In 1953, British broadcasting was still very much in its infancy. Although the BBC made their first TV broadcasts in 1936, the service was suspended during the war and only resumed ten years later.
In 1953, British broadcasting was still very much in its infancy. Although the BBC made their first TV broadcasts in 1936, the service was suspended during the war and only resumed ten years later. However, the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth, in June 1953, changed public perception of TV from a novelty into mass market entertainment. Sales of TVs went into overdrive and when, a month later, the first episode of The Quatermass Experiment was aired, 2.25 million people tuned in to watch. By the end of the run, the show had averaged 3.9 million viewers an episode. That sounds like small potatoes today but, back then, the entire TV viewing public of Britain was just four million.
Quatermass was the brainchild of Nigel Kneale, who famously wrote the final episode as the first was being aired. Yet, despite the rushed production schedule, Kneale and the BBC quickly realised that they had a bone fide hit on their hands.
Two more serials followed: Quatermass II in 1955 and Quatermass And The Pit in 1958. By then, viewing figures had reached 11 million and Professor Bernard Quatermass, Head of the British Experimental Rocket Group, had developed a life of his own. Ten years before Doctor Who arrived in his wheezing blue box, Quatermass was the quintessential sci-fi hero and people simply couldn’t get enough of him.
Fortunately, Hammer stepped into the breach. Rather than create new storylines for the good professor, though, they did a re-mix of the BBC originals. In the 1950s, most TV was still aired live, and was rarely recorded, so Hammer knew that viewers would be more than happy to see a repeat performance. They were right. The films were hugely successful and when Quatermass And The Pit finally got the big screen treatment, in 1967, it became Hammer’s biggest hit. Not surprising, when they had such great material to work with.
The story opens as work on a tube extension uncovers an apparently alien artefact and fossils of “unnatural” looking Pliocene apes. As the true significance of this living ship unfolds, Quatermass gradually realises the terrifying powers it is capable of unleashing in the descendants of these modified ape men. The Pit is a breathtaking ride of a movie which ends with 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 Good Professors
Like the good Doctor, Professor Quatermass is a character who has been through his fair share of regenerations. Reginald Tate was the first to play the redoubtable scientist and is still highly regarded by fans. John Robinson did the honours in Quatermass II, while André Morell gave what many consider to be the definitive TV performance in Quatermass And The Pit.
Sadly, Hammer’s choice of American actor Brian Donlevy, to play the lead in their first two films, was a huge disappointment. It was only with Quatermass And The Pit, that moviegoers were rewarded with an actor who could fill the professor’s shoes as convincingly as André Morell had.
Film is a reductive medium and adaptations can be messy affairs. Turning six, 35-minute TV episodes into one 97-minute film means making compromises. However, Andrew Keir’s wonderful turn as the sensitive and cerebral professor lifts the film beyond B movie banality into classic cinema. Indeed, The Pit arguably benefits from the filmmaking process, with a pared down plot that delivers a tighter and tenser driving narrative than the original. Much of this is due to the skill of the Director, Roy Ward Baker, who knew a good script when he saw it and resisted the urge to tinker. Much is due to the sparing use of sets, and Bernard Robinson’s fine eye for design which added an air of claustrophobic believability. And much is due to the superb choice of supporting cast.
Barbara Shelly, who was one of Hammer’s regular leading ladies, is particularly good, raising the bar beyond the usual glamorous boffin role, to give a compelling performance, especially during the pit ‘possession’ scenes. Julian Glover, as Colonel Breen, manages to be autocratic and narrow-minded without becoming a stereotype. While James Donald creates, in Doctor Roney, a genuine everyman hero. He also manages to bag one of the best lines in the film. When Quatermass asks Roney, “…if we found out our own world was doomed, say by climatic changes, what would we do about it?” To which Roney replies, “Nothing, just go on squabbling like usual.”
Of course with any sci-fi movie, special effects are a hot topic. Hammer were always canny enough to know their limits. The ship and the ape men are well done and, even today, the Martian Hunt sequence stands up. But it’s prime performances, solid storylines and clever camera work which makes this a landmark movie, not SFX. Having said that, Studiocanal’s new digitised DVD/Blu-Ray has added a new element, by bringing the film’s wonderfully lurid visuals back to their former glory. The whole effect is startlingly vivid and goes a long way to explain why the original release had an X Certificate. Today’s Blu-Ray release may only merit a modest 12 rating, but don’t be deceived. The power of this film is its ideas and, while it has spawned a thousand and one blockbuster imitators, few have done it better.
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