Hugely influential, BBC’s 1953 mini-series about an alien virus mutating their hosts was a massive British TV event. Aired live, its sets were clunky and the acting stiff, but the great script and innovative direction overcome the flaws even today. 6/10
The Quatermass Experiment. 1953, UK. Directed by Rudolph Cartier. Written by Nigel Kneale. Starring: Reginald Tate, Isabel Dean, Hugh Kelly, Paul Whitsun-Jones, Duncan Lamont. Produced by Rudolph Cartier. TV series: 1 s, 6 ep. IMDb: 7.4/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.
This is one of my rare TV reviews. Although I tend to stick to films, there is a broader point behind this blog, which is to create an Encyclopedia of sorts of the history of sci-fi films, and in that regard some TV series are simply too influential to be left out. One such as this is the BBC production The Quatermass Experiment, which was really the first TV serial aimed at an adult audience.
The story of The Quatermass Experiment begins in 1952 when former actor and short story writer Nigel Kneale was hired as head of the BBC drama writing department, along with Austrian immigrant director Rudolph ”Rudy” Cartier. Back in those days it was the Americans that were doing all the innovation in TV, spurred on by the fierce competition on the market. In Europe, most countries had a single, often state-owned TV company that sort of could do whatever they pleased, and often simply filled the managerial posts with radio people. This meant much of early European TV was simply radio with pictures, and that was exactly the way Kneale and Cartier felt about the BBC. Especially the drama productions were often little more than filmed stage plays.
Sure, there were restrictions due to the fact that most TV back in the fifties was broadcast live, which ruled out heavy editing, location changes and visual effects, but the duo felt that things could definitely be done better than the BBC were doing them. So when Kneale was called in to write six half-hour episodes of a new series to fill in gaps in the programming, he saw his chance to create something new and innovative, that would push the medium of TV further. Although never a big science fiction fan, Kneale loved horror stories and was fascinated by science, and when you combine these, you almost inevitably get sci-fi. Kneale was also an avid cinema-goer and was especially inspired by what he had seen been done in American films.
For his story, Kneale drew upon two of the most talked-about themes at the time, the nuclear build-up between the East and the West, the talk of long-range nuclear missiles inspired by the German V2 rockets – and the new-found fascination with space. Britain had a large part in the Manhattan project and was themselves experimenting with rockets, and Arthur C. Clarke had recently published a much talked-about paper about the possibility of launching communications satellites (this was still years before Sputnik), so the theme of going into space was just as much on people’s minds in Britain as in the States. He further drew on the bleak atmosphere in Europe after WWII.
From this Kneale concocted a six-part story with cliffhanger endings, much in the style of the American film serials of the forties, more so than American TV, which he hadn’t seen (nor any other TV for that matter), and that was at the time much more episodic in nature. I won’t go into much detail about the plot, since unfortunately only two of the six original episodes have survived. But the gist of it is this: The series opens in a control room where a team led by Professor Bernard Quatermass (Reginald Tate) is trying to establish contact with the first British rocket to orbit Earth. The rocket has gone wide of its planned trajectory and radio contact has been lost. They manage to remotely take partial control of the vehicle, and send it crash-landing in London.
Of the three astronauts, two have mysteriously disappeared, and the one survivor, Victor Carroon (Duncan Lamont) is in a catatonic state and suffers from some strange illness that causes transformations in his physiology. Quatermass, aided by Carroon’s wife Judith (Isabel Dean), the team doctor Gordon Briscoe (John Glen) and engineer John Paterson (Hugh Kelly), slowly concludes that some alien force has entered the rocket and pulverised the two other astronauts. The force has fused the minds and the genetic data of the two others with Carroon, and is now in the process of taking control over the three minds. Soon the bed-ridden Carroon starts to change physically. His skin takes on a leathery character and his arm starts taking on monstrous proportions and soon looks more like some monster-plant than a human arm – and he develops a taste for cactus.
At the same time, Quatermass is in the eye of the public, as both the Scotland Yard inspector Lomax (Ian Collins) and the crack reporter James Fullalove (Paul Whitsun-Jones) are trying to find out what really happened with the Quatermass experimental rocket. Things get ugly when Carroon escapes, and Quatermass analyses his blood, discovering that Carroon has turned into an intelligent alien plant organism. This organism is capable of assimilating and transforming its host, eventually turning all humans into aliens, and that it spreads by spores. Very soon Carroon will have lost all his resemblence to a human being, and then the alien will release its spores, covering most of London. From there, it’s only a matter of time before humanity is extinct.
Aided by the military, the scientists track down the thing to Westminster Abbey, where Quatermass bravely takes it on by himself, pleading with the dormant minds of the three astronauts still trapped inside the enormous monstrous blob that they have become – pleading to their sense of humanity and duty, to fight and force the alien to commit suicide. BUT WILL HE SUCCEED?
The TV serial was fantastic hit, and by the last episode nearly every TV set in England was tuned in to The Quatermass Experiment. It almost eclipsed the ratings of the coronation of the Queen, which took place three months earlier – in Westminster Abbey, no less. The show catapulted Kneale to fame, making him one of the most popular TV writers of his time. It also changed the face of television in Britain, even if it didn’t quite have the international influence that some fans like to think – nobody saw it outside of Britain. And unfortunately no-one outside of Britain ever will, since BBC only recorded the first two episodes. They had initially intended to record all of the episodes in order to sell it, they even had a buyer lined up in Canada. But telerecording techniques were very crude back then, basically a camera recording a screen. It didn’t help that the low-budget show was only allowed to use BBC’s oldest and crudest cameras, rendering an already slightly fuzzy image with vignetting in the corners. But the telerecordings turned out even worse, and were deemed unusable for sale. The last straw was when a fly decided to sit its ass down on the lens of the telerecorder in the second episode, and can be seen walking around happily over the images for several minutes. However, all is not lost. Hammer remade the series as a film, The Quatermass Xperiment in 1955 (review), and the movie remained fairly true to the original plot. In 2005 BBC actually did a 100-minute TV special based on the original scripts, and actually broadcast the whole thing live, just like in 1953.
When viewed today it may be a bit difficult to understand why the series made such an impact. The low budget shows – it was made on 800 pounds per episode, roughly about 16 000 dollars in today’s money – when Disney+ and HBO are dishing out over 10 million dollars per episode for its popular shows. The Quatermass Experiment is hampered by some regular British fifties stiffness and some rather hokey and overplayed bit-parts. And to a modern viewer it moves quite at a snail’s pace – trimming away some of the typical fifties tropes and tightening the pace was no problem for the 2005 remake, and 190 minutes easily turned into 100 without really losing anything of importance, at least if the first two episodes are anything to go by.
But an early 1950s TV audience had never seen anything like it. After seeing stagey melodramas with theatre acting, often with little regard for the visuals or editing, something like this was completely unseen. The story was fresh and new, exciting, spell-binding, scary and perhaps most importantly, intelligent – it raised very contemporary questions of the tensions between the world powers, all the fear-mongering of communist infiltrations and spies, the risks of taking science too far, etc. The theme of an alien threat taking over the minds and bodies of Western citizens was still new – it was yet three years until Invasion of the Body Snatchers (review). Perhaps, though, Kneale had been able to catch It Came from Outer Space (1953, review) or Invaders from Mars (1953, review) in cinemas, films that dealt with the same subject-matter.
But even in the States nothing like this had been done on television. One British film historian praising Kneale pointed out that sci-fi series on American TV consisted of kiddie shows like Captain Video (1950, review) and the likes – although that is only partly true. Very intelligent sicence fiction aimed at an adult audience was made for anthology series like Tales of Tomorrow (1951, review), often going even deeper in their themes of morality and philosophy. But it is true that a story in a serialised form of this kind had not been done on American TV – and would not be done for a few years still to come. The Quatermass Experiment also showed – rather than told – much of was going on. The set in the first episode of the crash site of the rocket is quite impressive, as is of course the setting in the Westminster Abbey – the BBC left the cameras in place after the coronation of the queen. The special effect of the thing taking over the abbey is especially memorable. In fact, it was such a daunting prospect to create it, that the BBC special effects department refused to have anything to do with it. ”You wrote it, you do it”, Kneale later recalled that he had been told. Said and done, Kneale created the effect with his wife Judith Carr by gluing bits and pieces of plant matter to a pair of gloves and placed them in from of a photograph of the interior of Westminster Abbey. Kneale himself put his hands in the gloves and wiggled his fingers, making it look like a massive, undulating blob of alien plant origin was devouring the chapel. He kept the gloves his whole life.
More than anything, though, The Quatermass Experiment had huge impact on horror and science fiction in both TV and film in the UK. It was not, as is often claimed, the first science fiction show on British TV, as Derek Johnston points out. It had been preceded by the show Stranger from Space, which aired for two seasons between 1951 and 1953. However, this was a fairly standard children’s show about a boy befriending a man from Mars, with segments for viewers’ letters, and so forth. On the big screen there had been a few SF movies, like, like Time Flies (1944, review) and The Perfect Woman (1949, review). Hammer had played around with sci-fi a bit in low-budget thrillers and Ealing made the brilliant sci-fi tinged social commentary The Man in the White Suit (1951, review), but it really wasn’t something that studios wanted to invest in. The Quatermass Experiment suddenly showed studios that there was a market for both genres, and that it was possible to make good, intelligent science fiction for adults.
The film rights for The Quatermass Experiment were immediately bought by Hammer, and it didn’t take long before BBC commissioned a second series, Quatermass II (1955). Hammer’s The Quatermass Xperiment was (intentionally) rated R, and became the studio’s first real international success, and prompted it to invest in horror movies. And the rest is history.
Not only ordinary TV viewers were sold on The Quatermass Experiment. The Guardian’s anonymous “Radio Critic”, who apparently also handled TV reviews, wrote after the first episode: “The Quatermass Experiment is certainly an improvement on the trite and perfunctory ‘thrillers’ of which we had a run of before this. […] it is done with every circumstance of suspense and horror and it actually induces a desire to see the next instalment.” After the third or fourth episode he writes; “The Quatermass Experiment becomes more horrifying every Saturday. The announcers often warn parents that programmes are unsuitable for children, and sometimes, one feels, unnecessarily, yet […] this one […] is really frightening. […] Technically, it is really effective.” At The Observer, C.A. Lejeune wrote after the first episode: “The Quatermass Experiment made an impressive start. Will friends and acquaintances please note that I refuse to answer telephone calls during future instalments of this serial?”
For obvious reasons, modern reviews of the serial are rare. It has a 7.2/10 rating on IMDb, based on under 300 clicks. The British Film Institute’s website Screenonline’s critic Gavin Collinson calls The Quatermass Experiment “a strong, fast-paced and intelligent drama”, despite Reginald Tate’s “lacklustre performance in the central role”. George Bass at The Guardian writes: “Quatermass remains a benchmark of teatime sci-fi, a show whose wobbly sets and shouted lines somehow couldn’t spoil some of the most intelligent scares ever to grace the screen”, adding that it “wasn’t just the BBC’s earliest televised sci-fi, it was also one of its richest, giving the audience mystery with a dash of zombie threat”.
In an interesting write-up at the show’s 60th anniversary in 2013, Joe fay wrote in The Register : “It’s easy to watch the first two surviving episodes of The Quatermass Experiment today and smirk at the low-tech sets and incredibly mannered acting. […] Some of us are old enough to remember when much of the British population spoke and acted like that for real. A generation which had been through a harrowing war, seeing and doing terrible things, but declining to talk too much about it. It didn’t mean there wasn’t necessarily real emotion underneath somewhere. […] Together with all the pipe smoke and bad lighting, you can almost smell the slightly cabbagey, make-do-and-mend atmosphere that continued to pervade the UK long after the war. A couple of months before Quatermass, after all, the British had been granted extra egg and sugar rations so they could make cakes to celebrate the coronation. But if some of the backgrounds look seriously flakey and un-sciencey, remember we’d won the Battle of Britain just over ten years earlier with crude radar, a big paper map and some aeroplane cut-outs moved around by long sticks. […] Kneale leaves us feeling that individual decency, as well as a firm grasp of science, is the only thing between us and the darkness outside.”
The idea of an alien ”virus”, so to speak, was not new, and had appeared in literature as early as the 19th century, and the idea of a man turning into a monster was of course an old cliché even in 1953. The idea of one person possessing multiple personalities is almost as old as literature itself, neither is the idea of taking some entity possessing a human being new. But Kneale is able to take all of these old themes and carve something very new and original out of them, that hadn’t been seen in films before, and certainly not on television. Even though one may see it simply as another communist infiltration metaphor, The Quatermass Experiment was one of the first sci-fi films or series to introduce the theme of an astronaut bringing some alien danger with him from outer space, in his own body. Tales of Tomorrow did have an episode on the theme in 1952 called The Red Dust, but those astronauts never made it back to Earth. John Carpenter has admitted to being a great admirer of Kneale, and knowing that it is quite clear why he wanted to do a remake of The Thing from Another World (1951, review), that stuck closer to the original novella Who Goes There, incorporating the shape-shifting, telepathic traits of the monster left out from the original film. The makers of Alien (1979) were most probably also inspired by the claustrophobic atmosphere of The Quatermass Xperiment and the idea of an alien using humans as hosts. And from there, of course, a whole subgenre has spread.
I wouldn’t recommend the two remaining episodes of The Quatermass Experiment as casual viewing, since it is extremely infuriating to watch only the two first episodes and being left high and dry just when things start to get interesting. But for anyone interested in the roots of modern science fiction films, this is a treat, of you can get past the production values and the sometimes stiff acting and leisurely pace.
Nigel Kneale left BBC after his contract ran out in 1957, and immediately adapted the second series into a screenplay for Hammer, becoming Quatermass 2 (1957). 1957 was also the year he wrote the screenplay for The Abominable Snowman for the studio that really hit its stride with The Curse of Frankenstein – also in 1957. Kneale wrote a third series for BBC as a freelancer, Quatermass and the Pit, in 1958, and like tho previous shows it was directed by Cartier. This time he had a markedly bigger budget of one million pounds to make the series, and it is considered by many as the best of the three. Again Kneale wrote a film adaptation for Hammer, but the movie version of Quatermass and the Pit wasn’t released until 1967. Quatermass received a fourth and final series on the commercial channel ITV in 1979, again written by Kneale.
But Kneale and Cartier weren’t quite done shocking the fifties audiences yet. Encouraged by The Quatermass Experiment, they went to work on a two-hour TV film, released within the confines of BBC Sunday-Night Theatre, an adaptation of George Orwell’s Ninenteen Eighty-Four. The BBC received hundreds of complaints from viewers that thought the episode was gruesome and hideous and unfit for TV, and there was even a question filed in the Parliament about it. BBC even considered cancelling the second broadcast of it. But then word came from Buckingham Palace that Queen Elizabeth had watched it, liked it very much, and couldn’t wait for the second broadcast. With that, the matter was settled.
Nigel Kneale specialised in writing horror scripts, well-remembered for penning the six hour-long episodes for the mini-series Beasts (1976), but despite his outspoken dislike for sci-fi, he couldn’t stay away from the genre. He also adapted H.G. Wells’ book into First Men in the Moon (1964), wrote the TV movie The Stone Tapes (1972), probably the first film in which scientists use modern technology and computers to catch a ghost, and wrote the comedy sci-fi TV series Kinvig (1981). Approached by producer John Carpenter, he agreed to write a script for Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982). However, he disliked the re-writes by the director so much that he had his name removed from the film. He was also approached to write scripts for The Twilight Zone and The X-Files, but declined.
Kneale was unhappy with the first film adaptation of Quatermass, in particular because Hammer replaced lead actor Reginald Tate with the slumming American actor Brian Donlevy, who played a more boorish and grumpy Quatermass. The reason for the change was that Hammer was under contract with the American distributor Lippert Pictures, that stated that their films should have an American star in them. To be honest, character actor Reginald Tate doesn’t quite blow me away either, at least based on his performance in the first two episodes of The Quatermass Experiment. He is certainly more nuanced than Donlevy, but adds very little colour to the role.
The rest of the cast is decent, but many have a tendency for hamming and shouting to the last row in a theatre. Rotund character actor Paul Whitsun-Jones as the clever newspaper reporter is one of the best of the lot. Best remember by an international audience for his role as Scarlatti in Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe adaptation The Masque of Red Death (1964), starring Vincent Price, Whitsun-Jones also had supporting roles in Tunes of Glory (1960), with Alec Guinness, and appeared in the beloved 1971 TV adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1971). However, he was also one of the few actors in the series that had a more extensive connection with science fiction. He appeared in the gizmo-MacGuffin film The Diamond (1954) and the third of Hammer’s Jekyll & Hyde adaptation: Dr Jekyll & Sister Hyde (1971), in which Jekyll transforms into a woman. He had two different recurring roles on the TV series Dr. Who in 1966 and 1972, and played multiple roles on The Avengers (1961-1969).
Duncan Lamont had previously appeared in The Man in the White Suit, and later did Dr. Who (1974), and had small guest appearances on other British sci-fi series, as well as appeared in the films The Evil of Frankenstein (1964), Quatermass and the Pit (1967), The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1968) and The Creeping Flesh (1973). Best known of the lot is Katie Johnson, who plays a fussy old lady with a cat. In 1955 she appeared as the dotty old woman with whom a band of bank robbers take lodging in the comedy classic The Ladykillers. Christopher Rhodes, as one of the disappeared scientists (who appears on ”archive footage”) had a starring role in the giant lizard film Gorgo (1961).
The Quatermass Experiment 1953, UK. Directed by Rudolph Cartier. Written by Nigel Kneale. Starring: Reginald Tate, Isabel Dean, Hugh Kelly, Paul Whitsun-Jones, Duncan Lamont, John Glen, Ian Colin, Frank Hawkins, Oliver Johnston, Katie Johnson, Christopher Rhodes, Peter Bathurst, Moray Watson, Philip Vickers, Richard Cuthbert. Settings: Richard R. Greenough, Stewart Marshall. Special effects: Jack Kine, Bernard Wilkie, Nigel Kneale. Senior television engineer: R. McCullough. Produced by Rudolph Cartier for BBC.