1950's, 1984, Alan Bennett, Alan Bleasdale, BBC, Dennis Potter, Doctor Who, Fantasy, George Orwell, Mark Gatiss, Nigel Kneale, Quatermass, Science Fiction, Television, The Archers, The Goons, The Wednesday Play strand, The X Files, The Year of the Sex Olympics
When most people think of conspiracy theories and government cover-ups in science fiction plots, The X Files and other glossy serials of the early 1990’s may come to mind. But American’s were rather late-comers to paranoia and distrust in their government; intent on reflecting true events such as the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal of the late 1970’s. Enter Thomas ‘Nigel’ Kneale, who decades before, laid down the blueprint of the science-fiction conspiracy thriller with the Quatermass trilogy. The first episode of the now iconic serial was aptly entitled ‘Contact has been established’ and was broadcast to millions on July 18th 1953. To Kneale’s delight, the response established was one of extreme provocation from the press and a mass appreciation from a post-war viewing public.
Astonishingly, for having revolutionized science fiction and the dramatic medium in some eyes, Kneale admits to being less than enthusiastic about the genre “I’m not really a science fiction fan. I hardly ever read it”. Even harder to fathom is that a year previously, Nigel Kneale was primarily a short-story writer, penning ideas for children’s shows and small adaptations in his modest role at the BBC as one of many staff writers. During his time at BBC Television, Kneale was to make some invaluable contacts, notably with the head of drama at the time, Michael Barry who valued Kneale’s potential for story-telling:
“We cannot afford to lose [Kneale’s] knowledge of Television built up over nine months” — [Speaking in 1952]
In the short space of nine months, Kneale also made perhaps the most pivotal working relationship of his career with Rudolph Cartier; a fellow writer at the BBC and one half of a two-man writing team during the adaptation of an Albrecht Goes’ novel, ‘Unruhige Nacht’ (re-titled Arrow to the Heart). Cartier had similar views when it came to the execution of British drama and shared Kneale’s loathing for the stagy and ‘cosy’ feel of previous sci-fi radio productions that so often favoured spectacle over narrative and intriguing characters. Following their meeting in 1952, Cartier would take on the role as producer and director of the Quatermass trilogy. The first episode in the trilogy, The Quatermass Experiment was Kneale and Cartier’s dig at bland and predictable radio productions of years gone by. They would later collaborate in 1958 but for the last time on the production of the third and final episode in the series, Quatermass and the Pit. While Kneale had been let down by the BBC in the past (denying Kneale copyright over Quatermass and allowing Hammer studios to adapt it for film in 1953), Quatermass and the Pit was to be entirely Kneale’s own and both he and Cartier were able to maintain the subsequent film rights over his original work. It was during this period that Kneale was awarded a long-term contract with the BBC to produce further plays.
It is bizarre when one considers that the entire Quatermass franchise came about when, in one day in 1953, the BBC suddenly discovered that they had a gap in the schedules, a slot for a serial and ‘nothing remotely planned’. Unsurprisingly when Kneale’s contract with the BBC ended and the opportunity for complete creative freedom presented itself, he ran with it, resulting in some of his most controversial works to date. The first of these was Kneale’s 1954 adaptation of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, a play creating such controversy that in the same week in December 1954, a second live broadcast of the play was made, preceded by a brief introduction by head of drama, Michael Barry which invited viewers to watch it with an open mind despite parliamentary plans to prohibit a repeat. The mixed reactions from viewers suggest it was the most innovative and controversial broadcast the UK had witnessed, branding the producers ‘sadists’ and ‘twisted’ individuals. Within three years of working at the BBC, the thirty-two year old Nigel Kneale had invented shock value.
Shocking and provocative drama was to become a by-word for Kneale’s work as he followed up (and exceeded) Nineteen Eighty-Four’s controversy with his 1968 play, The Year of the Sex Olympics, a horrific vision of the future in which the British population are subjected to 24-hour television showing nothing other than pornography and ‘The Live Life show’, a live-streaming of a family’s struggle for survival on a remote island. Deciding the ratings are stale, the ‘producers’ of this show introduce a murderer to the island and the audience love them for it. Disturbingly, Kneale predicted what is now, a fixture of our day-to-day lives: Reality Television – a medium and sub-genre of television in its own right with the emergence of Big Brother in the new millennium. While Kneale never quite surpassed this ability to forecast, two years later he wrote a little known 1970 play for the BBC’s ‘The Wednesday Play’ strand, entitled, Wine of India which concerned a near future in which people could live forever in a state of youth with the help of wonder drugs. If not prophetic of immortality cures that scientists are pushing to become available in our lifetime, Wine of India, in some small way, foretold the age of celebrity and societies increased obsession with everlasting youth and body image.
Fifty years on, Quatermass and Year of the Sex Olympics still has the ability to shock, not least because so much of what Kneale predicted (with the onset of reality television and surveillance) has come true but because so many writers of sci-fi have since tried and failed to follow suit. In 2003, The Film critic Kim Newman suggested that Stephen King had ‘more or less rewritten Quatermass and the Pit in The Tommyknockers’ (1987). Together with Stephen King, the director John Carpenter and the creator of The X Files franchise, Chris Carter cite Kneale as a great influence upon their work.
As well as influencing ideas in other writers, Quatermass more or less ensured the production and quality of future sci-fi serials, particularly for Doctor Who in 1963 having set up the BBC Radiophonic workshop some 12 years before for the Quatermass sound effects and titles. This paved the way for the use of sound effects in all genres of radio broadcasting including comedy with The Goons (1951) and drama with The Archers (1951).
Before or since, nobody has been as innovative and questioning of society as Kneale and yet, his name rarely crops up within the genre he laid the very foundations for. Speaking after Kneale’s death in 2006, the comedy actor, writer and Kneale-devotee, Mark Gatiss maintains that the humble visionary behind Quatermass should be acknowledged among the best in British writers:
“He [Kneale] is absolutely as important as Dennis Potter, Alan Bleasdale and Alan Bennett, but because of the strange snobbery that seems to surround fantasy and science fiction, he hasn’t been regarded in that way” — [Speaking in 2007]
For sci-fi aficionado’s and lovers of originality in the medium, the ‘spiritual Godfather of Science-Fiction’ can scarcely be matched.