BluRay/DVD Reviews


By • Apr 26th, 2005 •

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It is the near future. Britain struggles with the collapse of civilisation and violent bands of urban guerrillas rule. Also Earth is being harvested. Ancient sites of gathering all over the globe turn out to be the focal points of a blinding and powerful ray from outer space that leaves a pile of ash where thousands once stood. Various elements of Homo sapiens are essential to an anonymous alien race, and once again the time is, or rather we are, literally, ripe. It falls on the now retired Professor Bernard Quatermass, veteran of weird goings on long before Fox Mulder, to basically save the planet. Again.

This was a troubled production from the start. The idea of a fourth Quatermass serial was kicked around the BBC for three years before being finally commissioned in 1971, and then later dropped by them as being too expensive. The production was picked up by Euston Films, Thames Television’s TV filmmaking subsidiary (their most famous production at the time being the uncompromising and controversial police drama ‘The Sweeney’). Euston increased the budget to £300,000 per episode with the criterion that the final product be produced in two versions: four fifty-minute episodes plus a single, shortened version for theatrical release and overseas markets in order to recoup some of their production costs. This created a writing dilemma for original creator and writer Nigel Kneale who now had to come up with two scripts for the same story. He neither wanted the theatrical release to be an edited version of the series, nor the series to be a padded out version of the film. Both had to work in their own right, and, thanks to Kneale’s skill (he was an experienced screenwriter and at one time ‘script doctor’ for the BBC), they do. Unfortunately with the story having been written in 1972 and reflecting the political and economic concerns of that time, by the time it reached the screens in 1979, with it’s new-age hippy type characters, it was already out of date (though it is still superior to the recent and dreadful ’28 Days Later’).

Euston also wanted a big name to play the lead, hence Sir John Mills, who is badly miscast and clearly looks as uneasy as he reportedly was with the role. Gone is the bombastic, resourceful yet flawed character played in the ‘50s BBC serials by Reginald Tate and brilliantly by Andre Morell, and later more famously by Andrew Keir in Hammer’s 1967 ‘Quatermass and the Pit’ (American actor Brian Donlevy had played the role in the first two Hammer Films but Kneale so hated him in the role he withheld permission to make a third Quatermass film for ten years). Here Mills plays him as a semi-senile, despairing, doddering tired old man. He is as much Quatermass as Peter Cushing was Dr. Who, but he fulfilled the need of the ‘big name’ at the time, being not only an already established British film dignitary and household name, but also then still familiar to TV audiences as having recently appeared in the popular ‘Zoo Gang’. But it is hard to believe this is meant to be the same Quatermass we have seen in previous incarnations.

The plusses though are in the production values. At that time most British TV drama series tended to be controlled environment, studio bound affairs with the odd bit of grainy location footage (a la ‘Dr. Who’, ‘Doomwatch’ etc.) but ‘Quatermass’ was, strikingly for the time, shot entirely on location on 35mm Panavision, with great expense being laid out particularly on Joe Kapp’s radar facility and home. It was also intended that Stonehenge would be one of the main locations. Permission to use it was however withdrawn by the British Tourist Board because it had become very popular with tourists and they didn’t want anyone, or anything, even by inference (in the script several thousand people get fried simply by gathering there, so I suppose not a good selling point from their point of view), jeopardising their little earner. The disappointed Kneale makes a reference to this in the script where Quatermass is asked if he knows of the stone circle known as Ringstone Round: “The last time I went there” he says “it was swarming with tourists…”

So the location for that particular scene was changed to Wembley Stadium in London, which again was a major and costly undertaking as this place of ‘hallowed turf’ had eventually to look as if thousands of people had been incinerated within it’s terraces, and convincing it is too.

I watched the whole package in it’s entirety, partly because I wanted to see how, while they were still fresh in my mind, four fifty minute episodes could be condensed into 103 minutes, without losing some of the story. I can tell you now, having had a little experience in these things, it is a master-class in scriptwriting.

In those days, in TV drama, you had a beginning, middle and end. Long before it became the trend Nigel Kneale not only introduced multiple parallel storylines but also the story arc, with the sole intent of being able to excise those aspects that were not necessary for the theatrical version, but were nonetheless vital elements in the four episode TV version. Both versions work: One is neither a cut down nor padded version of the other.

One of the key examples of this (spoiler alert) is where, in the TV version, Quatermass and District Commissioner Annie Morgan (Magaret Tyzack) attempt to take the injured girl Isabel to a hospital in gang controlled London. Charging through the various blockades, Quatermass is thrown from the vehicle eventually finding himself in the care of a group of elderly men and women who live, vermin-like, in a society beneath the streets of London. His experiences here fill at least one and a half of the episodes. In the meantime, Annie has reached a hospital where Isabel is being examined. She is alone in an office on the phone with the powers that be, insisting that more notice be taken of Quatermass’s findings and the girl’s plight, but to no avail.

In the movie version, with an excellent piece of textbook script editing (i.e.: if it’s not needed, get rid of it), we see the same scenes, except Quatermass isn’t thrown from the vehicle, and is now at the hospital with Annie. Her conversation on the phone is now shared with Quatermass who is now with her in the office, and to whom she passes the phone halfway through. There isn’t even any extra dialogue written, it’s just shared between the two actors. Quatermass of course no longer meets the elderly underground inhabitants. Therefore the simple re-shooting of these two scenes means that at least six characters are never introduced and an hour and a half of the story can be left on the cutting room floor. Most importantly, in the series, Quatermass’s experiences with these people are instrumental in determining exactly what the space beam is. In the movie version, you don’t even miss them. It’s outrageous and very clever.

Sci-Fi/Fantasy film and TV buffs will enjoy early appearances by Simon MacCorkindale, later of the short lived series ‘Manimal’; Brian Croucher (the second ‘Travis’ in ‘Blake’s 7’); Declan Mullholland (the original, later CGI’d out, actor who played ‘Jabba the Hutt’ in ‘Star Wars’) as a TV Studio guard; David Yip, who would be Indie’s ill-fated accomplice in the ‘Club Obi-Wan’ in the opening sequence of ‘Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom’; and, talking of Indie, a major role played by Margaret Tyzack, who would later become the young Indie’s long-suffering Oxford tutor in ‘The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles’. Also featured in an early role is Brenda Fricker, later to win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in ‘My Left Foot’.Executive Producer Verity Lambert was already well known to fans of this genre for her involvement with ‘Dr. Who’ and ‘The Avengers’.

If you are a Quatermass fan, a fan of British Sci-Fi, or even a budding screenwriter wanting to pick up a few tips, then this is an essential addition to your library. The set is nicely presented and is released to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the first broadcast of ‘The Quatermass Experiment’ in 1953. The package folds out to an 18” picture of (ironically) Stonehenge. The two discs containing the four episodes, simply called ‘Quatermass’, feature extensive production notes, animated menus, the opening and closing titles for each episode with each episode having a spectacular cliffhanger ending, making you eager to watch the next, and the hours pass swiftly. The third disc contains the theatrical version, retitled ‘The Quatermass Conclusion’, and a previously unseen Sci-Fi Channel interview with Nigel Kneale. Also enclosed is a booklet on the Quatermass history.

Overall it is an engrossing watch, but as Nigel Kneale himself says: “It was a product of it’s time.”

But it’s STILL better than ’28 Days Later’

Sir John Mills, Simon MacCorkindale, Barbara Kellerman, Margaret Tyzack.

Written by Nigel Kneale
Produced by Ted Childs
Executive Producer Verity Lambert
Directed by Piers Haggard

Total running time 327 mins.

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