In 1971, Nigel contributed a script to the final season of BBC2’s science-fantasy anthology series Out of the Unknown: The Chopper. “It’s a long time ago,” chuckles Nigel. “I don’t really remember it very clearly. It was a ghost story, yet again, and this time it was about a garage where they converted Harley-Davidsons and heavy-duty motorbikes into choppers: they chopped them down. And the ghost was a tearaway youth who’d got himself killed on the M4 and came back to haunt the place. He was a very noisy ghost indeed and pretty unpleasant and destructive. It was again mostly a character play.”
Another fondly remembered anthology was written entirely by Nigel. Screened in 1976 and made by ATV, Beasts was a set of six plays linked by a main theme. “I think it was in 1975. I had written a play [Murrain for ATV’s anthology Against the Crowd (1975)] for the same producer, Nick [Nicholas] Palmer, and during the stages of production it was suggested I should do a set of half-a-dozen plays with a very simple connecting link, which was that there should be an animal element, the beast, that could be implemented in any way at all. In fact, the aim was to make them as different as possible: one comedy, one horror, one straight drama, one mystery… all sorts. And this from the point of view of commercial television was probably a tactical mistake because they like things firmly labelled and if you’ve got six, they want six the same, not six all different. So, when these things had been made, and pretty well made, the programming became an awful problem because they had six quite different pieces of an anthology. There was no easy trademark and I think this proved a problem with networking.
“The one that I think went down best of the set was called During Barty’s Party – Barty being a radio personality with a ’phone-in programme. And during the time that he’s on the air, the two people in this story – the only two we see – are holed up in their country house by what they gradually, and in horror, realise is a rat swarm, assembling underneath the floorboards of the house. Now the only contact they have with civilisation is through this radio programme. They ’phone in, they call Barty, and he tries to help, and until the rats cut the line of the telephone, they manage a very tenuous link with the outside world. But when this breaks, they’re finished. What was interesting to me was it was like making [Alfred Hitchcock’s film] The Birds (1963) with no birds – in this case it was rats with no rats. The rats were purely sound, you never saw one, and it was only through the superb acting of the two principals that the thing worked. It was entirely in their minds and their eyes.
“Another one which I personally liked – although there were things wrong with it – was about the making of a horror movie. It was called The Dummy and it was supposed to be one of a long, long series of ‘Dummy’ films made not so many miles from, say, Bray Studios, and it had the essential cosiness that always emanates from the floor of the studio where they’re making a horror film. It’s a very cosy sort of industry. And it was a lot of fun doing this, again extremely well-acted and I enjoyed it immensely. There were some other pretty good ones too. I liked that series and I’d be very, very sorry if the tapes were wholly wiped – there should be master tapes somewhere.”
Then in 1979 came the final Quatermass story made in two forms: the four-part Euston Films Quatermass serial and the film The Quatermass Conclusion (1979). “That was a freak operation,” says Nigel. “I was asked, and perhaps mistakenly agreed, to making it in two versions. This was at that time held by Euston Films to be essential; in fact, they would make the deal no other way. For sales abroad it had to be available in a film version of some 100 minutes and also a mini-series version. And, so, it was a matter of finding a short version and adding material – making two versions equally valid if possible so that when you pulled the switch, the bits would drop out of the long version and it would become the short version. This was in fact much more difficult than it sounds because you feel you’ve got to pad it to get the long version, but one doesn’t really want to do that – so you write in material which is not just padding, but just as good as the rest yet it can be discarded. In the end we had two versions, neither of which was the right length for the story. You had the four-hour commercial version and what was eventually cut down to a one-and-three-quarters hour version. I think the actual ideal length of the thing would have been something like two-and-a-quarter hours, and at that, the whole story would have been coherent and right. As it was, it was rather messy and I was rather disappointed. I don’t think it was the greatest story. I don’t think it had the pure effectiveness of the earlier Quatermass serials, and although the filming, sets and production values were very good, there was something lacking in it which I think mattered a lot.”
In addition to the two visual versions, the excellent novel Quatermass (Arrow: 1979) contained slightly different material again. “Well I was writing it during the time that the television version was being actually filmed. I wasn’t using material intended for the serial and then deleted. It was quite different material because the novel had to stand up in its own right. It wasn’t merely the serial novelised. I’d agreed that with the publishers that it should be a separate story told in a separate way, but completely truthful to itself, and I think it works better than the television version. I suppose it contained a number of second thoughts, and although I offered those as scenes to the makers, of the serial, there wasn’t really time to use them.”
Would Nigel consider producing novels based on more of his work, Beasts for example? “I have thought about the Beasts series, it is possible to turn them into stories. Might do it some time.”
With the final Quatermass ended, which of the many actors had Nigel found best in the role? “There were quite a bundle of those. Of course, the man who created the part was Reginald Tate in 1953, who had a tremendous attack and vigour of personality. Unfortunately, just before we got to the second serial, Reggie Tate died which was very, very tragic and saddened us very much, but I think if he’d continued to play the second and third and fourth and make various film versions, he would have been definitive in the role. As it was, the film versions that Hammer made used an American actor, Brian Donlevy, in the lead because of contractual arrangements with the American distributors, and he was certainly my least favourite. He was then really on the skids and did not 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 1981, there came a new approach to science-fiction, the LWT comedy series Kinvig. Had this come about maybe as a dig at science-fiction fans? “I simply wanted to try something new, and I think it was because I had suddenly found people who believe in flying saucers to be very funny.
“This is not sending up science-fiction fans, it is sending up the people who believe literally in flying saucers. People who actually persuade themselves in some fashion that they have visited a flying saucer and been given a ride by Venusians. I mean these are some kinds of con-trick merchants because the stories that they tell when the supposed episode is over are so grotesquely lame and half-baked and feeble every time that it can be nothing but a bad joke. So, I was attempting to make a slightly better joke about a little man who did just that. I thought basically that he would have to be bored out of his skull with his actual life, wishing to impress a very impressible pal who does believe in flying saucers implicitly, and between them they convert reality into a kind of game: one believing in it totally and the other making the game up, rather like two children – and the way children can persuade themselves to believe and yet at the same time not believe that a dragon’s round the corner. It’s a sort of double-think. And my little Mr Kinvig, who is one of the laziest people ever seen, I think would be the sort of person who would claim to have been inside a flying saucer. Now the version that he produces is of someone who has very little imagination, and most of that drawn from very, very second-hand tatty, old ideas and things he’s read. So, the flying saucer is the corniest thing, and the beings in it are the most corny kinds of image. The important point was that this was all his kind of very feeble imagining. I think that some people took it to be that it was my kind of very feeble imagining! I can do better than that, believe me. But this was Kinvig’s version. Now what happened I think, or where the production went wrong – because I insisted otherwise – was that it was not clear that this stuff emanated from Kinvig’s mind, that he had made it all up, and there were some people – who should know better – who thought that I was trying to present my kind of science-fiction in these sorry creatures, the Mercurians, who lived in a flying saucer. There was no clear point at which he started to make it up. That’s where it went wrong.”
“Whether because of this, or again because of our old pal networking, it fell foul again. People didn’t know what to do with it. They weren’t sure whether it was meant to be straight science-fiction or funny science-fiction or sending up science-fiction fans or what the hell. So some of them thought it was a children’s epic and some thought it was to be pushed into slots any old where. It wasn’t helped by the fact that, in London anyway, it was preceded by the appalling, terrible, crap series The Amazing Spider-Man (1977-1979) which trademarked it fatally. So I don’t blame myself. I think we did a good show, and everybody connected with it was enormously enthusiastic.
“Another thing I hadn’t bargained for in attempting a comedy series was the studio audience – which is apparently obligatory in most cases. It certainly was in this one. And you have the image of interested people who are fans of the show who are brought along, and are seeing it in a live theatre and enjoying what they’ve come for. It isn’t that way with a new series. You get people who have no idea what they’ve come for. It’s a free evening out, and a lot of then arrive half-canned anyway, and are processed for twenty minutes by a dreadful figure, the warm-up man, who simply sloshes a large quantity of blue jokes at them, at the end of which the show which they are presented with has no chance at all, because it will not resemble the fearful activities of the warm-up man. And all the wrong jokes are laughed at, the whole thing is treated with a kind of witless hysteria, and at the end of it all additional laughter is slammed onto the track in the processing before the thing is shown. The result is a killer to any imaginative, satirical or even good series. Now the institution of the studio audience is something to be shunned and avoided, if possible, which I suppose means steering away from a comedy series. Sad though, because the whole production team on Kinvig thought we had a winner, and we were all set to go to a second series, looking forward to it confidently. A great pity, because I think if we’d had time to find our audience at the right hour on the right network, it could have been a very successful show. Anyway, one is older and wiser.
“l should add that there’s always been a comic streak in everything I’ve written – right back to the original The Quatermass Experiment, where I had the returning rocket sideswipe the home of a little old lady and got a superbly funny performance from that ‘Little-Old-Lady-To-End-Little-Old-Ladies’, Katie Johnson. And a scene where my evolving monster took refuge in the darkness of a cinema showing a terrible space-movie in 3D. Rudi Cartier actually got a 3D effect on the screen, too. Guess how.”
Which of his works had given Nigel his greatest satisfaction? “I suppose the original Quatermasses because we took the biggest chances and we got the most satisfaction from the results. They did come off and we had for that time enormous audiences. And they were adult audiences, we didn’t get the kids. I suppose children did watch and occasionally I’m approached by someone who says ‘I remember the first Quatermass and I was three years old and I hid behind the sofa …’ and that stuff. and my answer is ‘You shouldn’t have been watching, you should have been in bed,’ because we did warn. We did our best to see that small people didn’t watch them because we knew that we were exciting, or trying to excite, veins of unease in the viewers – and whereas an adult can cope, a small immature mind can’t cope with suggestions of that kind. Even background music can give nightmares.”
And his favourite director of his works? “That’s a very tricky and personal one to answer, I suppose my happiest relationship has been with the director I worked with many times, Rudolph Cartier. We had a lot in common mentally and we got on well, so it was a great pleasure in those days to work on shows where we both knew we were taking risks and Rudi was ready to take fearful chances technically. I think he was the only person in the BBC who would have attempted or succeeded in bringing off those early Quatermass shows at that time. The director had to carry an awful lot of responsibility. Now, much more is taken by the additional invented personnel, and of course the technical wizardry that surrounds any show. The personal load is less.”
Does Nigel have any views on other British Telefantasy? “I haven’t watched much of it, and what I have seen I’ve found very disappointing. Doctor Who I mentioned. I think the low point for me would be the very few bits I’ve seen of a thing called Blake’s 7 (1978-1981) which I found paralytically awful. The dialogue/characterisation seemed to consist of a kind of childish squabbling. Disappointingly, they don’t try much to present shows for an adult audience, obviously later in the evening. I suppose there are so many old and newish movies that cover that ground, with more lavish special effects.”
Are there any works written but unmade, or made but unshown? “No I don’t think so. I think practically everything I’ve ever written has been made and shown eventually. Last year  I planned a series that would have been ultimately for American cable which got to a fairly advanced stage before financial doubts struck. That would have been called Push the Dark Door, a set of supernatural stories, and there’s still hope of getting it off the ground some time.
“I did write a couple of pieces that failed to get made, but neither came under the heading of SF or fantasy. The first was a 1966 serial for the BBC called The Big, Big Giggle [first commissioned in 1964]. It was about a teenage suicide craze and the Corporation got cold feet, afraid it might find real imitators. Looking back on it, and some of the trends since then, I think they were quite right, particularly as it would have been protracted through six weeks. The story nearly made it as a feature film for Fox but was stopped by the film censor, John Trevelyan, after long agonising talks. He was probably right too. The seconds was an ATV play called Crow about a Manx slave-trader, cancelled for financial reasons [in January 1977].”
With Nigel having attended the BFI weekend in July 1986, is this his first ‘fan’ event, and would he attend another? “The BFI weekend was not the first ‘fan’ event I’ve attended. Really, I didn’t see very much of that weekend either, just one evening, but I had been to a science-fiction convention a few years ago and found it a fairly horrendous experience. It didn’t seem to have very much to do with imagination, but a lot to do with exhibitionism – mainly by the fans – and it’s not an experience I’m able to go along with and enjoy. I don’t like large gatherings of people romping about, whether it’s a football match or the Nuremberg Rally, they all frighten me. I suppose, deep down, I don’t want to be anybody’s fan, no matter how excellent, noble or horrible they are – whether it’s Daley Thompson or Hitler or Arthur C Clarke. I wouldn’t want to chase around for their autograph.
“We mustn’t forget that it’s Kinvig’s ultra-impressionable, gullible pal Jim who would have gone to such a convention with a bundle of Flying Saucer Review under his arm, hoping to swap them for something even more exciting. And who would’ve hoped for some really dramatic manifestation like the unmistakable evidence of a visit of a Venusian spacecraft imprinted in the gravel of Brighton beach? And then when Jim had got Arthur C Clarke’s autograph, he might, just possibly, have come to me to get mine, and I’d have had to say ‘But Jim, Quatermass didn’t really exist. There was no such person. I made him up.’
“And Jim would look at me disbelievingly, and he would say: ‘That’s what you think!’.”
Andrew Pixley is in the fourth and final year of a combined BEng/MEng course in Electrical and Electronic Engineering, sponsored by a major telecommunications company. He plans to work as a digital development engineer in fibre-optic telephone networks. He has contributed to the BFI/WTVA magazine PrimeTime and fanzines including Steel Sky, TimeScreen, SiG and Into Infinity!. His parents have told him that if he keeps his writing as a hobby and not a profession, then he will enjoy it all the more. And he loves them for doing so.