Ten years before Doctor Who arrived in his wheezing blue box, Professor Quatermass was the quintessential sci-fi hero. The brainchild of British author Nigel Kneale, the character made Kneale a household name and ensured that adults and kids throughout Britain slept with the light firmly on.
The good Professor had his first outing on TV in The Quatermass Experiment in July 1953, watched by a massive 3.9 million in an era when just four million people had TVs. Two more BBC serials followed: Quatermass II in 1955 and Quatermass And The Pit in 1958 before Hammer took the franchise and ran with it. However Nigel Kneale was always more than that bloke who wrote Quatermass. In an era of tight budgets, poor production values and tight censorship, Kneale constantly pushed the envelope, creating clever scripts that subverted our expectations and challenged stereotypes. To mark the re-release of The Witches on DVD and Blue-ray, Features Editor Paula Hammond looks at some of his best work and assesses why they’re worthy of a re-watch.
The Abominable Snowman (1957)
Made by Hammer, based on Kneale’s own 1955 TV play, The Creature, The Abominable Snowman is really a morality tale wrapped up as a horror story. Kneale’s intension was the Yeti would not be “a monster but … better than any of us” and the tale plays out well in a boy’s own adventure way. Hammer stalwart Peter Cushing makes a quietly thoughtful John Rollason who joins an American expedition led by glory-seeker Tom Friend (Forest Tucker) in search of the legendry Yeti. Snowman bombed in the box office and was ultimately overshadowed by Hammer’s big release of the year The Curse Of Frankenstein. However an intelligent script, paranoid atmosphere and bleak landscapes make this a memorable if slow-paced classic in which man is the true monster.
First Men On The Moon (1964)
Although often overshadowed by Ray Harryhausen’s spectacular stop-motion effects, the script for First Men On The Moon has all of Nigel Kneale’s trademark elements. Again ideas about morality permeate the darkly witty and subversive plot. In HMS Defiant, Kneale had Dirk Bogarde turn the role of handsome ‘hero’ on its head. Here Edward Judd does the same job playing the lazy, thieving Arnold Bedford who brings death and destruction to the Martian civilization and survives to laugh about it, while the dreamer Professor Cavor (Lionel Jeffries) dies for his ideals. The ending is strikingly bleak for a film that’s often touted as a piece of fluffy fun ‘family entertainment’.
HMS Defiant (1962)
If Abominable Snowman wasn’t really a horror film, then HMS Defiant isn’t really a historical epic. Ostensibly the plot deals with a mutiny aboard the titular ship during the period of the French Revolutionary Wars. However the tale is really a backdrop to the much more personal, psychological battle going on between the compassionate Captain Crawford (Alec Guinness) and his sadistic First Lieutenant Scott-Padget (Dirk Bogarde). Kneale’s concern as a writer was often more with ideas than action but Defiant manages to be both a cracking high seas romp and a clever character study. When, at the end of the film, the crew of the Defiant are forced to choose between duty and patriotism and their chance to be revenged on Padget Kneale’s point is clear: life is often a choice between the lesser of two evils.
Quatermass And The Pit (1967)
Film is a reductive medium and turning six, 35-minute TV episodes into one 97-minute film means making compromises. The Pit arguably benefits from the filmmaking process, with Kneale’s pared down plot delivering a tighter and tenser driving narrative than the original. Andrew Keir’s wonderful turn as the sensitive and cerebral professor lifts the film beyond B movie banality into classic cinema. Barbara Shelly raises the bar beyond the usual glamorous boffin role, to give a compelling performance whilst James Donald creates in Doctor Roney a genuine everyman hero. The Pit is Kneale doing what he does best – turning a traditional alien invasion story on its head while throwing some pretty sobering thoughts on racism and segregation along the way. It also offers up perhaps one of sci-fi cinema’s bleakest endings up to and including John Carpenter’s The Thing. In fact, it’s probably no surprise to learn that Carpenter is quite a Quatermass fan.
The Year Of The Sex Olympics (1968)
Ever the visionary, Kneale’s satire on the societal effects of television has never been more relevant. The story deals with a future world in which a small elite control an overblown population, keeping them docile on a diet of endless, facile and puerile TV shows. Long lost, but recently recovered and released on DVD, The Year Of The Sex Olympics is Kneale unrestrained, uncensored and a true original.