Fourth in a series of six previously unpublished profiles.
Best known for his legendary BBC-TV serials featuring Professor Bernard Quatermass, Nigel Kneale (1922-2006) was consistently one of the most imaginative and intelligent screenwriters to specialize in SF. Born on the Isle of Man, he tried his hand at writing radio scripts and acting, and published an award-winning book of stories, Tomato Cain, before he joined the BBC.
Directed by Rudolph Cartier, The Quatermass Experiment (1953), Quatermass II (1955), and Quatermass and the Pit (1958) became Britain’s “must-see TV” of the day. All three scripts were published by Penguin Books, and the year after the first serial’s success, Kneale and Cartier embarked upon a television adaptation of George Orwell’s dystopic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.
In a star-making lead performance, Peter Cushing played Winston Smith, threatened with a mask that will expose his face to hungry rats in one controversial scene. He appeared in other BBC productions co-written by Kneale, including Number Three (1953), about nuclear scientists concerned with the possible military applications of their work, and The Moment of Truth (1955).
Too numerous to detail here, Kneale’s television plays and serials were often broadcast live, rarely seen in the U.S. before the advent of DVD, and in some cases have been lost forever. As a result, many of today’s viewers—especially in America—know his work primarily through the feature films he has scripted, many of which were big-screen adaptations of earlier teleplays.
Before reviving Gothic horror onscreen with The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Britain’s Hammer Films routinely made feature-film versions of properties that had proven successful on television and radio. These included the original Quatermass serials, as well as another BBC collaboration with Cartier, The Creature (1955), Kneale’s play about the Abominable Snowman.
The first effort was sometimes billed as The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), to emphasize the British X rating for horror films. Kneale was reportedly unhappy with the script by Richard Landau and director Val Guest, and with the lead casting of hard-drinking American actor Brian Donlevy to add box-office appeal in the U.S., where it was released as The Creeping Unknown.
Quatermass’s experimental rocket returns with two of its astronauts missing and the third, Victor Carroon (Richard Wordsworth), absorbing various life-forms as he is mutated by an alien organism. Wordsworth’s performance as the tortured man-monster is effective, and supposedly helped inspire Hammer to make The Curse of Frankenstein, which solidified Cushing’s stardom.
Donlevy returned to foil an interstellar infiltration in Quatermass II (aka Enemy from Space, 1957), with humans either controlled by, or unwittingly producing synthetic food for, the aliens, but this time Kneale shared script credit with Guest. It should be noted that the title is the name of Quatermass’s second rocket, rather than a precursor to today’s Roman-numeral sequels.
Guest again directed Hammer’s version of The Creature, aptly entitled The Abominable Snowman [of the Himalayas] (1957), with Kneale adapting his teleplay. Seeking the Yeti with differing agendas, Cushing wishes to study them and Forrest Tucker to exploit them; Tucker dies in an avalanche, but Cushing is spared, denying their existence to protect this wise, ancient race.
After Quatermass and the Pit, which Hammer did not film for almost a decade, Kneale worked with director Tony Richardson on screen versions of John Osborne’s plays Look Back in Anger (1959) and The Entertainer (1960). He also scripted a cracking good British naval yarn, HMS Defiant (aka Damn the Defiant!, 1962), from the future James Bond director Lewis Gilbert.
Directed by Nathan Juran, with stop-motion animation by Ray Harryhausen, First Men in the Moon (1964) was adapted from the H.G. Wells novel by Kneale and Jan Read. A U.N. team finds a flag on the moon, left there in 1899 by Arnold Bedford (Edward Judd) and Joseph Cavor (Lionel Jeffries), as well as evidence that Cavor’s cold germs wiped out the Selenite civilization.
Kneale, who often posited scientific explanations for the supernatural in his work, took a more traditional route in Hammer’s The Witches (aka The Devil’s Own, 1966), directed by Cyril Frankel and based on a novel by Peter Curtis. Headmistress Joan Fontaine encounters witchcraft at her school, and impurifies an intended sacrificial victim by spilling non-virgin blood over her.
Finally, Hammer embarked on Quatermass and the Pit (aka Five Million Years to Earth, 1967), with Roy Ward Baker directing Kneale’s adaptation of his serial. Investigating an ancient spaceship found buried beneath London, Quatermass (Andrew Keir) learns that Martians were responsible for not only our evolution, but also the image of horned demons in our race memory.
Back at the BBC, The Year of the Sex Olympics (1968) depicted a future in which sexual appetite is sated by televised porn to avoid overpopulation; presciently, the public then becomes preoccupied with a Survivor–style reality show. In The Stone Tape (1972), a research team seeks a new recording medium, and discovers that a ghost was “recorded” in the walls of an old house.
Kneale’s relationship with the BBC soured, partly over abortive attempts to film a fourth Quatermass serial, and he eventually took the project to the competition, ITV. In the title role of Quatermass (aka The Quatermass Conclusion, 1979), John Mills learns that young people who gather in places like Stonehenge are being harvested by aliens, not transported to a better world.
Dissatisfied with changes to his work, Kneale removed his name from the screenplay of Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1983), credited to director Tommy Lee Wallace. Not a part of the Michael Myers saga, it concerns a mad toymaker (Dan O’Herlihy) who is using deadly masks, impregnated with tiny fragments of Stonehenge, to return Halloween to its Druidic roots.
Kneale adapted the ghost story The Woman in Black (1989) from the book by Susan Hill, and in 2005 he served as story consultant when the BBC mounted a live remake of The Quatermass Experiment. Directed by Sam Miller, and adapted from Kneale’s script by its executive producer, Richard Fell, it starred Jason Flemyng as the latest Quatermass.