagery that let your imagination go wild, they didn't need to show graphic detail. Their audience would fill in the blanks themselves.

John Stone got to wear a different uniform in the fifth and sixth episodes when his character, Captain Dillon, reappears after his run-in with a smoking meteorite. He's wearing a helmet instead of his officer's cap this time round so it must be serious.

Cold War paranoia, secret testing facilities, the growing mistrust of government and hints of conspiracies among the very pinnacles of leadership - it's all there in Quatermass II. If you want to see it without paying for the BBC DVD, you can find it on YouTube in its entirety right here:

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