Hammer’s 1967 adaptation of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass and the Pit has always been one of my favourite films, simply because it scared the hell out of me when I was a kid- it’s always impossible to shake that connection you have with a film that has such a key effect on you like that, you’ll see better films, sure, but you’ll always hold those early film experiences dear. Thankfully the film still holds up pretty strong today and the blu-ray I have of it is a prized part of my film collection on disc, but I never saw the original BBC serial from 1958 upon which the film was based, until now.
The tv serial Quatermass and the Pit dates from a far-different era to what we know now, as far away from today’s big-budget Netflix extravaganzas as one could imagine. The serial was aired over six episodes, broadcast on Monday evenings at 8 pm from 22nd December 1958 to 26th January 1959. Incredibly, each episode was mostly live, broadcast from BBC studios in Hammersmith, London, with some sequences previously shot on film (due to technical issues such as location shooting or reliance on physical special effects etc) inserted during the performance. It lends the whole something of the atmosphere of a play, with a genuine feeling of vitality and excitement, and edginess from the feeling that, well, anything might happen. Any mistakes can’t be fixed by an editor! Fortunately everyone seems to have been well prepared- rehearsals took place between the Tuesday and Saturday prior to each Monday transmission (camera rehearsals taking place on the day of transmission), but there’s clearly that tension of live performance, slight timing issues that might have been edited on film but had to be accepted here. There’s a lovely moment when Bernard Quatermass walks into an office and the door doesn’t close behind him as intended, and he turns during his line and closes it in passing before putting his hat and coat away. Its nothing at all, really, but it feels like a ‘real’ moment that the actor has to nonchalantly react to, as if he were in a theatre. Sometimes it’s the little things that give something its reality, moments that are edited out or corrected in subsequent retakes. The tension and edginess of being a live performance translates well into the subject matter and tactile horrors of the story.
Workmen on a construction/demolition site in Hobbs Lane, London discover a pre-human skull which excites the attention of Dr Matthew Roney (Cec Linder) a paleontologist who is baffled and thrilled by the skulls large brain volume that suggests a primitive man hitherto unknown to science. Subsequent excavations discover further bones and skulls and finally what appears to be the outer surface of a missile or bomb, which halts Roney’s work as the military are brought in and the site closed off.
Frustrated, Roney calls his friend Professor Bernard Quatermass (Andre Morell) in an effort to stop the military ruining his valuable archeological find. Quatermass and Colonel Breen (Anthony Bushell), who has recently been appointed to lead the British rocket Group against the professors objections, arrive at the site; more fossils are found as the strange metallic object is uncovered. Roney dates the fossils to some five million years, suggesting that the object has been buried all that time, a finding Colonel Breen considers ridiculous, instead hypothesizing that the object is an experimental german bomb that failed to explode during the Blitz. Whatever it is, it is large and hollow, the interior apparently empty but for etchings on one of the interior walls that suggest an occult pentacle.
Most everyone feels a strange, foreboding atmosphere around the object, a sensation of unease. Intrigued, Quatermass makes enquiries about the history of the area; Hobbs Lane was formerly Hob’s Lane, Hob being an antiquated name for the Devil, and there are tales of ghosts and poltergeists told by locals and in press articles over decades. The military attempts to drill into an interior wall of the object into what appears to be a concealed chamber, the resulting vibrations cause some distress to those there and one soldier has an hysterical attack, screaming that he saw a dwarf-like creature walk out of the wall, a description Quatermass remarks matches a 1927 newspaper story of a ghost seen in Hobbs Lane.
Further drilling causes a hole to open up and Quatermass and the soldiers find inside the remains of insect-like creatures, evidently aliens that resemble some kind of locust with horn-like antennae. Examining the remains, Quatermass and Roney postulate that the creatures may be Martians that arrived on Earth five million years ago. Colonel Breen still believes it the work of Germans, evidently an elaborate hoax to instil panic in wartime England. Quatermass, however, feels that the object is yet dangerous, in some way affecting those near it with horrific visions and causing poltergeist-like activity, and evidenced thus in the historical record as far back as he can investigate in records centuries old. What Quatermass does not realise is that the object, or alien vessel, is itself alive and is becoming activated by the human activity around it, and will soon result in a transmission that will affect the public nationwide in a night of violence and terror…
Having seen the Hammer film several times before, I was naturally familiar with the general plot, and it is evident the film was faithful to the serial. But naturally the longer running time (each episode was allocated about 35 minutes incase the live performance over-ran beyond the usual 30-minute runtime) over six episodes allowed more detail, background and character moments than the film was afforded over its own 97 minutes. Aired in black and white it feels much like a Twilight Zone episode, the monochrome aiding the mood with its stark lights and shadows, and of course it feels naturally authentic in its 1950s period setting, today almost lending it a kind of strange, alien-world vibe with its antiquated technology and scientific knowledge.
I’ve become familiar with Andre Morell through his work with Hammer, over the past few years seeing him in Hammer’s The Camp on Blood Island, Cash on Demand, The Plague of the Zombies, The Mummy’s Shroud and The Hound of the Baskervilles. He was an actor with a commanding presence and powerful voice, and his Quatermass here is generally considered the definitive one, as it was played by other actors in the earlier BBC serials and ensuing Quatermass films/projects. I was surprised to discover that he declined the role in Hammer’s own feature-film adaptation. Andrew Keir played Quatermass in Hammers version of Quatermass and the Pit and, being the performance I became familiar with he’s always seemed my Quatermass, but I have to admit Morell is brilliant here and it’s such a pity he didn’t reprise his performance in the film.
The rest of the cast is universally fine; Bushell suitably infuriates as his characters closed-thinking hampers the efforts of Quatermass to raise the alarm, and Canadian actor Cec Linder is very good as the scientist friend of Quatermass- notable among the minor cast roles is Michael Ripper as one of the military worksquad. The acting of all the cast is pretty impressive considering a great deal of it was performed live.
The scale of the production is obviously limited by its age and budget, but I think this works in its favour. In its live performance it has the feel of a play and stagecraft, and it also works in similar fashion to a radio production, larger-scale events often occuring offscreen and being described by characters (looking through doorways or windows for instance, or watching tv transmissions) and thus benefiting from the viewers imagination. Its a technique that works brilliantly on radio and it’s the same here. As the scale of the horror escalates out of Quatermass’ control, thus it becomes increasingly handed over to the audience’s imagination. Of course a modern adaptation would be more literal and show more (as did the Hammer film version, albeit itself limited by budget naturally) but I don’t think a contemporary version would necessarily improve on this thrilling original. That said, the film is obviously Nigel Kneale examining racism and using his tale to explain it as a genetic modification of apes by ancient Martians in their attempt to colonise the Earth- in the grand tradition of the later Star Trek, Kneale’s tale is an allegory of racial tensions of his time (1950s Britain being plagued by race troubles culminating in some attacks and riots) but obviously it’s all quite timely for us today in our own era of Political fragmentation, Brexit and immigration issues.
The grand twist of both serial and film is that while it is a tale of alien invasion, it’s one that occured five million years ago, and by some accounts the aliens won, as we are the descendants of their genetic manipulation (the original Earth-Apes being wiped out). While they themselves perished (the Martians destroyed themselves in Wild Hunts on the Red Planet, in which Martians of different groups ultimately slaughtered each other), their legacy of bigotry and racism continues through us. At the conclusion, Quatermass delivers a stark warning directly to camera: “If we cannot control the inheritance within us, this will be their (the Martians’) second dead planet!” he snarls. In the Atomic Age of 1959 and on the eve of the next decade of manned spaceflight, it must have been a foreboding and chilling ending. It rather worked that magic on me, in 2019.
This was quite excellent and yes, superior even to the Hammer film that I have loved all these years since a kid. I watched the serial on iplayer, but it has also been released on Blu-ray, which includes some considerably intriguing special features so I’ll no doubt be ordering a copy someday. As its free on iplayer, it’s surely a no-brainer for genre fans unfamiliar with it to give it ago. Its somewhat dated, but endearingly so- this has the feel of something to treasure. This is science fiction of ideas and grand concepts and its rather disturbing too- quite refreshing compared to the big on spectacle, empty-headed nonsense that passes for science fiction so much of the time these days.
And maybe a remake/reboot of this would indeed be quite timely and pertinent to the times we live in. Blame the Martians.