The Stone Tape (1972)

December 1972 saw the return of Nigel Kneale’s writing to the BBC. After 1968’s eerily prescient The Year of the Sex Olympics (long overdue a re-release) we see Kneale returning to familiar ground with The Stone Tape, a science-fiction ghost story. Thanks in part to its oddly comforting VT-bound nature, and in particular to a script of similar quality, it feels, looking back, a closer bedfellow to Kneale’s 1950s BBC Quatermass serials than that character’s lavish but rather messy revival in 1979 for Euston Films.

We join a group of scientists researching to develop a new recording medium in an aging house, revealed to be hosting a ghostly presence from a dead past. As with other works by Kneale, the tone is set by folklore and ancient gossip from ordinary people who live near the site of the haunting. Chats with pub landlords and delving into church records give us enough anecdotal evidence to brace ourselves for a scare. Then, as before, Kneale leads us into his modern treatment of the ghost story. In the mid-20th century, the rational sceptics who’d before have populated M. R. James stories now have the technology at their disposal to put their own ideas to the test, and explain away the superstitions of the past.

But in spite of its similar responses to the patterns of a ghost story, The Stone Tape’s world is very different to that of Quatermass, namely in the modern Britain is depicts. In its characters, the play shows off much of what’s now disdained about the culture of that era: open racism, rampant sexism, and even more rampant shirts. (I was amused to note that Jill’s (Jane Asher) relationships with the male characters around her correspond pretty much directly to those of Dr Liz Asher in Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace.) Ignorance in 1950s drama was politer; never did it manifest itself so boorishly. Yet this also allows Kneale to craft more interesting personal dramas than before, developing, isolating and attacking his creation’s flaws quite savagely.

The advance of technology helps The Stone Tape find its own place in the pantheon of Kneale’s output as well. Modern drives for technological improvement provide the premise for the entire story, and offer an explanation for the phenomenon of hauntings: the room where the apparitions appear functions as a recorder, preserving an imprint of past events that individuals of the right sensitivity can perceive. It’s an idea not previously considered with much weight, thanks to the lack of vocabulary to articulate it, which only comes when we have developed similar technology ourselves.

Understanding of such phenomena in these modern terms also presents new narrative opportunities. Attempting to crack the problem, Peter (Michael Bryant) inadvertently wipes a layer of data from the ‘tape’. Only then does it become clear that that imprint could itself have been recorded over earlier traumas – and that new recordings can still be made. These distorted older spectres emerge at a sinister climax, brought to life with the economy with which programmes of the era continue to impress. (Special mention must be given to Desmond Briscoe and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, whose sparse, bleakly dissonant sound design never fails to unsettle.)

The stone tape becomes an unending trap for those who find it – either for those caught in its impressions upon their death, or for those left behind, witnessing friends experiencing their final movements in perpetuity. As in the more traditional ghost stories the rational sceptic is left with no comfort, his views shaken. That is, if we take Peter to be the rational figurehead of the piece, which may be ill-advised. Jill is just as curious about the ghost, which she has discovered, and is equally keen to understand, even to help it. Peter is increasingly obsessive as the play proceeds, and his disturbance of the site helps bring about the destructive climax endemic to plenty of ghosts stories. But this isn’t a result of his curiosity – he’s under financial pressure from his bosses, and the threat of competition from other men.

In this way, The Stone Tape provides not just an interesting adjustment of the archetypal characters of classic ghost stories, but also a strong attack on the chauvinism of its time. Peter’s boorish behaviour is the most destructive force in the programme – he pushes his team to breaking point, largely composed, incidentally, of more reasonable and ultimately more fragile men. That they end up coming across as more sympathetic than Peter when they’ve spent most of the play thus far laughing about ‘the Japs’ is no mean feat. Peter bullies his team for the sake of competing with other men, and he similarly casts Jill aside both personally and professionally – as he had previously done with others for her sake. It’s this mistreatment that all adds up to contribute to the climactic danger Jill finds herself in at the play’s close.

We’re left, then, with an inversion of the endings we often saw in the 1950s Quatermass serials. These are soberly hopeful affairs, where knowledge and human ambition work side by side and are vindicated as such. In The Stone Tape, they pitted against one another, with the disastrous consequences that Professor Quatermass is normally able to prevent. Here, we have the kind of dire ending we might have had if the problems of Quatermass and the Pit had been left purely for the military to handle. Knowledge is shunned, the man we thought might have been our rational pilot shows himself up as a bore, and he is left isolated, with no hope of ever finding a solution to the calamity he has enabled.


Ghostwatch (1992)

Twenty-four Hallowe’ens ago, BBC1 broadcast Ghostwatch to a minor furore. Ostensibly a live documentary presented by Michael Parkinson, it examines a supposed haunting in suburban North London, only for the poltergeist at work to use the broadcast as a nationwide séance, terrorising a family and seeking manifestation. The drama follows the narrative path of the climax of Quatermass and the Pit (1958-59), as a live TV broadcast, and the gaze of the masses upon paranormal events, inadvertently causes catastrophe.

Ghostwatch was billed explicitly as a drama, with a cast list, writers’ credit and an ident revealing it to be part of the BBC’s Screen One strand – all within the opening titles. Coming to it fresh today, it’s sometimes hard to see it as a 1990s answer to Orson Welles’ The War of the Worlds (1938). For one thing, we can only watch it retrospectively, not as a live event, but also we now live in an age when viewers are more regularly alerted to the vocabulary of TV programmes and genres. (We live in a post-Screenwipe age, is perhaps what I’m suggesting.) If we’re familiar with the grammar of live TV, the nature of its mistakes, the occasional bouts of dead air, then the artifice of Ghostwatch becomes easier to spot. Yet for its flaws by today’s standards, the programme still has the capacity to spook nearly a quarter of a century on.

Unsurprisingly, the strongest and most convincing performances come from those cast members who work primarily as presenters. Watching it, I found some of the ‘civilians’ of the piece to give too refined a performance – knowing, affected, not rough enough around the edges. It wouldn’t be an issue if we were watching a programme working on the vocabulary of a fictional drama, but Ghostwatch’s script is designed to follow that of live television, inarticulate warts and all. When an ordinary person articulates themselves so clearly, so apparently effortlessly, we sense preparation. The frisson of live television dies a little.

I wondered at times whether the studio segments of the programme might have benefitted from an audience – not necessarily a vocal one, but one that might energise the performances within the studio, helping the programme escalate to its climax. Regardless, Michael Parkinson steers the programme very effectively, always maintaining the right tone. Special mention too should go to Craig Charles, sidelined towards the end, but displaying a very clear understanding out on location of just what kind of performance, and what kind of energy, the programme needs to succeed.

Technically as well, Ghostwatch seems just a little too competent for its own good early on. Even now, we tune in to live TV almost hoping for a few cock-ups here and there. As audiences, we quite enjoy disasters like One Direction’s appearance on Doctor Who Live: The Afterparty. Glitches like those, including those far less laughable, are part of the joy of a live broadcast – they remind us that what we’re watching genuinely is unfolding before our eyes.  When they’re absent altogether, we start to suspect we’re seeing something altogether safer: exactly what a programme like Ghostwatch doesn’t need.

Yet glitches in the production, if not always in the performances, are often incorporated by design – there is awareness behind the scenes of the need for imperfection. In the rush of the moment, cameras aren’t always well-placed to capture what the programme needs to see. Possible sightings of the ghostly presence, ‘Pipes’, are often just beyond our view, while much of the climax is shrouded in darkness or viewed on infra-red cameras. Increasingly hysterical sounds– often the screams of innumerable terrified cats – are heard from unseen sources. Deeply troubling stories of the house and its previous occupant are recounted piecemeal by old neighbours. We can’t know the full nature of what we’re dealing with. Kept just out of sight, the thrill of the ghost is in the chase, not the capture.

Thanks to the cultural shift brought in by catch-up TV, and our distance from the programme now, elements don’t always spook us as they might have in 1992. The shadow of Pipes is glimpsed in the daughters’ bedroom in North London. Separate versions of the same footage are used in sequence, designed to trick viewers watching live into thinking their own imagination could be at play. At the time, unable to go back and review, that would have stirred the imagination in just the right way. It stirs ours too, but perhaps now only when we can bring ourselves to view the programme as a drama.

Yet fabricated technical imperfections do bring a sense of immediate menace later on. Best of all is when ‘Pipes’ again becomes visible in the bedroom as the camera briefly pans around the room during a poltergeist incident. Suddenly the camera stops, spins back – nothing there now. At once, we’ve just been given a POV shot, and we’re involved in the unfolding events – the cameraman agrees with us. Something is very wrong. Here, at least, we all feel some of the urgent worry that crossed the minds of any viewers taken in in 1992.

While it’s easier now for Ghostwatch to spook us if we look back on it as a fiction, we can still therefore grasp at the fear it provoked in some viewers when its attempts at illusion paid off. Unable to look back on this live programme, they were left at the mercy of its makers to reassure them, only for the makers to prove increasingly incapable of doing so. As glimpses and partial encounters build up within the house, and members of its cast and crew find themselves in extreme danger, the programme reaches a pitch of hysteria. Thanks in no small part to the fact that everything is hinted to us, nothing made explicit.

Its final scene offers no real resolution. The studio is left in darkness, Parkinson wandering aimlessly, the camera out of focus, abandoned by its operator. Nothing is sure of those left in the haunted house, or of those in the studio, or even of the viewers at home, party to this unwitting séance. We’re abandoned in the unknown by the ‘live’ disaster, and without the safety of predetermined narrative structure, we’re left shivering before the potential, unknowable aftermaths. Its blistering ending shows that Ghostwatch knew where its strengths lay all along.


Children of the Stones (1977)

In January and February 1977, Children of the Stones was broadcast and imprinted itself on the minds of countless young viewers. Decades on, Stewart Lee has professed his love of the series on more than one occasion, and it continues to enrapture new viewers, myself included. Matthew (Peter Demin) and his father Adam (Gareth Thomas) move to Milbury (Avebury, Wiltshire) for the sake of Adam’s astronomical research. Something amiss is in the village. Its inhabitants are not behaving normally. The mysterious Mr Hendrick (Iain Cuthbertson) is putting a sinister plan into operation. And magic and science collide as frightening powers lurk around an ancient stone circle. Intelligent, evocative and unsettling, Children of the Stones is everything a children’s fantasy should be.

It is not possible to overstate how vital Sidney Sager’s music is to the success of the programme. Watch the opening titles above. A choir leads, discordant vocal slides offering no comfort, no certainty. Indecipherable lyrics bubble up ferociously, burst into a cry, die away. An eerie resolution comes – a false, folk docility masking the frightening pagan forces stirring within the village. There’s something very Wicker Man about all this. And the music is bound to location by the economy of the title sequence. More and more static shots of the standing stones of Avebury, as the music grows in intensity – perhaps the stones are singing to us. It feels bold in its simplicity, and it makes you pine for something so straightforward and stark in fantasy series now. Oh, for the bare confidence of a limited budget’s pragmatic necessity.

For all the simplicity of the titles, the programme as a whole is very sophisticated. As echoed by later classic The Demon Headmaster (another show about children who don’t fit in), the first sign something’s amiss comes in a school lesson. Some of the children know inexplicably more than someone of their age. This isn’t to denigrate intelligence. Matthew is very able at equations and is incredibly helpful with his father’s research. But the children in this school are machine-like in their efficiency, their lack of humour, of individuality. The children watching at home can perceive it easily: there are worse things than not conforming.

A common trait in some children’s fantasy is that our young protagonists, ignored by stubborn, unimaginative grown-ups, have to confront a problem alone. I like that Children of the Stones is one of those exceptions where parents trust and battle alongside their children, as well as having their own distinct lives. Matthew and Sandra’s (Katherine Levy) respective parents Adam and Margaret (Veronica Strong) have conversations and scenes to themselves. Scenes that help advance the plot. And they tell jokes to each – jokes that are funny!

This shouldn’t feel as refreshing as it does. That the adults in a children’s drama are not purely secondary characters, defined by their children’s adventures, but are intelligent individual agents of the story in their own right. They trust and help their children, and ask for their trust and help in return. It’s a very mature view of adults presented by a series that expects children will know and understand their customs and intentions. It’s clear in the copious amounts of whiskey we see being drunk over seven half-hours, and in the fact that Matthew almost immediately trusts Dai (Freddie Jones), a dishevelled man who up to this point has only been seen spying on him with a telescope. Very 20th century.

In one sense, anyway, Children of the Stones a more mature approach to adults than normal. It’s similarly remarkable in the sophistication of the ideas it puts to children. It owes a lot to Nigel Kneale’s seminal Quatermass and the Pit, where an ancient threat of apparently supernatural origin is ultimately understood and defeated by scientific application. The stone circle, and the enormous flat stone at its foundation are revealed to constitute an ancient transmitter – broadcasting the mental energy of its pagan cult of followers within the village.

They gather en masse, forming the unearthly choir we hear over the opening titles, at one of the programme’s various disturbing cliffhangers. It calls to mind Kneale’s 1979 Quatermass serial, written before but made after Children of the Stones. That, more specifically, also finds a science-fiction explanation (and a very sinister one, at that) for stone circles. New-age and hippy movements, and a renewed fascination with British folklore, pervade much of the science-fiction of this era. Like the deceitfully soothing music, the brainwashed villagers’ sinister Morris dance could be something out of The Wicker Man – and actually is something out of the joint-best Doctor Who story of 1971. Jon Pertwee extravaganza The Dæmons buries an ancient alien menace within the supernatural too, and, like Children of the Stones, shows us a villain’s plan spiral out of control, with disastrous consequences for himself and his acolytes.

Where Children of the Stones diverges from these near-contemporaries is in perhaps its most sophisticated aspect, namely how it considers the concept of time. It plays a vital part in the resolution of the series, but like another great example of the genre, Alan Garner’s Red Shift (part of the BBC’s Play for Today strand in 1983, a far cry from children’s TV), Jeremy Burnham and Trevor Ray’s script gives very little exposition to clarify proceedings. All the protagonists are caught up within events, and we have to piece together for ourselves the exact nature of the story’s ending.

Time would seem to reverse at a climactic point and release our heroes, but when they meet characters again in this renewed pocket of existence, some of whom we’ve seen meet a terrible end, we cannot tell to what extent they are the same people they were before. Are they on a new path or not? We have a hint in the final scene that events are doomed to repeat themselves, and so perhaps these people we’ve grown to like are trapped in this perpetual cycle. While the series to some extent offers a resolution to the puzzle of its plot, it does not offer the same luxury to the story of its characters. Its ending is deeply ambiguous, melancholic, refusing to provide the relief we crave from this disturbing chain of events.

Here, most of all, Children of the Stones displays a bravery, maturity and sophistication that I suspect, in this more responsible age of television, might not enjoy quite the same freedom to flourish. It remains, therefore, one of the most refreshingly challenging pieces of children’s television our country has produced, and one of the finest examples of the genre we have.


The Quatermass Xperiment (1955)

In 1953, The Quatermass Experiment became Britain’s first landmark TV drama, drawing in massive audiences across the country. It was broadcast live, and copies were only made of the first two episodes – the other four were lost from the moment of transmission. On 2nd April 2005, BBC Four staged a live remake so gripping that it killed the Pope, but until then, all that existed to fill the void was Hammer’s film adaptation, released only two years after the original. The move to the big screen has plenty of benefits, plus a fair few shortcomings, but it’s fascinating to see what elements are emphasised to suit different audiences.

In Hammer’s first significant attempt at horror, those elements of the story are pushed further than the BBC serial’s forensic scientific investigation (the approach many would argue had made Quatermass what it was, and certainly influenced future generations of science-fiction). Director Val Guest is concerned most with the alien menace’s impact on the real world, as is clear from the new emphasis placed on the public in the beginning. Where Rudolph Cartier grounded us in Quatermass’s work with the British Rocket Group from the off, Val Guest takes us first to the site of a catastrophic rocket crash, surrounded by a crowd of spectators and flummoxed emergency services. Quatermass (Brian Donlevy) isn’t introduced for some time – the situation confronting the wider world comes first.

This allows for a certain level of symmetry perhaps lacking in the BBC version, with one public crisis at its leading to a new one at its close, when mutated surviving astronaut Victor Carroon (Richard Wordsworth) escapes into London and wreaks havoc. It’s worth noting that, while characters and relationships are sacrificed from Nigel Kneale’s original script (more on that below), one element that Hammer keeps and foregrounds is the menace’s contact with members of the public. From elderly vagrant Rosie’s (Thora Hird) realisation that for once she hasn’t hallucinated a monster to the film’s echo of James Whale’s Frankenstein (1930) when Carroon encounters an innocent child (a young Jane Asher), the threat posed to the real world is paramount. Crucially, the mutating Carroon’s interruption of a live TV broadcast brings the menace tantalisingly close to mass attention – a motif that recurs throughout Kneale’s Quatermass work.

Added to this, the higher production values of the film bring an exciting new scale to proceedings (admittedly, it’s not entirely fair to compare it to a programme it’s largely impossible to watch). The rocket crash feels a much larger event than it does in the surviving first TV episode, while the climax of the piece in Westminster Abbey is suitably evocative and gripping. Best of all is the excellent visual storytelling on display when Quatermass et al view the silent film from aboard the rocket of its astronauts’ inexplicable deaths. It’s handled with economy, but what glimpses we have of the men walking in zero-gravity (pre-dating 2001: A Space Odyssey by thirteen years) and collapsing amidst disorienting visual effects are enough to impress and unsettle, respectively.

Carroon’s transformation is similarly chilling at points, and due credit must go to Richard Wordsworth, whose stillness and quiet intensity make plain his fear and agony. His mutation, brought about by the astronauts’ encounter with an alien presence, also marks a clear difference in the film’s approach to the horrific element at the heart of the story. Less interested in the psychological unease of the TV version, the film focuses on the physical aspects, in particular when Carroon escapes from hospital. Cue shock reveals of his deformed hand and shots of his victims’ degraded bodies. This isn’t to say that the TV serial didn’t provide such terror – but that over six half-hours, this could be better tempered by the growing suspense unravelling the mystery of Carroon’s condition, and his comrades’ terrible fate. It’s also perhaps telling that the monstrous creature threatening our world is here defeated by a massive surge of electricity, not the TV version’s intellectual and emotional appeal from Professor Quatermass.

It’s fair to say, in this regard, that the film suffers largely in the shortcuts it makes, unnecessary on TV. Not only is the principal threat defeated by more conventional means on the big screen, but the characters seen here are less imaginatively drawn, not least Quatermass himself. For one thing, the change of climax robs him of his biggest moment in the story (though his steely devotion to his work in the final scene is well done and gives him an interesting further dimension). The TV Quatermass, though, is often more impotent than we see here – never is he at the mercy of a misguided authority figure in the film, and we worry precious little that he won’t solve the mystery. Perhaps the character’s less powerful TV persona could be seen as peculiarly British, not so well served by the brasher, Americanised portrayal of Brian Donlevy.

Elsewhere, time constraints allow for little of the exploration afforded to supporting characters in the original. Carroon’s wife Judith (Margia Dean), on TV a scientist assisting Quatermass, wracked by guilt for her extra-marital affair, is not only reduced to merely a doting wife, but is also unforgivably naïve in arranging for her husband to be smuggled out of hospital to care for him at home, when it’s amazingly striking just how unwell and unlike himself he is. Removing the sub-plot of her affair allows for greater focus on the horror of Carroon’s transformation, but it seems a shame to have fudged this more interesting character arc when the 2005 remake shows how an abridged version of the serial can accommodate it perfectly well.

In spite of this, The Quatermass Xperiment is a worthy entry into the canon – it is, after all, the earliest Quatermass story to survive in its entirety (released months before the BBC’s Quatermass II). Regardless of its shortcomings of character, it’s enjoyably tense, keeps some of the original’s maturity, and demonstrates how well bigger budgets and a grander scale can serve Nigel Kneale’s original ideas. Perhaps the competition from Hammer’s big screen versions gave the BBC the encouragement it needed to go the extra mile when, three years later, it produced one of British television’s great masterpieces in Quatermass and the Pit.

Quatermass Xperiment

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.


Nineteen Eighty-Four (1954)

After bidding farewell to Sheffield, my home of five years, and the magnificent Showroom cinema last week, I was glad to have visited another safe haven for cinephiles a few days ago. Travelling through London, I had a few hours spare, so paid a visit to the BFI’s Southbank complex, and its Mediatheque. For the uninitiated, the Mediatheque is an online film and TV archive with viewing portals at various locations – Cambridge’s Central Library and the National Media Museum in Bradford are two I’ve used. A treasure trove awaits visitors, from episodes of Blue Peter and early silent footage of London to Lindsay Anderson’s striking 1979 production of Alan Bennett’s The Old Crowd, decried as a travesty at the time by fools.

Also available is the BBC’s 1954 adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four, written and directed by Quatermass visionaries Nigel Kneale and Rudolph Cartier. I first learned of this landmark, and highly controversial, production from The Kneale Tapes documentary on the BBC’s Quatermass release ten years ago. I yearned to see it, but thanks to copyright issues with an attempted DVD release in 2004, this seemed unlikely. I was fortunate to discover it was available on the Mediatheque in 2011 in Cambridge, and found it surpassed every high expectation I had built up over six years. Re-watching this week did nothing to dampen my opinion of it as one of the BBC’s greatest achievements in its long history.

Big Brother

Having studied British documentary between my two viewings of the adaptation, I was more aware this time around of that movement’s influence on the piece’s aesthetic (and Cartier’s blending of it with more fantastical visual elements). Perhaps a key to this, and what makes this first visual adaptation so significant, is that it’s only five years younger than the book itself. Culturally, we don’t tend to think of the chronology of classic books in tandem with classic TV because the latter medium is such a comparatively recent innovation. Any television rendering of a book must always be far, far younger than its source material, surely? Not so here.

Much of the prevailing culture of austere post-war Britain is on show, from the sternly measured performances to the bleak industrial landscapes seen as the workers end their shifts. The subjects of documentaries such as Humphrey Jennings’s Listen to Britain (1941) or Ralph Keene’s Under Night Streets (1958) are portrayed as one whole, but any sense of patriotic unity in this treatment is perverted by Cartier to betray the total absence of autonomy. The line between these two states of being is shown to be wafer-thin, and while matte paintings of the futuristic cityscape lend Orwell’s dystopia the comforting distance of allegory, the parallels with contemporary documentary keep it grounded nonetheless in our own world.

At its heart though, Nineteen Eighty-Four’s true strength is one of any great drama, as had been seen on stage for centuries before and has been seen on television for decades after, from I, Claudius to The West Wing: masterfully crafted language treated with eloquence and sympathy by a cast of supremely skilled speakers. Artistry and precision abound in both writing and delivery and the two creative forces serve each other to leave audiences spellbound, no more so than in Kneale and Cartier’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

This is a superlative cast, even down to child performers Keith Davis and Pamela Grant. The masterful Peter Cushing excels as Winston Smith, offsetting his handsome severity with an enticing frailty, not least when reliving his childhood trauma. Yvonne Mitchell as Julia, meanwhile, seems at first irritatingly plucky – pluckiness, of course, constituting the early-mid twentieth century’s precursor to feistiness – in her initial mockery of the Party. Yet this soon wears away, and Mitchell gradually reveals Julia’s desires and vulnerability. In her final devastating scene, broken in spirit and body, the edge of naivety to Julia’s rebellious intent is revealed to have been an affected performance, given to the character by Mitchell, a true artist.

For stirring vocal performance, as well, special mention must be given to both André Morell and Donald Pleasance. Morell’s soft, authoritative tones are always a welcome sound to my ears, and he is perfect as the enigmatic figure of O’Brien, only five years before he would go on to work with Kneale and Cartier again as the definitive Professor Quatermass. Here he serves Orwell’s prose (treated with the utmost care by Kneale) beautifully, and so too does Pleasance, who delivers the performance I remembered best from my first viewing of the programme. As his character of Syme discusses with obsessive fascination his work in the formation of newspeak, I feel genuinely drawn into his mentality, sharing his fanaticism ever so briefly.

Such powerful performances, working to match dialogue that has itself been crafted to match them, constitute one of the great examples offered by Nineteen Eighty-Four. This is all a great drama truly needs to succeed and to last. Yet the play was so very nearly lost to the ether that it feels a miracle that we have a record of it, for this was the era of live television. When the first performance of the play, on Sunday 12th December 1954, was broadcast, no recording was made. Perhaps the controversy around this broadcast helped to ensure that, once it was permitted to go ahead, the second performance the following Thursday was recorded for posterity. Although only the second of two screenings, this would become the definitive version. A strange time indeed. For me, though, this merely exemplifies how blessed we are to have even one copy to enjoy. It remains a supreme example of the BBC’s output, at once inspiring and terrifying. Informative, educational and entertaining.

Nineteen Eighty-Four BFI

The BFI were planning a DVD release of the play, at long last, as part of their sci-fi season last year, but this has unfortunately frozen in time, perhaps dogged by the copyright issues that affected the previous attempt. Especially disheartening when, as I understand, a good deal of hard work had already gone into treating the programme with the high respect it deserves. Perhaps when Nineteen Eighty-Four comes into the public domain in 2021, another release can finally be achieved. Until then, we can at least view (for free, too) in some form. I urge you to visit your nearest Mediatheque.