Over the summer we are repeating this series recalling BBC radio programmes from the 30s, 40s and 50s, when the corporation was a much-loved institution broadcasting material the listeners wanted to hear. This article was first published on June 1, 2019.
SEEN by many as the forerunner of Doctor Who, The Quatermass Experiment was the first original adult science-fiction TV production in Britain.
Preceded by a warning that it was unsuitable for children ‘or those of a nervous disposition’, it told the story of an experimental spaceship with a three-man crew. When it returned to Earth, only one man remained, and he was behaving strangely. This was a task for Professor Bernard Quatermass.
The serial held the early TV audience gripped for six weeks in the summer of 1953, the viewing figures rising to 5million by the end. Only a year earlier the entire viewing public had been estimated at 4million, but since then many people had bought sets for the Queen’s Coronation in June 1953.
The Quatermass Experiment was written by Nigel Kneale (1922-2006) who had won the Somerset Maugham Prize for young authors before joining the BBC in 1951 as one of its first writers for television (despite never having seen any TV). At first he did adaptations and wrote scripts for light entertainment programmes. In 1952 Michael Barry (1910-1988) became head of drama at the BBC and reportedly spent his entire £250 script budget for the year on hiring Kneale to work in his department. At the same time Barry hired the Austrian TV director Rudolph Cartier (1904-1994). Kneale’s first credit came with additional dialogue for a play called Arrow to the Heart adapted by Cartier.
Kneale and Cartier shared the view that BBC TV drama of the time was too theatrical and slow, and their work together revolutionised the genre.
They worked closely on the storyline of The Quatermass Experiment, which Kneale said he wanted to be ‘mystifying rather than horrific’. The scripts ultimately delivered by Kneale were for an imaginative, atmospheric and innovative thriller.
Kneale, who was brought up on the Isle of Man, said he was inspired in choosing the lead character’s unusual surname by the fact that many Manx surnames begin with Q. The specific name was picked from a London telephone directory. The Professor’s first name was chosen in honour of the astronomer Bernard Lovell.
The signature music was Mars, the Bringer of War from Gustav Holst’s Planets Suite, and the incidental and closing music was taken from a piece called Inhumanity written by Trevor Duncan (1924-2005).
Here it is.
(The March from Duncan’s Little Suite was the theme for Dr Finlay’s Casebook, and his High Heels was used with one of the BBC’s test cards.)
The heroic Professor Quatermass was played by Reginald Tate (1896-1955). Tate was born in Garforth, near Leeds. During the First World War he served in the Royal Flying Corps, then became an actor.
In 1939 he joined the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, ending his service in 1944 as a squadron leader. After the end of the war he continued to perform for theatre and increasingly for television. Rudolph Cartier cast him in a BBC production in February 1953, and was so impressed with his performance that he offered him the lead role in The Quatermass Experiment.
The budget for the series was £3,500, which equates to £95,000 today. You would be lucky to get two minutes of TV for that amount these days, let alone three hours. The special effects industry hardly existed so when (SPOILER ALERT) the surviving spaceman mutates into a 100ft vegetable-cum-alien rampaging around London, Kneale pushed his own rubber-gloved hand covered with bits of vegetation through a photograph of Westminster Abbey.
The first episode went out at 8.15pm on Saturday August 18, 1953, and was transmitted live, with a few filmed inserts, from the BBC’s original television studios at Alexandra Palace in north London, one of the final productions before it moved to west London.
The first two episodes were recorded as they were broadcast but the BBC were not happy with the quality, especially since an insect clung to the screen being filmed for much of the second episode, so the rest were not recorded.
Here is Part 1
And Part 2.
A kind person apparently named Max Gowland has summarised the remaining episodes. This is Part 3:
Part 5 – this one has the warning that it is not suitable for children or fainthearts.
And Part 6.
Writing in the Times in 1981, Geoffrey Wansell said:
‘Westminster Abbey undoubtedly dominated television during the summer of 1953 but it was not just the Coronation of the Queen that sticks in my mind now. It is also the memory of Professor Bernard Quatermass grappling with the pulsating giant plant that threatened to destroy the world from its rooting place in the Abbey’s nave. The Quatermass Experiment frightened the life out of a vast new generation of television viewers whose sets had been acquired in order to watch the Coronation. It was one of the first series on British television to make life seem potentially terrifying.’
Hammer Films quickly purchased the rights to make an X-rated adaptation entitled the Quatermass Xperiment. It was released in 1955, starring the American actor Brian Donlevy. Here is the trailer:
Nigel Kneale was unhappy with the result, and was especially displeased with the casting of Donlevy as Quatermass. In an interview he said: ‘He was then really on the skids and didn’t care what he was doing. He took very little interest in the making of the films or in playing the part. It was a case of take the money and run. Or in the case of Mr Donlevy, waddle.’
In the autumn of 1955, the BBC produced a sequel to the first TV series, Quatermass II, dealing (perhaps presciently – it could certainly explain a lot) with alien infiltration at the highest levels of the British government. It was intended specifically to combat the launch of ITV on September 22. The budget was nearly doubled to £7,552 which allowed more location filming. Most of the pre-filmed material was shot on location at the Shell Haven oil refinery in Essex.
As before it was written by Nigel Kneale and directed by Rudolph Cartier. Reginald Tate was again cast as Professor Quatermass, but he died of a heart attack only a couple of weeks before the production was scheduled to begin, at the age of 59. His part was taken over by John Robinson. The six episodes were broadcast live from Lime Grove Studios at 8pm on Saturdays, starting on October 22. This series was recorded in its entirety, and here is perhaps the first box set.
The British television audience had doubled since 1953, and the viewing figures for Quatermass II were accordingly higher, rising to 9million for the last part. A BBC audience research survey found that 90 per cent of respondents had watched at least five episodes.
The third series, Quatermass and the Pit, involved the remains of an alien spacecraft. It was transmitted live from December 1958 to January 1959 on Mondays at 8pm. Again it was a Cartier-Kneale production, the budget was £17,500 and the audience reached 11million. Professor Quatermass was played by André Morell, who had in fact been the first choice for the first series, but he turned it down and Reginald Tate was cast. Many think Morell was the best Quatermass. Sadly there doesn’t seem to be a recording of the full series but here is a clip:
It featured at No 75 in the British Film Institute’s 100 Greatest British TV Programmes compiled in 2000.
Hammer also made films of the second and third series.
In 1979 the character returned to television in an ITV serial, simply titled Quatermass. Like the earlier series, it was written by Nigel Kneale, and starred John Mills. It had been originally conceived by the BBC who commissioned Kneale to write a four-part script for delivery in February 1973. However after some preliminary filming the BBC got cold feet about the project and shelved it.
Kneale felt that the BBC was unhappy with the script, believing it ‘didn’t suit their image at that time; it was too gloomy’. In May 1977, Euston Films, a subsidiary of Thames Television best known for The Sweeney (1975–1978), picked up Kneale’s scripts, which he then re-wrote.
Here is part 3, which starts with a resume of the story so far. I am not sure if the narration is on the original or added for YouTube.
In April 2005, BBC Four broadcast a live remake of the first serial, abridged to a single programme, also entitled The Quatermass Experiment.
Here is a clip, in which fans of Line of Duty will see a young Adrian Dunbar (Superintendent Hastings)
And a second clip, featuring Doctor Who-to-be David Tennant.
Nigel Kneale, by then in his eighties, acted as consultant. A BBC press release quoted him as saying: ‘I am absolutely thrilled that 50 years after I created Professor Quatermass, BBC Four is remaking my programme.’
I salute his achievement – fifty years of making people hide behind the sofa.