Blu-ray Review: Quatermass and the Pit
“In our opinion, it is not suitable for children or for those of you who may have a nervous disposition.” Words, which six decades and more ago, which were the signal for people countrywide to gather around the small TV set in the corner of the room for another episode of science-fictional chills.
Hobbs Lane, London. As post-war rebuilding and renewal takes place in post-war London, a building site digs up what is at first thought to be an unexploded bomb…but one buried so deeply that it is thought to be five million years old. It turns out to be a Martian spaceship. Meanwhile, ghosts are seen in nearby houses and poltergeists manifest themselves…
if you weren't there at the time – and I wasn't – it may be hard to grasp the impact the three Quatermass serials written by Nigel Kneale and directed (or “produced” as the credit has it) by Rudolph Cartier had. What was once not suitable for the young or the nervously disposed – and, despite popular belief, that continuity announcer's warning was first used on Quatermass II, not on the original The Quatermass Experiment – now bears a PG certificate. But by the time Quatermass and the Pit was broadcast, in six weekly episodes on Monday nights starting on 22 December 1958, streets cleared and pubs emptied so that an episode, broadcast live, with no facilities for home recording, would not be missed.
Eleven million people watched the final episode. Although that’s not a record - in 1961, thirteen million tuned in for the final episode of A for Andromeda (a serial now sadly lost for the most part) - that would be a very high audience nowadays, let alone at a time when there were only two channels to choose from.
The other factor which bedevils the study and appreciation of vintage television is that great swathes of it no longer exist. There is secondary material available, such as scripts, audio recordings, stills, listings in back issues of Radio Times, not to mention increasingly elderly memories, but that doesn’t replace the experience of being able to watch it for yourself. Sadly, we will often never have the opportunity to do so.
That's sadly the case with all but the first two episodes of The Quatermass Experiment. Those are the earliest surviving British examples of episodic television drama. Following that, their version of Wuthering Heights (lost) and their at the time very controversial version of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (which survives as a telerecording of its second live broadcast), Kneale and Cartier went on to Quatermass II, broadcast in October/November 1955, again live but with an increasing amount of prefilmed material including a location shoot at the Shell Haven oil refinery in Stanford-le-Hope. Reginald Tate, who had played Quatermass originally, had died, so the role was played by John Robinson.
All six episodes survive. Kneale professed himself disappointed by it and it remained largely unseen until the 2005 DVD release of all three Quatermass serials. However, it still had its influence, not least in the Doctor Who story from 1970, Spearhead from Space, which bears some resemblance to it in its premise. Meanwhile, Hammer obtained the film rights to the first two serials and The Quatermass Xperiment (title change to emphasise the certificate the film received) and Quatermass II reached cinema screens in 1955 and 1957 respectively.
Professor Bernard Quatermass is very much a Fifties figure, of the establishment, a member of a benevolent elite, more intelligent, educated and clear-sighted, and better qualified to make decisions on behalf of an excitable, easily-led mass. Yes, there are evildoers in the ranks of the establishment, and they are rightly found out, and people tend to trust authority a little too readily - but the existence of an establishment is not called into question.
That would happen in the following decade, and Doctor Who, for example (a series Kneale disliked and declined to write for), was more of that time. The Doctor is an outsider and you could say he or she was the creation of outsiders: the Canadian then Head of BBC Drama (Sydney Newman), one of the very first women producers (Verity Lambert) and for its first serial a gay Indian director (Waris Hussein). In fact, the Time Lord who most clearly resembles Quatermass is Jon Pertwee’s take on the character, and his adventures – many of them set on Earth battling foes from elsewhere – do show the Professor’s influence most strongly.
In terms of its premise, Quatermass and the Pit is by far the most ambitious of the three serials. It remains very sophisticated by today’s standards, interweaving SF speculation with Jungian archetypes. Did the Martians encode racial memories in human brains all those centuries ago? Is the popular image of the Devil a distorted memory of a Martian, with horns instead of the original antennae? Is the Wild Hunt of folklore a memory of a racial culling? And what happens when the spaceship returns to life?
The ambition of the scripts is matched by an increase in scale of Cartier’s production. Although the studio scenes were still performed live (in the larger Riverside Studios in Hammersmith instead of the previous Lime Grove), there is a much greater use of prefilming. As well as location work in London, the scenes of the “bomb” in the pit were shot in a large set at Ealing Studios. André Morell – who had played O’Brien in Nineteen Eighty-Four - had been offered the lead in Quatermass II but had been committed elsewhere.
Here, he gives the definitive take on the character, both paternalistic scientist and committed man of action, seriousness leavened with humour. His great moment is his final speech: “We are the Martians”. Canadian Cec Linder gives strong support as the Professor’s Canadian sidekick Roney, and there’s a strong supporting cast. Roney's assistant Barbara Judd (Christine Finn) is rather ahead of her time: capable and not given to screaming and needing to be rescued, something Doctor Who was certainly guilty of a decade or more later. The journalist James Fullalove is a returning character from The Quatermass Experiment, though as with the Professor there is a casting change, to Brian Worth here.
The special effects are the work of Jack Kine and Bernard Wilkie, who had set up the BBC's Visual Effects Department, their first assignment having been Nineteen Eighty-Four. The famous cliffhanger to Episode Three, when a newly discovered Martian suddenly drops a foot or so, was an accident in rehearsal when one of the strings snapped. Cartier insisted that this be replicated during the broadcast, of course without telling any of the cast, so their startled expressions were genuine – along with those of most of the viewing public.
Watching this serial now, and other television of similar vintage, you do have to make some allowances for the way they were made. They were designed to be watched in half-hour instalments a week apart. Binge-watching was not an option. Due to their being broadcast live, some material, or some shots may be held longer than would today be necessary to give actors time to get to the next set in time for the next scene. I’d suggest watching them one or two episodes at a time. But Few allowances need to made for Quatermass and the Pit, which is one of the finest SF/horror serials ever made for the small screen. It grips like a vice.
Quatermass and the Pit is released by the BBC on a single Blu-ray disc. The six episodes are available separately with a Play All option.
If you have the DVD release The Quatermass Collection from 2005, which I reviewed here, I would suggest you hang on to it. As well as the two surviving episodes of The Quatermass Experiment and all of Quatermass II (neither with telerecordings likely to benefit from high definition), it also contains some extras which haven't been carried over to this Blu-ray, such as the Kneale profile The Kneale Tapes. It also contains a very detailed booklet from Andrew Pixley.
The Blu-ray transfer is in the ratio of 1.33:1, as you would expect from television made long before the widescreen era. The telerecording was made of the output of 405-line video cameras, with location and prefilmed material having been shot on 35mm film and telecined in during the broadcast. The difference between this serial and its predecessors is that the 35mm-shot material survives on its original negatives, and has been scanned in HD from them. The results are pin-sharp, though it has to be said that the difference in definition between that and the telerecorded studio material is very obvious. This isn't quite what was broadcast sixty years ago as I write this, as Cartier after each episode went out took the opportunity to reshoot some parts which he felt could be improved on, and then edited the telerecording accordingly.
A year later, on 2 and 9 January 1960, the BBC repeated the serial in two omnibus episodes of an hour and a half each, Cartier having re-edited and trimmed, as the original episodes are nearer the 35-minute mark than the half-hour. The opening and closing credits were redone, and these appear as alternate title sequences. Also in this item (running 7:46) are the opening and closing credits for the 1986 VHS release of the title, which was re-edited into a single three-hour “feature”.
The 2005 DVD had no commentaries. That has been made up for on this release, though the track here is not a commentary in the usual sense. Presented by Toby Hadoke, these comprise interviews with those who worked on the series, both alive or, if dead, via the archive, and some who weren't. In the former capacity are Mark Eden (who plays “second journalist” in the first episode in his debut television role – he's still alive as I write this, at age ninety). Keith Banks (Nuttall in Episode Three, also with uncredited roles in Quatermass II), Peter Day (visual effects assistant), Dick Mills (from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop) and Clive Doig (in one of his first jobs as a “cable basher”, later to become a vision mixer and producer, and contributor to this day of the Trackword puzzles in Radio Times).
From the archives, we hear from Paddy Russell (Cartier's assistant, later to become a director in her own right), Jack Kine, Clifford Hatts and Nigel Kneale himself. Interviewed but not directly involved in the serial's production are Andy Murray (author of a biography of Kneale) and Peter Crocker (restoration supervisor). Hadoke is ubiquitous on commentary tracks for archive television, but his expertise is undoubted – he's writing a book on the Quatermass serials – and he's adept at keeping the conversations moving, especially when dealing with quite elderly people and sixty-year-old memories.
“Making Demons” (7:08) is a brief interview with Jack Kine and Bernard Wilkie, originally recorded for the BBC's The Lime Grove Story in 1991. The two men show us props made for this serial and for Nineteen Eighty-Four, and also a full-size TARDIS which – they reveal – was often used for smoke breaks. As always, they had use their ingenuity to come up with solutions on tiny BBC budgets, which included buying packets of condoms to make dilating Martian eyes and then explaining this to the petty cash department. This item was on the 2005 DVD and is SD and should be in a ratio of 1.33:1. However, on this disc it's stretched to 16:9, so you will have to change your television's aspect ratio settings to view it correctly.
Also on the disc are a self-navigating stills and sketches gallery (6:33) and an Easter egg. To view the latter, click right on the Audio Commentaries option in the special features menu, and you will find a textless version of the ending of Episode Four (0:20). Also on the disc in PDF form are Radio Times cuttings for this and the two previous Quatermass serials, Nineteen Eighty-Four and Kneale's 1963 play The Road (now lost, but recently adapted by Hadoke for radio), the shooting scripts for all six episodes of Quatermass and the Pit and reviews of the first and fourth episodes of The Quatermass Experiment from The Listener.
In the package is an eight-page booklet with a brief introduction to the serial, a two-page piece on the restoration and details of the disc's special features.