The Quatermass Experiment at 70: The show that invented modern TV
Writer Nigel Kneale’s landmark sci-fi horror show has influenced generations of writers
by: Brontë Schiltz
18 Jul 2023
Astronaut Victor Carroon (Duncan Lamont) emerges from the rocket, met by wife Judith (Isabel Dean) and Quatermass (Reginald Tate). Photo taken on set by Nigel Kneale. Courtesy of Andy Murray
In the mid-20th century, the BBC aired a programme that blended science fiction and horror and changed the course of British broadcasting. Jeremy Dyson claimed that with it, its writer “invented modern television”. Mark Gatiss described him as “a genuine seer”.
That programme was not Doctor Who, but The Quatermass Experiment, first broadcast 70 years ago this week.
Written by Nigel Kneale – one of the BBC’s first two staff writers – it follows Professor Bernard Quatermass of the British Experimental Rocket Group after a launch goes awry, the rocket veering off course and crash-landing with just one of three crew members on board.
In the weeks that followed, the programme drew increasingly substantial audiences, peaking at five million during the finale on 22 August – more than double 1953’s average evening television audience.
Fittingly, Kneale staged the climax, in which Quatermass confronts the alien lifeform mutated from his crew during a diegetic live broadcast, in Westminster Abbey, which, a year earlier, had hosted the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II – then the most-watched broadcast to date. At this point, the programme briefly fell off air, and The News of the World reported that “timorous viewers leapt to the conclusion that ‘The Thing’ had got the BBC already”.
Today, only the first two episodes survive, the remaining four never having been recorded. But two years after broadcast, Val Guest and Richard Landau adapted the series for Hammer Film Productions as The Quatermass Xperiment – Hammer’s first ever horror production.
That year, Kneale produced a sequel, Quatermass II, in which aliens take over a food production plant – and the British government. Here, he ramped up the horror, including a particularly gruesome scene in which men are pulverised and pumped through factory piping, resulting in the BBC issuing a disclaimer at the beginning of the episode that it was “not suitable for children or for those of you who may have a nervous disposition”.
This was followed by Quatermass and the Pit in 1958-9, which, following the discovery of an ancient alien invasion, foregrounds the danger of responding to difference with hatred. This was a theme particularly close to Kneale’s heart following his marriage in 1954 to Jewish children’s writer Judith Kerr, whose family fled Germany in 1933.
He returned to these concerns in the fourth and final installment, simply titled Quatermass, in 1979, which emphasises the importance of generosity and unity in the face of disaster.
These preoccupations, as well as Kneale’s innovative engagements with topics from hauntings to light entertainment, left a lasting impact.
“He’s far from a household name, but you barely need to scratch the surface of modern popular culture to find Kneale’s influence, and often in all sorts of places you might not expect,” says Andy Murray, author of biography Into the Unknown: The Fantastic Life of Nigel Kneale. “From The Quatermass Experiment onwards, his story ideas have virtually become their own subgenres. Fittingly enough, he’s haunting us.”
Kneale’s work has influenced swathes of horror and sci-fi fiction over the past 70 years. John Carpenter paid homage to Kneale in Prince of Darkness (1987), listing his writer’s credit as Martin Quatermass and featuring an institution called Kneale University.
Stephen Volk also took inspiration from Kneale’s work – particularly The Stone Tape (1972)– when writing infamous 1992 drama Ghostwatch, which also involves malicious entities “getting” the BBC. More recently, Ben Wheatley’s pandemic-set In the Earth (2021) drew on the Quatermass serials for the cosmic horror of its final act.
Kneale’s work is also receiving more direct reappraisals. In 2022, BFI Southbank and Manchester’s HOME ran Nigel Kneale programmes to mark the centenary of his birth, and Dr Derek Johnston is editing a new academic collection, Nigel Kneale and Horror, set for release later this year.
On 9 September, Alexandra Palace is also hosting a live reading of all six scripts, organised by Jon Dear, co-host of Kneale podcast BERGCAST. Gatiss, who played assistant John Paterson in a live 2005 BBC remake, will perform the title role.
70 years after Kneale launched himself, like his best-known protagonist’s ill-fated rocket, into the public consciousness, his work, which not only popularised small screen horror and sci-fi, but also the serial drama format itself, continues to shape the cultural landscape.
In 2023, his central concerns – the foolishness of bigotry, questions of authority and trust, how far we can (and should) go in pursuit of knowledge and progress, and the danger of valuing entertainment above compassion (a theme particularly explored in 1968’s The Year of The Sex Olympics, a prescient critique of reality television) – have never felt more relevant.
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