Quatermass Again: The Quatermass Xperiment (1955)

I have rarely had the opportunity to write about 1950s TV here and I'm not really doing so now, since I'm writing about the Hammer film which used the original TV series as its source. This 1953 series is a legend in the world of cult TV:

Originally comprising six half-hour episodes, it was the first science fiction production to be written especially for a British adult television audience.[1] Previous written-for-television efforts such as Stranger from Space (1951–52) were aimed at children, whereas adult entries into the genre were adapted from literary sources, such as R.U.R. (1938 and again in 1948) and The Time Machine (1949).[2] The serial was the first of four Quatermass productions to be screened on British television between 1953 and 1979. It was transmitted live from the BBC's original television studios at Alexandra Palace in London, one of the final productions before BBC television drama moved to west London.

As well as spawning various remakes and sequels, The Quatermass Experiment inspired much of the television science fiction that succeeded it, particularly in the United Kingdom, where it influenced successful series such as Doctor Who and Sapphire and Steel.[3] It also influenced successful Hollywood films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Alien.[4] Source: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Quatermass_Experiment

I have seen them but sadly only two episodes of the original series remain - if you buy the BBC box set of the 2000s relaunch you can see them and read the scripts of the others. You can see the remaining episodes for free at https://archive.org/details/TheQuatermassExperiment-Incomplete (for some reason the link gadget isn't working today).

Perhaps I should say that while this film used the same source material, its writer, the legendary Nigel Kneale, didn't like this film. Other works of his have appeared here on and off and one of these days I will get round to writing about The Year of the Sex Olympics. Only today I discovered that Kneale and his wife were Jewish refugees to Britain ( in the long gone days when we could play nicely with the other countries) and that he is sometimes called Manx. This is not because he had no tail, although obviously he didn't have one.

As hinted above, the Quatermass shows and films may have been turning points in the development of the attitude to science which we see in so much TV in the following couple of decades. Quatermass is a scientist pure and simple and his loyalty is to cold hard science above all. He is actually seen as the archetypal scientist, who would place the empirical scientific model above all. This is very much the model of scientists seen on succeeding decades. 'But he's a scientist!' is a recurring line in TV of this time and it means the scientist is in disinterested pursuit of the truth alone.

This approach, and the TV it influenced, juxtapose this reverence for science with a fear of science's consequences. Here it is the suggestion that space travel would bring back something dangerous to earth. More frequently in my kind of television it is the fear that some new technology will get into the hands of the wrong people, whether they be dangerous megalomaniacs or the Other Side. The film does incorporate the fear because Quatermass goes off to start the whole thing again, after going to such trouble to get rid of the Thing brought to earth.

I would say it is extraordinary that the returned astronaut's wife busts her husband out of hospital. However she didn't have the benefit of subsequent TV and film warnings to know that if your husband comes back markedly different from space travel you really should leave him in his secure hospital, so perhaps we should go easy on her. In fact my only criticism is that I think the build up is too slow, but again I may not be fairly judging this. It certainly seems to have been considered very frightening at the time.

I like an arbitrary fact about this film, which is that it was or is in the Guinness Book of Records as being the only film ever to frighten a viewer to death, after a 9 year old child in the US died of a ruptured artery while watching it. I have no idea of its rating in the US but here the film was X rated (the spelling of Experiment was deliberate to stress the rating), which at this time meant youngsters under 16 couldn't be admitted to view the film. Another thing I have learned only today is the reason the X certificate is associated with porn is because pornographers in the US hijacked the rating in the 1970s; in the US it wasn't meant to indicate porn originally. The Quatermass Xperiment isn't vaguely pornographic, I should add, not even boobs, bums and furry bits. I suspect it wouldn't even get an 18 certificate here now.

The film deals with the familiar dilemma of how much to tell the public. I like Quatermass's approach that they must be told nothing, if I'm honest. Usually I wouldn't but I like the additional detail that they must be told nothing because his hypothesis of what is happening is so fantastic that the public wouldn't believe it!

This post is strangely suitable this year and it is unfortunate that we have reached a stage where more and more people think empirical science is a matter of belief which can be ignored and other people seek out scientists whose research confirms their own bias. In other words exactly the sort of people this film and the TV shows I write about were warning of.


  1. Chicago Calling (featuring More Than You Wanted To Know!):

    Back in the day, there was a man named Robert Lippert, who went from owning local movie theaters all over the USA to producing low-budget movies to play in them.
    That's an oversimplification, but it'll do to get us started.

    Robert Lippert had been making B-movies from the early '40s onward, mainly action pictures, westerns, crime movies, and anything else he could order up, to keep his neighborhood houses ("nabes" for short) in operation all year long.

    In the early '50s, Lippert set up a deal with Hammer Films in Britain (which was in its early days) to make movies in GB under something called the Eady Plan: Hammer would come up with a script, Lippert would supply an American leading actor (and a bagful of money), and Presto! - A second feature for two nations!

    The Quatermass Xperiment was one such transoceanic feature; it played in the USA as The Creeping Unknown - and that's the title it had when I first saw it on a local Chicago TV station, circa 1960 or thereabouts (late Sunday night, after the 10 O'Clock News).
    I would have been about 10 or 11 years old at the time, my brother was a year older, and we had to bargain with the parents to get to stay up late for a scary movie (especially on a school night).
    I should point that in the US, movies didn't have ratings as they did in the UK (except from local censor boards in various localities); if you had the money for a ticket, you got in, no questions asked.
    As for TV showings, pretty much anything went: Horror, science fiction, and crime thrillers were kept mostly late at night, but if Mom and Dad were indulgent enough, an American kid could see just about anything.
    At the turn of the Sixties, monster movies were big with American kids, nowhere more so than in Chicago; my brother and I were down in front of the family TV for most of them.
    When Channel 5 (the NBC station in Chicago) began promoting The Creeping Unknown's Chgo. TV Debut, with bits of some of the scarier scenes on view, Sean and I began our negotiations in earnest for Sunday night - and Dad (who liked horror pictures) let us stay up, so we'd have something to talk about with our pals in Catholic school on Monday.
    Looking back, I have to admit that the British speech took some efforts on our parts to follow; Dad served with the Army Air Corps in England during WWII, and he was a great help in keeping us in the loop.
    The Yank star was Brian Donlevy; our Irish family had a few uncles who looked and sounded like him, so that was no problem.
    This was all a long time ago; it's been years since I've seen this, and frankly I don't recall much of what happened here - save for some of the grosser things that happened to the spaceman (which was why I was watching anyway, but never mind ...).

    Anyway, I did want to tell you about Robert Lippert, and about how he made his own British movies and sold them to US theaters - and also to US television, quite soon after their theater playoffs.
    The TV part of the equation is important: Lippert was one of the first US film companies to sell its inventory to local stations, and British product like Quatermass/Creeping Unknown was a major part of that.

    I cribbed much of the foregoing from a book, Talk's Cheap, Action's Expensive: The Films Of Robert L. Lippert.
    The accounts of my semi-misspent youth are as accurate as my aging memory will permit.
    So There Too.

    1. Oh, I feel the accounts have a verisimilitude amounting to reality...
      I omitted the renaming I know, but not deliberately. And thank you for explaining why the small child was seeing the film.
      Never more than I want to know!


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