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The Quatermass Series

De Quatermass Series


Author: Catherine Johnson
Category: Behind the scenes: production of early television
Created: 2005-05-31
Modified: 2006-11-09
Language:


Context

For many historians and viewers the birth of British television as a mass medium began on 2 June 1953 with the televising of the Coronation of Elizabeth II in Westminster Abbey (O'Sullivan 2003, Crissell 1997). The programme was technically ambitious, and attracted a large audience with viewers outnumbering listeners for the first time. Yet, just two months later, a very different broadcast from Westminster Abbey (albeit a model of this historic building) would be gripping viewers, this time seeing the Queen supplanted by an alien organism taking root in Poet's Corner and threatening to destroy all humanity on Earth.

This television broadcast was the culmination of a six part drama serial entitled The Quatermass Experiment (BBC, 1953) written by Nigel Kneale and produced by Rudolf Cartier, which told the tale of the fated consequences of the first manned space flight engineered by Professor Bernard Quatermass. This first serial was followed by two more Quatermass adventures. In Quatermass II (BBC, 1955) aliens had infiltrated a number of secret Government installations, while in Quatermass and the Pit (BBC, 1958-9) an unearthed alien pod suggested that man's origins may not be entirely of this world. All three serials were subsequently adapted into films by Hammer over the 1950s and 1960s, and in the 1970s Quatermass was revived as a drama that was produced simultaneously as a film and a four part television series.

A Strong Cultural Resonance

All three of the serials produced in the 1950s had a strong cultural resonance with their audiences, and are often fondly remembered (primarily for being extremely frightening!) by audiences today. By the third serial in 1958, the Quatermass programmes had become a cultural event with Variety reporting 'a motion at one local council that business shouldn't start until after the Quatermass transmission had ended', adding that 'cinema exhibs testify to the pull of the program by saying that they had one of the worst evening's biz in a long, long time' (cited in WAC (BBC Written Archives Centre), T5/2, 306/1, 13 March 1959). They have also been regarded as key texts in the historical development of British television (Barr 1986, p. 215).

Shock, Horror & Surprise

The serials made significant use of the conventions of horror and the domestic location of television to frighten their audiences. For example, at the end of the first episode of The Quatermass Experiment, the surviving astronaut staggers out of the crashed space rocket, removes his helmet and falls directly into the camera, his terrified expression visible in extreme close-up before the fade to black. Although the BBC had previously transmitted ghost/thriller stories, here The Quatermass Experiment deliberately set out to shock and surprise its audience by exploiting the impact that the sudden close-up could have in the dark and intimate environment of the living room, 'where close-ups appear life-size or even bigger' (Cartier 1958, p. 10). Such techniques had all the more impact at a time when there was anxiety about the place of television in the home, and the Quatermass serials were particularly effective at frightening their audiences because they challenged the homely address of much of the BBC's television output (Caughie, 2000, p. 32). The Quatermass serials were also significant for their use of spectacle. At a time when television screens were small with low resolution, there was a strong sense that television was not suited to spectacle and visual display (see Jacobs 2000). The Quatermass serials challenged this by building up to spectacular sequences in which the fantastic was on display to the audience, such as the climax to The Quatermass Experiment when the alien organism is displayed towering over Poet's Corner in Westminster Abbey. Such moments of spectacle are particularly impressive when considering that each serial was transmitted live, and a significant number of the moments of spectacle were created live in the studio.

These spectacular sequences, combined with the use of close-ups to shock the audience in their own homes, would seem to mark out the Quatermass serials as innovative and significant productions in the history of British television. Yet as Lez Cooke points out, there is a danger of over-emphasising the significance of the Quatermass serials at this time (2003, p. 22). Produced in a period when most television was live, and when telerecording (which made it possible to record live television transmissions on to film) was relatively limited, The Quatermass Experiment is one of the few dramas from the early 1950s for which we have an audio-visual record (telerecordings of the first two episodes are held at the National Film and Television Archive, and the serial is to be remade live as part of BBC4's 'TV On Trial' season on 2 April 2005). It is difficult, therefore, to judge comparatively whether the Quatermass serials were as stylistically ground-breaking as has been suggested.

Significant Drama

Yet the Quatermass serials were recognised as significant drama productions at the time when they were produced. The Quatermass Experiment was broadcast one year before the passing of the Television Act of 1954 which effectively ended the BBC's monopoly by setting up ITV, which was to begin broadcasting in September 1955. As a consequence, over 1954, the BBC had to consider how it would respond to the immanent arrival of a commercial competitor. In a memo written in 1954, Cecil McGivern (Controller of Television Programmes at the BBC) argued that The Quatermass Experiment was exactly the kind of television drama that the BBC should be producing with the arrival of competition. Referring directly to the broadcasting of The Quatermass Experiment in 1953, McGivern wrote, Had competitive television been in existence then, we would have killed it every Saturday night while that serial lasted. We are going to need many more "Quatermass Experiment" programmes (WAC, T31/141/1, 10 November 1954)

Whether or not the Quatermass serials marked an innovative stylistic shift in British television, they were certainly significant products for the BBC during this transformative period in the 1950s.

For a more detailed discussion of the Quatermass serials from the 1950s see: Johnson, Catherine, Telefantasy, London: BFI, 2005. Johnson, Catherine, 'Exploiting the Intimate Screen: The Quatermass Experiment, Fantasy and the Aesthetic Potential of Early Television Drama', Small Screen, Big Ideas: Television in the 1950s, ed. Janet Thumim, London: I.B.Tauris, 2002.


References:

Author: Catherine Johnson

  • Barr, Charles, 'Broadcasting and Cinema 2: Screens Within Screens', ed. Charles Barr, All Our Yesterdays: 90 Years of British Cinema, London: BFI, 1986.
  • Cartier, Rudolph, 'A Foot in Both Camps', Films and Filming, September 1958, pp.10, 31.
  • Caughie, John, Television Drama: Realism, Modernism, and British Culture, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
  • Cooke, Lez, British Television Drama: A History, London: BFI, 2003.
  • Crisell, Andrew, An Introductory History of British Broadcasting, London and New York: Routledge, 1997.
  • Jacobs, Jason, The Intimate Screen: Early British Television Drama, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
  • O'Sullivan, Tim, 'Post-War Television in Britain: BBC and ITV', The Television History Book, ed. Michele Hilmes, London: BFI, 2003.

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