Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Quatermass and the Pit: Nigel Kneale's Original BBC Serial

As regular readers of this blog know, Hammer's 1967 science fiction classic Quatermass and the Pit (aka Five Million Years to Earth) ranks among my favorite films. Its ingenious premise captured my imagination as a youth and has held my interest through repeated viewings over the last four decades. So, it was with excitement--and a little trepidation--that I approached the original 1958 BBC serial that inspired the movie adaptation.

Andre Morell as Professor Quatermass.
The serial opens with the discovery of a human-like skull during construction in the Hobbs Lane area of London. An American paleontologist, Dr. Matthew Roney, find more skeletal remains and proclaims that these "ape men" hail from five million years ago. When further excavation reveals a large cylinder made of an unknown material, Roney contacts his friend, Professor Bernard Quatermass of the British Experimental Rocket Group.

Meanwhile, Barbara Judd, Roney's assistant, learns that local residents consider Hobbs Lane to be haunted. She uncovers tales of "dwarfs that disappear into walls" that surface after any physical disturbance in the area. Barbara's findings, revealed only to Quatermass and Roney, become more terrifying when a soldier working inside the cylinder claims to have seen the "dwarfs."

The situation becomes significantly more perplexing when Quatermass discovers a hidden chamber in the cylinder--filled with the remains of large insect-like creatures. Is the cylinder a spaceship? Were the dead creatures from another planet? Are the "ape-men" genetically-altered mutations that evolved into the human race? Are we Martians?

Writer Nigel Kneale integrates a host of a fascinating ideas in his thematrically complex plot. Not only does he expand on his basic premise--that the human race may be a result of alien colonization--but he also offers scientifically-inspired explanations for the supernatural.

If this all sounds familiar to admirers of the 1967 film version, then I will confirm what you've probably guessed: the film was an extremely faithful adapation of the serial. Kneale wrote the film's screenplay and did a marvelous job in condensing his 210-minute serial into a crisp 97-minute movie. Indeed, the serial seems quite slow compared to the film and the serial's longer running time doesn't result in any additional insights.

Quatermass helps a soldier who
"saw" a Martian.
In terms of lead performances, both Andre Morell (serial) and Andrew Keir (film) are marvelous as the passionate, inquisitive Quatermass. Originally, Morell was asked to reprise his performance for the film adaptation, but he turned it down. A fine actor, Morell appeared in dozens of films from the 1930s through the 1970s, including The Bridge on the River Kwai and Ben-Hur. He made possibly the screen's best Dr. John Watson opposite Peter Cushing's Sherlock Holmes in 1959's The Hound of the Baskervilles. He had another plum role opposite Cushing in the underrated suspense film Cash on Demand.

Unfortunately, although Morell is excellent in the Quatermass and the Pit serial, Anthony Bushell delivers a one-note performance as his adversary, Colonel Breen. Shouting dialogue in a stern voice, Bushnell's Breen comes across as a stereotype instead of an intelligent officer unwilling to accept the compelling evidence before him. Furthermore, Bushnell's portrayal dilutes Kneale's examination of the popular theme of military vs. science (explored, albeit briefly, in 1951's The Thing from Another World).

The 1958 Quatermass and the Pit was the third of four Quatermass television serials written by the prolific Nigel Kneale. After studying acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, Kneale turned to writing full time after winning the prestigious Somerset Maugham Award in 1950 for Tomato Cain & Other Stories. After penning a radio play for the BBC, Kneale joined the television staff at the British network. He introduced TV audiences to Professor Bernard Quatermass with The Quatermass Experiment, a 1953 serial consisting of six 30-minute episodes. It was a landmark event in early British television. Film historian and critic Leslie Halliwell noted in his Halliwell's Television Companion that The Quatermass Experiment "became the first TV serial to have the whole country (or such parts as could receive television) agog."

In the four original TV serials: Reginald Tate played Quatermass in The Quatermass Experiment; John Robinson starred in Quatermass II (1955); Morell followed in Quatermass and the Pit; and finally John Mills in 1979's Quatermass (aka The Quatermass Conclusion). Although Morell's performance is widely praised, I'm also fond of Mills' interpretation of an older Quatermass. In 2005, the BBC mounted a live remake of The Quatermass Experiment starring Jason Flemyng as a much younger scientist than his predecessors. On the silver screen, Brian Donlevy was woefully miscast as the lead in adaptations of The Quatermass Experiement and Quatermass II.

As for my final summation of the Quatermass and the Pit serial: Had I never seen the film version, I suspect the 1958 original would have had a stronger impact. It's well-written, generally well-acted, and I'm excited that I finally had an opportunity to see it. However, it lacks the energy of the 1967 film, which grips the viewer tightly and never lets up for 97 enthralling minutes.


  1. Rick, what an insightful review. As you know, I am not a Hammer watcher, so I've never seen the film nor the TV series, so I can't really comment on which was better. However, I do find it interesting that you prefer the film to the series. I recently read an article in The New Yorker about Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and the author commented on how much he preferred the 1980 BBC series to the new film adaptation. He said the added time and depth was needed. And, here you are in the reverse regarding the Quatermass franchise. Of course, like you, he preferred the version he had seen first. Perhaps this has something to do with it.

  2. Superb write-up, Rick, of a serial that I would love to see. Morell was a fine Watson, and I think it would be smashing to watch him as Quatermass. I'm a fan of Andrew Keir's interpretation in the ridiculously good Hammer selection, QUATERMASS AND THE PIT, and also a fan of the film itself. I think both THE QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT (or QUATERMASS XPERIMENT) and QUATERMASS II were both exceptional (particularly II, which has some creepy moments), but I agree that Brian Donlevy allows the plots to become far more interesting than the films' protagonist. Of the serials, I've sadly only seen QUATERMASS from '79, but I concur that John Mills is outstanding, and the movie, like the best QUATERMASS entries, has an unsettling ambiance. This was very fun to read, Rick, and I hope to see the British serials as soon as possible!

  3. "Quatermass and the Pit", the movie, haunts my dreams, yet you have piqued my curiosity about the original series. I'm willing to throw another log on my nightmares.

  4. This was an insightful and intriguing post. Excellent blog, Rick!

  5. I too am a great fan of the movie, and would love to see the serial. I like Andre Morell very much and can definitely see him in the part. I'll have to see if I cna get my hands on this series. The British made some wonderful, more-subtle-than-American sci-fi movies. I remember one called "The Day the Earth Caught Fire", which I only caught once. I thought it sounded like a B-movie, but it was really literate and excellent. Great post, Rick!

  6. I'm surprised that no one realizes that the serial can be seen on archive.org for free.

    Here's a link to the first episode: