Quite often these days, I’m asked about the possibility of reprinting some of my earlier articles from fanzines and long-defunct magazines… and my instinct is almost always to say ‘no’. And the main reason for this is that I, as a reader, would rather read a new piece on a given subject rather than a rehash of something that was originally written when we only had a fraction of the research materials that we do now. This interview with Mr Kneale, however, is an exception – one of the pieces that still gives me a modicum of delight. It was originally published in the eighth issue of TimeScreen an A4 fanzine concerning ‘British Telefantasy’ edited by my dear friend Anthony McKay, and dated December 1986. I still think it works, and making it freely available again via CSTonline means that it may find a few new readers and rekindle the embers of old memories.
Only a few very minor edits compared to the original. Oh, and Mr Kneale didn’t give the dates of his work in brackets on his first reference to them. That’s purely for the purposes of academia.
Nigel Kneale has stated on many occasions that he is not a science-fiction writer, but a drama writer who uses science fiction as a vehicle for his plays and serials. Nevertheless, he created three of the basic forms of telefantasy in his serials featuring Professor Bernard Quatermass in the Fifties: the mutation of a man into monster, an organised invasion by stealth, and the coupling of science-fiction with mysticism. On top of this, he has also written some of the best one-off plays in the genre. Shortly after attending the National Film Theatre’s landmark Past Visions of the Future event across 12/13 July 1986, Mr Kneale gave me a marvellous interview that I have scarcely edited in which he was good enough to talk about his telefantasy works, despite his obvious reservations about the genre and its followers. Mr Kneale was also good enough to help on the editing and preparation of this piece.
First of all, how far in advance were scripts for those early Quatermass serials completed back in the days of almost entirely live transmissions? “Very little preparation apart from filmed inserts, and they were few, could be carried out anyway. In the case of The Quatermass Experiment (1953), I was still writing the serial when it began to be transmitted. I think I’d written four episodes when the first one was shown, and I wrote the remaining two while it was going out. So, nobody really knew what the end was – even the production team, certainly not the actors, which made it more exciting I suppose. The only people who were really in on the secret were Rudi [Rudolph] Cartier [the producer] and myself. The others had to take it on trust, which they were kind enough to do.
“As to how far in advance the others were prepared, I think as we went on – the second Quatermass [Quatermass II (1955)] which was two years later and the third one [Quatermass and the Pit (1958-1959)] which was three years after that – well the production load was greater, and more was expected with the technology. It was possible to do some special effects and those had to be allowed for, so what I did was to give the BBC production team a very full treatment which was followed meticulously in the actual script so they had no surprises. They knew what they were in for, and all the special effects or film inserts were precisely described.”
Although film inserts featured prominently in Quatermass II and Quatermass and the Pit, the two existing episodes of The Quatermass Experiment were more-or-less studio bound and live. Had any pre-filmed inserts been made for the later episodes? “In The Quatermass Experiment there was some pre-filming. I think if one had been able to see the whole thing, one would see film inserts in the later episodes. Not of special effects, but of a London park, London streets, just to add a bit of verisimilitude. In the case of special effects, they were done entirely live, which was a very hairy thing to do, but there was no alternative. In fact I did them myself.
“The appearance of the monster in Westminster Abbey was my two hands, stuck through a blow-up still of the interior of the Abbey, with my hands suitably dressed with gloves which I’d covered with a bit of vegetation and leather until they didn’t look like hands any more and became a single monster. In Quatermass II and Quatermass and the Pit of course, by then the BBC special effects team had developed and they were very good indeed, very inventive, excellent people. The dome explosion in Quatermass II was a nice one. Actually, it was done in a tank of water with a plaster dome full of milk, so that when a detonator split it, you got a very slow drift of what appeared to be smoke, but was actually milk coming out into the atmosphere which was actually water. The very best special effects were extremely simple, and quite adequate really for the definition of 405 lines of those days. Today, I think with the finer screen, one would expect to see higher definition, particularly with all the stuff coming out of Hollywood. The audience is trained to high expectation of the effects.
“There is a point there that in the Fifties, in the early Fifties certainly, the greater proportion of television was live apart from the film news and of course the very modest film inserts in plays. They had to be modest because there was no money. Apart from those, everything was live, and often you saw rough edges, things that didn’t quite come off; messy camera moves, actors fluffing, taking prompts. It did happen and the viewer’s expectation was trained to that. You did not expect high definition in visual quality. You were glad when you got it. But you were more receptive to suggestion, and of course that was good. It was an advantage in implying things, that you had an audience that prepared to co-operate, that already was halfway imagining things that they couldn’t quite see perhaps. I think now we’ve got a much lazier audience, certainly an audience that demands, and has been given by every [Steven] Spielberg epic, high-gloss definition without, very often, much content.”
How closely was Nigel involved with his scripts after their delivery to the production team? “Well completely. I stayed with every rehearsal and every stage of the production. I worked very, very closely with Rudi Cartier – we were very close friends, and every detail was hammered out. I think that was an advantage we had that people rarely have nowadays in television. Today you deliver the script, there’s a long gap – maybe a year – before the thing goes into production. And it’s overmanned. There is a heavy load of people we didn’t have: the producer in those days was the director. He was responsible for everything. Today you have an overseeing producer which means that the director has lost some of his authority. You have a script editor intervening, very often a person who’s never written anything and is there to interfere and adds very little to the quality of anything you may see on screen. But where you had a small, compact, very concentrated team you got, I think, an additional layer of quality. There was no loss of concentration, which I think you see now too often as a kind of divergence into surface effect, particularly from directors who have spent too much time making commercials. We didn’t have them in the early Fifties – thank God.”
When the scripts for the BBC Quatermass serials were published by Penguin Books, it was noted that these often deviated from the actual broadcasts slightly. Were they draft versions? “Yes, they did deviate. It wasn’t that they were early draft scripts, there were no drafts. I did one script and that was it. It went on as written. I plan things and I deliver treatments so that people know what’s going to hit them, but the scripts, once written, stay that way. I’ve very rarely changed anything, except on a rehearsal floor if an actor finds he can’t say a particular line, or if there’s some technical detail that has to be corrected – but by and large I’ve managed to get first drafts performed every time. So there were no ‘draft’ scripts of those early Quatermasses. What did happen was that when we came to publish these things – and it was an innovation at the time – Tom Maschler who was working for Penguin suggested publishing the Quatermass scripts and making them a little more readable, because of course they were meant solely for actors and production team, not to be read for amusement. So I simplified them and coloured them up a bit in the descriptive matter, but that was for publication. There was no drastic change of any kind.”
Had Nigel found himself limited at all by the television facilities available for his story telling? “No, because I knew what the technology was. I knew we had very little and that is why the Quatermass stories were written as they were, with very little dependence on special effects. The stories are told through the characters and the action and they are also earthbound. We didn’t take off into space, except on one occasion at the end of Quatermass II. The stories are very firmly on Earth, and depend completely on detailed character. Now that is one area where an awful lot of science fiction stuff, so far as I’ve seen, collapses. It doesn’t just weaken, it collapses, because there are very few coherent characters. Construction of the story is often rotten and is waiting to be saved by the special effects. If you haven’t got a special effects team, you have to do something else – you’ve got to tell your story in a way that works largely without effects, and then the effects come in as a bonus. All too often nowadays, expensive films do depend on them and that’s why we have this increasingly dry, hugely expensive stuff coming out of Hollywood. Dry in the real sense because the things are devoid of character. And that goes for an awful lot of science-fiction. That’s why I don’t really count myself as a science-fiction writer, because I find the characters and the settings far more interesting than sparks flying.”
Did any of the serials or plays in those days have different working titles from transmitted titles? “Well, as I remember it, the original Quatermass, The Quatermass Experiment, had the working title of Bring Something Back which, if you remember the story, did happen. What was brought back was something very nasty indeed. The title would have been a light-hearted quote from a line by one of the characters waving goodbye to the people who set off in the rocket. The Quatermasses in their film versions shown in America were all given titles that were different from the British ones. They were all terrible, things like The Creeping Unknown [for Hammer Films’ The Quatermass Xperiment (1955)] which was the most awful title visited an any piece of work.”
Was it always planned that Quatermass And The Pit would be the third and final serial of the Fifties or was a fourth ever suggested at that time? “Not exactly, it just happened. I didn’t want to go on repeating because Professor Quatermass had already saved the world from ultimate destruction three times, and that seemed to me to be quite enough. And long, long afterwards, when the world itself had changed a lot, I thought I would use that fact – that we were now in a different set up from the Fifties and far into Seventies – and the things we read in the newspapers, the whole flower-power business and all the other, often fashionable and trivial scenes had passed by. I wanted to make a story out of that. Out of the significance of this sort of phenomena one was starting to see in the Seventies.”
Before the last story Quatermass serial was made in 1978, it had been suggested that other plans had been made by the BBC for Professor Quatermass. One erroneous source indicated that colour test footage of the dome sequence in a remake of Quatermass II was shot and ended up in a 1977 serial in BBC1’s Doctor Who (1963-1989,1996,2005-) science-fiction adventure series. “Well if there was anything like that,” commented Nigel, “they didn’t tell me! That isn’t to say they didn’t discuss it, but they didn’t tell me. I think a number of things turned up in Doctor Who that have been pinched out of my stories. I know I switched on one day and was horrified to see practically an entire episode of one of mine stuck straight into Doctor Who!” If remakes were ever suggested again, would Nigel go along with the idea? “That’s not up to me. I’m afraid Hammer Films hold all the rights because they bought them, and it would be entirely up to them.”
The final serial, initially known as Quatermass IV but finally broadcast as Quatermass (1979), had started life as a storyline for Hammer Films in the Sixties, and then as a BBC project. “It was written in 1973,” explained Nigel, “and they decided for various reasons, mainly cost, not to go ahead with it. I think it was commissioned by Ronnie Marsh, who was then in charge of serials, and Joe Waters was going to be the producer. It lingered through the summer and slowly died as a project.” What differences would there have been if the serial had been made by the BBC? “The major change was that the BBC version would have been much more in the studio, whereas the Euston Films version was entirely shot on 35mm film with a great deal of it outside. Much more lavish than either the BBC or I had contemplated. Perhaps it was too lavish. The cost was about a million and a quarter, which was a lot of money in 1978 – not now but it was in 1978 – and there’s always the temptation to go overboard on the production values if one has the cash. As I said before, if you haven’t got the cash you have to do it another way, a simpler way – and often the simpler way is better.”