Fighting the Unknown
It can, from a vantage point in the 21st century, be difficult to imagine what life in the England of 1953 was like. Although surrounded by accoutrements that would still be familiar today, if archaic in some instances, England in 1953 was only a few years removed from the horrors of the Second World War, during which London had been the target of a massive German bombing campaign that left much of the city in ruins. Many basic goods and services were still scarce, rationed, or undependable. At the same time, the technological advances that had been driven by the war were transforming daily life at a rapid, sometimes frightening pace. Among the technological marvels to skyrocket from obscure novelty to mainstream ubiquity during the early years of the 1950s was television, and it was in the early days of British television that Thomas Nigel Kneale made a name for himself. Deemed unfit for military service owing to an extreme sensitivity to light, Kneale entered the legal profession and remained employed there during the war. But the the tedium of the job drove him to seek another career. He found that career in 1946 with the British Broadcasting Company — the BBC — for which he worked as a radio dramatist, broadcasting readings of his own short stories. He performed from time to time on stage as well, but the increasing writing success he experienced eventually led to abandon acting and take up writing full-time. He wrote scripts for BBC Radio plays and in 1950, when the BBC was looking to ramp up their television production wing, Kneale became one of the first of a group of writers hired to produce television scripts. At that time, he had never seen a television program.
Kneale was paired with one of the BBC’s top directors, Austrian immigrant Rudolph Cartier, who had come to the BBC by way of Hollywood after fleeing the rise of the Nazis in his native country. Neither man thought very much of the programs they created, finding them too static, too staged, too dull. They wanted to bring the dynamic range of cinema to the small screen, create something with suspense and action and imagination. On the big screen, science fiction was beginning to assert itself as a genre suitable for adults rather than just children. In the united Stets, several high-profile special-effects laden science fiction films heralded the arrival of the space age in Hollywood, kicking off in 1950 with the colorful, serious-minded Destination Moon produced by George Pal and its cheap black-and-white knock-off, Rocketship X-M, produced by Robert Lippert, a classic “from the ground up” movie man. He started as a kid working in movie houses and worked his way up to assistant manager, manager, and eventually owner of theater — and then of a chain of theaters.
He sustained his chain of theaters during the Depression by coming up with novel promotions and giveaways. In the early 1940s, he kept his theater in Los Angeles open 24 hours a day, playing mostly older movies while charging 25 cents and providing a haven for everyone from late-night workers to drunks to servicemen on leave and in need of a cheap place to crash for the night. In 1945, as a revolt against the high price of renting film from the major distributors, he formed Screen Guild Productions with the goal of offering theaters low-cost programming, mostly in the form of older or cheaper movies. In 1949, inspired by a story in Life magazine about the potential for a manned expedition to the moon, Lippert began production on his first science fiction film — one of the first in the United States, but only if he moved quick. Apparently another producer with a lot more money had read the same article and decided to make his own moonshot movie. In the 1960s, the United States would engage the Soviet Union in the space race, but in 1950, the space race was between Lippert and rival producer George Pal.
Rocketship X-M was budgeted at $94,000 compared to Destination Moon‘s massive half-million dollar budget. Not wanting to go toe-to-toe with Pal’s much higher profile film, Lippert made a few alterations to his original idea. Chief among these changes was the destination of his explorers, which he switched from the moon to Mars. While Pal’s more visually ambitious film encountered long delays as a result of the complexity of the production, Lippert’s film was completed in just nineteen days. Working with less money and on a tighter deadline, Lippert’s Rocketship X-M beat Destination Moon to theaters by three weeks, making it the first modern American space exploration movie (and our first return to Mars since we enraged the Martians by sending them El Brendel in 1930’s Just Imagine). The very plot itself seems to reflect the race Lippert was in with Pal. One quick press conference full of the usual “space expedition” speechmaking, and then we’re on the launchpad and on our way to the moon with mission leader Dr. Karl Eckstrom (John Emery) and his crew, including Lloyd Bridges as the ship’s pilot and Danish actress Osa Massen (Background to Danger, Cry of the Werewolf) as the expedition’s chemist. Things go poorly for the crew when freak conditions in space send them hurtling past the moon and toward Mars. Ever intrepid, they make the most of the mishap and set about exploring the harsh landscapes of the Red Planet. As they trek across Mars, wonder gives way to anxiety when they discover the remnants of a Martian civilization and begin to unravel the horror that was its undoing.
Despite its quickie origin, there is much to admire in Rocketship X-M. In some regards, it is a better movie than Destination Moon. Screenwriter and director Kurt Neumann, who up until this film had toiled mostly in anonymous B-westerns and a few of the late-era Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan films, puts substantial effort into the film far beyond what might have been required by Lippert. The science is reasonably plausible by the standards of what was known about space travel in 1950, a time when we still figured space would be explored while wearing leather bomber jackets and ties (and thought all we’d need on Mars was a parka and an oxygen mask). The characters are complex and nicely balanced against one another, with some poetic dialogue from time to time which helps one overlook Neumann’s rather static direction and the crude nature of the film’s special effects. Even though much of it is composed of shots of people standing around the small rocket ship bridge, the scene in which the crew grapples with the fact that they’ve overshot the moon and are hurtling into outer space is admirably tense and emotional — which of course means there’s the inevitable bit in which the stoic male leader warns the lone female crew member not to get overly emotional. In fact, the mold from which the crew of countless other cinematic explorations of space will be cut is minted in the low-budget confines of Rocketship X-M, right down to the fact that for most of the 1950s and 1960s, every expedition was required to include at least one guy for whom the lack of gravity came as a total surprise. Unlike many films that would copy this formula, Rocketship X-M actually undermines the sexism of the men toward the sole female crewmember. When told to forget her facts and figures and start thinking about marriage and babies, Osa Massen’s Dr. Lisa Van Horn chastises the men for their attitude. And even more importantly, a seemingly throwaway moment when her calculations about fuel consumption are overruled comes back to play a major part in the final minutes of the film.
While there’s little of note in the film’s scant special effects, there is a bit of visual creativity once the crew starts exploring Mars. Though shot in black and white (George Pal’s competing film was in eye-popping candy color), Neumann looked to the silent era for inspiration and decided to tint the Martian scenes (shot in the American desert). The result renders a familiar landscape strikingly alien and is surprisingly effective for such a basic effect. The matte paintings that render the ruins of an ancient Martian city are also effective, their artificiality rendered moot by the red tinting. The timid exploration of the Martian city is like something out an HP Lovecraft story. The crew finds vague clues of a great and ancient culture laid to waste and rendered unknowable in all but the most superficial of levels, as well as remnants of that once advanced civilization, now debased and cast down by their own folly from godhood into a primitive state. Even though the source of the destruction is eventually unraveled, the mysteries of Martian culture and history remain tantalizingly, frustratingly beyond the reach of man. Said destruction represents another plot element of Rocketship X-M that would become de rigueur for science fiction in the 1950s: the looming specter of the atomic bomb. On Mars we find the possible future fate of mankind itself, something that would be explored time again in science fiction, most notably in colorful low-budget 1956 film World Without End and in 1968’s landmark science fiction classic Planet of the Apes, both of which involve astronauts who are caught in a time warp and find themselves flung far into the future.
Even after narrowing escaping the primitive, violent remnants of Martian life, one more surprisingly downbeat complication confronts the hapless band of humans aboard X-M. Neumann’s script balances the thrill and wonder of space exploration with the danger, exposing the fragility of man when faced with the vastness of space and the reality that sometimes an indomitable pioneering spirit is not enough to bring everyone back alive. The final scene, in which the head of the space program receives grim news with stoic determination and vows to forge ahead predicts a similar attitude in the script Nigel Kneale would eventually produce for the BBC’s first foray into outer space, as well as in the American and Soviet space programs, where it was understood that, as it was when man first set out on boats across the ocean, our venture was as bold as it was dangerous. Although George Pal’s colorful Destination Moon rocketed onto screens just three weeks later, Robert Lippert’s modest science fiction endeavor, thanks almost entirely to Kurt Neumann’s thoughtful script, was not overshadowed and today remains about as well-known as its flashier competition (which was, for the most part, a remake of Fritz Lang’s silent science fiction epic Frau im Mond). In many ways, Rocketship X-M even proved the more influential of the two films, right down to the music. Composer Ferde Grofe’s score for the film is the first use of the theremin in science fiction, an instrument that became synonymous with science fiction TV and cinema and remains to this day recognizably sci-fi. Because it was difficult, even for George Pal, to mount lavish, full-color science fiction spectacles, such full-color blowouts remained relatively few and far between. It was much more realistic for producers and directors to work with the lower budget and quicker turn-around time of a Robert Lippert movie, and so Rocketship X-M became a model, influencing even big budget science fiction.
In this new environment, with Lippert and Pal racing toward space, Nigel Kneale began writing a script for a serialized science fiction program, which Rudolph Cartier planned to direct. It was unlike anything the BBC had ever aired. The United States was producing a number of serialized science fiction shows (Space Patrol, Tom Corbett: Space Cadet, and Buck Rogers all hit the air in 1950; 1951 and 1952 saw the addition of early science fiction anthology series Out There and Tales of Tomorrow), but it was virtually unexplored territory in Britain. The few forays into British sci-fi television had either been (as they were in the United States) aimed at children, as was the case with 1951’s Stranger from Space, or had been one-off adaptations of well-known works of classic science fiction, such as 1949’s The Time Machine. What Kneale and Cartier had in mind was something altogether different: an original, speculative science fiction serial aimed squarely at adults, something more along the lines of what Pal and Lippert were producing than the juvenile serialized actioners. By 1953 — the same year the United States produced scifi TV shows Atom Squad, Johnny Jupiter, Operation Neptune, and Rod Brown of the Rocket Rangers and more serious science fiction feature films like 1951’s When Worlds Collide 1953’s War of the Worlds (both produced by George Pal)– Kneale and Cartier’s mad creation was ready to be unleashed on the British public.
The Quatermass Experiment was broadcast in six half-hour episodes during July and August of 1953. Set in the very near future, It revolves around, well, an experiment being conducted by a scientist named Bernard Quatermass, a name Nigel Kneale came up with by pairing a name randomly chosen from a telephone book (he knew he wanted it to begin with “Qu,” but that was all) with the first name Bernard, in honor of the founder of the Jodrell Bank observatory, astronomer Bernard Lovell. Played by actor and former Royal Air Force squadron leader Reginald Tate (who worked with Rudolph Cartier previously on It Is Midnight, Dr Schweitzer and appeared in the 1943 epic The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp), Professor Quatermass is an odd balancing act between compassionate and amoral in his pursuit of scientific discovery. Or rather, he is more than willing to accept that risks (including death) are involved if one wants to achieve scientific greatness. His current experiment, and the one that will launch the serial’s story, involves the development of a rocket capable of space exploration. As the series begins, Quatermass and his team are in a quandary after their most recent manned space flight vanishes without a trace, only to turn up later when it crashes into a farmer’s field. Rushing to the site, Quatermass is baffled to discover that of the three astronauts launched into orbit, only one is still in the ship. No trace can be found of the other two, no clue to their fate.
The remaining astronaut, Victor Carroon (Duncan Lamont, who in the 1970s would have a recurring role in the most famous of programs inspired by Quatermass: Doctor Who), has no memory of what happened. Quatermass is run ragged trying to solve the mystery while protecting Carroon and the details of the event from both the press and the police, who suspect that Carroon might have had a hand in the disappearance of the other astronauts. Complicating Quatermass’ life even further is Carroon’s sister Judith (Isabel Dean), determined to pry her ailing and beleaguered brother out from under the prying eyes of Scotland Yard and Quatermass, who might care more about the experiment than the life of her brother or the other astronauts. She facilitates Victor’s escape from the prison at the very worst of times: right when Quatermass discovers the horrible secret of what happened on the ship and, perhaps even more horrifying, what has happened to the man they all think is Victor Carroon. And speaking of inopportune timing…
For modern viewers, the fate of the astronauts remains a mystery. Less mysterious than the disappearance of Carroon’s rocketmates is the disappearance of The Quatermass Experiment. The BBS originally planned to record the entire series on 35mm film, as it was actually performed live for broadcast (with some pre-recorded 35mm segments intercut with the live action). Shooting it on 35mm as it was being performed would allow the BBC to archive it and, more importantly for Cartier and whoever was in charge of finances at the BBC, would enable them to create trailers and recaps to show to other broadcasters so that they could sell it for rebroadcast elsewhere. Unfortunately, the 35mm recordings proved complicated and yielded poor quality results. The experiment was abandoned after the second episode, and from there on the series was performed live for broadcast without being recorded.
The end result is that only those first two episodes of The Quatermass Experiment now exist, with the others being lost to the air. The same fate befell many early British television productions, including Doctor Who and the early episodes of The Avengers, which were either broadcast live and not recorded, or were recorded but later taped over since no one could see why you’d want to keep around something everyone had already watched. The BBC did not start regularly archiving shows until 1978. The two existing episodes of The Quatermass Experiment are a tantalizing glimpse into the series that end right as the plot begins to kick into gear and which viewers will likely never see (though one should never say never; previously presumed lost episodes of Doctor Who show up in the strangest places, including a yard sale and gathering dust on the shelves of a Nigerian broadcast company). Luckily, by way of a salve upon the wound, The original broadcast of The Quatermass Experiment was so successful that Kneale, Cartier, and the BBC started working on a way to capitalize on the success. They were initially keen on taking the two recorded episodes and combining them with newly created versions of the four unrecorded episodes, likely in some condensed fashion. When this proved unworkable, the BBC ensured the serial would live on by selling the film rights to the script. Those rights were purchased by a studio called Hammer.
In 1953, Hammer Films had no identity beyond being just another movie studio. The fabled Hammer House of Horror would not be born for another several years. Instead, the studio dabbled in every genre. If any one type of film could be said to characterize the studio during the 1950s, it would be inexpensive British crime movies inspired by American film noir and often starring an American actor in order to boost the chances of obtaining distribution outside of the United Kingdom. Hammer producer Anthony Hinds was enthralled by The Quatermass Experiment and reportedly reached out to Nigel Kneale and the BBC mere days after the broadcast of the final episode to seek the film rights. Kneale was as excited as Hinds about the prospect of a Quatermass movie, but he wasn’t necessarily going to hand over the goods to the first suitor that came calling, especially if that suitor was known primarily for cheap B pictures. Kneale’s initial choice to bring Professor Quatermass to the big screen was screenwriter turned producer Sidney Gilliat, who had worked in the past with Alfred Hitchcock. Gilliat, however, felt there was no way to make adapt the series without the British Board of Film Censors — the BBFC — giving it an “X” rating. Such a rating would mean the film would be off-limits to anyone under the age of sixteen, and Gilliat did not want to gamble on the appeal of an adults-only science fiction film despite its smash television success.
Anthony Hinds was less apprehensive about the restrictive rating. In fact, he invited it, planning to play up the edgy, adults-only nature of the prospective film as a way to attract more, not fewer, viewers. Eventually the BBC sold to Hammer. Because Kneale’s scripts technically belonged to the television company, he did not receive any additional payment as a result of his series being made into a film. This perceived slight predictably became a source of contention between Kneale and the BBC, which led to him wording the agreement for the eventual, inevitable Quatermass sequel series more carefully. But all that was BBC business, of little concern to Hammer. They launched immediately into the production of what would very likely be the biggest, potentially most successful film, they’d ever made. Following the formula they had with their “British noir” films, Hammer sought American distribution in order to help finance what would be, for them, a very complex production. Their American money man for Quatermass, coincidentally, was Robert Lippert.
Shortly after the completion of Rocketship X-M, Lippert had struck a deal with Hammer in which he agreed to distribute Hammer films in the United States while they distributed Lippert’s films in the UK. Worried about the American audience’s willingness to accept a completely British cast, Lippert often insisted that Hammer’s films included an American lead, someone Lippert himself usually supplied to them. When Hammer began production on their adaptation of The Quatermass Experiment, it was Lippert’s influence that led to the recasting of Bernard Quatermass with American actor Brian Donlevy (born in Ireland but raised in the United States). While he wasn’t the only thing that Quatermass creator Nigel Kneale came to hate about the movie, he was certainly the biggest. In Hammer’s adaptation, written by Richard Landau (who wrote the script for Hammer’s very first foray into what could loosely be called science fiction, Spaceways, though almost the entire film takes place in a living room on Earth) and later rewritten by screenwriter-turned-director Val Guest to please censors, Quatermass is treated as a man of action rather than a man of science. Brian Donlevy transformed the character into someone sharp, condescending, and often abrasive.
Some of the changes Landau made to the original series are understandable; it ran three hours after all, and Hammer’s movie had to come in at half that. So subplots were dropped, details were glossed over, and incidents were compressed. The character of Judith Carroon, who in the series had been a member of Quatermass’ team as well as Victor Carroon’s wife, was reduced to almost nothing. She was played by American beauty queen Margia Dean, who reportedly got the part because she was the girlfriend of 20th Century Fox president Spyros Skouras, with whom Robert Lippert had a close relationship. According to Val Guest, she was a sweet woman and a terrible actress. In the end, her lines had to be dubbed over. All of this nonsense Kneale was ready to live with. It was simply how things had to be. But when it came to Brian Donlevy’s handling of Quatermass, Kneale was enraged. He saw it as a corruption of everything Quatermass was supposed to be and, on top of that, rather a shoddy job of acting. Despite Kneale’s vocal condemnation of what they were doing Hammer forged ahead. Ultimately Kneale had no official say in matters, and Hammer had other, more pressing problems to deal with.
From the outset, Hammer assumed the film would receive an X rating. In fact they counted on it, even going so far as to play it up by dropping an “E” from the title and officially calling the movie The Quatermass Xperiment. But when they passed Richard Landau’s initial script in front of the BBFC (which they had to do after getting into hot water a few times previously) they were told that the film wouldn’t receive an X rating as written. It was too foul even for that grade. “We could not certificate, even in that category,” stated Board Secretary Arthur Watkins, “a film treatment in which the horrific element was so exaggerated as to be nauseating and revolting to adult audiences.” In particular, they were concerned with the gruesome transformation scene of an astronaut into a monster and the violence done during his escape from a hospital. Luckily, director Val Guest was also a screenwriter, though he considered himself rather unsuited for the task of science fiction. He took Landau’s original screenplay and reworked it until it passed muster both with the BBFC and and the BBC, which retained rights to approve the final script. Feeling that it would help make the fantastical elements more believable and the gooey elements more acceptable, Val Guest decided to shoot the film in a cinema verite style, mimicking the look and feel of newsreel footage. The BBC made sure that reporter and broadcast dialogue conformed to the actual BBC style by tasking one of their own writers with reworking those bits of dialogue. That writer, predictably but to his own growing incredulity, was Nigel Kneale.
Guest introduced one more major change to the story, one that Kneale hated almost as much as he hated Robert Donlevy. In the original series, Quatermass discovers that the creature the astronaut Carroon has become retains some vestigial traces of the humans it has absorbed. In a climax set within Westminster Abbey, Quatermass appeals desperately to these trace remnants of humanity, ultimately convincing the creature to kill itself before it destroys humanity. When Guest rewrote the script, he changed the finale so that Quatermass actually kills the creature himself. For Kneale, this was an undermining of the most fundamental spirit of the Quatermass series, every bit as awful as Donlevy’s decision to play the professor as a sneering, unsympathetic know-it-all. Kneale had once described his intentions with Quatermass as wanting to make something “mystifying, rather than horrific.” It was clear to him that Val Guest and Hammer simply did not get it and had turned Quatermass into an aggressive, two-fisted jerk (the sort of characters for which Donlevy was known) and the story into some sort of action-horror hybrid that reveled in its own grotesqueries.
Val Guest didn’t think it was as bad as all that. And neither did audiences. While Brian Donlevy’s interpretation of Professor Quatermass is indeed jarring, the film moves at such a brisk pace that one hardly has time to notice what a jerk he’s become. In fact, he appears to be a precursor to one of the characters that would make Hammer famous, Peter Cushing’s Doctor Frankenstein. Both men are brilliant, driven, and tend to disregard morality in the pursuit of scientific breakthrough. Both men do not suffer fools and do not bother to cover their impatience with those they consider to be of lesser intellect. When The Quatermass Xperiment was released in 1955, Hammer wasn’t known for either science fiction or horror. While the success of their Quatermass film led to them pursuing subsequent science fiction films (with uneven results), it’s clear even in The Quatermass Xperiment that the studio was developing a remarkable proficiency in horror. Despite the presence of Quatermass and rocket ships and mission control rooms, Guest’s film is at its heart a monster movie, an early example of the genre that would take the world by storm in the latter half of the 1950s. Even the film’s monster, played under heavy make-up by stage actor Richard Wordsworth, anticipates Hammer’s Curse of Frankenstein and the performance given by Christopher Lee under ghastly make-up. In fact, many critics favorably compared Wordsworth’s performance to that of a previous Frankenstein’s monster, Boris Karloff.
Nigel Kneale may have been upset by the finished product, but Hammer’s approach resulted in a thrilling — if not entirely thoughtful — film that pleased critics and audiences in both the UK and the United States, where it was eventually released as The Creeping Unknown (Quatermass’ name having no value at all in the United States). It performed so well in both countries (in the UK, it was the B-film alongside the French noir masterpiece Rififi) that United Artists, which bought the film from Robert Lippert, agreed to partially fund a sequel. In fact, the success of The Quatermass Xperiment had the ironic effect of ending the relationship between Lippert and Hammer. The film put Hammer on the radar of the big studios. United Artists was now willing to take their calls. The services of a middle man like Robert Lippert were no longer needed. The BBC also had their own ideas about a sequel. At the same time Hammer’s The Quatermass Xperiment was hitting the big screen, Nigel Kneale, Rudolph Cartier, and Professor Quatermass were back in British living rooms.
Kneale and Cartier were not idle while Hammer worked on The Quatermass Xperiment. In 1953 they collaborated on an adaptation of Wuthering Heights. In 1954 they returned to science fiction with a stark, chilling adaptation of George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. The BBC had been quick to snap up the rights to the book after it was published in 1949, but initial attempts to get an adaptation off the ground stalled. Two different screenwriters turned in two different adaptations, but neither resulted in a production. In 1953 the BBC assigned Rudolph Cartier to the project, and he insisted that screenwriting duties be taken over by Nigel Kneale. Given the success the team of Cartier and Kneale had just had with The Quatermass Experiment, the BBC was only too happy oblige. In the lead role of Winston Smith they cast a relative unknown by the name of Peter Cushing, who had enjoyed success the previous year in the BBC production Anastasia. Cast alongside him, in the role of Syme, was another young up-and-comer by the name of Donald Pleasence who would like Cushing go on to become one of the most recognizable icons in cinema (as the quintessential Blofeld in the James Bond film You Only Live Twice and as Dr. Loomis in John Carpenter’s Halloween).
Upon its publication a few years earlier, George Orwell’s novel was generally well received but could not boast any major cultural impact. The same isn’t true of Kneale and Cartier’s BBC adaptation. It was hugely popular and hugely controversial. Many of the complaints filed against the show, which at one hour and forty-seven minutes has the same runtime as a feature film, focused on the brutality of the torture scenes. A group of Parliamentarians issued a statement condemning the show and the BBC for “pander[ing] to sexual and sadistic tastes.” Others objected to the political content of the story, and the depiction of a Britain in which bureaucratic authority was absolute and freedom of thought was outlawed. On the other hand, the program found just as many allies as opponents, and some of them from the most unexpected of places. In particular, the newly coronated Queen Elizabeth II issued a statement saying she quite enjoyed the program. In fact, the broadcast of her coronation was the only show in British television history up to that point that had more viewers than did the broadcast of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Luckily for future generations, the BBC did not show the same short-sightedness as it did when it decided not to record The Quatermass Experiment. Cartier and Kneale’s Nineteen Eighty-Four exists still and remains one of the most faithful and chilling adaptations of a novel that has proven depressingly prescient.
Amazingly, the paranoia and condemnation bureaucratic authoritarianism present in their production of Nineteen Eighty-Four was only a warm-up. With so many hits under their belt, with Hammer’s own Quatermass in production, and with the BBC facing serious competition for the first time (from upstart television production company ITV), Kneale and Cartier were given the go-ahead to begin work on a follow-up Quatermass television serial. This time around, Kneale’s script would tear into political oppression with gusto. Winston Smith may have been limited in what he could say or do, but Professor Quatermass was free to rage. In the autumn of 1955, he did just that in Quatermass II.
And that, as the say, is another story.