An interview with Nigel Kneale
Starburst 4, June 1983.
What was the most difficult aspect of making a TV serial in the early fifties?
The fact that they were transmitted live, it was horrendous. If any special effects were required, you had to take a chance that they would work on the screen. There was little room for error.
The cameras used were some of the original 1936 equipment, absolutely terrifying things with the picture presenting itself to the operator upside down, as well as in reverse.
This must have presented quite a few problems in setting up a shot.
Exactly. The cameraman needed a thorough knowledge of the rehearsals as it was impossible to cut from one camera to another without preparation. Because of this you didn't know what, for example, camera B was going to shoot and sometimes a quick pan was necessary to get the shot in the right position.
The worst thing that could happen was the burning off effect when, if unnoticed, a bright light in a certain scene would eventually flood the screen, whitening out the image.
Were all the Quatermass programmes televised live?
Yes. The first series was televised from Alexandra Palace. There was no such thing as tele-recording, so it was shown only the once and is now completely missing from the BBC vaults.
The second serial Quatermass II was actually copied with a better camera system at Lime Grove, but although the BBC have it in their archive, it is unfortunately a bad copy. The best surviving print is the third story, Quatermass and the Pit.
What is the most interesting about the second serial was your decision to use the II after the title. Now of course every major picture carries a II whether it's Jaws, Superman or Airplane.
I actually called it Quatermass II because I couldn't think of a better title. The real reason I suppose, behind the use of a 'II' was the sketchy connection to the second rocket that old Quatermass built for the new story. You remember that his first rocket crashed to Earth in The Quatermass Experiment. I imagine that's a good enough excuse.
Where did the idea for Quatermass II come from?
Well, I think the idea was contemporary to the 'fifties. During that time government bodies were building early warning radar bases, germ warfare factories, mysterious isolated laboratories, all of which were hidden from the public in wild inaccessible places. Some of these fantastic institutions didn't even exist outside of the fertile imaginations of the journalists who wrote about them. But I've always found top secret establishments most i ntriguing from a story point of view. It was easy therefore to see a public awareness of such places, so I based my ideas around that.
The oil refinery is a perfect setting for the invasion of Earth. Did you use the same location in the film version?
Yes, it was the Shell oil refinery in those days and a strange sight to most of the public.
They were certainly eerie places, you never saw a soul and of course it was perfect for doubling as the moon project, the plans of which the brainwashed government stole from Quatermass. The huge domes housing the aliens were of course miniatures added later on.
Were you satisfied with the Hammerfilm version?
No, it was much simpler from the point of view of story, but I'm afraid I was very disappointed with Brian Donlevy's performance in the title role. So much so that I would not allow Hammer to have the film rights to the third serial Quatermass and the Pit, until I was certain enough time had passed to recast the part.
Is it true that you own soIe copyright on Quatermass II?
On the film version, yes I do. They can't re-screen it without my permission, unless someone's pirated it of course. But nowadays people really aren't interested in it to bother.
Does the film version differ greatly from the original serial?
Well, the major difference occurs at the climax of the story, when instead of just sending the rocket into space as depicted in the film, Quatermass goes with it to the alien's planet. It was very ambitious, even though by the time we reached episode 6, the set designer had run out of money to build the scenery. We managed to get away with it, however.
Was the first story The Quatermass Experiment received better on television than at the cinema?
The film was very successful but for me the TV series was more creepy.
There's one scene where the astronaut played by Duncan Lamont, the only survivor of a three-man spacecraft which has crashed on Earth, begins to speak in a German accent.
The character originally had no knowledge of any other language and yet suddenly there he is chatting away in German.
The tension mounts when we discover that one of the other members of the missing crew was fluent in foreign languages. It was a psychological thing rather than a gory effect, but it was very chilling. My wife is, in fact, German and assisted with the sequence.
Although you wrote the screenplays for all three films, it's obvious that you enjoyed working on the TV series far more.
Yes, because each episode is planned. Each is quite distinct in style and content. We also had better actors in the TV versions and the roles were more demanding for an actor to get his teeth into. However, I did think that Andrew Keir was marvellous in the third film, Quatermass and the Pit.