There’s an anonymous cameo in the 1953 BBC sci-fi shocker The Quatermass Experiment that’s significant in inverse proportion to its screen time. Late in the live-broadcast serial, its author, then Beeb house writer and soon-to-be full-time television provocateur Nigel Kneale, turns up as an oversized, sentient shrub.
It’s in the sixth and final episode, in which error-prone astrophysicist Bernard Quatermass attempts to talk a tortured, interplanetary-virus–ridden astronaut—or astronauts, since some spaceman-on-spaceman absorption has occurred—into committing suicide. By this point the rocketmen have collectively mutated into a vegetal behemoth and taken refuge in Westminster Abbey, where it/they plan to shed a few thousand spores and destroy life as we know it.
Happily, Quatermass’s appeal to the travelers’ vestigial compassion succeeds, and the woolly critter wills itself to die, but not before we catch a solitary glimpse of it oozing from the tracery. And there’s Kneale—or his hands, anyway, as he and his wife had glued gobs of moss onto a pair of gloves which Kneale then poked through a photo of the Abbey to approximate the giant extraterrestrial horror he’d conceived.
It’s impossible to say how this penny-pinching scene plays, since only the first two episodes of Experiment survive.1 Nevertheless, it’s emblematic of what Kneale, who died in 2006 at age eighty-four, did best: get his hooks into a sacrosanct totem of human civilization and illuminate its substantive ineffectuality in an anarchic act of artistic desecration. Or at least as close to it as he could get on state television. As with all his work for the BBC and later ATV and ITV, few nerves were left unstruck.
Thomas Nigel Kneale, an Englishman by birth (and later by choice), spent his youth on the Isle of Man, from which his family originated and where his disdain for authority and tradition likely percolated. (Manx culture retains a strong anti-British bent to this day, despite having been absorbed, like those pitiful astronauts, centuries ago.) Kneale studied for and then abandoned a law career there; moving to London, he graduated from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and for a brief stint was an actor. Still later he published short fiction in various English magazines; his 1949 collection Tomato Cain and Other Stories won the Somerset Maugham Award (an honor his son, Matthew, duplicated for his own novel Whore Banquets in 1988). Eager to be a screenwriter, the peripatetic Kneale was hired by the BBC in 1951 as one its first staff writers. He later claimed he hadn’t even seen a TV set at the time.
Kneale initially toiled as the network’s all-purpose hack, working on literary and stage adaptations and kids’ shows. Then, two years in, he hit pay dirt with The Quatermass Experiment, which he concocted to fill a suddenly vacant slot in the Saturday night schedule. Professor Quatermass’s exploits as head of the fictional British Experimental Rocket Group were popular enough to spawn a pair of live BBC sequels in 1955 and 1958, and the character was resurrected for ITV’s filmed series Quatermass in 1979.
Remarkably for the time and format, the initial trio—Experiment, Quatermass II, and Quatermass and the Pit—have the kineticism and visual polish of feature films. This was largely the doing of Viennese producer-director Rudolph Cartier, a BBC stalwart whose canny manipulation of TV’s nascent codes (and rejection of its then-customary staginess) dovetailed beautifully with Kneale’s skepticism of his canvas of choice. But while Cartier is deservedly remembered for his part in the success of the first three Quatermass serials, it was Kneale who gained notoriety for them. Thereafter he was afforded a stature and creative freedom virtually unheard of in television, where writers typically get the same respect as a napkin wedged under a wobbly craft-services table leg.
He earned the distinction. By innovatively situating Britain’s unresolved postwar trauma in the gulf between science and superstition, Kneale hitched his adopted culture’s long-standing fascination with the supernatural to the atomic age. The earthlings in Experiment and its follow-ups are forced to accommodate surly galactic neighbors they weren’t even aware they had, and that oppressive presence evokes both combat-addled xenophobia and a good old-fashioned house haunting.
In the latter regard, Kneale’s work recalls the ghost stories of late-nineteenth-century Cambridge don M. R. James, who virtually reinvented the form by abandoning its Gothic trappings and taking a distinctly modernist approach.2 In the same genre-tweaking spirit, Kneale couched his fractured spook tales in dispassionate science fiction and unruly domestic melodrama, where typically the only phantom on display is the human predilection for destructive folly. But while James’s work ultimately adheres to larkish, localized mayhem, Kneale’s hauntings play out on a cosmic scale—his elaborate expressions of fatalism, chaos, and dread are the return of the repressed with a neutron bomb, which Kneale happily lobbed into people’s living rooms.3
As much a biblical-style Armageddonist as a successor to James, then, Kneale’s particular genius with mass-self-destruction material was putting it into an unthinkably broad context on a very small household appliance. The Quatermass saga wallows in every sort of human failing—from hubris to genocide to dodgy dental work—and gleefully illuminates them as contributors to our headlong rush to extinction. But what’s most distressing is its suggestion that such behavior is an inescapable universal principle. This reaches full bloom in Quatermass and the Pit, Kneale’s key work as well as his most authentically transgressive one. The series is set in a London tube construction site, where a centuries-old martian vessel is unearthed, providing an unexpected link to our species’ development and wreaking social pandemonium that even the titular professor is powerless to stop.
Pit is disturbing on multiple levels, from its proposition that human evolution is but a failed experiment conducted by self-absorbed little green men, to its scorched-earth climax (in which Satan makes a guest appearance), to Kneale’s very British habit of positioning his working-class characters as objects of ridicule. Its hopping, three-limbed martians inspire the same itchy terror as the insects they resemble, and even the fact that Quatermass is largely a bystander to the plot has a troubling quality. The focal figure here is Matthew Roney, a paleontologist (played by Canadian scenery-chewer Cec Linder) who susses out and solves the drama’s central mystery—and whose Jewishness is emphasized in ways that are alternately reverent and hair-raising.
Extraterrestrial meddling in human history was a sci-fi trope long before Kneale conceived Pit, and others have applied it since, most notably Stanley Kubrick in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and recently Ronald Moore and David Eick in TV’s Battlestar Galactica. But Kneale pushes the scenario to its limits by introducing a shocking muddle of near-Zionism and ostensible anti-Semitism that makes it impossible to identify with. Indeed, watching Quatermass and the Pit for the first time is like settling in to read Chariots of the Gods and discovering you’ve picked up a copy of The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion instead.
For starters, there are several lingering shots that pointedly align Roney with the space bugs by juxtaposing Linder’s aquiline features with their cartoonishly Semitic mugs. (At one point Quatermass all but calls him a “gargoyle.”) Meanwhile, Roney assumes a distinctly cold otherness as the drama develops; he’s by turns Pit’s lone rational character and a marginalized, vaguely threatening crackpot. As deliberate alienation effects calculated to keep us off-balance, these touches succeed brilliantly, but as a mode of entertainment they’re liable to leave your jaw hanging.
It’s tempting to write this characterization off as a generational peccadillo, or worse.4 But authorial lapse or not, it bolsters Pit’s thesis that racial animosity is less an atavistic holdover from humanity’s primitive beginnings than the manifestation of a vast, intergalactic negative-feedback loop. By tapping into our own latent capacity for intolerance, it forces us to engage Kneale’s position in the most tangible, uncomfortable way possible.
Moreover, the psychic reverberations of the martians’ earthly tenure in Pit’s middle episodes turn out to be echoes of the genocidal impulses that drove them off-world in the first place—impulses, Kneale implies, that haunt us from further and perhaps farther back than ancient Mars. That this cycle of communal destruction and regeneration came along with them for the ride is borne out not just by the mass mayhem in Pit’s final episode, but more viscerally by the degree to which Roney’s apartness agitates us as we watch.
Blaming a malevolent cosmos for our species’ history of bad behavior may be too cynical for most TV watchers, and race-baiting for art’s sake is a hell of a slippery slope. But Kneale’s insinuation that our haphazard evolution is responsible for the mad illusion that some humans are less human than others—are no more than conniving, otherworldly cockroaches, say—is intriguing and even backhandedly hopeful. The implicit plea in Pit (made explicit by Quatermass’s blustery closing speech, which he addresses to the camera) is for humanity to guide its own evolution with reason and restraint rather than simply coasting into self-obliteration on autopilot.
Then again, Quatermass and the Pit also makes a pretty strong case that our big brains are our own worst enemies. This underscores the aura of crabby golden-ageism seething beneath the surface in the entire Quatermass saga, a barely repressed preoccupation with Britain’s corroding global status that seeks to fix blame on someone (or something) somewhere for the rotten way things turned out. Fair enough—England was still reeling from a draining wartime experience in the early 1950s. But this aspect comes disappointingly close to knee-jerk cold war paranoia, and suggests that there must have been times when it was hard to be Nigel Kneale.
As an artist, however, he was nothing if not restless. Paired with an innate skepticism of business as usual, his willingness (compulsion?) to move in unexpected directions represented an evolution in itself. After Pit, in fact, he banished Quatermass to the Scottish Highlands5 and moved away from looking for a martian under every bed. For his next act, he began crafting more intimate and equivocal explorations of the ways in which people blithely stumble into their own personal apocalypses.
In his 1972 BBC hair-raiser The Stone Tape, Kneale brought this new maturity to bear on the same indistinct region between science and superstition he’d first explored in The Quatermass Experiment. The ingenious ghost story concerns the R&D group of a multinational electronics firm whose members discover a haunted room in the remote Victorian estate in which they’re working. After determining that the spirit resides within the physical structure of the house itself, corporate exploitation and interpersonal mayhem ensue.
Stone, Kneale’s other primary text after Quatermass and the Pit, serves as a self-deprecating apology for the reflexive alarmism that blemishes that work. There’s a visual joke at Pit’s expense early on, and the story is generally harsh to those who would use history to reinforce a philosophical or commercial position. The film’s philandering hero (Michael Bryant) is more an M. R. Jamesian moral weakling who gets a harsh comeuppance than a Churchillian authority figure who saves the day. Stone even features a sympathetic female character—a rarity for Kneale—who attempts to reckon with the ghost (one of them, anyway: a spectral chambermaid) instead of simply capitalizing on its presence.
Most intriguing, though, is the way in which Stone expands on Pit’s theme of pervasive, intractable aggression as a universal fabric. The malign whatsits that drove the maid to her death and reveal themselves in the climax are as ancient and incomprehensible as the impulses driving the earlier series’ martians. By refusing to identify them as the mansion’s original haunters, Kneale makes deducing their origins or motives as disorienting as counting reflections in a mirror held up to a mirror.
This free-floating cosmic belligerence was attached to various biological talismans in Beasts, a short-run anthology series he wrote four years after The Stone Tape. Each of its six episodes is pegged to some nonhuman earthly being whose presence galvanizes its human characters, most subtly in “Buddy Boy,” about a lowlife porn-movie producer plagued by the spirit of a dead dolphin (!), and “Baby,” in which matrimony and motherhood get a beastly upending. The best episode, “During Barty’s Party,” features swarms of pissed-off, super-intelligent rats, as well as another of Kneale’s strong women characters.
Beasts is a real showcase for the Manxman’s prickly irony and misanthropic humor (the series title, unsurprisingly, isn’t just a reference to its finned and four-legged protags). His resourcefulness with meager budgets is highlighted, too: not a single rat is shown in “During Barty’s Party,” yet the episode remains one of TV’s more harrowing hours. But it’s also a platform of another sort: in the episode “The Dummy”—a grueling excoriation of monster shows in general and The Quatermass Experiment in particular—Kneale gets his fingers around the business of television and his role in it.
This was a characteristic of virtually everything he conceived, from the ubiquity of TV crews and/or reporters in the first three Quatermass serials; to that snarky, self-deprecating (or was it the BBC being deprecated?) reference to Quatermass and the Pit in The Stone Tape; to a tossed-off scene at a ramshackle television studio in Quatermass, where a bizarre variety show is in production, featuring several loincloth-clad youths toting around a surfboard-sized dildo. Kneale never passed up an opportunity to deride television’s capacity for banality and social control, and while this impulse to bite the hand that fed him sometimes has the whiff of an unrepentant office crank bitching about his job, it exhibits a level of self-scrutiny that’s rare for the medium.
It also provides the impetus for another of his seminal teleplays: The Year of the Sex Olympics, a dystopian drama first aired by the BBC in 1968 that foresees the dominance of reality TV decades before such a format existed. (Presciently enough, the opening title card reads “Sooner than you think.”)
Set in an alternate future in which Marxism and countercultural values have inexplicably merged, Sex Olympics unfolds largely in the mechanized control booth of a nationalized television station. The inarticulate but “high-drive” staff broadcasts porn and pie fights 24/7, adjusting the antics to respond to instant ratings feedback from the “low-drive” masses while lazily lapping mood-altering, pacifier-like lollipops. A producer (Tony Vogel) experiences a crisis of conscience that leads him to volunteer for a show that’s equal parts Survivor and Big Brother, only, er, rigged. The tragic consequences divulge the depth of Kneale’s ambivalence about eliciting an audience response at any cost.
As much optic feast6 as satiric romp, Sex Olympics is visually on par with the Day-Glo Vegas aesthetic of the infamous space-hippies Star Trek episode, and ostensibly just as dismissive of late-1960s youth culture. (In another instance of self-reflexivity, its look is mimicked in the variety show bit in Quatermass). This seeming resentment masks a subtle defense of nonconformity and unfettered expression, though, and Kneale’s prophecy of mediated sensationalism that embraces televised murder—however impossible to take seriously—grows more valid with every shrill, humiliation-based unscripted series that now comes down the pike.
Such prognosticative prowess may help explain why Kneale’s creative ethos lives on in popular culture,7 although theatrical adaptations of the Quatermass serials produced in the ’50s by England’s Hammer Studios (and rerun on TV ever since) are likely more responsible.8 Even the best of these remakes and simulacra, however, can’t do justice to his rebellious intolerance for the status quo.
How could they? They aren’t television, a medium he embraced and held in contempt with equal verve. Kneale was still a thrilling scenarist without TV’s living-room imperialism as his foil, but his (sometimes fussy) interrogations of its troubling centrality to our shared self-conception was his real meat. And his refusal to bend to its rule that everything has to be put back into place before the end credits roll is, more than the blobs, bugs, and sick jokes, what jars viewers out of their sofa stupors to this day.
In that sense, the work that most purely displays his influence is Stephen Volk’s Ghostwatch. This BBC production, broadcast on Halloween night 1992 and thereafter banned,9 neatly synthesizes Kneale’s preoccupations without resorting to pastiche or outright mimicry. Its story follows a group of four real-life TV journo-celebrities (all of whom play themselves) as they descend with a camera crew upon a reportedly haunted suburban-London council flat for a lurid exposé. The tension becomes unendurable as weird occurrences pile up, leading to a conflagration that Quatermass himself might’ve admired.
Scares aside, Ghostwatch is most thought-provokingly Knealian in its portrayal of cyclical evil. Echoing the haunted haunters in Quatermass and the Pit and The Stone Tape, the spirit under televisual scrutiny in Volk’s tale is that of a disturbed former tenant who was himself plagued by the spectral presence of an earlier resident of the house. How far back these possessions go is left open-ended; the only sure thing here is that exorcising one malevolent, otherworldly guest only clears the way for an even older and less civil one. And on and on, until there are too many reflections to count and literally all hell breaks loose.
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