Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Quatermass Report - Part Two

In our continuing look at the influential Quatermass series of the mid-century we turn the spotlight onto Nigel Kneale's final serial of the 1950s - Quatermass and the Pit, as well as the final episode, simply entitled Quatermass from 1979. Part One is available to read here. 


Andre Morrell, who had been the original choice for the role of Professor Quatermass when Kneale first conceived of the character in 1953, had finally consented to portray the now-famous bow-tied Brit. This third installment, released in 1958, combined the same elements of the previous series - an alien invasion through human takeover and a time-ticking race on Quatermass' part to stop this - but in a new and completely absorbing way. In fact, Quatermass and the Pit is one of the best of the series. 

"The last adventure, which I called Quatermass and the Pit, went way past the concerns of the time and into an ancient and diabolical race memory," said Kneale in an interview in 1996. "It sought to explain man's savagery and intolerance by way of imagines that had been throbbing away in the human brain since it first developed. Racial unrest, violence and purges were certainly with us in the 1950s, and I tried to speculate on where they first came from."

During routine engineering work at Hobbs' End underground station ( "Hob" is a folk name for Satan ), a group of bones and half complete skeletons of ape men are discovered, apparently drastically predating the era that scientists had established for those creatures. Later, an unusual metal container is unearthed. The authorities, led by the unimaginative Colonel Breen ( Julian Glover ), believe it to be an unexploded bomb left over from WW2, but when Professor Quatermass arrives on the scene, he proves otherwise. The contents inside reveal to him a discovery which shatters the accepted theory of Darwin's evolution and offers a dire warning for the future of mankind. 

Kneale ambitiously attempted to rationalize the nature of both supernatural hauntings and human concepts of the devil and, surprisingly, he translated those ideas into a convincing and plausible, if improbable, script. 

Quatermass and the Pit was broadcast in December 1958 and received much acclaim from television critics, with several reviewers praising Morell for having given the definitive portrayal of Professor Quatermass. Cic Linder, Anthony Bushnell, and John Stratton rounded out the great cast. 

As with the previous two serials, Hammer purchased the film rights to these monumental Pit episodes, however, partly due to the declining box-office receipts of Quatermass 2, Kneale's refusal to tolerate a drunken Donlevy once again, and Columbia disinterest in the series ( Hammer had recently struck a distribution deal with Columbia Pictures ), it was not brought to the big screen until February 16, 1968.

Instead, Hammer plunged into another film adaptation of a Kneale teleplay - this time of "The Creature" ( 1955 ), which they retitled The Abominable Snowman

Roy Ward Baker undertook the directorial responsibilities when Quatermass and the Pit was put into production in February 1967. Baker had directed a number of fine films during the 1950s, notably The October Man and A Night to Remember, but several recent failures made him turn to television, directing episodes of such popular crime-fighting series like The Saint and The Avengers. 

Kenneth More was Baker's original choice for the part of Quatermass, but eventually he selected Andrew Keir to replace Morell, who had turned down the chance to play the role again. This was a stroke of good fortune, for Keir brought an excellent steely determination to his characterization of the professor as well as injecting a very human fragility and vulnerability. 

James Donald adds great support to Keir, and Barbara Shelley, one of Hammer's most popular and prolific leading ladies, is excellent as fellow scientist, Barbara Judd. Quatermass and the Pit ( also known as Five Million Years to Earth ) was her final film for the studio. There are a swarm of delectable British character actors to enjoy as well, including Peter Copley, Bryan Marshall and Edwin Richfield.

Hammer's home base, the Associated British Studios in Elstree, Borehamwood did not allow for enough space to film and so the project was relocated to the MGM Borehamwood studios where no other film was being shot at the time, giving the crew - and especially the production designers - ample space to work with, which they utilized in creating the enormous Underground station and excavation settings. 


After Quatermass and the Pit, Hammer approached Kneale about the possibility of writing another script for a film follow-up but that idea never came to fruitation. Instead, Professor Quatermass made his final television appearance in the four-part 1979 Thames Television serial release, simply entitled Quatermass. Alas, it was a serial that should not have been made. In the mid 1960s, Nigel Kneale had written a dreary and depressing tale of the future state of London - and much of the world - where young people have formed violent gangs and attack bystanders without provocation while bands of hippies worship the ancient energies and dance around archaic stone monuments waiting to be transported by aliens into a faraway world. 

Quatermass was not put into production until late 1978, when these peace, love and hate incidents seemed oddly irrelevant.  What's worse, Professor Quatermass is no longer an optimistic man of science, but has warped into a bitter and discouraged old man. He has long been retired, living in retreat in the Scottish Highlands. His sole purpose in coming to London is to search for his missing teenage granddaughter. After a recent space mission goes horribly wrong, right before the public's eyes on live television, a young astronomer ( Simon MacCorkindale ) and Quatermass search to find the answers to this occurrence and other unusual happenings.

The series, and even the 100-minute feature film release The Quatermass Conclusion, progress along cumbersomely and convey a bleak dystopian setting, a far cry from the 1950s post-war Britain of the previous serials.

Whereas Kneale's original series were genre-defining and ground-breaking, this Quatermass lacks energy and quite frankly, fizzles out before it has a chance to begin. Not even John Mills' superb acting ability could inject new life into the character. 


BBC Four attempted to revive Professor Quatermass for the younger generation 
in 2005, when they mounted a remake of the original Quatermass Experiment, this time with a much more youthful Jason Flemyng portraying the now tie-less Professor. More recently, Simon Oakes, the current CEO of Hammer Films has announced plans to dip into the archives and remake several of Hammer's post popular films, including the inimitable Quatermass.

The BBC Quatermass serials of yor did not rely on special effects but rather on interesting characters, good dialogue and an intelligent story, elements seen far too rarely in modern science fiction films, which hopefully will be remedied if a remake is undertaken. 

To this day Nigel Kneale's creation of Quatermass, and the serials that showcased this character, remain one of the BBC's finest achievements and influenced numerous science-fiction series including Doctor Who and Sapphire and Steele. 

Be sure to check out the Quatermass films available on DVD, as well as The Quatermass Film Music Collection. 


  1. Fantastic two-part post on the extraordinary Professor Bernard Quatermass! The best of the bunch, for me, is the Hammer film version of QUATERMASS AND THE PIT. Although the TV version is very good and I'm a big Andre Morell fan, the film works better and Andrew Keir is superb. Thematically, I think it's the most complex of Kneale's Quatermass works. I rather like the QUATERMASS serial (even though the children's song remains in my head several days after viewing). It's not as optimistic as the other films, but I appreciate that and Mills makes a fine other Quatermass.

    1. When I was writing this up, I was surprised to find how many great story plots ( and scripts ) Nigel Kneale had written; one of which - my personal favorite - was "First Men in the Moon". In one way, it would have been nice had Hammer not undertaken any of the Quatermass films until the early 60s, perhaps they would not have chosen Donlevy then. Andrew Keir was an excellent Quatermass. And I agree that John Mills would have been good too, but the storyline just seemed too bogged down with hippies and it lacked the urgent appeal of the previous films. Glad you enjoyed the post, Rick!