Ripe for a re-make by the new Hammer Studio
1It’s the near future. Professor Bernard Quatermass has long since retired from the British Rocket Foundation and lives as a near recluse in Scotland. However, when his granddaughter disappears he comes out of retirement to hijack a live science TV show broadcasting the Russian and American joint space effort with the intent of searching for her. When things take a sudden turn for the worst, Quatermass becomes a focal point for scorn and together with the astronomer Joe Kapp, beats a hasty retreat through the decaying, gang-war infested cityscape to the countryside where bands of mindless young Planet People worship the ancient stone monolithic circles. When the circles become focal points for the youngsters and a mysterious lightning from the sky appears in the same area causing their disappearance, Quatermass suspects foul play. Could the disastrous space mission and the disappearances be related? Might there be an undiscovered Russian ploy? Could the Planet People’s ideas of transportation to Utopia be coming true? Or is there an altogether more sinister origin?
All these questions are poised by famed scientific writer and creator of Quatermass, Nigel Kneale in this the fourth televisual outing for the rocket scientist. Kneale first wrote the character for three serials shown on the BBC in the mid to late 50’s with, perhaps, Quatermass and the Pit being the most famous, as it had a true sense of realism, astonishing visual effects for the time and an idea so clever that it tapped deep into the psyche and felt plausible. All three TV series’ were remade by Hammer Films studio with, again, Quatermass and the Pit, being a glorious colour remake the most successful, and was probably responsible for the renewed interest in the character for both Kneale and the BBC. However, it would be twelve years and a number of production difficulties before the character would be seen again. When the BBC lost interest in the new serial, ITV, specifically Euston Films (known for making gritty realistic shows such as The Sweeny), took up the mantle and under the watchful eye of Verity Lambert (she of Doctor Who fame) the series began to take shape. The idea of today’s youth being culled was a gritty enough idea, and pit that with a decaying human race, inner city squalor, gang warfare and Quatermass, himself, searching for a lost relative things were looking good for the show.
Sadly, though, even though there was so much good – money was fine, sets were extensive, decent talent in front of (such as John Mills (Quatermass), Simon MacCorkindale (Joe Kapp), Barbara Kellerman (Clare Kapp) and a whole host of British TV faces) and behind (director Piers Haggard – Blood on Satan’s Claw, cinematographer Ian Wilson – Crying Game, aforementioned producer Varity Lambert, editor Keith Palmer – Sharpe) the camera, it was, incredibly, Kneale’s own script that would be the shows’ downfall; it simply wasn’t (isn’t) up to his previous efforts. In fact the whole thing plays out as a grumpy old man moaning about the state of the day. The seventies were a turbulent time for the world, the Vietnam war was just over, there was a lot of anger and here in Britain there was much the same; unions were on near constant strike, there was rubbish filling the streets, power cuts, the Hippie movement was all but dead to be replaced by angry kids rebelling in the Punk movement and the older ‘establishment’ didn’t know how to cope with this new way of thinking and living. Kneale's script tries to deal with this head on – the decay of the urban environment; rubbish piled high, graffiti and squalor everywhere and youths locked in furious gang warfare where the older generation are forced to live underground (literally) and are preyed upon almost daily. Life in the countryside is not much better with huge gangs of Hippie-types roaming the lands trying to squash independent thought for a reliance on ‘magic’. With governments ill-equipped and desensitised to their environment to even give a damn. And then to have old farts saving the day while the youth wistfully give their lives up just hammers home what was going through Kneales mind! Gone is the optimistic space flight of the older Quatermass serials to be replaced by something altogether more sordid.
So what of Quatermass himself? Previously he was a character central to the action and driving the story forward, he had a presence and a standing. Now, no disrespect to John Mills who is a terrific character actor, but here the character is relegated to a bystander – he is only interested in searching for his missing granddaughter, and everything that occurs is as a consequence of him being in the right place at the right time. It is only the last episode where he finally takes any kind of proactive engagement to secure the future of the human race. This could work if you imagine the character lost in the wilderness of the decaying world, both spiritually and literally; but with a series named Quatermass, you really need the character to be central to the action – perhaps called into London, despite the decay, to comment on the space disaster and subsequent lightning activity, he could then draw upon his vast knowledge and previous expertise in space phenomenon to devise a plan to combat it, all the while battling with the knowledge that his granddaughter is missing and his need to find her – the inner conscience of wanting to save one when the whole world is at stake could have been a far more dramatic narrative (and different direction) for the show, but instead we have something that better resembles a damp squib. What was Kneale trying to say when Quatermass, in his first scene, is beaten to the ground? Little wonder this show and theatrical re-cut failed to ignite an apathetic nation and it is all rather sad that a once beloved show has now been consigned to oblivion.
With a series named Quatermass, you really need the character to be central to the action.
There is some value in the production and sets which are, for 70’s science fiction, pretty darn good; the satellite viewing dishes are spectacular and both moved on their respective tracks, the geriatric underground hideout, as well as the control rooms look great. Fantastic to see the twin towers of Wembley Stadium again! Indeed the extensive location shooting does give the show a much larger feel. Yet even this cannot save what feels like a stretched run time at just four episodes, so much feels like padding; the cut-down film version works better in this regard as it missed just about all of the third part, but it looks like, even with its more theatrically inclined aspect ratio, exactly what it is – a TV film. I would love to see this remade by the new Hammer studio!
In the end the show does remain a curiosity, completest will have to have it, others will probably take or leave it as they please.
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