Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Quatermass Report - Part One


Before The Invaders and other television series such as The X-Files popularized investigations of alien invasions there was Professor Quatermass, a pioneer in the field of experimental science who often encountered bizarre extraterrestrial happenings in and around London.

Professor Bernard Quatermass, head of the British Experimental Rocket Group, was the brainchild of screenwriter Nigel Kneale. Kneale had won the prestigious Somerset Maugham Award in 1950 for his book, Tomato Cain and Other Stories and had joined the BBC staff of writers shortly after that. The professor's unusual surname was plucked from a London telephone book and his christian name was dubbed in honor of astronomer Bernard Lovell, who in the 1950s was making news experimenting with his telescope at Jodrell Bank observatory. 

Unlike scientists today who rely heavily on computer-generated data, Professor Quatermass did not need any technology to help him in his quest to explore the unknown. A few rubber gloves, a microscope and some crude radar equipment would suffice for him. Afterall, Britain was still recuperating from the destruction and chaos of WWII and it was make-do-and-mend men like Quatermass that were getting the nation firmly back on its feet again. Besides, Quatermass did not fight two-headed green-skinned aliens of mortal substance, but rather had to battle the most maddening of foes: the shifting, shapeless, unknown variety. Cardboard instruments would do quite well for that task.

Quatermass had an unlimited supply of confidence and resilience. He knew his duty lay in saving England from beastly intruders, wherever they came from, and when approached with bureaucratic setbacks he busted through the red tape like a juggernaut. 

Professor Quatermass was introduced to the public on July 18, 1953 in the first of six half-hour BBC episodes collectively entitled The Quatermass Experiment and it was this program that laid the foundation for what would become one of Britain's most memorable sci-fi franchises. 


When The Quatermass Experiment crackled onto teles all across Britain in the summer of 1953, the viewing public, two million Brits to be exact ( in a rough sort of way ), had not seen anything like it before. Television serials were a common programming feature but no show prior to this had been so engrossing and so plum absorbing to watch. At least, for adults. When majority of the sci-fi programming on television in the early 1950s was geared towards little tykes, Quatermass was meaty entertainment for adults. Nigel Kneale cheerfully admitted, "we didn't get the kids". The Quatermass Experiment reached out to the audience to ask the ultimate mind-engaging question, "What if?"....and it gave these viewers an entire week to ponder the answer before they found out what happened.

What exactly was the "if" question all about? An experimental B.E.R.G rocket, manned by three astronauts, crashes in the remote countryside of England after having been broken off orbit some time earlier. There is one surviving crew member. The other two men have been completing annihilated  Nothing remains but the empty suits they once wore....nothing except a gooey blob of sticky substance that is. Professor Quatermass attempts to discover what caused the rocket to break off of orbit and what creature - or alien presence - has entered the ship during flight and destroyed the two men. 

Andre Morrell was originally approached to portray the tired, desperate Professor Quatermass for this television serial but declined the part and so director Rudolph Cartier offered it to Reginald Tate, whom he had previously worked with for the teleplay It is Midnight, Dr. Schweitzer. Tate brought authenticity to the character which compelled audience members to tune in to their sets every Saturday night for the next five weeks to see how the brilliant prof could save mankind from the dreadful state it was in. Tate had had much experience on stage and this was fortuitous since most of television productions were broadcast live. 

Today, only one episode - the first - remains intact since video was a rather expensive film medium and many programs were taped over to cut costs. Although the sets were quite flaky, the lighting bad, and the "scientific procedures" alarmingly simple ( how does one test to see if a rocket's shell has cooled sufficiently? Pat it with your hands )...the story touched on the imagination of its viewers. In fact these primitive production techniques only helped to enhance the feeling of the impending chaos that Britain would find itself in had aliens attacked. 

In 1954, Hammer Film Productions, one of Britain's fledgling film studios, purchased the screen rights to the serial, shrewdly sensing a golden film property. Hammer Productions had yet to gain their reputation as one of the leading horror film factories, but their adaptation of The Quatermass Xperiment would be a key project in helping them reach that status. 

The Quatermass Xperiment, released in the US as The Creeping Unknown became Hammer's highest-grossing film to date and still remains one of the most memorable of the British sci-fi classics. Brian Donlevy starred as Professor Bernard Quatermass and was woefully miscast, portraying the professor more as a ruthless businessman than an inquisitive man of science. 

Most people remember this film because of Jack Warner's striking portrayal of the sole surviving member of the doomed experimental rocket ship. Without speaking one word, he conveyed the anguish he was feeling internally through the blank helpless look on his face. This character, with hardly any makeup, is one of Hammer's most frightening.

The British Board of Censors issued an X certificate for the film upon its release and in order to emphasize this the studio changed the title from The Quatermass Experiment to "X"periment. 

Hammer Productions were anxious to quickly create a sequel to follow-up on the wake of the success of The Quatermass Xperiment, and so they hired Jimmy Sangster to pen another oh-so-mysterioso science fiction tale. They entitled their film X-The Unknown but much to their dismay Kneale refused them the rights to use the name of Quatermass in that production, a decision made in part because of his disappointment with the studio casting Donlevy as Quatermass in the first adaptation. This film, however, did not feature Donlevy, but rather Dean Jagger in the role of the resolute professor. 


The success of The Quatermass Experiment, and the launching of ITV network ( which ended BBC's broadcasting monopoly ) empowered the studio's programmers to develop more competitive programs, and the first thing they undertook was to commission Nigel Kneale to write a sequel to The Quatermass Experiment. 

Inspired by the news reports about the UK Ministry of Defense's secret research establishments and the fears they were creating to the reading public, Kneale devised a story around Quatermass doing top-secret research work for the Defense.

In this next series, originally aired in the autumn of 1955, Quatermass is asked to investigate unusual meteor showers. He discovers that aliens are conspiring to infiltrate mankind, targeting mainly the highest members of British government. 

Quatermass II has the distinction of being the earliest surviving complete British sci-fi television production. Like the original series, it was quite compelling and this time featured John Robinson as the renowned professor. The lead change came about for a very simple reason: Reginald Tate had passed away suddenly, at the age of 58, just one month prior to when filming was scheduled to begin. Robinson did an adequate job filling his shoes but had difficulty in learning some of the technical dialogue and his delivery of the lines has often been criticized. 

Hugh Griffith, the ebullient Welsh actor, portrayed Dr. Leo Pugh, Quatermass' chief assistant. Monica Grey ( as Quatermass' daughter Paula ), John Stone, and Roger Delgado ( Doctor Who ) also starred. 

Hammer Productions once again was anxious to receive the film rights for this second serial, and did so, this time with Kneale joining the staff of screenwriters to ensure that his characterization of Quatermass remained intact. 

Brian Donlevy returned in the role of Quatermass, inspite of Kneale's arguments to the contrary, and Quatermass II ( issued as Quatermass 2 in the states ), released in 1957, was once again a smashing success. The film featured John Longden, Sid James and Brian Forbes in supporting roles. Donlevy's portrayal of Quatermass mellowed a bit this time around but he still managed to succeed in looking frightfully out of place. 

James Bernard, who went to write the wonderfully eerie scores to so many Hammer films, concocted a beautiful medley of percussion and strings for Quatermass II. This was also production designer Bernard Robinson's first picture for Hammer, later he went on to create many of the beautiful sets for the studio's gothic films, such as The Phantom of the Opera and The Gorgon. 

To be continued....


  1. Ah, what a tangled web is the genesis of Quatermass for such a solid legacy.

    1. But wait...there's more! Eight different adaptations featuring the professor have continually added to his depth of character. Yes indeedee, it was quite a ruff and tumble start but Quatermass has evolved into a legendary television figure today.