"I don't like the term 'science fiction'. The form is appropriate, if taken seriously. And that is the way I do take it. I try to give those stories some relevance to what is round about us today." So wrote Quatermass creator Nigel 'Tom' Kneale in a 1959 edition of Sight and Sound. It holds true for a vast proportion of his work, particularly the series and plays for television which use the science fiction, fantasy and horror genres as a conduit to tackle his concerns about post-war British society, the end of colonialism, advances in science and technology and the military exploitation of space.

His original trilogy of The Quatermass Experiment, Quatermass II and Quatermass and the Pit, all made for the BBC in the 1950s, and the later, final instalment Quatermass (aka The Quatermass Conclusion), written in the 1960s but belatedly produced by Euston Films in 1979, all exude a particularly British paranoia and anxiety about the Cold War, the nuclear age, the ethics of science, mankind's self-destructive urges and intolerance and the Orwellian authoritarianism of government policy. The Quatermass Experiment went out on BBC television in the summer of 1953 during a period when the Cold War super-powers, including Britain, were regularly testing nuclear devices, the US had established NATO backed early warning radar bases and establishments on British soil, biological weapons research was well under way at Porton Down and the UK's nuclear power programme was inaugurated by the Queen's opening of Calder Hall at Windscale in 1956.

"an anxiety about geographical and social change"
Simultaneously, the increasing interest in rocketry and missile development and the militarisation of space is reflected in Kneale's stories. The late 1940s and early 1950s saw the legacy of German scientists realised in the nascent space programmes of both the US and Britain as an extension of the Nazis V1 and V2 rockets.

Britain's own Blue Streak missile was developed in 1955 and tested in Woomera, Australia (Quatermass II shows Professor Bernard Quatermass devastated by the news that his rocket tests in Australia have caused a nuclear explosion) and by the late 1950s both the US and USSR had launched satellites. In both Quatermass II and Quatermass and the Pit, Kneale was already speculating that missiles would be patrolling the Earth from space and military bases a reality on the Moon and Mars.

Quatermass II also extends Cold War paranoia into a growing fear of bureaucracy and Westminster politics as well as the modernisation of Britain, epitomised in increasing consumerism and in the development of new towns where, as Robert Turnock notes in Television and Consumer Culture: Britain and the Transformation of Modernity, the story articulates "an anxiety about geographical and social change. The new town and the chemical plant (in Quatermass II the plant was represented by location shooting at the Shell Haven refinery) have spoilt the countryside and the workers, albeit voluntarily, have been displaced from their traditional homes and communities." At the same time Britain was still reeling from the revelations about Harwell Atomic Energy Research Establishment scientist Klaus Fuchs who had been unveiled by MI5 as a Soviet spy and the Burgess and Maclean defections that suggested the British establishment was systematically being infiltrated and compromised by what Atlee referred to as "the enemy within."

By the time of the writing and production of Quatermass and the Pit, Kneale had refined many of these ideas and his use of socio-cultural verisimilitude, to ground the fantastical in reality, took the post-war clearance of bomb-sites and the rebuilding of British cities as the catalyst to discuss not only the aggressive militarisation of the final frontier but also something as visceral as the Notting Hill race riots of the summer of 1958 and similar disturbances in Nottingham. Quatermass and the Pit also saw the development of Kneale's interest in the occult, parapsychology and social realism that he would continue to explore in his BBC plays The Road (1963), The Chopper (an installment of the Out of the Unknown anthology 1971) The Stone Tape (1972), Murrain (a play in ATV's Against the Crowd strand in 1975) and that would culminate in Beasts, his series of six plays for ATV in 1976. His final Quatermass would also examine youth cults (originally analogous to the hippies of the 1960s but by the time of Euston's 1979 production more akin to post-punk new age travellers), the collapse of capitalist society, the last gasp of the space race, ley lines, stone circles and ancient alien visitors.
'race riots are continuing in Birmingham'
Kneale's self-described "race-hatred fable" explored the mythology of evil, the history of human aggression and the demonisation of the 'other' and tapped into the growing intolerance towards West Indians, Asians and Africans who had been invited to Britain in 1948 in order to overcome labour shortages, notably in London Transport and the fledgling NHS. After Quatermass and the Pit was transmitted in January 1959, in May of the same year the far-right British Labour Party organised a 'Stop the Coloured Invasion' rally in Trafalgar Square which drew a crowd of 3,000, again underlining the story's au courant use of realism. Kneale's depiction of the Martians purging their hives of mutations was clearly an allegory for the Notting Hill riots but the BBC also ran into complaints from Birmingham's West Indian community when Kneale's script suggested 'race riots are continuing in Birmingham' during a fictional news bulletin in episode one.

Hammer's relationship with Quatermass and Kneale began with their film adaptations of the BBC serials back in 1955, prompted by producer Anthony Hinds, having watched Kneale's The Quatermass Experiment, contacting the BBC and seeking to purchase the film rights. Kneale had already asked the BBC to consider offering the rights to either the Boulting Brothers or Launder and Gilliat. Gilliat was worried that the subject matter would automatically guarantee an X certificate from the BBFC but Hinds had no such qualms and considered such a certificate as essential to the success of the film. American writer Richard Landau adapted the serial with much input from the film's director Val Guest and, much to Kneale's chagrin, changed or omitted many of the sub-plots and the original ending. Hammer's casting of Brian Donlevy, at the suggestion of American producer Robert Lippert who distributed Hammer's films in the US and part funded the film, turned Quatermass into something of a hectoring bully and this also increased Kneale's dislike of the film.

The film's success had a lasting impact on the direction Hammer then took. Sensing there was money to be made in science fiction and horror films, they quickly followed up The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) with what was intended to be a sequel, X the Unknown (1956), but Kneale refused to give them permission to use the Quatermass character. Quatermass and Donlevy did return a year later in Quatermass II, based on Kneale's second serial but this time with Kneale collaborating on the script with Guest and Hinds. Again, the story was condensed, sub-plots and characters removed and major alterations made to the climax and again Kneale was very unhappy about Donlevy's interpretation of the character. Quatermass certainly offered Hammer a spring board to greater things, provided them with clout in the international market and lucrative deals with all the major studios that would then fuel the cycle of Gothic horror films that they launched with The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957.

It wasn't until 1961 that Hammer considered adapting Quatermass and the Pit and they attempted to produce it under their deal with Columbia. However, this never seriously got off the ground until 1964 and by then the financial relationship with Columbia was faltering. By 1966, and under a new deal with Seven Arts, Fox, ABPC and Warner, Hammer finally scheduled the film for production and went back to Kneale's adaptation that he had submitted in March 1964. It is a much condensed version of the original six part serial but Kneale still deftly provides good character moments, those little bits of humanity that anchor his fantastic ideas in reality, with the broad plot points of the original story.
"We are the Martians" 
This incorporates the very unsettling sequence where Quatermass and Barbara Judd, paleontologist Matthew Roney's assistant, pore over derelict houses nearby to the Hobb's Lane tube station extension with a local policeman whose childhood memories of the place are evocatively recalled. The possessed drill technician Sladden's retreat to a church is powerfully recreated and the interplay between Roney and Quatermass is equally successful, culminating in the splendid scene in the wrecked pub when Roney momentarily snaps Quatermass out of his Martian conditioning. The major difference between the two versions is that, where the television serial ended with Quatermass addressing the nation via broadcast to declare that "We are the Martians" and that our violent prejudices must be held in check for fear of creating another dead planet, the film ends very pessimistically with Quatermass and Barbara slumped in exhaustion, shocked and bewildered after the death of Roney and the devastation caused by the reactivation of the Martian inheritance. The cloud of dread that hangs over the end of Quatermass and the Pit is in direct contrast to the film that it shares many of its ideas with, Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.

As Kubrick's film looks out beyond the infinite and into space to postulate its theory that alien intelligence has influenced the development of man, Kneale looks inward and into the ancient soul of man, how he evolved out of a shared collective unconscious with the Martian colonists, one specifically designed to replicate their aggression and hatred. As Quatermass argues with Colonel Breen at the beginning of the film, about our own human attempts to colonise other planets, the exploration of space is surely, "not to go out there dragging our hatreds and our frontiers with us." Conversely the Martians do exactly that, instilling their own prejudices in us and acted out through the impulse for violence through the ages, out of hate for the unlike and often in the name of religion. As Griel Marcus puts it in Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century, the Martian race "meant to perpetuate themselves on Earth by making its history - by coding its end in their beginning." Many of these ideas about how our belief systems are created hark back to similar concepts in Arthur C. Clarke's celebrated 1953 novel Childhood's End while the alien invasion tropes, duly subverted by making it one that is five million years old and thus part of Kneale's interest in the historicising and socialising of science fiction concepts, owe much to the British catastrophes of Wells and Wyndham.

It's also as well to point out Kneale's abiding concerns about the power of the media, with television itself at the centre of it all, and how the media exploits and is exploited. There are vestiges of these ideas still left in Hammer's version of Quatermass and the Pit. There is the ABC television coverage of the dig that inadvertently feeds electricity to the ship in the 'pit' and where the irony is that Kneale has the figure of Howell, a Whitehall civil servant, crushed beneath a massive ABC television camera as the panic begins and the media circus goes out of control. We also see the locals watching said coverage in the pub, complete with more of Kneale's mordant humour as the programme is interrupted by the title card 'normal service will be resumed as soon as possible'.

Roney and Breen's battle for the hearts and minds of ordinary people is waged in the press and with Breen connecting the events in the 'pit' to Nazi propaganda it is clear that such inference connects our Martian heritage to their own 'final solution'. Finally, there is the idea that a form of television can not only map areas of the subconscious mind and provide recordings of our deepest and most ancient impulses but that it can become a prophetic scrying glass. The latter Kneale would explore in more depth in The Stone Tape and his prescience about exploitative media and reality can be seen in 1968's The Year of the Sex Olympics.

As is mentioned in the DVD interviews, Kneale's adaptation, while it does excise characters and much of the build up of the original, has pace and director Roy Ward Baker matches this with a no-nonsense approach to the directing and editing of the film. Unlike many Hammer films of the same period, this one has a kinetic force that makes it rather unique. Film and TV veteran Roy Ward Baker was invited to direct the film based on producer Anthony Nelson Keys view of Baker as "a director who had a very great deal of technical know how." Nelson Keys was right as the film clearly demanded a director who could handle a significant amount of physical and optical effects to tell its story. Baker had progressed from tea boy at Gainsborough Studios in the 1930s to assistant director on Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes by 1938. His first break as a director was with The October Man in 1947 but it was the success of Morning Departure (1950) that eventually led to work in Hollywood, directing Marilyn Monroe in Don't Bother to Knock (1952). Returning to the UK, Baker went on to direct the highly celebrated A Night to Remember (1958), now regarded as one of the best films depicting the sinking of the Titanic, the Dirk Bogarde cult classic The Singer Not the Song (1960) and the underrated race drama Flame in the Streets (1961).
"Hammer expect an 'X' and that is the right category."
After the failure of the comedy Two Left Feet (1963), he spent much of the mid-late 1960s period working in television on episodes of The Saint, The Avengers and The Champions. Quatermass and the Pit revived his film directing career and he divided his time between several more Hammer films, including The Anniversary (1968), the ill-feted 'space Western' Moon Zero Two (1969), The Vampire Lovers (1970) what is considered Hammer's worst Dracula film, Scars of Dracula (1970) the appealing romp Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde, the portmanteau horror films for Amicus, Asylum (1972), The Vault of Horror (1973) and television series such as The Persuaders, The Protectors and Jason King.

Shooting commenced on the £275, 000 production in March 1967 at MGM's Borehamwood studios, much bigger facilities than Hammer's then current home of Associated British Elstree Studios, and legendary Hammer set designer Bernard Robinson used the additional space granted by Stage 2 to great effect on the film, building an impressive set for the Underground station and the dig where the alien spaceship is discovered. MGM's substantial backlot enabled Robinson to create the exteriors of the Hobb's Lane Underground station and the surrounding London streets. Despite the expansiveness of the production and the slick design for the alien spaceship, there is an intimacy and claustrophobia to much of the film with only a few forays away from the Underground station when Quatermass visits paleontologist Matthew Roney's lab, follows the distressed Sladden to the church, is humiliated in the corridors of Whitehall and is dragged along London streets as the ethnic cleansing of the human race begins under the influence of the Martians.

As was customary with Hammer they submitted the script to the BBFC before shooting commenced to determine any problems they were likely to run into trouble with on the grounds of violence and taste. Their reader, Frank Crofts, dismissed the script "as even sillier than most of this type of story. Hammer expect an 'X' and that is the right category." John Trevelyan, Secretary of the Board of the BBFC, issued his concerns about the use of vibrations and sound in the film, the way Sladden (Duncan Lamont - who originally played the stricken astronaut Caroon in the original television version of The Quatermass Experiment), a freelance drill operator, and archaeologist Roney's assistant Barbara (Barbara Shelley) depicted their possession by the Martian race memory, the cleansing of the Martian hives, crowds being crushed by falling debris, the demonic imagery and the way Quatermass violently knocks out a possessed Barbara.

While these images and sounds may have been a point of concern to Trevelyan, the film was never as exploitative as the standard Hammer fare. In fact, Shelley's "possession" is one of the high points of the film, superbly performed and remains an essay in unearthliness. Ultimately the film is one of ideas rather than one relying on cheap thrills, gore and violence despite Breen's grisly fate, burnt to a crisp by the pulsating glow of the Martian ship, and a bevvy of decomposing monsters.

The design of the Martians doesn't quite work as well as the one created by Bernard Wilkie and Jack Kine for the television serial, even if the bright green slime oozing out of their bodies is satisfactorily unpleasant, and their version of the 'Wild Hunt' on the surface of Mars is also more convincing than Les Bowie's attempt for the film. Some of the floor effects don't stand up to the scrutiny of high definition and you'll see plenty of lines moving objects around the set as Sladden becomes possessed or lots of bouncing polystyrene rubble as London is torn apart by the Blitz-like race purge, for example. Despite these minor setbacks, Bowie's effects for the film are good for their time and it was certainly one of Hammer's most effects-heavy films incorporating miniatures, floor and optical effects.

The score was provided by Tristram Cary, a highly regarded avant garde composer who had notched up some significant credits by providing scores for radio, film, television and theatre during the 1960s, including much admired electronic tonalities for a number of Doctor Who serials. He had a deep interest in electronic music and Hammer's resident music supervisor Philip Martell commissioned Cary to produce both an orchestral and an electronic score and the finished film uses cues from both compositional modes. The score ends up as a mixture of stabbing brass and string cues and a number of minimal electronic passages, most notable when Quatermass and Breen witness the opening of the inner chamber of the ship and when the ship begins to come back to life.

Casting was handled by Baker, Nelson Keys and Hammer chief executive James Carreras and they struck lucky when Andrew Keir, who had already worked for Hammer on Pirates of Blood River (1962) and Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966), was eventually offered the part of Quatermass. Keir brings a steely determination to the role, retaining some of the character's arrogance but mixed with a very human fragility and vulnerability. This is reflected in the use of Colonel Breen (a fine essay in 'military intelligence' from Julian Glover) as the antithesis of Quatermass. Kneale was apparently much relieved by Keir's casting even although he had not been the first actor in the frame and Baker had initially wanted to cast Kenneth More. Apparently Keir did not enjoy the shoot and assumed it was because Baker didn't want him in the lead and would have preferred More.

It is also commented on, by both Mark Gatiss and Kim Newman in the interviews on this disc, that it seemed odd that André Morell, who had played the part in the television version and then became associated with the Hammer rep of actors after appearing in The Camp on Blood Island (1958), The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959), Cash on Demand (1961), She (1965), The Plague of the Zombies (1966) and what was to be Hammer's final film at their old home of Bray Studios, The Mummy's Shroud (1967) was overlooked for the role. According to Kneale scholar Andy Murray, in Into the Unknown, Morell was approached but demurred, not wishing to return to a part he had already played on television. 

Keir is joined by James Donald, best known from The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), as Matthew Roney and the film benefits hugely from Donald's very thoughtful and sensitive performance, where he and Keir share many of the key scenes of the film through physical characterisation, using eye contact and facial movement, making what is not said underline Kneale's realism. Barbara Shelley, for whom this was her last appearance for Hammer, captures the sexual repression at the heart of Kneale's story and Barbara's feminine intuition to seek further than the rational and embrace the irrational and the supernatural. Her possession suggests much more than a connection to a Martian inheritance and the scene intimates, through Shelley's performance, Barbara's re-discovery of a freer, libidinous self. There are a plethora of wonderful British character actors to savour too, Edwin Richfield as the apoplectic Minister, Peter Copley as his aide Howell, Noel Howlett as the Latin reading Abbey librarian and Bryan Marshall as Captain Potter. Sheila Steafel and Gareth Thomas also put in early career appearances. Their conviction and Baker's straight down the line direction makes Quatermass and the Pit a provocative and powerful slice of British science fiction cinema.

About the transfer
Studiocanal should not be faulted for their restoration of this Hammer classic. The only minor flaws are perhaps some inconsistent contrast levels but I suspect some of these issues stem from the original cinematography, especially where it seems some 'day for night' shooting has been used for scenes set at night. Some scenes are perhaps brighter than I recall too. Other than that the transfer is spotless, a pleasing film grain is present and colours are vivid. Detail is often quite exceptional - check out Quatermass's beard and tweeds, the green slime of the Martians and the army uniforms - and faces look particularly impressive. It's a rich, satisfying presentation, glowing with colour and depth.

Special features
A good selection of features for this double play Blu-ray and DVD release. Some of the new interviews are particularly good. However, points away for some terrible on screen caption cards showing the questions that the interviewees respond to. On two of the cards the film is refered to as The Quatermass and the Pit and Kneale's name is mispelled as Neal. 

Commentary with Roy Ward Baker and Nigel Kneale
Ported over from the Anchor Bay release, this suffers from long periods of silence but what there is of the conversation manages to cover Baker's directing career and techniques and Kneale's relationship with Hammer.
Interview with Judith Kerr (17mins, HD)
Kneale's widow Judith Kerr, a children's author in her own right, is a delight. She recollects how she first met 'Tom' Kneale at the BBC, the writing and production of the original BBC serials, including the infamous rubber gloves special effects in The Quatermass Experiment, and the strength and enduring legacy of her husband's ideas.
Interview with Joe Dante (11mins, HD)
Brief bit of fan worship from director Dante as he recounts his first encounter with Hammer's Quatermass films. His enthusiasm is delightful and he gets across a lot of information about the films.  
Interview with Kim Newman (29mins, HD)
Eclipsing Joe Dante in the sheer amount of information he delivers about the cultural context of Kneale's work, Newman is a real treat. He speaks with authority and wit, covering the film's thought-provoking themes, Hammer's approach and Kneale's career in thorough detail. 
Interview with Julian Glover (29mins, HD)
Glover chats about his casting and performance as Breen, Kneale's script, his relationship with director Roy Ward Baker and provides anecdotes about fellow actors Andrew Keir and James Donald (he bought a car off Donald). He even contextualises it within his own views about science fiction and his work on the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises. Perhaps a little rambling and long but he still comes over as a thoughtful and committed actor.
Interview with Marcus Hearn (12mins, HD)
Hammer historian Hearn takes us through the history of Quatermass and how Hammer brought him to the big screen in the 1950s and 1960s. It's a little brief but packed with detail about why the third serial took so long to make it to the screen.
Interview with Mark Gatiss (19mins, HD)
Another fan perspective, Gatiss recalls his meeting with Kneale and his own attempt to persuade the BBC to remake The Road, a classic Kneale television play wiped from the archive. Like many of us, as a child allowed to stay up and watch, he first encountered Hammer's films on those wonderful BBC 2 horror double bills or via ITV's 'Appointment with Fear' strand.
The World of Hammer 'Sci-Fi' Episode (24mins)
An episode of the Robert and Ashley Sidaway clips show from the 1990s. Here we get a collection of moments from the science fiction films made by Hammer, including the Quatermass trilogy, narrated by one of their own acting discoveries, Oliver Reed. The presentation is marred by a poor sound mix where Reed grumbles out of one audio channel and the sound from the film plays out of the opposite channel. 
Original theatrical trailer (HD)
Alternate American Credits (HD)
Renamed as the very pulpy Five Million Years to Earth for American distribution, this is a variant on the credits sequence using that title. 
Alternative American Trailer (HD)
The Five Million Years to Earth trailer. 
Quatermass and the Pit
A Seven Arts-Hammer Film Production - Warner-Pathé Distributors 1967
Optimum Home Entertainment Double Play Blu-ray and DVD combo / OPTBD0631 / Cert: 12 / Released October 10 2011 
DVD tech specs: Region 2 / Total Running Time: 94 mins approx / Colour PAL / Feature Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1 / Feature Audio: Stereo 2.0 / English Language 
Blu-ray tech specs: Region B / Total Running Time: 98 mins approx / Colour PAL / Feature Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1 / Video: BD50 / AVC / 24p / Feature Audio: Stereo PCM 2.0 / Audio Codec:  DTS HD / English Language


THE COMPETITION IS NOW CLOSED - the winners were Lee Rose, Vivienne Dunstan and Alwyn Ash. Congrats to them.

Cathode Ray Tube has three copies of Quatermass and the Pit on Blu-ray to give away  courtesy of Studiocanal and Optimum Home Entertainment. Simply answer the question below and submit your entry.
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Question: Where was Nigel Kneale born?


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One Response to “BRITISH CULT CLASSICS - Quatermass and the Pit / Blu-Ray Review and Competition”
  1. Lurking Grue says:

    Thanks Frank, an excellent introduction to a remarkable film which excels as an adaptation of a previous TV series, sci-fi / paranormal and social commentary.

    Kneale's power as a writer (and the BBC's effectiveness at conveying his ideas) is uncanny, I remember watching the surviving first episode of the Quatermass Experiment less than five years ago and being absolutely riveted to the screen. Not bad for a b/w recording that is almost 60 years old! By the end of the episode I felt as though I had been holding my breath for the last 25 minutes despite being already familiar with both versions of Pit and the Quatermass Conclusion.

    Ditto for Quatermass II.

    Forget Blue Streak, Britain's finest contributions to the Space Age were Quatermass and Doctor Who.

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