It went through the wall!
and the Pit
Jon Dear, writer and co-host of the Nigel Kneale podcast, Bergcast, takes a detailed look at the classic 1958 BBC television production of Kneale’s Quatermass and the Pit…
Jon Dear, writer and co-host of the Nigel Kneale podcast, Bergcast, takes a detailed look at the classic 1958 BBC television production of Kneale’s Quatermass and the Pit…
I originally wrote this as the Windrush scandal enveloped the United Kingdom. The controversy of the deportation of British citizens who emigrated from the Caribbean brought down the then Home Secretary, although many lay the blame at the door of Amber Rudd’s predecessor, the Prime Minister Theresa May (doesn’t that seem a long time ago now?). Windrush shines a spotlight on the UK and its attitude to immigration, to aliens. Britain has invaded a third of the world’s landmass, and yet has never felt fully at ease with what it can see as outsiders, despite the multiple races that made it their home. Britain tried to make the rest of the world British by influencing the development of other nations. You can see where I’m going with this.
Quatermass and the Pit is coy about the year it is set in. ‘A few years in the future,’ is the default setting for this kind of story – Quatermass’s bastard/adopted child Doctor Who (BBC, 1963 – ) would tie itself in knots over this sort of thing – but whenever it is, it can’t be too far from the 1950s, a newsreader announces race riots with Caribbean immigrants are taking place in Birmingham. Racism is the strongest theme that runs through this serial, and not just terrestrial racism. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
The story of Quatermass is the story of two people, writer Nigel Kneale and producer/director Rudolf Cartier. Born in Barrow in Furness but raised on the Isle of Man, Kneale came to work for the BBC in 1951, after winning the W. Somerset Maugham prize for his book Tomato Cain and Other Stories (1949). The following year he helped with the script for Arrow to the Heart (BBC, 1952) helmed by Austrian born Cartier. They were well matched: Kneale would revolutionise television as a medium in its own right (Mark Gatiss credits him with inventing popular television), while Cartier constantly pushed at the technical boundaries of what television could achieve. Apart from the three Quatermass serials, their 1954 adaptation of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is still regarded as one of the greatest TV dramas ever made.
As we’re looking specifically at the third Quatermass serial, we’ll not spend much time looking at the earlier serials The Quatermass Experiment (BBC, 1953) and Quatermass II (BBC, 1955) and nor will we focus on Hammer’s 1967 film of Quatermass and the Pit, directed by Roy Ward Baker. But for further reading check out Andrew Pixley’s viewing notes from the Quatermass BBC DVD in 2005 and the BFI Film Classics book on Quatermass and the Pit by Kim Newman. We Are The Martians: The Legacy of Nigel Kneale by Neil Snowdon and the updated Into the Unknown: The Fantastic Life of Nigel Kneale by Andy Murray are also excellent. I understand Toby Hadoke is currently writing two books on the Quatermass serials which will no doubt be well worth a read.
The three Quatermass serials pitch what is at heart the same alien invasion story in wildly different ways. The Quatermass Experiment gives us a pioneering astronaut infected by an alien organism, and Quatermass II has a covert invasion and infiltration of the government. But Quatermass and the Pit? Well, Bernard’s five million years too late. The aliens have turned up and done their worst.
The story’s title is the best of both worlds, keeping the character name to establish the brand while ‘the Pit’ suggests something more than just an alien invasion tale. Like Edgar Allen Poe before him, Kneale invokes Hell itself. We’re digging deep under London and into mankind’s distant past.
In keeping with its predecessors, the six-episode Quatermass and the Pit was broadcast live over the Christmas and New Year of 1958-59, albeit with substantially more pre-filmed inserts than the previous stories.
1. THE HALFMEN
We open with a street sign.
Then a building site. It’s little more than a decade after the Second World War and house building is a common sight. The year of broadcast, 1958, was the year that the Trades Union Congress House building opened its doors, but this Knightsbridge development would seem to be rather more corporate. A street of working-class houses is being cleared to make way for new offices, and we’ll meet the last of these displaced residents later. Progress.
Building work abruptly ceases when a skull is unearthed. A common touchstone of gothic foreboding, but Kneale has the discovery greeted with curious excitement by the workmen. There’s no hint of foul play suspected, nor superstitious terror. There are larger concerns, like can they make any money from it?
The first episode gives us a masterclass in info-dumping. The camera pans across a series of newspapers, the headlines updating us with further archaeological developments at the site as we learn that several days have passed. We then cut to a press conference and are introduced to Palaeontologist Dr Matthew Roney (Cec Linder). The press conference will be used several times throughout the serial as scene-setting exposition. Here the viewer is being brought up to speed about the discovery of the remains of ape-like hominids over 5 million years old, far older than previously known. But the press conference is more than just an info dump. It sets the tone for the whole serial, that of science fighting its corner against indifference and usurpation. The building contractors want to get on with their work and are pressuring the archaeologists to finish but Roney needs more time. He appeals to the popular press to try to capture the public imagination. This is a country damaged by war and diminished by Suez, resources are precious. Kneale would return to the themes of time pressure and limited resources in The Stone Tape (Peter Sasdy, BBC, 1972) with an electronics company pushing its research team to breaking point in the name of competitive advantage, with tragic results.
Roney’s struggle is mirrored by Professor Bernard Quatermass’s (Andre Morell) British Rocket Group partially being taken over by the military on the orders of the War Office. But before we get to that we have a bridging scene in a gentlemen’s club where Roney and Quatermass meet and it’s established that they’re old friends. This is followed by a film sequence of members of the public being interviewed about the findings. They seem keen, but given what is later revealed about the nature of what is buried there, perhaps they are being subconsciously drawn to the Pit…..Kneale certainly has fun with the rough and ready opinions of the Great British public (and the middle-class interviewer’s snobbish unease) and it’s little asides like this that will be lost in film adaptations, but as well as padding and humour, they help colour the wider world in which this story takes place and will make subsequent events all the more dramatic and heart-breaking.
The info-dumping of the War Office scenes seem a little more forced, ostensibly a meeting to rubber-stamp the Rocket Group’s new military direction, the Minister (Robert Perceval) asks Col. Breen (Anthony Bushell) to go over the situation one more time ‘since some confusion seems to be arising.’ The UK government want to put military bases on the moon (and later Mars) and nuke anyone who starts World War Three. Clearly, the British military is a lot more confident in their resources than their real-life counterparts would be in 1958 (but then in this universe the UK had men in space in 1953). Both Doctor Who and Doomwatch would also show a UK less reduced on the world stage with a fully functioning space programme. Regardless of the countries in play, Kneale predated Reagan’s so-called Star Wars initiative by nearly 30 years.
The discovery of what is believed to be an unexploded bomb ramps the plot up somewhat and gives the first indication that we’re going somewhere a little more uncanny. On discovering something that appears to be metal, one of the volunteer archaeology team, Miss Dobson (Nan Braunton, probably best known as one of Private Godfrey’s sisters in Dad’s Army (BBC, 1968-77)) starts to feel unwell and we hear the first of Trevor Duncan’s musical cues to indicate the weird. Something is wrong here. At this stage, Miss Dobson is more concerned with ‘making an exhibition of herself’ as they are all aware of the ever-present nature of the gawping public. A word here on Clifford Hatts’ sets: The story was broadcast from the BBC’s Riverside Studios in London, and good use is made of the space by building up the sides of the set to give the illusion of a pit being dug under the ground. This is particularly effective when the spacecraft is fully revealed and was possibly an influence on the Tycho crater excavation scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968). A film that examines alien influence on human development. Cartier also utilises a number of panning shots across the cast as a reaction tableau, which adds to the illusion of space.
The metal object is assumed to be an unexploded bomb, a perfectly reasonable assumption and a common touchstone to the audience in 1958, as was the clearing of pre-war housing. (World War II imagery will be a common theme here). 1.5 million new homes would be built in the decade following the Second World War in order to alleviate the housing shortages caused by bomb damage, but it was also to be used by Clement Attlee’s government as an opportunity to clear the Victorian slums and create purpose-built, publicly managed social housing for Britain’s working-class population. Here though, in fashionable central London, we’ve established this is to be the site of an office block rather than workers’ homes. The arrival of a bomb disposal squad allows for the introduction of several supporting characters, most notably Captain Potter (John Stratton). He’ll prove a useful audience identification device as well as a potential love interest for the story’s only central female character, Barbara Judd (Christine Finn) – BECAUSE, OF COURSE, SHE NEEDS ONE. You can also draw some nice parallels between the delicate skills needed in both archaeology and bomb disposal.
Quatermass has so far been separate from the main plot but is brought into it by rather direct means. Despairing of the bomb disposal squad’s interference, Roney bursts into the War Office meeting and pleads for Quatermass to help him. One wonders what would happen now if an individual were to forcibly enter the MoD and into a room a government minister had only recently vacated. Exactly how many bullets could be recovered from their corpse? Once again this scene seems a little too contrived and Kneale would tidy it up in the Hammer film with Captain Potter (Bryan Marshall) telephoning his old mentor Col. Breen (Julian Glover) to ask his advice. Nevertheless, the viewers want Quatermass at the heart of the story and once he, Breen, Roney and Judd are all in the Pit, it can begin in earnest.
The ‘bomb’ was buried deeper than the skull so is itself at least 5 million years old. We’re a good decade out from Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods? (1968) but many of the themes developed by Kneale here – specifically that ancient astronauts influenced human development – would prove central to that work. We’ll return to this theme when we examine the fourth episode.
We’re still five years off Harold Wilson’s ‘white heat of scientific revolution’ speech and many people are still bewildered by the pace of technological change and fearful of its consequences. Work on the atomic bomb and talk of the effects of radiation meant that science and scientists were still viewed with a high degree of suspicion in the atomic age, combined with the military (as Quatermass and Breen are now combined), so you can see what Kneale is presenting. Even Professor Roney as a Canadian brings with him the North American taint. Never mind that he’s an archaeologist and far more critical of the military than even Quatermass, he’s an outsider. And while that can be a useful device for questions and explanations, it also works on the viewers’ prejudice about who to trust.
As work continues on uncovering the ‘bomb’, it’s revealed that Civil Defence records show that no large bombs fell in this area. While this adds to the mystery of what the object might be, it also rather casually reveals that this building work is nothing to with bomb damage. These working-class homes are being demolished deliberately to make way for new offices, and we get a scene where Potter and Judd interview two residents being evacuated, Mr & Mrs Chilcot (Howell Davies and Hilda Barry), characters lifted straight from an Ealing Comedy. As well as confirming the lack of bombs, they slip into the conversation that the house nearest the building site hasn’t been lived in since 1927 because locals believe it to be haunted…
The discovery of an undamaged second skull in a recess in the ‘bomb’ heralds more archaeological excitement, and while Roney and Judd examine it, Quatermass sets off to investigate the haunted house, accompanied by the local bobby, PC Ellis (Victor Platt) who might as well be Dixon of Dock Green (BBC, 1955-76) in person. However, he’s terrified at being in the house, remembering it from his childhood, and Quatermass hears noises he can’t account for or explain. Compare this scene with a similar one in The Stone Tape where local pub landlord (Michael Graham-Cox) talks of his schoolboy memories of the haunted room and can’t bear to be in it now.
Many of the themes presented here will be developed further in The Stone Tape. Kneale would gain a reputation for using science to explain supernatural events without undermining their power (indeed often increasing the horror), and we see its origins here. Quatermass is rationality personified. He’s faced down an astronaut mutating into an invading alien and an interplanetary takeover of the UK government, so what will the explanation be for ghosts? We can’t just dismiss it; Quatermass himself has experienced it, in the heart of London with civilisation, commerce and life just outside the front door, although the scratch marks he notices on the wall of the kitchen suggest these hauntings carry a physical threat. These days terms like hauntology and psychogeography are commonplace when discussing such matters but once again, Kneale is well ahead of the curve. In any case, Quatermass needs more info and undertakes his own Chilcott inquiry…sorry.
The scene where Mrs Chilcott and her tea leaf reading landlady (Madge Brindley) tell Quatermass of the supernatural occurrences in the house will be familiar to readers (or indeed viewers) of M. R. James’s stories, although Quatermass isn’t quite as arrogant as many of those ill-fated academics. Although it’s worth noting that it’s only when Judd shows him old press cuttings (via the truly wondrous technology of photocopies) of the events of 1927 that he really starts to give the ghost stories house room.
Quatermass pays a visit to Roney at the Nicklen Institute, where he works, and we shift from so-called ‘old wives’ tales’ to hard science. Well, that’s the theory. Because while Palaeontologist Roney posits various anthropological theories for his hominid, we get a glimpse of one of his side projects, an ‘optic encephalograph’. In essence a ‘mind telly’, which despite being potentially the greatest scientific breakthrough of the age is left lying around Roney’s office because he can’t get it to work properly. Quatermass offers his help when/if he’s chucked out of the Rocket Group. It’s easy to be cynical at such a seemingly lazy trope. These days a machine that can convert brain patterns into images is a science fiction cliché but here, in the late 1950s, at the dawn of the space race and on the cusp of so much technological advancement, the viewer could conceive that such equipment might be possible. In any case, it’s a less than subtle Chekhov’s Gun. And as we’ll be coming up with a scientific explanation for ghosts later, this doesn’t seem as great a leap as it might first appear.
The ‘bomb’ has now been uncovered. In his BFI book, Kim Newman suggests it looks like ‘a knocked over Dalek’ and while staying with the Doctor Who theme the interior recalls the roundel decorated TARDIS sets. Breen assumes the object is a weapon but inside they find markings, a symbol of five intersecting circles, which Roney identifies as the occult pentangle. Which is a bit of a leap as it doesn’t much resemble a pointed star. Indeed, it looks far more like a circular floral design, a commonly seen motif in medieval church graffiti, thought to trap malevolent spirits. But in any case, the symbol is etched on a wall that seems to conceal an inner chamber. Shades of M. R. James again, only this time Quatermass’s scientific curiosity is such that he’s as keen to see what’s behind the wall as anyone. So far in the story, the weird has been confined to the vaguest terms; Miss Dobson feeling unwell and Quatermass hearing something. Now it comes right to the fore as a soldier sees a small figure walk through the wall and completely freaks out (well you would, wouldn’t you?). Breen is dismissive of the soldier’s mental state, but his description of the spectre matches one from the newspaper cuttings Judd found and now we have a haunting more recent than 1927.
3. IMPS AND DEMONS
We never see the soldier’s ghost (the economy of a BBC budget) not to mention a live broadcast – leaving the drama focussed on the human reaction (and it’s interesting that the Hammer film version also chooses not to show it when a shocking reveal is pretty much Hammer’s stock in trade). I’m assuming he’s meant to have seen the ghost of a hominid rather than the yet to be revealed Martians. In any case, it’s established that despite being buried for 5 million years the spacecraft is dangerous, and they still need to get into that chamber. The usual cutting equipment makes no impression so it’s time for a specialist. If Breen still thinks this is a Nazi weapon then they’ve been holding out on the Allies.
Both the USA and the Soviet Union actively recruited German scientists, engineers, and technicians from the end of the Second World War until the end of the 50s, primarily for operational advantage in the Cold War and the Space Race (codenamed Operation Paperclip in the US, V-2 designer Wernher von Braun was recruited and helped develop the Saturn V launch vehicle which would prove vital to America getting to the Moon first). If the British Government plans to use the British Rocket Group to establish extra-terrestrial military bases, it would be a safe assumption that they too have access to repatriated Nazi scientists. And as Breen is now de facto head of the BRG presumably he knows a couple. Indeed, you’d have thought some would be brought on board. Mind you, perhaps I shouldn’t be too harsh. In the real world, while the US and the USSR were hoovering up all the Nazi scientists they could, the UK had the likes of Otto Muck, whose greatest post-war achievement was writing books on how Atlantis disappeared because it was hit by asteroid induced tsunamis at 8pm on 5th June 8498 BC. If Breen was talking to him, no wonder he thinks there’s plenty of Nazi tech he doesn’t know about.
A serial such as this needs its subplots and supporting characters, not only to bulk out the running time but to help build a recognisable world for the viewer. The Chilcots come from the Ealing comedies of the period, the pub regulars we’ll meet in the sixth episode have stepped from the pages of a Patrick Hamilton novel, and it’s at this point in the story that we’re introduced to a couple of new characters. James Fullerlove (Brian Worth) returns from The Quatermass Experiment, although in that he was played by Paul Whitsun-Jones. Both Fullerlove actors had previously appeared together as Agamemnon (Whitsun-Jones) and Paris (Worth) in The Face of Love (Alvin Rakoff, BBC, 1954), a BBC play updating the story of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida and had also both featured in Jack Clayton’s Room at the Top (Neil Patterson, 1959), although Worth was uncredited. There’s also Sladdern (Richard Shaw), the civilian drill operator. These aren’t scientists and military men, they’re audience identification figures, and there to ask the questions we would.
The newspaper cuttings refer to instances in the eighteenth century and lead Quatermass to delve even further, first in local libraries than in the archives of Westminster Abbey. There have apparently been ghost sightings in the area since Anglo-Saxon times. When trees were felled, a well was dug, and later a London Underground extension and now the housing development. In short, the ghosts appear whenever the ground is disturbed. This gives Quatermass a chance to rationalise ghosts through scientific means, something Kneale will return to in The Stone Tape, and is also the premise of ‘The Death Watcher’ (1971) episode from the anthology series Shadows of Fear (ITV, 1970-73).
Roney notes the spelling of Hob’s Lane in these accounts, a call back to the very first shot of Episode One and talks of Hob being a familiar name for the Devil. The only other Hobbs mentioned here is the contemporary cricketer Jack Hobbs (1882-1963) and it’s curious that no one brings up philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588 – 1679) and his seminal work Leviathan (1651), concerning the social contract of governance and human nature. One of its central themes, that strong governance should not be resisted if its ultimate aim is the protection of those it governs, will be highly relevant once the true motivation of the ‘bomb’s’ occupants is revealed.
These research scenes also recall The Night of the Demon (Jacques Tourneur, 1957). Loosely based on M. R. James’s short story Casting the Runes (1911), it too features an academic trying to make sense of seemingly supernatural occurrences via some good old-fashioned research. This is tension of a different sort, however. In The Night of the Demon, the viewer is several steps ahead of Dr John Holden (Dana Andrews), and his understandably sceptical nature at being pursued by a literal demon that’s going to kill him is somewhat undercut by the fact that the film opens with a literal demon killing someone. Here, the viewer is as ignorant as Quatermass as to the true nature of the threat, and we follow his journey.
The character of the civilian driller Sladdern introduces some much-needed informality to the Pit scenes, joking with the pompous Breen about insurance. He initially appears to be comic relief, making his eventual fate all the more chilling. His drill doesn’t even scratch the bulkhead surface but the resultant sound vibrations cause a major nervous reaction in all present. Breen vomits (off-screen), a major taboo in TV and another strong indication that something is very wrong. The aural bombardment continues for some time after the drill has cut off, a development carried on from Miss Dobson feeling unwell in the first episode. The ‘bomb’ or whatever it is seems to be directly attacking people. So when a hole in the bulkhead is discovered and it’s nothing to do with the drill, it comes across less as overly convenient plot development and more as sinister trap baiting. Breen talks of inward air rush, implying low pressure behind the bulkhead. It can’t be a vacuum however as the bodies they find are intact.
Episode three ends on the revelation of what’s behind the bulkhead: three aliens, small, insect-like, with horn-like antennae, hanging in what looks like webbing. Cartier avoids the obvious cliff-hanger of a jump scare – one of the creatures moves, presumably due to the pressure change – and Breen jumps. Instead, the climax is Quatermass explaining that these aliens have all been dead a long time. They’re not here to conquer, they did what they came to do five million years earlier.
4. THE ENCHANTED
The creatures are decaying rapidly and Roney must work fast to preserve what he can for analysis. They’re variously described as ‘insects’, ‘crabs’ and ‘locusts’ before Roney settles on the safer ‘arthropods’ which seems to cover most of the bases. One unusual thing: they’ve got three legs, ‘tripods’ (tripeds?). Much is rightly made of Nigel Kneale’s huge influence on popular culture but it’s worth considering who his influences are for a moment. We’ve touched on a couple of M.R. James moments and the three-legged Martians brings to mind HG Welles’s War of the Worlds (1897), while the coming revelations of mankind’s manipulation by an older civilisation brings to mind She: A History of Adventure (1897) by H. Rider Haggard, with the Queen Empress viewing the British Empire as the savages that they see in their imperialistic conquests. Both She (Robert Day, 1965) and Quatermass and the Pit would be adapted as films by Hammer in the mid-60s.
The webbing the creatures are hanging in seems to be apparatus for operating the craft but as Quatermass theorises how the science works, Breen is shown as unable to cope with such a challenge to his certainties.
Quatermass: Be careful of those membranes, they could be some sort of instruments.
Breen: Instruments? Your imagination’s running wild!
Quatermass: Isn’t yours?
This episode has a lot of resonance to the world, over 60 years after broadcast. While Quatermass develop a theory as to the nature of the aliens – they come from Mars, they’ve abducted a selection of hominids, augmented their minds with Martian traits and reintroduced them to Earth to become the dominant species – it ultimately doesn’t matter if those in charge aren’t prepared to listen and take a simpler, populist approach – with disastrous consequences.
The idea of mankind’s evolution being dependent on extra-terrestrial influences is a common theme of H.P. Lovecraft and the concept of all of your beliefs and certainties being destroyed brings to mind the recluse’s diary in The House on the Borderlands (1908) by William Hope Hodgson, surely one of the most influential pieces of sci-fi/fantasy/horror genre fiction ever written. Lovecraft’s own influences come from Helena Blavatski’s Theosophical Society, founded in 1874. In many ways, this story can be pinpointed on a temporal map, partway between Blavatski and Erich von Däniken, although Kneale presents his work as fiction.
Roney’s handily illustrated laboratory provides plenty of examples of how the Martians’ appearance has influenced the look of gargoyles and grotesques in various cultures throughout history, as well as the cultural significance of horns. A bit too handy this, but it’s live telly and options are limited. Doctor Who would nick (rework surely?) this scene in ‘The Daemons’ (1971) with the Doctor (Jon Pertwee) giving a patronising slide show on the same subject in a pub.
At the Ministry of War, Breen convinces the Minister that the spacecraft is a piece of Nazi propaganda flown there to undermine British morale. This despite the fact it’s been buried for five million years and presumably none of the captured Nazi scientists have mentioned this. And as a plan, Breen’s physiological warfare theory doesn’t really hold much water or make much sense, but it plays into the Minister’s pre-existing anti-German prejudices. It’s hard to be too judgemental, this episode went out less than 14 years after the end of World War II, and most people watching would have been personally affected by it. But this scene’s lesson is that people will buy into a simpler narrative if it tells them what they want to hear, no matter if it clearly doesn’t make sense. This is still highly relevant as a warning for when you think you’ve ‘had enough of experts.’
With the decision made that it’s all a hoax and a press conference being set up for the morning, the army begins to pack up and Sladdern is left alone to dismantle his drilling equipment. Live TV gives you little scope for elaborate effects so what follows must be sold on doing the basics well and the reactions of the actors. The unsettling sounds and objects moving on their own are nicely handled (and the DVD has edited out the strings) but most of the credit must go to Richard Shaw. His terror is one thing but the inhuman (we must presume Martian) way he moves is so disconcerting as to be the most frightening sequence in the whole serial. Is he running in terror? Is he possessed by some alien intelligence? The maelstrom of sound and energy hit Judd and the retiring soldiers as Sladdern flees into the night. By luck or design, he arrives at that universal place of sanctuary, a church. But as he collapses by the concerned and genteel Vicar (Noel Howlett. He’ll play pretty much the same part in the 1961 Hancock episode ‘The Lift’) it’s clear he’s brought something with him. Again, simple but effective work from the BBC Visual Effects Department help convey the weird, with the ground seeming to move by Sladdern’s fallen body. Whatever was in the capsule is out and loose in London and the only person that can stop it has been rendered powerless by his own bosses. It’s a chilling and gripping place to leave Episode Four.
5. THE WILD HUNT
The church may be a place of sanctuary but it’s a pretty hostile place for scientists. Potter locates Slattern and goes to get Quatermass. The Vicar is a continuation of those untrusting themes introduced in the second episode, he talks of Slattern encountering ‘spiritual evil’ but he’s unimpressed with Quatermass’s methods to get information out of the driller, thinking him an unfeeling scientist, no different to those that have brought the world to the brink of destruction. In many ways, the Vicar sees Quatermass as Quatermass sees Breen. This scene can be seen as a distillation of what Kneale’s trying to do with this story.
Vicar: I’d have expected that from you, a scientist. Are you going to explain this away in fashionable terms, call it suggestion, hysteria?
Quatermass: On the contrary, I agree with you.
Vicar: You agree?
Quatermass: What has been uncovered is evil. It’s as anciently diabolic as anything ever recorded.
Quatermass sees no contradiction with science and concepts like evil and will use scientific methods to try to understand it.
The encounter in the Martian ship has triggered a race memory in Slattern. He describes himself as a Martian, ‘leaping, jumping, in and out of them big places…huge, right up into the sky!’ Race memory is one of those tropes that can be usefully rescued from the cul-de-sacs of outdated science and examples of it turn up in Doctor Who (of course) and Frank Herbert’s Dune books.
The hull of the ship and the membrane the Martians were discovered in is shown to be its method of control. The ship affects those nearby and thus is the source of the historical hauntings. Telekinesis? Witchcraft? Latent power the Martians have given humanity, or at least part of it? When Quatermass attempts to use Rooney’s mind telly at the ship to see if he can observe what affected Slattern, it’s clear not all people react in the same way. Roney is completely immune to the ship’s effects, Quatermass is partially affected, but Judd? She’s the most sensitive. While it may be cynical to sneer at Barbara finally being given something useful to do my biggest problem with this sequence is that it suggests Roney has invented something far more impressive than the use for which it was intended, and that *does* seem a little too convenient.
The viewer finally gets what Slattern’s been banging on about. Quatermass takes the optic encephalograph to the War Office to show the Minister. We see Martians committing brutal violence on each other, taking part in a wild hunt. The Wild Hunt, as popularised by Jacob Grimm is a comparative folklore motif throughout European history but with these small green hunters perhaps Kneale is drawing on the Manx legends of the mooinjer veggey from his childhood. However, Quatermass does seem to make large assumptive leaps to present a narrative about what we’ve just seen. It brings to mind Lovecraft’s At The Mountains of Madness (1936) where the protagonist gleams a *huge* amount of reader-friendly information from the walls of the Elder Things city. And unlike the frustration of the Minister blindly accepting Breen’s Nazi hoax theory when it clearly doesn’t make sense, here you really can’t blame him for calling bullshit on some grainy close-cut footage of what Quatermass tells him are Martians hunting each other five million years ago. His assumption – that these have been conjured by the minds of traumatised people – is far more believable. The fact the viewers know he’s wrong – and that his decision to hold a press conference at the pit, where he’ll announce that the whole thing was a hoax, is bound to end in disaster – is highly effective in building anticipation. Of course, this leads you to question why the Ministry is so confident it’s a hoax that they’ll have live television there when one reporter (Fuller-Love) has witnessed the truth and knows disaster will follow. That’s when you realise just how much Colonel Breen has lost the plot. He won’t accept any view other than his own and reacts with hysteria when Quatermass calls him out in front of reporters. The fear here comes less from the impending threat of the Martians than from the wilful blindness of authority figures leading us to disaster that we feel powerless to stop.
As the TV crews move into the ship something happens and a technician is killed – our first fatality in over two hours of running time – and the scene is set for the finale. Thanks to live television the ship’s influence will not be confined to the local area. The whole of Britain is watching and the Martian’s effects will be felt nationwide. The idea of using television to broadcast a signal that will cause widespread destruction is something else that Kneale would reuse for the climax of Kneale scripted (but wilfully uncredited) Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) and it would also provide crucial to the climax of Stephen Volk’s Ghostwatch (1992).
The ship is now a glowing focal point and while people in the immediate vicinity become enthralled and powerless, the cameras keep broadcasting…
We see a nearby pub, with characters that could be drawn from Hangover Square (1941) by Patrick Hamilton, Norman Collins’ London Belongs To Me (1945) or indeed the Dickensian stories that influenced them. Through these people, we get sardonic commentary on how Brits view an unfolding crisis. Usually with alcohol.
Hysteria now grips the country as the ship’s effect and influence spreads, even Quatermass is not immune as mass hysteria causing large-scale social unrest throughout London. The uncontrollable mob is now the biggest terror, and they seem to be targeting certain people. Through all this, Roney is unaffected and manages to rescue Quatermass from his mob state but forcing him to recall a fishing trip they had together, a detail that never really rings true. As Quatermass is saved so Breen dies, consumed by the ship, his journey from ally to enemy now complete, and he’ll have no role in the resolution. Kneale is keen to show how people who are so sure of themselves are dangerous and given the right circumstances, most humans are capable of great evil. We’re now witnessing the ‘wild hunt’ that Slattern and Barbara saw, humans killing others different to them and thus the Martian plan is revealed: land on the Earth and use the augmented hominids to destroy the others.
Kneale now brings in another device that is now so common as to be cliché: the use of a news anchor to report plot development. The US reports that London is now in blackout and cut off. They go live to a plane with the pilot giving an eyewitness account of buildings on fire (complete with lots of Blitz era stock footage). Again, contemporary viewers would not need much prompting to imagine this horror. To compound matters, the crew succumb to the ship’s influence and the plane crashes, another occurrence all too familiar to the watching public in late 50s Britain. All the plane scenes are shot tightly yet simply, again you see nothing, and the horror is experienced through dialogue and reaction.
By now the spaceship is melting – mass into energy – and a giant, spectral Martian is manifesting over London. Only Roney, completely unaffected by its influence, can get anywhere near this new ‘Hob’. And with a final plan that plays on the scientific truth behind folklore (fighting the Devil with iron), he throws iron chains at the spectre, shorting out the transfer by earthing its power. Hob dissipates as Roney is electrocuted. Cartier climaxes this scene with an effective (and economic) blackout. The scientist Roney dies a hero, the soldier Breen is an empty husk. This is no time for subtlety.
The final scene is a press conference, neatly bookending Roney’s in episode one. Quatermass tells humanity that all of its evils – war, anger, racism – are a result of the Martians genetic influence and are, therefore ‘unhuman’ (a nice twist on misanthropy), but those that are free of the taint, like Roney or Captain Potter, are what give humanity their hope. Otherwise, Earth is as doomed as Mars.
It’s impossible to overstate Kneale’s influence on film and television, neither Hammer Films nor Doctor Who would have the same level of longevity without Quatermass. Quatermass and the Pit shows him fully into his stride, championing the scientist as hero, something that even by the 80s American films were still struggling with. Quatermass is a hero who wins by reason, intellect and understanding, and violence is ultimately self-destructive. The threat lies within humanity itself, the Martians having long ago done what they needed to do. Watching The Stone Tape after Quatermass and the Pit you see the continuation of many of the same themes and characters, the terrified local in the haunted room, the sensitive female scientist, but there is one notable absence, Bernard Quatermass himself. And without his influence, things don’t end well.
Kneale also understood television as a visual medium, which sounds ridiculously obvious now but in the mid-50s was still very much ‘radio with pictures.’ Nevertheless, live TV is far more restrictive than film, so this is a production that needs to sell the tension and suspense on reaction. Everyone on both sides of the camera needed to be at the top of their game. Pretty much every actor in this is excellent, with special plaudits to Richard Shaw as Slattern.
Seamlessly blending the ghost story into science fiction until they become the same thing, Quatermass and the Pit is, like Kneale and Cartier’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, one of the greatest pieces of television ever made.