At one point in the final episode of Quatermass (or The Quatermass Conclusion, as it was titled for its intended truncated cinema release), Bernard Quatermass (John Mills) looks up at particularly green-tinted sky and observes, “The Sun, it’s turned… It’s like vomit”. I wouldn’t go quite as far as comparing Quatermass to vomit, but it’s a massive step down in quality from the series’ previous form, both as a piece of writing and (strangely, given more resources were thrown at it than ever were when the property was with the BBC) a production.
One might hazard that Nigel Kneale, as was his authorial right, had been seduced by his own dismayed feelings of being out of touch with subsequent generations springing up after him, and his disenchantment with his own aging, so arranged a narrative in which the youth are fools who need saving by a bunch of pensioners. There are moments here where I was put in mind of Steptoe and Son’s lamentable The Seven Steptoerai, as Quatermass galvanises the aging codgers to aid him. Kneale referred to the “idea of the old trying to redress the balance of the young – to save the young, a nice paradoxical, ironic idea, a sort of inversion of the ‘60s, or even contemporary Hollywood”.
On paper yes, a nice idea, but in execution he comes over as a despondent Victor Meldrew, an old curmudgeon in the crudest sense. This, despite being a merely stripling in his mid-50s (and only just 50 when the script was was written). It’s readily apparent from interviews that Kneale saw the return of his best known character as a vehicle where he could address what he felt were pressing concerns of the day. Unfortunately, he ended up doing both himself and his creation a disservice.
The better part of Kneale’s conception for Quatermass, originally referenced as taking place in 1984, is “The Great Urban Collapse”, whereby he foresees the breakdown of society following fuel and food shortages, and strained to busting social services. The police have been privatised (increasingly prescient, although their beatings-happy behaviour is most redolent of the imminent Thatcher’s Britain) Quatermass’ ire is reserved for the USA and USSR “squandering resources on a useless space project”, something more matter-of-fact than anything, given where taxes usually end up getting funnelled. Only the countryside retains any sense of order (it’s almost as if he’s taking his cues from Tolkien). Evocatively, there’s mention of Wembley as a killing ground for modern gladiatorial combat, although it’s only in passing.
Some effort is put into the scenes of urban chaos, complete with gangs of armed youth called Baaders (referencing the Baader-Meinhof), but others have done more impressive jobs on more limited budgets. Generally, this vision of a disintegrated Britain has significantly less impact than the apocalyptic vision of No Blade of Grasseight years earlier (adapting John Christopher’s novel The Death of Grass). That movie might have strayed too far into the realm of exploitation picture at points, but you never felt it was play-acting. Director Piers Haggard had a feature under his belt (the cult horror Blood on Satan’s Claw) and was coming off the acclaimed Pennies from Heaven, but he seems all-at-sea here, indulging the least effective version of any aspect of Kneale’s script.
So the gangs are all colour co-ordinated, and, overtly suggestive of members of a terrorist group, while the old folk (including Ethel form EastEnders) indulge in Blitz spirit singsongs (along with nostalgic reveries; “Do you remember the good old bobbies?”) while the TV station with its porn show seems to have been grafted in from disused notes for The Year of the Sex Olympics. It’s exactly that pedestrian.
Worst though, is the thrust of the story, the nebulous alien menace Kneale grafts on to the top of his setting. Wandering about Kneale’s countryside are the Planet People, a youth movement falling prey to an external force intent on harvesting the most vulnerable (for human protein! – the latest iteration of this idea is the similarly underwhelming Jupiter Ascending), “the youngest of organisms” (leading to ridiculous scenes where, as the effects of the force spread, Baaders drop weapons and join the Planet People parade).
Kneale imagined the Planet People as “a cross between super-punks and whirling dervishes”, as opposed to the zoned-out hippies with a flair for violent outbursts we see, but to be honest that’s still pretty anodyne sounding (“people who’d been driven mad by the gods who were to destroy them”). Kneale is partly feeding on ideas ready and present in the proto-punk A Clockwork Orange, but they’re rendered near inert.
Kneale was his own fiercest critic, though. Aside from his complaints about the production, he commented, “I don’t think it was the greatest story. I don’t think it had the pure effectiveness of the earlier Quatermass serials… there was something lacking in it which I think mattered a lot”, also noting that the idea was too ordinary. Seizing on Neolithic sites as a focal point for extra-terrestrial forces is a reasonably strong concept, except that a children’s series, Children of the Stones, did so far more creepily, effectively, and imaginatively, the year before.
By setting up a dialectic between faith and science and embodying that as the young versus old, Kneale doesn’t so much explore an idea as entrench it (“I’m dead against the loony thing of bringing on the magic”). Richard Dawkins would probably be proud of him. Haggard and the production crew went very literal by imagining the Planet People as destitute hippie types, but you can’t really blame them given what they were given. Rather than tuning in, turning on and dropping out, the Planet People are stoned on divine rays, looking forward to a Heaven’s Gate style summons that is in fact death.
Kneale extolled Quatermass’ “last ditch use of logic and dwindling technological resources against suicidal mysticism”, apparently failing to see the irony of masterful science employing the most devastating and destructive device man has conceived to resolve the plot. It isn’t just a cop out ending (a big explosion!); it undermines Kneale’s deductive, rational intent (the military usually do this kind of thing for free). Visually too, a big red detonation button isn’t the most commanding of cues.
Unfortunately, that’s not the end of it regarding the design of the piece. Apparently this was Euston film’s first art department picture – with sets built on location – and it shows. The prop megaliths only ever look like they’re made from cement (whereas the same year’s Doctor Who, The Stones of Blood manages to fashion some respectable standing stones for peanuts, at least when they aren’t moving around and glowing ominously). There’s little here in the way of atmosphere or tension (the “Huffity, Puffity, Ringstone Round” rhyme is about the extent of it, although the levitating survivor is briefly diverting), which is kind of fundamental to a good Quatermassserial. The location work looks pretty enough, but it’s a mystery where the £1.25m went. One can only think Hammer, who were late to the game but interested, would have done a more effective job.
At the end, young and old come together in a triumph for science, bridging the gap between generations as Quatermass and his granddaughter Hettie (Rebecca Saire) blow themselves up to put the alien machine off returning to Earth for a bit. Kneale didn’t think the end was pessimistic, but it’s difficult to conceive of the story lingering in a positive way.
Kneale didn’t think Mills was suitable casting, lacking the necessary authority for the professor, and its difficult not to disagree. Mind you, it doesn’t help that the character is effectively kneecapped, doddering about asking, “Have you seen my granddaughter” like he’s living in a dream world. In the sense that he’s a silly old duffer, he kind of works in exposing the paucity of the material; exclaiming how his volunteers “must be old, the older the better” isn’t exactly grist to a dramatic mill, nor are trite realisations such as “Perhaps evil is always something else’s good”.
The rest of the cast are mixed. It’s always fun to see Brian Croucher acting up a storm (here as a bosh-mad bobby), and Margaret Tyzack is great as the can-do District Commissioner, a much needed pro-active character until she’s needlessly killed off at the end of the third episode.
Kneale was critical of Simon MacCorkindale (“We had him in Beasts playing an idiot, and he was very good in that – not the last, rational intelligent man in the world”), although how anyone can criticise the man who was Manimal is beyond me. It is true that Kapp’s a very belligerent, splenetic scientist (“Oh, they’re violent in a different way – to human thought!”), but it’s also the case that some of Kneale’s character beats are hopelessly overwrought (Kapp’s grief, the clumsy emphasis on his Jewish faith).
Ralph Arliss (from the final Jon Pertwee Doctor Who, Planet of the Spiders) also lacks subtlety as Kickalong, which might be the point; his motivation appears to be whatever Kneale needs the character to do in a given scene (which includes machine-gunning all and sundry; these stoners are so out of it, they just go along with him – essentially Kneale’s written a motiveless faceless mob, so it’s unsurprising they’re so ineffectual).
Barbara Kellerman is incredibly wet as Kapp’s wife, so it’s a relief she only lasts half the running time. There’s also a young Brenda Fricker, a convivial Bruce Purchase in a hoodie and David Yip as research scientists, all of whom are good value when they’re actually on screen.
Even though it has the luxury of the longest running time of any of the Quatermass serials, there’s never any real feeling of a developing, deductive plot. Kneale’s construction, unlike its predecessors, is flaccid, lacking intrigue or provocative mystery. Of course, getting the viewer excited (stirring up their glandular secretions) might be too much of a young person’s thing, and so would have defeated Kneale’s purpose. His fourth outing is something of a sad end for Quatermass, an excursion too far (a similar thing befell Indiana Jones). Unless, of course, Mark Gatiss gets hold of remake rights. Then Quatermass will no doubt appear objectively quite good by comparison.
Sources: Andrew Pixley’s Quatermass Viewing Notes