Quatermass – Episode One – Ringstone Round

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Following the critical and popular success of Quatermass and the Pit, Nigel Kneale was asked if he would write any more Quatermass stories.  He didn’t rule it out, although he also conceded that the three serials made a satisfying trilogy.  In the mid 1960’s, Irene Shubik asked him to pen a new Quatermass tale for the flagship BBC2 science-fiction anthology series Out of the Unknown.  Kneale declined (although he would write a non-Quatermass story – The Chopper – for the fourth and final series.  But like many of the later episodes, this was sadly wiped).

By the early 1970’s Kneale had begun to draft a fourth Quatermass serial and, like his previous work, it was offered to the BBC.  It didn’t generate a particularly favourable response from them though – and this seems to be a major factor in Kneale deciding to move to ITV (who would produce his later series, such as Beasts and Kinvig).

Euston Films (a subsidiary of Thames Television) were interested in his Quatermass story and in 1979, some twenty years after Quatermass and the Pit, the Professor made his final bow.  During those twenty years both television and society had both changed enormously – and Quatermass reflects this.  It’s by no means perfect (and it’s always been the most polarising of the serials) but there’s enough going on to make it a rewarding watch.

We open on a Britain that’s close to collapse.  The opening narration fills in some of the blanks, but it’s never made clear in the first episode exactly why the world is teetering on the brink.

In that last quarter of the twentieth century, the whole world seemed to sicken.  Civilised institutions, whether old or new, fell.  As if some primal disorder was reasserting itself.  And men asked themselves, why should this be?

Quatermass is on his way to a television studio to take part in a discussion celebrating the link-up in space of the two great powers – America and Russia.  But he has another motive for taking part – his granddaughter has disappeared and he wishes to appeal to the public for information.  He nearly doesn’t make it to the studio though, as he’s waylaid by a group of thugs.

They’re very well-spoken thugs though and this is an interesting wrinkle from Kneale.  Civilisation has collapsed – with vast areas of the country seeming to operate on a feudal basis – and the upper-class muggers demonstrate that all the different classes of society are now existing on the same level.  We later see some very polite graffiti scrawled on a wall (calling for the death of the King) which seems to make the same point.

Quatermass is rescued by Joe Kapp (Simon MacCorkindale).  Like Quatermass, he’s appearing on the show and he’s also a scientist who’s well aware of the Professor and his reputation.  Kapp clearly identifies with him (he later admits as much to his colleagues) and he takes it upon himself to look after the old man.

And this is a very different Quatermass from when we last met him.  His sharp intellect seems to have been blunted by being away from the centre of things for too long (he’s been living in a cottage in the Highlands of Scotland and was therefore unaware just how dangerous the cities had become).  But it’s interesting to see that as the story progresses he gradually recovers much of his authority (once he has a problem to solve).  In this first episode though he’s quite a passive figure – and it’s Kapp who’s the more forceful, driving individual.

Quatermass’ appearance on television certainly causes a stir as he delivers a remarkable tirade.  How much of this was Kneale’s own thoughts I wonder?  “What we’re looking at there is a wedding.  A symbolic wedding between a corrupt democracy and a monstrous tyranny.  Two super-powers, full of diseases.  Political diseases, economic diseases, social diseases.  And their infections are too strong for us, the smaller countries.  When we catch them, we die.  We’re dying now.  And they mock us with that thing?  Well their diseases are in there too.  It’ll come to nothing.  Sooner than they think.”

Minutes later. the link-up ends in tragedy and all the astronauts are killed.  The Americans naturally want to know how Quatermass knew this was going to happen.  He maintains he didn’t, it was just his feeling – but it’s clear that he’s going to be hounded, so he gladly escapes to the country with Kapp.  There he meets Kapp’s wife Clare (Barbara Kellerman), their children, and the three people who help Kapp with the work at his observatory – Tommy Roach (Bruce Purchase), Frank Chen (David Yip) and Alison Thorpe (Brenda Fricker).

The second part of the episode resolves around the Planet People.  You can view them as new-age travellers (although when Kneale first wrote the scripts back in the early seventies, it was clear that they were meant to resemble hippies).  Kneale himself regarded their appearance in 1979 as somewhat anachronistic and thought they should have been dressed as punks – although their mystical utterances would have seemed rather out of place had this been the case.

The Planet People regard Quatermass with disgust – bad enough that he’s a scientist but he worked with rockets (which is even worse).   Quatermass is interested in them and tries to understand their beliefs.  They tell him that they will be saved and transported to another planet.  This enrages Kapp who attempts to make them see the folly of this.  He doesn’t succeed and a large number of Planet People converge on Ringstone Round (like Stonehenge, it’s a fashionable place for those with new-age beliefs).

What Quatermass, Kapp and Clare observe at Ringstone Round fills them with horror.  A beam of light obliterates almost all of the Planet People.  It’s certainly an arresting image which showed that Kneale still knew how to craft a good cliff-hanger.

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Quatermass – Episode Two – Lovely Lightning

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The first half of Lovely Lightning is something of an exercise in mood and atmosphere – it”s certainly far removed from the dialogue-driven Quatermass serials of the 1950’s.  In the aftermath of the tragedy at Ringstone Round, Quatermass, Kapp and Clare find a survivor – Isabel (Annabelle Lanyon).

The three of them try to take her to safety, but the Planet People, headed by Kickalong (Ralph Arliss), are keen to prevent them.  It’s fair to say that a little of the Planet People does go a long way – but unfortunately there’s quite of a lot of them in this episode.  Arliss isn’t presented with much of a character, but he does his best with what he’s been given.  The problem is that the repetitive dialogue and actions of the Planet People ensure that they’re not the most interesting or engaging of characters.

En-masse though, even though they appear to espouse non-violence, there’s something sinister and threatening about them.  This is reinforced later on, when Kickalong leads an attack on a man barricaded in his home.  The Planet People initially seem just to want food, but that doesn’t appear to be Kickalong’s motive – he’s happy to fill the unseen man full of bullets and move on.

We get our first indication in this episode that the Planet People aren’t necessarily acting on their own initiative.  Alison (Brenda Fricker) leaves to join them – and it’s clear that she had no choice.  Later Quatermass muses on what they already know.  “Immense power, approaching through decades.  Decades to us, a few seconds in some inconceivable timescale.  The most vulnerable of human organisms, always the most recently formed – the youngest.”

So has some alien entity been able to manipulate a whole generation of people for their own ends?  This would partly explain why society has fractured – although if the problem is as widespread as it appears to be it’s difficult to believe that the connection hasn’t been made before.

It’s not just the young who are affected though, as Clare also starts to act oddly – after nursing the stricken Isabel.  Barbara Kellerman has some tricky moments in this episode (as Clare begins to fall to pieces).  Another actress with some challenging scenes is Margaret Tyzack as the District Commissioner Annie Morgan.  She’s initially presented as a cheery figure, who then collapses once she sees Isabel, and then recovers again.  The reason for these wild mood swings isn’t clear – logically it would be because she knew Isabel, but this doesn’t seem to be the case.

The Americans have got back in touch with Quatermass and they now need his help.  The massacre at Ringstone Round wasn’t an isolated incident (something similar happened in Brazil with thousands of young people).  Quatermass and Annie head for London, taking Isabel with them.  The Professor argues that as she’s the only survivor, she’s an invaluable witness.  The sort of tests he’ll run on her aren’t made clear, but there’s a strong inference that it won’t be pleasant.  Quatermass is firm though – in order to save more lives it’s possible that sacrifices will have to be made.  This is a key scene – as we see an assured, confident Quatermass.  As he leaves, one of Kapp’s daughters states that the old man doesn’t seem so old any more.

Kapp leaves Clare and the children behind as he visits Ringstone Round again.  When he returns, the house is deserted and it shows signs of an alien attack.  And with Quatermass and Annie facing danger on the streets on London, this gives us two strong hooks to lead into the third episode, What Lies Beneath.

Quatermass – Episode Three – What Lies Beneath

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Seperated from Annie and Isabel, an injured Quatermass finds help from an unexpected quarter ….

If the first two episodes concentrated on the young (the Planet People) then the first half of What Lies Beneath redresses the balance as Quatermass finds refuge with a group of senior citizens, led by Edna (Gretchen Franklin) and Jack (Larry Noble).  With society in tatters, they’ve had to scratch out a living below ground.  They’re mostly a rather sad collection of characters, although Franklin (later to become a regular on Eastenders) is good value.

Quatermass attempts to explain what he believes is happening – although what concerns them most is why the young should be saved and transported to another planet.  Why not them?  Of course, Quatermass doesn’t believe they were “saved” and later on he’ll reveal his theories ….

This part of the episode is nicely lit – as the underground location provides some interesting shadows.  But when a group of soldiers (guided by Annie) rescue him, it’s possible to wonder whether the whole section was simply a case of running on the spot (as the plot seems to have advanced very little).  We’ll have to wait until the final episode to see if there’s any pay-off for the characters introduced here.

Isabel is dead – Annie and the doctors watched, helpless to intervene, as she levitated from her hospital bed and then disintegrated.  It’s quite an arresting moment and although the effect was low-tech, it was still effective.

A common theme of the Quatermass serials was how the Professor was unable to convince the authorities that the danger was real.  Here, that’s not the case (at least temporarily) and the second half of What Lies Beneath sees Quatermass work with the remnants of the British government.

First, he and the army take over the sole remaining television station – British Television.  The logo is rather similar to one used by the BBC and it’s possible that Kneale was taking something of a swipe at his old employers.  With the country in desperate straights, BTV’s most popular programme is a bizarre soft-porn show called Tit-Umpity-Bumpity,  When the rather camp director (Tudor Davies) is firmly told that the studio is needed for a slightly more important purpose he gives way, although with very ill-grace.  “It’s the only show that anybody watches anymore.  Don’t they realise?”

The television land-lines allow Quatermass to link up with the Rusians and Americans and he propounds his latest theory.  Areas such as Ringstone Round were visited during their creation by the aliens, who somehow implanted triggers (possibly deep underground).  When the time was right (as now) the signal would be activated and the young would be irrestably drawn there.

The Americans want to send a spaceship to intercept a mysterious object in space, but Quatermass tells them it’s not a good idea.  “The ripe crop can’t appeal to the reaper.  I think this is the gathering time.  The human race is being harvested.”  This is a familiar Kneale trope.  Alien intelligences in the Quatermass stories are never corporeal or articulate.  Instead, it’s up to Quatermass and others to suggest what their motives are – based on the available evidence.

Next, he meets with the Prime Minster (the always impressive Kevin Stoney in a rather small role, sadly) and David Hatherley (David Ashford).  Ashford’s probably best known (to me anyway) for his many appearances as Charles Lotterby in Crown Court.  The news that thousands of Planet People are moving towards Wembley Stadium concerns Quatermass, although Hatherley (who’s heard the Professor’s theory that the young are taken from sites with a spiritual or magical nature) is sceptical that it’s going to happen at Wembley.  Although Quatermass does remind him of the sacred turf!

As for Joe Kapp, he spends the episode walking around in a daze – viewing the devastation of his home and hearing the voices of his children in his head.  There’s a dreamy (or nightmarish) quality about these scenes and it’s interesting that by this point in the story the position of Quatermass and Kapp has totally reversed.  At the start, Quatermass was barely functioning whilst Kapp was in command.  But the loss of his family has rendered him bereft.

Annie and Quatermass observe the growing clamour at Wembley.  The plot makes another swift gear-change as the soldiers and Hatherley turn on the pair of them – shooting at the Land-rover they’re sitting in.  More converts to the Planet People maybe?  Annie is hurt, possibly dead, so it looks as if Quatermass is on his own once more.

Quatermass – Episode Four – An Endangered Species

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John Mills is impressively good at the start of An Endangered Species. Quatermass awakes in the bowels of Wembley Stadium to find that everybody has been taken (some seventy thousand people in the stadium itself, as well as Annie). As before, all that remains of them is an ashy substance. He staggers out into the daylight and is met by a group of guards, led by Brian Croucher.

This gives us an interesting contrast between two totally different styles of acting. Croucher is emotive, whilst Mills is steadfast and self-contained. John Mills, of course, had enjoyed plenty of practice in keeping a stiff upper lip in countless British war films – and that rather comes to the fore here. But I think he made the right acting choice. When faced with such a tragedy, the temptation is (like Croucher) to go overboard, but Mills was wise (and experienced) enough to know that less is more.

As we approach the end of the serial, it’s probably time to look at some of the themes contained within and ponder what Kneale was attempting to say. As he got older, Nigel Kneale gained the reputation of a grumpy old man and it’s fair to say that Quatermass reflects this.

It’s probable to assume that he spent the 1960’s not entirely in tune with the love and peace attitude of the flower power generation. All of the world’s ills (as seen in this serial) are laid at the feet of the young – this is explicitly stated by the older characters. The young (as depicted by the Planet People) are shown to be largely mindless sheep. This wasn’t the first time that Kneale had played on this theme (for example, the last episode of Quatermass and the Pit sees the majority of London under the thrall of the Martian influence).

But it’s more pronounced here and there’s no doubt that Kneale relished the idea of the older generation saving the day. “The theme I was trying to get to was the old redressing the balance with the young, saving the young.  Which I thought a nice, paradoxical, ironic idea after the youth-oriented 60s.”

Whatever the aliens are looking for, it seems to be contained within the young (although this doesn’t explain why Annie was taken from Wembley) and this means the older generation are largely immune. This leads to the incongruous sight of a group of white-haired scientists and soldiers toiling away to find a solution to the problem.

So we have a fairly clear picture that young = bad and old = good. There’s also the familiar theme that science = good and superstition/religion = bad. The conflict between science and religion is highlighted when Kickalong and his followers find Kapp alone in his observatory. Kapp still clings to the idea that he can contact the alien and transmit some sort of message.  After destroying all of his equipment, Kickalong offers Kapp the chance to join them. It seems that for a moment he’ll agree – but he manages at the last moment to resist.

Kickalong’s motivations have sometimes been difficult to understand and that’s the case in the following scene. We’ve already seen that he’s trigger happy, but he makes no attempt to kill Kapp – instead he leads his followers away. But he does kill one of them, Sal (Toyah Willcox), when she tells him that she wants to stay with Kapp. And it’s a brutal murder – he machine-guns her in the back.

After largely sitting out the third episode, Simon MacCorkindale has more to do in the final episode. And it’s he and Quatermass who man the invention that will stop the alien in its tracks. Quatermass has deduced that it somehow picks up a certain scent when a large group of young people are gathered together.  So (along with his octogenarian colleagues) he designs a device that will produce a scent which gives the impression that a million people are gathered together. And once the alien arrives, a small nuclear device should be enough to stop it. Of course, anybody in the immediate area will also die.

Those wondering if the plot-thread about Quatermass’ grand-daughter would be resolved will find that answered right at the end. She’s one of the Planet People (led by Kickalong) who descend on Quatermass and Kapp, just as they’re about to hit the trigger. There then follows a slow-motion sequence as the Professor and his grand-daughter are reunited and together they press the button which destroys them and the alien. Mills does his best here, but it is a slightly iffy scene – and the tinkling piano soundtrack doesn’t help.

The crisis is over. And with the destruction of the alien, somehow the whole world manages to right itself. This does imply that not only did the alien have the power to take millions of people from the surface of the Earth, it was also able to directly or indirectly influence every living creature. That’s something of a stretch – and the happy ending, after such a bleak, nihilistic tale, is a little jarring.

So where does Quatermass sit amongst Kneale’s works? At the time it received a generally lukewarm reception, with the Daily Telegraph calling the Professor “unheroic and unresourceful” whilst the Times found the production to be “so-so”. Kneale himself was later to register dissatisfaction with virtually every aspect of the production, from his own script to the performances of the main cast (including Mills and MacCorkindale).

Although it was Euston Films’ most expensive production to date (costing £1.25 million) it does look a little cheap in places (particularly the model-filming). Producer Ted Childs would highlight budget problems as well as the down-beat script as the serial’s main drawbacks. “The primary problems with it were (a) it was perhaps too depressing a story for a popular television audience and (b) the punters were used to a fairly high standard of technical presentation from American television… And we just couldn’t afford that.”

The fact that it remained rather unloved for many years is possibly the reason why it’s had a small upswing in popularity recently – as some people seem keen to champion it as an unheralded classic. It’s no classic, but it’s certainly worth a watch. Mills is unshowy but solid as Quatermass and MacCorkindale is more than decent.

But it’s probably true to say that if it hadn’t been a Quatermass story then it wouldn’t enjoy the reasonable profile it currently has.  Indeed, if Kneale hadn’t written it then it may have been largely forgotten today. However, it’s an efficiently made post-apocalyptic yarn that would have looked quite impressive in the late 1970’s (when the majority of British drama was still shot as a VT/Film mix).

The three Quatermass serials from the 1950’s do cast incredibly long shadows and therefore any fourth installment would have had a very hard job in equaling or surpassing their reputations. But if you ignore what came before, then Quatermass is well worth your time. Hopefully in the future it will receive the release it deserves (a BD containing both the four-part serial and The Quatermass Conclusion movie edit would be more than welcome).

Quatermass (John Mills 1979) – Network BD/DVD Review

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After rewatching Euston Films’ 1979 production of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass a few months ago I mused that it would be nice if Network were able to acquire the rights and release a restored version on BD.  And just to prove that wishes do sometimes come true, Quatermass will be released by Network on BD and DVD on the 27th of July 2015.  It’s especially welcome since the previous release, long since deleted, was only available on DVD and the picture quality left more than a little to be desired.

Quatermass was an unusual project for British television at the time, due to the fact it was filmed on 35mm.  Filmed programmes were becoming more common, but by the late 1970’s they tended to be shot on 16mm.  Because Euston wanted to recut the series for theatrical release in the US, it was obviously decided that it was worth investing the extra money to shoot on 35mm stock and that’s very good news.  Network have already released several impressive BDs sourced from 16mm material (The Professionals, The Sweeney, Robin of Sherwood) but since this was a 35mm series the resulting PQ will be even better.

Network were able to access the original film elements (the ClearVision release was only sourced from a 16mm print).  It’s interesting to compare screen caps from the ClearVision DVD against the Network BD.  Greg Bakun’s From The Archive blog has a number of examples and looking at the caps, the colours on the Network BD seem to be very muted compared to the ClearVision DVD.

Having watched the BD in motion I’m now more reassured – it is a less vibrant grade but it suits the nature of the story.  Quatermass was a bleak, post-apocalyptic tale so it shouldn’t really look bright and summery (and it’s probable that the ClearVision DVD was over-saturated anyway).  Colours on the BD look natural, which is the most important thing.

I’ve already written quite extensively on the programme starting here, so we’ll move on to look at the special features.  The key one is the 100 minute movie edit, The Quatermass Conclusion.  This basically cuts the running time in half (most of episode three is excised, for example) and it also includes some alternative footage and music.  It’s displayed in what I assume was the original theatrical ratio of 1:78:1 and it’s therefore interesting to compare some of the same shots against the 1:33:1 framing of the television series.  Possibly Network could have released the series in 1:78:1 as well, but since they’re sticklers to keeping to the original A/R it’s no surprise they didn’t (and it’s the right call, in my opinion).

The Quatermass Conclusion obviously loses some detail and character development, but on its own terms it works very effectively.  It’s certainly a very different proposition from the “movie edits” of series such as UFO, which bolted several unconnected episodes together and attempted to paper over the cracks with new incidental music.

Textless titles, (mute) episode recaps and a mute trailer for The Quatermass Conclusion are inessential, but nice to have anyway.  The image gallery runs to 2:51 and contains a varied selection of on-set photographs as well as some behind the scenes pictures.  Music only tracks across all four episodes are a very welcome extra as is the thirty-six page booklet of production notes by Andrew Pixley.  As might be expected, Pixley has been able to unearth a wealth of fascinating production detail.

The bleak tone of Quatermass might not be to everybody’s tastes but I’m glad that it’s finally back in circulation (and with such good picture quality) so that people can experience it for themselves.  A few more special features (commentaries, documentaries) would have been welcome but it’s still a very decent package at a good price (especially when ordered direct from Network) and is warmly recommended.