The Sunday Post: Nigel Kneale
Pioneering television writer Nigel Kneale, on the set of Quatermass II in 1955 (though you could probably have guessed that)
Although there is perhaps far more drama written for television than any other medium, it’s still unusual for the writers to be household names. One writer who comes closest to that status is Nigel Kneale, who made his reputation in the 1950s with the Quatermass serials and his adaptation of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and had a fifty year career in the medium.
Born in Barrow-in-Furness in 1922 of Manx parentage, Kneale’s family soon moved back to the Isle of Man. A sickly child, Kneale soon immersed himself in a world of fiction. Not physically fit enough to fight in the Second World War, he studied law, and later went to RADA and worked for a time as an actor.
He began writing short stories, winning the Somerset Maugham award. His publisher wanted him to follow up with a novel, but Kneale drifted into broadcasting, giving readings of some of his stories on the BBC Northern Home Service in Manchester. Moving to London, he was contracted by the BBC to write for television. Kneale had to turn his hand to anything, including children’s programmes. His main work however was drama, which at that time – the early 1950s – was almost all adapted stage plays and novels.
One early task was writing additional dialogue for Arrow to the Heart, produced by Austrian émigré Rudolph Cartier. Cartier had worked at the great German film studio UFA in the 1930s, but fled the country with the rise of the Nazis. He ended up in Britain, becoming a producer in the BBC television service in 1952.
In 1953 Kneale found himself with a new and more exciting task, to fill a six-week gap in the summer schedules on Saturday evenings. Rather than just another classic serial, Kneale came up with an original idea about a British space rocket going wrong, and the horrific consequences.
Contact is lost with the astronauts, and on the rocket’s return to Earth, two of them have vanished. It transpires that an alien organism has infiltrated the ship, and the sole survivor, Victor Carroon, is now an amalgam of it and his colleagues. He transforms into a monster which is finally cornered at Westminster Abbey.
Donald Pleasence and Peter Cushing in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1954). The picture used for Big Brother was of Rox Oxley, head of the BBC Design Department
Kneale was unhappy with his original title, Bring Something Back… After settling on Bernard Quatermass as the name of the scientist hero, the production became known as The Quatermass Experiment.
Rudolph Cartier had been assigned to produce, and he and Kneale stretched resources to the limit, making the most of the facilities at Alexandra Palace, whose cameras dated back to 1936. The BBC had no special effects department yet, so Kneale created and operated the monster himself.
One other technical novelty they hoped to use was telerecording, or filming the live shows from a TV screen, the only way of preserving a show before the advent of videotape. Though it had been in use since 1947, results were still unreliable. The Quatermass Experiment recordings were done with a view to a sale to Canada – but the results were deemed too poor, so recording was cancelled after the first two episodes – but they are now some of the earliest existing television dramas.
The serial was an immediate hit with the television audience, newly increased after the Coronation of the Queen a month before saw people rushing to buy sets. People weren’t used to such scary images, and The Quatermass Experiment became compulsive viewing.
Riding high, Kneale and Cartier’s next project (after a version of Wuthering Heights) was the dystopian classic Nineteen Eighty-Four. George Orwell’s last novel, it was written in 1948 (the title inverting the last two digits) when he was already suffering from the tuberculosis that killed him two years later.
The hero, Winston Smith, living under constant surveillance by Telescreen, rebels by falling in love with a woman called Julia. Knowing they are doomed, they are caught, tortured, and brainwashed back to allegiance to the dictator Big Brother. Winston works for the Ministry of Truth, for which Orwell was inspired by his wartime work for the BBC, then overseen by the Ministry of Information.
The BBC at first planned an adaptation on the Third Programme, before deciding to present Nineteen Eighty-Four on television. Cartier rejected an existing script by Hugh Falkus, and Kneale came up with a workable adaptation – in fact a brilliant script, matched by performances from Peter Cushing as Winston, Yvonne Mitchell as Julia, and Andre Morell as O’Brien, the representative of the oppressive state.
The live production went out on 12 December 1954 in the usual Sunday play slot, and caused a sensation. The doom-laden tone of the piece was compounded by sequences of Winston’s torture, when he is taken to Room 101 and confronted by his greatest fear – rats. The scene, where Winston tells his tormentor to set the rats on Julia, was easily the most harrowing thing seen on television at that time.
In fact, questions were asked in Parliament, and there was some doubt whether the scheduled Thursday repeat would go out. In the end it did, prefaced by an introduction and warning by Head of Television Drama, Michael Barry. This is the version that survives as a telerecording – Equity at the time would only allow a recording of the second performance of a play, to ensure actors were paid in full for both performances.
Professor Bernard Quatermass of the British Rocket Group, played by the excellent Andre Morell in Quatermass and the Pit (he's the one on the right)
Kneale’s next work, in January 1955, was The Creature, again starring Peter Cushing. This told of an expedition in the Himalayas that encounters the Abominable Snowman. Later in the year, partly in response to the BBC trying to up its game with the start of ITV in September, came a sequel to The Quatermass Experiment, entitled Quatermass II, possibly the first ever sequel to use a number after the title - though in this case it refers to another rocket.
This time the menace faced by Professor Quatermass was already on Earth, the result of meteorites which infected people with a parasitical organism. Again, there were memorably horrific scenes, with one episode prefaced by a warning that the programme was not suitable for children or those of a nervous disposition.
In 1956 and 1957 Kneale only had two BBC credits, a remake of Arrow to the Heart, and a new play, Mrs. Wickens in the Fall. Having become a freelance, Kneale had more connection with the film version of his second Quatermass story, having had none officially on the first film. Kneale returned with his third Quatermass story for television at the end of 1958, and it was the best of the three in many people’s opinion.
Quatermass and the Pit gave another twist to the alien invasion theme. Instead of the aliens newly arriving, or having been here for a year, it imagined Martians having come to Earth in ancient times and altering early humanity for their own ends. Excavations on a bombsite unearth a space capsule, and revive psychic powers which have lain dormant in some humans.
This time Quatermass was played by Andre Morell, who had turned down the role in 1953. The original Quatermass had been Reginald Tate, who died suddenly before Quatermass II, and was replaced by John Robinson.
Production techniques were now more sophisticated, with better cameras and plentiful pre-filming. The effect on viewers was as powerful as the earlier outings for the Professor, perhaps more so, and it is among Kneale’s best work. However, it was the last time he worked with Rudolph Cartier.
Kneale did less work for the BBC in the 60s, concentrating more on films, though few of his screenplays were made – a common occurrence in the movie world. He did however contribute several notable one-off television plays. The Road (1963) concerned an 18th Century scientific investigation of a haunted wood. Unearthly noises turn out to emanate from a rip in time, caused by a 20th Century nuclear holocaust.
Vickery Turner in The Year of the Sex Olympics, whose provocative title prompted Mary Whitehouse to complain even before it was recorded
He was not involved in the 1965 remake of Nineteen Eighty-Four, part of a BBC2 George Orwell season, although it reused his script. With the cancellation of the serial The Big, Big Giggle about a teenage suicide cult, his next BBC work was 1968’s The Year of the Sex Olympics.
This play imagines a future where most of humanity are unthinking drones, who have their appetites sated through television. One of the ruling caste becomes dissatisfied, and takes his wife and child to live on an island, where a psychopath is also on the loose. The resulting events are shown on live television, in a concept that anticipates Big Brother (which of course got its title from Nineteen Eighty-Four!) The production made full use of colour - it was Kneale's first colour television work, for the Theatre 625 strand on BBC2 - with deliberately garish sets, costumes and make-up. An outstanding cast included Leonard Rossiter and a young Brian Cox.
Kneale wrote two editions of The Wednesday Play, in 1969 and 1970. Bam! Pow! Zapp! was about the violent tendencies Kneale saw in young people, and how one of them faces up to the consequences. In Wine of India, a future society guarantees a long and healthy life for citizens, until your time is finally up…
1971 saw Kneale contribute to the final series of the science fiction/fantasy anthology series Out of the Unknown. He had declined an offer to write for it in the mid-60s, but now that ghost stories were more in vogue, he wrote The Chopper, about a haunted motorbike…
Bernard Lodge's 'computer generated' titles for The Stone Tape, and Jane Asher, who before appearing in the play had been in the film of The Quatermass Experiment (among other things)
Kneale’s final major work for the BBC came on Christmas Day 1972. The Stone Tape seemed almost an extension of the horror series Dead of Night transmitted shortly before (with the same production team). It was set in a stately home where a team of electronics experts are looking into new recording media. They discover the building is haunted – which leads to the hypothesis that ghosts are a kind of recording - which they investigate, with horrifying consequences...
After one last anthology piece for a series called Bedtime Stories, Kneale concentrated on work for ITV. He wrote the quirky horror series Beasts, and a final Quatermass serial.
Quatermass and the Pit had been made into a film in 1967, but a mooted sequel was never made. The BBC contemplated resurrecting Quatermass to replace Doctor Who at the end of the 60s, and later commissioned Kneale for a new one-off serial, which was also cancelled. Kneale's scripts for this were finally produced by Euston Films, the film-making offshoot of Thames Television. However, with various delays – not least ITV going on strike in the summer of 1979 – the reception was muted, despite Kneale killing off Quatermass at the end.
A later rumoured Quatermass Experiment film never got off the ground, but there was to be another outing for the Professor, on Radio 3. The Quatermass Memoirs was broadcast in five episodes in 1996, featuring Kneale discussing his creation, and Andrew Keir playing the lead as he had in the film of Quatermass and the Pit.
Kneale was interviewed for programmes about the science fiction and fantasy genres in the 2000s, including the dedicated tribute The Kneale Tapes, and in 2005 the BBC mounted a live remake of The Quatermass Experiment, starring Jason Flemyng, with Mark Gatiss and David Tennant.
Nigel Kneale died in October 2006, aged 84. From Quatermass to The Stone Tape, he was a television dramatist whose work may not be revered in the same way as such luminaries as Dennis Potter, but is arguably as important a figure in British culture. His influence is felt to this day in every alien, fantasy or supernatural drama, and doubtless will be for decades to come.
Tell us your memories and thoughts on the work and influence of Nigel Kneale. Anyone contributing in Manx will earn triple points. See also our old blog on scary TV…