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The Quatermass Experiment (1953): An Incomplete Masterpiece

The title card for the first of six episodes of the BBC TV serial "The Quatermass Experiment", devised and written by Nigel Kneale to fill a gap in the channel's schedules at extremely short notice. Although extremely crude by today's standards of production, design and effects, it was a huge success at the time, with a large proportion of the available television set-owning public in the UK at the time watching at least five out of the six episodes.

If you've heard of The Quatermass Experiment, then chances are you've seen either the Hammer Films movie that came along in 1955 (and titled The Quatermass Xperiment in a nod to its then "X-certificate" rating - it was called The Creeping Unknown in the US) or the relatively poor but performed live colour recreation shown on BBC Four in 2005.

In 1953, BBC TV was still relatively new. There was only one channel available in the UK and it was taken off the air in September 1939 at the start of WW2 and did not return until June 1946. Although one-off plays, comedies, variety shows and news programmes made up the majority of the schedules, in terms of drama, television was effectively "radio with pictures". Plays were shot on sets, with fixed lens cameras and performed live, often repeated a week later (and live again, the shows not being recorded). When programmes were recorded onto tape, the BBC kept them for a few years before often wiping them to use for fresh material in an effort to save on costs. This led to hundreds of programmes being lost without trace or hope of transmission again. Two episodes of The Quatermass Experiment were recorded and thankfully escaped this sacrilege.

Science-fiction was something that was not seen very often on the BBC. A 35-minute section of the Czech play R. U. R. (Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti, or "Rossum's Universal Robots") had been broadcast in February 1938, marking the genre's debut on British television - the play itself introducing the word "robot" into the English language. The play was performed again on the BBC - this time in its entirety - in March 1948. H. G. Wells' The Time Machine appeared a year later and a children's serial, Stranger From Space, came out in 1951.

A gap in the BBC schedules on Saturday evenings during the latter half of July and early August 1953 was discovered by executives at the channel, and measures were taken to create a serial that was "mystifying, rather than horrifying". Nigel Kneale, who had already read some of his own work on BBC radio and had at least one script performed on television prior to becoming a BBC staff writer in 1951, was employed by the Head of Television Drama, Michael Barry to write a six-part serial to fill the gap. Barry reputedly spent the BBC's entire budget for drama scripts in1953 to commission Kneale for the project. There was no time for the scriptwriter to plan either: he barely had time to write the first few episodes before the first one was performed live on 18th July 1953. In fact, Nigel Kneale was still coming up with the scripts for the last episodes - and thinking of a suitable conclusion - after it started airing!

Reginald Tate played the lead role of Professor Bernard Quatermass, head of the British Experimental Rocket Group. His character was a no-nonsense scientist, yet one with a humanist streak and not the shouting, steamrollering bully that American actor Brian Donlevy would portray in the Hammer movie two years later. A screenshot from the first ever episode.

What kind of story would enthral a small-"C" conservative general public, one used to cosy character pieces or variety shows that had traditionally played well in theatres up and down the land? Bear in mind that television sets were in the minority, hard to get hold of and relatively expensive in 1953, when the Second World War was still a terribly recent memory, rationing of meat, sugar and other foodstuffs was still in place and Austerity remained the order of the day. Most television owners were middle class, relatively affluent and conservative in their artistic tastes - and BBC executives by and large were sympathetic or subscribers to this kind of view, choosing not to rock the boat by introducing programmes that would challenge, upset or alienate its small but increasing audience base. And then along came The Quatermass Experiment...

With a working title of Bring Something Back, Kneale elected to write a story of the aftermath of the first British rocket flight into space. Note that in terms of the serial, America and Russia don't get a look-in - it's those plucky Brits who have stolen the show in terms of designing, building and launching a rocket into Earth orbit - and beyond, because after launch, something goes badly wrong. The Quatermass 1 rocket goes off-course and radio contact is lost for 57 hours, with the Professor and his team on the ground at mission control in England frantically trying to re-establish a link with the three-man crew.

The Quatermass Experiment was notable for being an early proponent of strong female television characters rather than essentially someone who would scream on cue or being trapped, only for the plucky hero to rescue at the conclusion. Isobel Dean played Judith Carroon, a scientist at the British Experimental Rocket Group and the wife of one of the crew onboard the ill-fated Quatermass 1 rocket, Victor Carroon. What looked like optical fibre strands was an attempt to portray some kind of fancy slide rule, as far as I can work out...

It's almost a multi-national crew too - for 1953, the idea of having a German scientist and rocket designer onboard a spacecraft might have raised eyebrows, but it was as if NASA had decided to train Werner von Braun to be an astronaut and fire him off in Freedom 7, the first of the manned Mercury-Redstone missions, eight years later. Back on the ground, Quatermass himself is aided and abetted by Judith Carroon, a rocket scientist in her own right - and who just happens to be married to Victor, another of the crew. For a 1953 television production, having a female co-star who wasn't simply a love interest or someone who needed rescuing from a deadly fate or the arms of a villain was certainly rather novel. However, Kneale was already showing that he wasn't happy with cosy kitchen sink dramas or safe adaptations of existing material. He wanted to make his mark. The Quatermass Experiment was going to have its fair share of horrors (for the time), but as a work of science-fiction, it would be just as much a cerebral work as a frightener. Contrast this with what was passing for the genre on American television at the time - Captain Video and his Video Rangers or Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, low-budget serials aimed at kids but strangely loved by adults, shows which fell back on ideas from Westerns when their often-incoherent scripts fell apart. They were performed live, but as far as intelligent science-fiction was concerned, they were a dead duck.

Victor Carroon (played by Duncan Lamont), the sole survivor of the Quatermass 1 crew, struggles to communicate with Professor Quatermass after being pulled from the crashed rocket in Wimbledon, south London. With no real experience or concept of what an astronaut's clothing would look like, Carroon was dressed in something akin to a diver's rig, complete with helmet (off-shot).

Kneale's vision for a serial that would not only fill the gap in the schedules but shake up British television drama was therefore ahead of its time, but the limitations of the actual medium restricted his ambition somewhat. As already mentioned, shows were performed live, then again several days or even a week later. What was known as telerecording (Kinescope), where footage was filmed using a lens focussed on the output from a monitor screen showing the programme that was to be retained, was employed to record the first two episodes of The Quatermass Experiment, possibly because the BBC wanted to sell the show abroad - to Canada, it is believed. However, the quality of the recording was very poor and it is thought that a decision was taken not to bother with the last four episodes, which is why only the first two actually survive as 35mm films. It is of course possible that Episodes Three to Six were filmed, although if so, they remain hidden in a dusty archive somewhere or were wiped for re-issue in the late 1950s or early 1960s.

The fixed lenses fitted to early and extremely bulky television cameras did not lend themselves to performances where a lot of movement was needed. Dramas usually confined themselves to characters sitting or standing in fixed positions, or close in shots of faces so that focus was maintained. Money for sets was limited and as for a special effects budget, well, it's likely that the BBC drama executives didn't even know what a "special effect" was! And yet they would be needed for The Quatermass Experiment. Although performances were live, some footage was filmed using 35mm stock and then it was inserted into the broadcasts. When the two subsequent Quatermass serials were shown on the BBC in 1955 and 1958, they had more of this pre-filmed material.

Detective Inspector Lomax (Ian Colin, left) examines a model of the Quatermass 1 rocket at the British Experimental Rocket Group control centre during the second episode of The Quatermass Experiment. Quatermass himself (right) tries not to rise to the police inspector's bait.

At one point during the second episode, an insect lands on the lens inside the camera recording the live footage. It walks about a bit for a few minutes before disappearing!

Given that the working title was Bring Something Back and only one out of the original three crew members aboard the Quatermass 1 rocket survive - there being no trace of either of the others when the craft is thoroughly searched, despite the door being sealed before launch and not opening until after rescuers arrive, readers that haven't seen The Quatermass Xperiment movie or read Kneale's script book might have guessed what the part of the remaining plot entails. I won't spoil things for the rest of you, though. The script was turned into a book and I was the proud owner of the Arrow reprint in the early 1980s, and the two follow-on serials, Quatermass II and Quatermass and the Pit. For anyone who's interested, all six episodes of these were retained and are available on DVD.

Pit is arguably one of the best British science-fiction scripts ever written, and the BBC production from Christmas 1958 is an utter classic - I know the Hammer movie version is lauded (and rightly so), but the six 30-minute episodes deliver a building dread that the film cannot provide. It's truly excellent, with haunting sound effects (some via a Theremin, which had been used for the 1951 movie The Thing From Another World) and really exceptional performances. Catch it if you can.

The Arrow reprint of The Quatermass Experiment, one of my prized possessions as a nipper. There were still photographs of some of the scenes in the middle of the book which whetted my appetite for something I wouldn't get to see until the 2000s on DVD - and something my father remembered seeing as a twenty-something, a show that left its mark on him. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, those who had watched the Quatermass serials still remembered being awed, frightened or both.

Unless by some absolute miracle the four missing episodes are found somewhere (and as each year passes the likelihood of this diminishes even more), your only options to find out what happens beyond the end of Episode Two are 1) to read Kneale's script book, copies of which - in both their original and reprinted versions are commanding hefty prices on eBay, or 2) watch Brian Donlevy shout and bully his way through The Quatermass Xperiment, which also has a different ending from the BBC television version - which was believed too cerebral for movie audiences. There's also a strange bit of plot in the middle which is different from the television script and although it sets up the scene for other events, doesn't really make a lot of sense in context. Kneale hated Donlevy's portrayal of Bernard Quatermass but wrote the script for Hammer's version of Quatermass II, which the burly American blustered and shouted his way through too, so the writer's jets must have cooled somewhat in the intervening years. Or maybe he just didn't want his original script being butchered by someone else. (Andrew Keir played Quatermass in the 1967 movie, Andre Morell portraying him in the 1958 BBC serial.)

Personally, I'd watch the first two episodes and then read the script book. I recommend watching the movie only if there's nothing better to do or you have trouble envisaging what the missing episodes would have looked like, or you're a fan of Brian Donlevy. There must be at least one somewhere...

The 1955 movie The Quatermass Xperiment should only be watched by people without a nervous disposition - or preferably by those happy to have Brian Donlevy shovel a torturous performance in their direction. Donlevy, who had made his name as an American screen "heavy", bulldozed his way through the movie. If it's in his way, shout at it. If it's not working, shout at it. Things aren't going quick enough? Shout at them. Something doesn't fit? Shout at it.... you get the picture. Aside from his performance, the film is strangely watchable.

As for Reginald Tate, who played Professor Quatermass, he was slated to reprise the character in 1955 when Kneale wrote Quatermass II, but he sadly died a few weeks before rehearsals were due to begin, so John Robinson was brought in at the last time to replace him. Quatermass II tells a story of secret government facilities, a worldwide cover-up stretching throughout society and into the higher echelons of power, and strange objects falling from the skies. And "zombies" - but not World War Z ones, nor the traditional ones either. Kneale's were different. It's well worth seeing, but I will save the breakdown for another blog post. Quatermass and the Pit is required viewing too - but this time, both in its movie and television versions. The Hammer film is excellent - it was my route into Quatermass as I saw before I watched the 1979 ITV television serial simply known as Quatermass, starring John Mills as an aging professor in a broken society faced with an existential threat. And so is the 1958 television serial. In fact, in my humble opinion, it's better - just. Prepare yourself for three hours of amazing science-fiction. Yes, it's black and white (pre-colour television), still largely performed on sets and the pacing can be a little slow at times over the three hours, but the script is top-notch and the performances from most of the actors rise to the challenge.

The Quatermass Experiment might not be Avatar or Star Wars, but in terms of its place in British television science-fiction history, it's legacy is assured. Without it and it's sequels, some Doctor Who serials wouldn't exist (hello, Spearhead From Space!), and my own experience of growing up as a nerdy SF geek would have been much less enriched than it was... I'm still a huge fan of all of the Quatermass serials today.

Want to know more about Kneale and Quatermass? Listen to the Bergcast podcast. One of the hosts can be a little annoying, in my humble opinion, but the amount of information and background into the serials is worth enduring the pain...

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