Quatermass (1979)

At long last, Nigel Kneale’s final Quatermass serial, starring John Mills, was made available last month on DVD and Blu-ray by Network, gorgeously restored to boot. I now feel vindicated in refusing to buy older copies from Amazon Marketplace at extortionate prices. I’ve come to this finale ten years after watching the original Quatermass serials of the 1950s (which is admittedly less of a gap than people had at the time). What struck me in particular were not simply the parallels with previous Kneale works (to be expected) but similarities I detected with contemporaneous pieces of film and TV which I also viewed relatively recently. Together they give an interesting impression of the culture and ideas at play in British film and TV at the time.

The serial begins with a disastrous live television broadcast, a device familiar from the climax of Quatermass and the Pit in 1959. Kneale had shown an interest with control centres and hubs of activity in earlier efforts too, not least ground control of the British Rocket Group in the first two Quatermass serials, and in the research establishment that forms the focus of The Stone Tape (1972). Once again, he builds excitement from a collective of creative and talented individuals, coming together to advance the cause of human discovery, as events around them grow steadily more terrible.

Before this early sequence, Quatermass is assaulted by a violent gang on the way to the TV studio. This is the first glimpse of the not-too-distant dystopian future in which Kneale’s tale is set, a departure from the paranoid realism of the 1950s serials. There is a more fantastical edge to the satire in this incarnation, with the unstoppable mobs, and apocalyptic urban decay of Quatermass and the Pit’s climax here already established, an accepted way of life. While clearly rooted in the realities of the day, of power cuts, oil crises and social division, this story’s world further advances those concepts, most clearly the decline of the cities and violently clashing youth subcultures. The speculative exaggeration of these elements in fact makes this serial more clearly dated in 2015 than those of the 1950s (this is not necessarily the fault of Kneale’s writing; a number of factors contribute).

Yet this was far from the only piece of film and TV from this era that engaged in such speculative satire. The sense of decline that pervades the serial put me in mind of Lindsay Anderson’s Britannia Hospital (1982), a film which concerns itself primarily with antagonistic groups within British society. Self-interested forces of the establishment are besieged by the snarling masses beyond. Although Quatermass focuses less on corrupt governments than the serials of 1950s (the theme has a presence in the 1979 serial, but feels relatively undercooked this time around), Kneale clearly shares something of Anderson’s pessimism regarding human nature. His unreserved disdain of crowds and the mob mentality resonates not only in Britannia Hospital and Anderson’s O Dreamland! (1953), but is also an echo from the frightening sequences at the close of Quatermass and the Pit, a damning response to the race riots that were erupting at the time.

Another, less prominent aspect of the serial that warrants comparison with a contemporaneous TV drama is its interest in mysticism. Quatermass was broadcast the year following John Mackenzie’s BBC production of Alan Garner’s Red Shift, a programme that displays Garner’s characteristic fascination with history and folklore. Garner’s writing had long concerned itself with this subject, and Kneale himself had also revealed such interests in his early short stories, drawing inspiration from his original home on the Isle of Man. Clare Kapp’s (Barbara Kellerman) archaeological work, and her admiration for a Beaker artefact she unearthed, gives a faint echo of the axe-head that forms the centre of Red Shift’s plot. Kneale only offers a passing comment on this subject though, his story focusing, as always with Quatermass, on rationalist solutions. He acknowledges the romantic side, and the personal importance, of history and mysticism, but the programme is more concerned with the new age movement that bastardises older cultures, in the form of the Planet People. Their blinkered herd mentality consistently proves itself opposed to reason, and it takes inquisitive, scientific minds to discover the true nature of the stone circles they gravitate towards, and to realise the true danger facing the world.

The programme isn’t perfect, and it’s a shame, given Kneale’s skill in crafting compelling sci-fi worlds, that Quatermass’s main flaws are in the environment it presents. There are some misjudged choices of focus, admittedly forced on Kneale by the circumstances of the production: the sequences of episode three in which Quatermass meets an elderly commune are expendable by their nature, designed to be edited out to produce a feature-length theatrical edition for overseas markets. Time is spent here that could be dedicated to the usual meticulous investigation that gives the threats of the previous serials a feeling of total verisimilitude. Instead, the audience is asked to make larger leaps of faith – conclusions are reached ever so slightly more easily than feels credible, and the dystopian world of the story would benefit from greater exploration.

In particular, an explanation of the initial rise of the Planet People would be enormously beneficial to the story. As it is, their culture appears somewhat confused, although this is also a result of the production working against Kneale’s original script. He had originally based them on the punk movement, which would make far more sense of their leader’s sociopathic acts of violence. While the new age/hippy influence the production gives them greater sympathy with the stone circles that form much of the basis of the serial, it also creates a peculiar contrast with the violence and urban degradation that their movement seems supposed to complement by the story’s close. It is the focus on this youth subculture that grounds the programme most detrimentally to the time of its production. The societal decline, while clearly linked to 1970s Britain, is to some extent a universal trope of dystopian fiction, regardless of period.

Yet it is also the Planet People, and their mob mentality, that gives Quatermass its most foreboding moment, as they converge on a stone circle en masse at the close of episode two, endlessly and mindlessly chanting, “Leh, leh, leh…” Cinematically, the moment is a great achievement, ominously building to a devastating climax. As in Quatermass and the Pit, for me Kneale’s great masterpiece, genuine horror comes at the realisation that all human beings can be susceptible to the rule of the crowd. Losing all sense, we can turn blind, savage, and surrender ourselves totally. It is moments like this that surface throughout Kneale’s work, and throughout his final television outing for Professor Quatermass, that show us science fiction at its most terrifying.

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