Introducing Doctor Who’s Grandfather: Quatermass

Great name-dropper that I am…

I was chatting to Mike Tucker at the last Bedford Who Charity Con. In our wide-ranging and erudite conversation, I mused with him as to whether or not Doctor Who really counts as science fiction. ‘No,’ he said. ‘It’s horror.’

Mike hit the nail on the head. Doctor Who’s unique among genre shows because of its enormous debt to horror – and it probably also explains why I don’t generally like science fiction per se (apart from selected bits of Star Trek, and Babylon 5). Science fiction doesn’t necessarily set out to frighten in the way that Doctor Who does (or should) and although it would be silly to deny that Who has sci-fi overtones, it’s much closer to horror in its tone than it is to Trek and its ilk. The supernatural is replaced by the natural, and fantasy threats are replaced by extra-terrestrial ones… but its essence is horrific and that’s why it’s different from other science fiction series. (And why I don’t like Star Wars either… but that’s enough of that!)

So, when Philip asked me to contribute to this week’s theme, I was a bit at sea for a while. I thought of writing something about two series that acted as the methadone for DW fans during the programme’s wilderness years: Buffy and the excellent Babylon 5.

And then it hit me. Of course: Quatermass.

Quatermass titles Nigel Kneale

Like Doctor Who, Quatermass is a superb blend of horror and science-fiction. Unlike Doctor Who, it was made exclusively for an adult audience; it’s therefore much darker, and it’s therefore not just more frightening, but genuinely disturbing too.

Quatermass exists in a number of forms: the three original television series from the 1950s (each one was called, in fact, ‘A play for television in six parts’), the books, the films, the revival TV series from the 1970s, the radio series, and the BBC3 live broadcast of the remake of the first series. Professor Bernard Quatermass himself – author Nigel Kneale found the surname in the London telephone directory – has been played by almost as many actors as the Doctor: Reginald Tate, John Robinson, and Andre Morell in the originals; Brian Donlevy and Andrew Kier on film (Kier revived the role on radio); Sir John Mills in the ’70s revival; and Jason Felmyng on BBC4.

Just as the definitive Doctor is Patrick Troughton, the definitive Quatermass is Andre Morell. (That last statement should set the comments board ablaze!) Morrell was offered the part for the first series in 1953 but turned it down; the role instead went to Reginald Tate (and very good he is, too). Tate died just before production started on Quatermass II and John Robinson was hurriedly cast as a replacement. Of the three original interpretations, Robinson’s is the weakest; he’s rather too plummy and woe-begone to give the Professor the necessary gravitas.

I’m getting a bit ahead of myself here. Time for some background.

Quatermass and the Pit 1960 Nigel Kneale

Nigel Kneale was a Manxman, born in 1922, and one of the best writers the BBC ever had. He was married to Judith Kerr, author the Mog books (alas, The Forgetful Cat does not feature in the Professor’s adventures). Kneale teamed up with Hungarian-born producer Rudolph Cartier; in the 1950s, the role of producer and director were combined, so Cartier is credited as ‘Producer’ on the roll calls for the three Quatermass series. As you know, the mix of location filming with electronic footage from the studio was standard for drama in the ’60s through to the ’80s; what you may not know is that the inventor of this was Cartier. In the ’50s, there was a major difference, though: videotape was not available to the BBC and studio drama had to be transmitted live, with the pre-filmed stuff played in at the appropriate points. Live drama put tremendous pressure on the actors and production team, though British actors in those days had enormous theatre experience and that saw them through: after all, a half-hour television drama was essentially a one-act theatre play with cameras pointing at it.

(Cartier and Kneale also collaborated on a superb production of 1984, starring Peter Cushing as Winston Smith. It was so successful that the BBC scheduled a repeat for the following week. As there was no videotaped copy, the cast simply had to do the whole thing again. It was this second performance that was telerecorded and which survives to this day. Telerecording was the only way of preserving broadcasts in the 1950s: an adapted film camera was pointed at a flat monitor and it filmed the results. There was some fall-out in picture quality; hence telerecordings look creakier than the original transmission would have been. The live broadcast of 1984 meant that the rats – who attack Winston in Room 101 – became sleepy and sluggish under the hot studio lights, and therefore were about as menacing as comatose gerbils. Incidentally, three Doctors have played Winston Smith: Cushing on television, and Patrick Troughton and Christopher Eccleston on radio. The Troughton version is available on YouTube – Troughton’s first class, as always – and we’ve got the Kneale-Cartier-Cushing version below. Andre Morell features, too, as Winston’s nemesis O’Brien.)

Back to the black-and-white Professor. Who was this dude?

Professor Bernard Quatermass is a scientist in his fifties; he’s the founder of the British Rocket Group, a civilian outfit purely interested in research (though the military try to take it over in the third play). He is rugged, decent, thoroughly English, given to wearing bow ties and tweed suits; he has a titanic intellect but he wears his learning lightly; he’s a generous, compassionate and thoroughly humane man for whom morality is more important than science – or the pretensions of the British Empire. Like his author, he is an atheist, though one who is sympathetic to religion: again in the third play, he is very much on the side of the rather dim-witted vicar who thinks London is facing attack from demoniac powers: Yes, says Quatermass, we are up against something that is genuinely as evil as the devil and all his angels; I only disagree with you as to its origins. (I paraphrase.)

As there actually only a few Quatermass stories, but many different versions of them, here’s a short summary for you:

The Quatermass Experiment: BBC TV, 1953.

The Quatermass Xperiment

Three British astronauts go on an exploratory space mission; the rocket only returns one of them. We later discover that he is an amalgam of all three plus something else – something very, very nasty.

Reginald Tate plays the Professor (and he’s damn good). The story was – allegedly! – liberally ripped off for The Seeds of Doom. It was videoed on appallingly primitive pre-war cameras at Alexandra Palace, which black out every time the vision mixer cuts to another shot. This led to telerecordings being tried and abandoned (the results were felt to be just not good enough); the serial is incomplete in the archives.

Remade as The Quatermass Xperiment (sic – the ‘X’ is for ‘X certificate, which is hahaha very clever isn’t it) by Hammer. Brain Donlevy, an American former wrestler, was appallingly miscast as Quatermass. Kneale commented: ‘The thing still comes up from time to time and I hate it. They turned my troubled Professor into a bawling bully.’

And it was remade again in 2005 for BBC4 and transmitted live, as the original was. Jason Flemyng stars and while he does his best, he’s not really right for the role: he’s nothing like the 1950s versions. Able support is provided by Mark Gatiss and some bloke called David Tennant.

Quatermass II: BBC TV, 1955.

Note the two year gap between the series.

Quatermass II 2 Nigel Kneale

Meteorites land on Earth, each containing parts of a gestalt alien intelligence. Quatermass discovers the earliest landed a few years ago; a huge complex has been built in the south of England, with a central dome to house the growing intelligence; the area is patrolled by guards with machine guns, which they don’t hesitate to use on the locals. The monster was an early triumph for BBC visual effects: it was actually a hand in a rubber glove writhing in a bowl of soup and shot at very high speed (and amazingly, it’s very convincing). Roger Delgado plays a journalist who’s infected by the contents of one of the meteors.

Quatermass is played by John Robinson. Tate’s death meant this was an emergency casting and Robinson’s the weakest of the three original portrayals: a bit too plummy and wooden. He’s not bad, though.

The whole story exists as a telerecording.

Remade as a film by Hammer with hammy Donlevy again, utterly miscast. Robinson may have been not quite right but Donlevy is utterly wrong.

Hugely influential on Doctor Who. The meteors housing bits of an alien was pinched wholesale by Robert Holmes for Spearhead from Space.

Quatermass and the Pit: BBC TV, 1958-1959.

A three year gap, this time.

Quatermass and the Pit Nigel Kneale

Absolutely, totally, and utterly superb. A brilliant story, consummately well acted, extremely frightening and the best of the three. This is the one to see if you’re unfamiliar with the Professor’s adventures. Despite the studio work’s being live, it is almost flawlessly presented. The monsters are things of hideous beauty and the story leaves you reeling at the scope of Kneale’s imagination. This emptied the pubs when it was first shown.

Unexploded bombs from the Second World War were still a hazard in the late ’50s. Workers on a building site dig up a human skull and then, as they go deeper, they find what appears to be the shell of a German bomb. But it’s too big – and it turns out to be ceramic, not metal. Quatermass is called in and the thing is excavated: it’s clearly a spaceship. And inside, they find more human skulls – impossible, as the depth of the burial show the ship has been there for five million years, far longer than homo sapiens have been around.

In the meantime, local people have been scared witless by visions of horned demons running through their homes. Quatermass discovers written records from the area; they reveal such appearances have been happening for many hundreds of years. Further, the interior of the ship has a sealed compartment, marked by a pentagram, which seems impossible to open at first. But when Quatermass and his team eventually penetrate it, they find the long-dead bodies of three alien pilots, and it’s clear they must have brought the humans with them to Earth…

Andre Morell stars as the definitive Quatermass and there are not enough superlatives to describe his performance or the brilliance of the series. Again, it heavily influenced Doctor Who, with echoes of the story in The Daemons, Image of the Fendahl, and others. Quatermass’s nemesis is the cold and thoroughly stupid Colonel Breen, who leads the military takeover of the British Rocket Group. Their double-act is similar to that of the Doctor and the Brigadier, though Breen (superbly and icily played by Anthony Bushell) is far nastier than the Brig, who he would have regarded as a namby-pamby left winger with pacifist sympathies.

Remade much later, again by Hammer and this time in colour, in 1967 with Andrew Kier (Wyler in the second Dalek film) in the lead, and Julian Glover as Breen. It’s good, too, unlike its Hammer predecessors – but if you compare it to the original, it’s a very pale imitation. Kier’s very good (though Morell’s much better). Worth seeing, but only after you’ve seen the original.

The second two BBC series were released on DVD as The Quatermass Collection, together with the surviving footage from the first story. You can get the box set for less than a tenner on Amazon and it’ll be the best tenner you’ve ever spent. They weren’t novelised, but they were issued as scripts by Penguin in the late ’50s and then again by Arrow in the ’70s. They’re gripping reads and still available on eBay and Amazon, though the first editions are pricier than the reissues.

Two postscripts to the originals:

Quatermass John Mills

Quatermass (also sometimes called The Quatermass Conclusion) was a 1979 ITV series, entirely made on film and starring John Mills as the now elderly Professor. Mills is excellent and his characterisation is similar to Morell’s. The executive producer was Verity Lambert. It’s good but (and you’ll be sick of me saying this) not as good as the originals. Again, easily available on DVD. The novelisation by Kneale is just called Quatermass and is worth reading.

The Quatermass Memoirs (BBC Radio, 1996). Andrew Kier reprised the role.

So, there we are. The three TV series are arguably – and this is a heresy, I know – even better than Doctor Who. I guarantee that anyone who likes Who will be gobsmacked by them. However, it’s not really fair to make the comparison: the format for Quatermass is far less flexible than that of Doctor Who and it couldn’t have been sustained for long. Kneale was approached to write for Who by David Whitaker, refused, and grumbled about the programme for a long time afterwards, muttering that it was a stupid idea and they’d ripped off all his stuff anyway.

If you’re new to Quatermass, the choice of where to start is a bit bewildering. Not quite as bewildering as nu-Who fans trying to decide where to start with classic-Who, but you may feel a little at sea nonetheless.

My advice? Watch the TV version of Quatermass and the Pit first.

Just don’t do it with the lights off. And don’t do it late at night, either.

Because it will scare the living shit out of you.