Nigel Kneale’s final outing for Professor Quatermass is a bitterly misanthropic attack on youth and society by a man who felt himself above it all.
Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass serials were huge hits in the early days of mass-market television, with three stories – The Quatermass Experiment, Quatermass 2 and Quatermass and the Pit – being huge ratings hits, and each one subsequently being impressively adapted for the cinema by Hammer Films, albeit rather late in the day (1968) for the final story. Oddly though, Kneale did not return to the character until the early 1970s, and this final story – simply titled Quatermass – seemed to be a cursed project. The BBC, though initially commissioning the series, was ultimately not interested in the project, and a possible collaboration with Hammer fizzled out, much like most of their post-1974 projects. Eventually, in 1978, Euston Films – makers of shows like The Sweeney – agreed to produce the four-part series in 1978, but even this was struck with disaster – the high profile series fell victim to a strike that took the ITV channels off-air for almost three months – the first episode was eventually broadcast on 24th October 1979, the night the strikes finished. Ratings were disappointing, despite this being the first night that ITV had broadcast for eleven weeks, and the big-budget, flagship show seemed rather too dour for audiences. You can understand their reluctance – when a TV channel returns to air (and remember, this was back when there were only three channels to choose from) you might want something more cheery than a show that suggests that the whole world has gone to pot.
The story sees an old, tired and almost forgotten Professor Quatermass (John Mills) travelling into London to appear on a TV show celebrating a USA-USSR space link up, though his real motives are more personal – he is desperate to find his runaway granddaughter. This ‘near future’ world is a place of chaos and violence, the streets ruled by warring gangs and society essentially in a state of collapse. It’s here, in these introductory scenes, that the show starts to fall apart. Let’s leave aside the fact that a TV station would still be broadcasting in such an apocalyptic world… that’s possible I suppose. No, the major problem is that Quatermass is mugged in these opening scenes by the most frightfully middle-class street thugs you will ever see. Any sense of gritty realism that the show presumably aims for is immediately destroyed as soon as these chaps open their mouths and start musing about the condition of the Prof’s teeth.
When the spacecraft are torn apart by unseen forces, and Quatermass’ curmudgeonly comments in the TV studios about the state of society are mistaken for a real threat, the Professor is whisked away to safety by astronomer Joe Kapp (Simon MacCorkindale), who takes him to his observatory in the countryside – the rural world inevitably shown as more civilised than the cities. Here, the main youth threat comes from hippy cult The Planet People, who wander the hillsides believing that they will be taken off to another planet by a travelling spaceship. Now, this might have been a sensible idea in 1970 – and you might argue that it predicts cults like Heaven’s Gate later – but in 1979, the idea of wandering tribes of hippies was, frankly, laughable. It immediately dated the story, and this, ultimately, lay at the feet of Kneale, who could have updated his storyline from a decade earlier but instead seems to have left it fairly intact, possibly because the enmity that drove it to begin with was as strong as ever. And so we have a show that is written by an old man who hates young people, complaining about a youth movement that had long since ceased to be a thing.
This being science fiction, the Planet People turn out to be oddly correct – an interstellar force does indeed beam down to ancient stone circles and other sacred ground, swooping them up – or more likely, destroying them in an alien feeding frenzy. As news of these events spreads, more and more Planet People – including a young Toyah Wilcox – are drawn to ancient sites, as well as Wembley Stadium (which Kneale justifies with some guff about ‘sacred turf’) to be taken away, drawing more young people with them. It’s left to the sensible oldies, led by Quatermass, to try to defeat this alien force.
You can probably see the main problem with this idea straight away. It’s essentially a polemic again young people and everything else that Kneale doesn’t like very much – the masses who are easily distracted by trashy TV shows, for instance, as he includes a rehash of his Year of the Sex Olympics dig at mindless media and the audiences that consume it (which always feels a bit ripe, given that his own career was built on mass audience-pleasing serials that many highbrow types probably dismissed as juvenile sci-fi). But it’s mainly the youth that he hates, and boy does he hate them – be they frightfully posh bovver boys or peaceful hippies who, in this story, quickly turn violent; Kneale clearly had no truck with that peace and love nonsense. And so we have a story that literally says that young minds are soft and easily led, and it’s up to the more sensible older generation to save the world. Kneale has been on record as saying that he didn’t want the Planet People to be hippies but rather aggressive punks, but this seems rather like revisionist thinking. He wrote the (frankly awful) dialogue after all – at a time when the hippy movement was still a thing – and it is clearly the sort of airy-fairy loved up hippy talk that an old man would imagine.
But even his hippies turn violent – again perhaps the fears of the older generation writ large – as the leader of the Planet People, Kickalong (Ralph Arliss) gets hold of a machine gun from a dead cop and becomes a trigger happy maniac. This character shift makes no real sense, but then Quatermass is unfortunately full of plotholes, as if huge chunks of the story had been cut out with no effort to replace them. Perhaps it is because so many characters are thinly written. Kneale certainly doesn’t bother to make much of his female characters, who are mostly overly emotive women prone to inexplicable fits of hysterics and easily sucked in by the lure of the Planet People. Perhaps how an old man saw women, who knows?
The nursery rhyme ‘huffity puffity Ringstone Round’ is repeated so often that it starts to feel like water torture after a while, and becomes increasingly nonsensical – a throwaway plot point at one point, apparently more well known than the national anthem at others. And the ending, presumably supposed to be an emotional finale, feels weak and disappointing – much like the alien force, which is too nebulous and unimpressive to really seem at all scary.
I might seem to be bashing at the sacred cow that is Nigel Kneale here – and I am, don’t get me wrong. But much of the problem with Quatermass is not Kneale’s fault. Piers Haggard’s direction is solid enough but hamstrung by TV production budgets, and the acting is remarkably bad – Mills is too good an actor not to be decent in anything, though he’s rather miscast, but everyone else is either thoroughly wooden or struck down with that terrible British disease of not understanding that they are not on stage and so don’t need to project to the back seats. Add to this awful stage school style performances from supporting characters and it becomes hard to take the damn thing seriously. Already ropey dialogue is made ten times worse by the cast. And then there is the awkward electronic soundtrack and horrible title sequence – both presumably supposed to be futuristic and dark, but actually uncannily like Doctor Who rejects – that also date the series badly.
All this is a pity, as there are the germs of a good idea here, and with a thorough rewrite and a less misanthropic viewpoint, this could have been a pretty good show. As it is, this feels very much like a tired addition to the Quatermass legacy that probably should have been left in the early 1970s, where it would have already felt dated.