Quatermass – The Hammer Years

Growing up in the 1970s, I was far too young to have experienced Nigel Kneale’s seminal trilogy of sci-fi serials, The Quatermass Experiment, Quatermass II and Quatermass and the Pit during their original broadcast on the BBC in the 1950s. I remember having a copy of the LP Geoff Love and his Orchestra play Star Wars and Other Space Themes, which ended Side 1 with Gustav Holst’s Mars – Bringer of War from The Quatermass Experiment and asking my Uncle, who was very film and TV savvy, what that was. He explained the basic plot to me and it sounded amazing – but in the days before commercial video recording, utterly inaccessible. Little was I to know that, save for a single episode in the BBC archives, it was long gone – wiped from existence to make way for episodes of The Black & White Minstrel Show and Jim’ll Fix It.

In 1979, ITV had a strike. Nothing unusual there; everybody was striking all over the place, but this was a BIG strike that put the Independent Television network off the air for 11 weeks. When ITV returned to much fanfare, it pushed a great many of its biggest shows to the fore, including a 4-part Euston Films production of Quatermass, Nigel Kneale’s first TV outing for the character in over 20 years. This was my first experience of the character and finally I could see what all the fuss was about! I enjoyed Quatermass, though even at the age of 9 I could see that it was a very different beast to the 1950s serials. It would be 1988 before BBC Video capriciously released Quatermass and the Pit on VHS, allowing me my first view of one of the 1950s serials – but inbetween ITV 1979 and BBC Video 1988; I experienced all three original Quatermass stories courtesy of Hammer.

These days, Hammer Films are synonymous with horror. Hammer Horror – the phrase rolls off the tongue, over the fangs and probably onto the bare breasts of a buxom serving wench. But it was not always thus; Hammer were originally called Exclusive Films and they made Quota Quickies – British films made as cheaply and swiftly as possible to fulfil a Government mandate of having a certain percentage of home-grown content on the cinema screen. A common practise to engage interest in these unremarkable films was to base them on popular radio serials of the 40s and 50s, such as Dick Barton – Special Agent, PC 49 and Sexton Blake; so when Exclusive Films saw how The Quatermass Experiment had captured the public imagination on the nascent BBC Television service, they leapt at the chance.

Unlike radio, TV was still something of a luxury in 1953; by no means every household had a set. So, with the national press singing the praises of The Quatermass Experiment and not everyone being able to see it, a film adaptation was a sure-fire hit. Exclusive also cottoned on quite quickly to the fact that The Quatermass Experiment wasn’t your usual kid-friendly Saturday morning sci-fi; this was horror, intended for grown-ups and so, partly as a gimmick, they courted the newly created ‘X’ certificate – intended for adult viewers only – and even changed the name of their production to The Quatermass Xperiment to hammer home the point. Nigel Kneale was still a BBC staff writer at this point and so could not be engaged to write the script; instead, almost three hours of TV material was whittled down to a sprightly 82 minutes by American B-movie writer Richard Landau.

Exclusive realised that The Quatermass Xperiment had a life outside the British market, so in order to sell the film internationally they cast Brian Donlevy, a stalwart of the Hollywood studio system with a minor drink problem and a major toupee problem. In his day, Donlevy had been quite a versatile actor capable of playing everything from cowboys to detectives and was Oscar nominated for his role as Sergeant Markoff in the 1939 production of Beau Geste. He was still a recognisable name in 1955 (and had a famous Hollywood marriage to Bela Lugosi’s ex-wife Lillian), but at 54 years old, his leading-man days were behind him and it probably wouldn’t have bust Exclusive’s budget to engage his services. He seems to have problems knowing quite how to pitch Professor Quatermass and the character often comes across like a fast-talking Hollywood private eye, much to the displeasure of Nigel Kneale. His pronunciation of the character’s name as ‘Quadermuss’ never fails to raise a titter whenever I watch the film.

Alongside Brian Donlevy, veteran director Val Guest cast a host of well-known British character actors, including Lionel Jeffries, Thora Hird and Jack Warner, best known for his role as the ill-fated PC George Dickson in The Blue Lamp, here playing another policeman, Inspector Lomax. Stealing the show from the rest of the cast, however, is Richard Wordsworth as the last survivor of a doomed rocket crew, slowly and horrifically transforming into something not-of-this-earth. Although he does not have a single line of dialogue, Wordsworth’s gaunt expression and pained acting make a character that could so easily have been simply a monster into someone who is almost sympathetic and it is his image, not that of Brian Donlevy as Quatermass, that is indelibly associated with the production.

The Quatermass Xperiment was a big hit for Exclusive Films, both in Britain and in there United States, where it was released as The Creeping Unknown, so they were keen to produce a sequel. But Nigel Kneale still wasn’t free of his BBC contract and he was unwilling to sign over the use of his best-loved character. A script idea by Jimmy Sangster about a radioactive creature from the earth’s core was re-tooled as X the Unknown, with another American Dean Jagger as the Quatermass-a-like Dr. Royston (see Bonus Feature). By 1957 however, Nigel Kneale was no longer under a BBC contract and was free to adapt his second Quatermass serial Quatermass II as a film script for Exclusive under the slightly amended title Quatermass 2 (Enemy from Space in the US and Canada). Brian Donlevy returned as Professor Quatermass, though Nigel Kneale’s superior script provided dialogue more suited to his performance.

Jack Warner’s The Blue Lamp character George Dixon, unwilling to let the little matter of having been shot dead by Dirk Bogarde stop him, returned in 1955 in the BBC series Dixon of Dock Green, which would go on to be a British TV staple for over 20 years. With Warner unavailable, the part of Inspector Lomax was recast with John Longden, a veteran of Hitchcock’s early British films. Also in the cast was future Carry On stalwart Sid James as the journalist Jimmy Hall, a part played on TV by Roger Delgado. It’s hard to imagine two less similar actors than James and Delgado, yet here they are playing the same character. It’s worth noting that prior to becoming a regular in British cinema’s longest running comedy rep, Sid James (or Sydney James, as he was often billed) was a straight actor who, in the same year as Quatermass 2, also appeared in Cy Endfield’s Hell Drivers opposite future genre favourites Patrick McGoohan, William Hartnell, David McCallum and Sean Connery.

The film of Quatermass 2 is on one hand a lot closer to its TV counterpart than The Quatermass Xperiment and on the other, radically different. The Shell Haven Oil Refinery in Stanford-le-Hope, Essex used for the alien complex at Winnerden Flats was the same location used in the TV series and many of the scenes shot there look quite similar, in particular the scenes of Broadhead staggering down a metal staircase covered in sinister black ooze. Conversely, the end of the film is entirely different from the TV series; in the original, Quatermass and Dr. Pugh (a character not featured in the film) pilot the Quatermass II rocket ship to the asteroid which is the source of the alien infection in an attempt to stop the invaders. Perhaps wary of the fact that this all looked a bit ropey on a BBC budget and wouldn’t look much better on an Exclusive Films budget, Nigel Kneale elected to excise the entire rocket flight sequence from his motion picture script.

Quatermass 2 is probably a little slicker looking than The Quatermass Xperiment and lacks its predecessor’s unfortunate lag at the 3/4 point, most of which can be attributed to having Nigel Kneale at the writing helm. It performed well enough at the international box office to convince Exclusive Films that science-based horror was the way forward, but it would be another 18 months before the third TV series Quatermass and the Pit aired on the BBC. Exclusive Films went back to basics, embarking on a production of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein entitled The Curse of Frankenstein, pausing only to change their name to the iconic Hammer Films. The Curse of Frankenstein was a huge hit, elevating its stars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee to horror royalty and steering the renamed studio down a lucrative path of gothic chillers and away from the more overtly sci-fi world of Professor Quatermass.

Hammer hadn’t quite finished with the Professor however, although it would be another 10 years before they got around to adapting Quatermass and the Pit. By this time, Hammer were filming almost exclusively in Eastmancolor™ and this would be the first Quatermass adventure of any kind not to be recorded in monochrome. Although they initially struggled to find backing from any of their usual American backers (who were increasingly only interested in the lurid gothic horrors), it was no longer required of them to fill the title role with an American and besides, Brian Donlevy was now in his 70s and nearing the end of his career. So the director Roy Ward Baker cast Scottish actor Andrew Keir, a Hammer stalwart who had also appeared in the second Doctor Who feature film Daleks’ Invasion Earth: 2150ad opposite Peter Cushing. Keir would lend exactly the right mixture of gravitas and uncertainty to the role, making him one of the most memorable Quatermass’s in the history of the character.

Professor Roney is played by James Donald, best known for his role in The Great Escape, and Miss Judd is played by Barbara Shelley – Hammer’s thinking man’s scream queen, less inclined to disrobe at the drop of a hat and always giving a thoughtful, measured performance. There’s also a young Julian Glover as Colonel Breen and comedy actress Sheila Steafel (another veteran of Daleks’ Invasion Earth: 2150ad) in a small but memorable role as a journalist. The acting in general is far superior to the previous two Quatermass films, lacking the clipped 50s vowels that dogged its predecessors and the conspicuous dubbing that always seemed to be a feature of the early Exclusive/Hammer films. The latter was particularly prominent among the female members of the cast, as if the casting criterion in the early days was: looks first, worry about that bothersome accent later. Luckily, things had moved on a bit by the late 60s.

Quatermass and the Pit is a gorgeous looking film; the shifting of the ‘pit’ from an exterior building site on TV to a London Underground station development is a stroke of genius and the claustrophobic sets back it up perfectly. There’s a palpable sense of discomfort as the actors clump around in thick mud and on top of slippery props. It’s also a gorgeous sounding film, with James Bernard’s very modern score backed up by weird, eerie electronic sounds courtesy of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s Tristram Cary. Legend has it that the British Board of Film Censors were concerned that the electronic vibrations used for the Martian ship might be subsonic noises, which can have a nauseating effect on the human brain, however all of the electronic sound seems to have been passed in the eventual cut – albeit with an ‘X’ certificate, which the film really does not deserve. Modern releases of the film are passed with a ‘12’.

When I was a teenager, ITV used to regularly show Hammer films late on a Friday night as part of a strand called Night Time. This is undoubtedly where I first saw Quatermass and the Pit, probably before I’d seen the other two, and it instantly became a firm favourite. It’s widely considered to be one of Hammer’s best films and almost universally considered to be the best of their three Quatermass films. Unfortunately, within 5 years, Hammer were in decline, relying more on the exploitative value of nudity and gore and eventually fizzling out over a protracted period. As mentioned at the beginning of this piece, it would be 1979 before Quatermass returned to TV – the same year that Hammer films went into liquidation. It’s a shame because their last horror film, 1976’s To the Devil a Daughter, was very slick and modern and in a late-70s market dominated by sci-fi, another Quatermass might just have revived their fortunes.

The Hammer Quatermass films are very divisive; a lot of fans of the TV episodes view them as greatly inferior to their TV counterparts. This may indeed be true of the first two (it’s hard to say with so little of the first serial still in existence), but there’s no denying that Quatermass and the Pit is an exceptionally good film. It stands alone in Hammer’s pantheon as something altogether more thoughtful than the bloody, bosomy horrors for which the studio is better known. I love the TV version of Quatermass and the Pit and still maintain that it’s one of the all-time masterpieces of TV science fiction, but I love the Hammer film too and I’d be hard-pressed to say which of them I like the best. The other two films are fun, watchable films, but not what anyone would describe as art. Nevertheless, I’m glad they all exist and I’m happy to watch them whenever I get the chance.

BONUS FEATURE: X THE UNKNOWN

With the success of The Quatermass Xperiment, Exclusive Films were keen to follow it up with a sequel, but Nigel Kneale was busy creating Quatermass II at the BBC. Scriptwriter Jimmy Sangster pitched an idea about the Professor coming up against a creature made of radioactive mud from the Earth’s core, but Kneale refused permission for his character to be used without his involvement. Undeterred, Exclusive went ahead with production of the film in 1956, replacing the character of Professor Quatermass with Dr. Royston and renaming it X the Unknown. As Dr. Royston, the producers cast Dean Jagger, an American actor who had won an Academy Award in 1949 for his part in the movie Twelve O’Clock High. The director was intended to be Joseph Losey, who had directed Harold Pinter’s The Servant in 1963, but Losey was Hollywood blacklisted as a suspected communist and Jagger refused to work with him. He was replaced by Ealing Comedy director Leslie Norman.

The cast is full of familiar British character actors, including Leo McKern, Anthony Newley, William Lucas and Michael Ripper, as well as appearances from a young Kenneth Cope and a very young Frazer Hines. The film is very male-centric and what few female characters there are are essentially eye candy. Dean Jagger steals the show as Dr. Royston, giving an interesting performance full of ticks and quirks. He’s arguably a much better actor than Brian Donlevy and would have made a superior Quatermass, however he was reported very expensive and only really appears in the film because American backers RKO stumped up the case to hire him, with his fee allegedly running to a full half of the film’s budget.

The story shares a lot of common ground with the films The Blob and The Trollenberg Terror, and the radio serial The Slide, but it pre-dates all of them. The scientific veracity of its use of radioactivity is questionable in the extreme, but as a simple horror story, it is fairly effective. Nigel Kneale was right to withhold Quatermass though, because it’s simply not in the same league as his storytelling. Nevertheless, it’s a very good-looking film that makes the most of its black and white photography to fill the screen with shadows and darkness. The special effects are surprisingly good too, making excellent use of mattes and miniatures; the shot where a car turns in the foreground whilst the mud creature rolls towards it in the distance is particularly effective.

X the Unknown is often dismissed as a cash-in of the Quatermass series, but it’s actually an okay film. It’s a lot better than other British sci-fi fare of the era like The Strange World of Planet X or Fiend without a Face, although its script would have benefitted from the lightness of touch of a Nigel Kneale make-over. The involvement of Dean Jagger elevates it above the status of schlock horror and makes for a pretty interesting finished product. Okay, it’s not Quatermass – it was never going to be Quatermass – but it’s still an enjoyable film to watch on a cold Winter’s night.

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