QUATERMASS AND THE PIT
Ghosts Of Mars
Nigel Kneale’s ’50s classic arrives on Blu-ray this month. British Rocket Group baffled.
Nigel Kneale’s sci-fi serials about rocket scientist Bernard Quatermass were massive cultural phenomena in the ’50s, allegedly emptying the streets. This third and final outing (until the character’s revival in 1979) is the most sophisticated of the lot.
Sparked by the writer’s observations of London’s post-war renewal, it sees building work unearthing the skull of a “missing link”. Further excavations reveal a giant capsule dating back millions of years… and its alien occupants.
Kneale has to stretch to work Quatermass into this scenario, but he pulls it off, and André Morell is superb playing the professor. Urbane but possessed of steely determination, Quatermass sparks entertainingly with his army counterpart Colonel Breen (Anthony Bushell), the voice of obstinate “common sense” denial.
It’s a surprisingly slick production. Though it went out live, pre-filmed inserts shot at Ealing Studios mean that the dig has an impressive scale which lends the tale verisimilitude. And Kneale cleverly uses supporting characters to anchor the outlandish events in workaday reality: gormless onlookers captured in vox pops; squaddies gossiping about whether their superiors have a clue.
It isn’t flawless. Martian insects are one thing; asking us to swallow a device that can read mental images that was a) invented by a paleontologist and b) has been sitting on a shelf instead of being hailed as a scientific breakthrough is another. Some “looking out of the tent” acting is required to convey mass panic. And in the final episode, the capsule looks like what it is: a small wax model being blasted with hairdryers.
These are forgiveable lapses, though. What’s particularly impressive is how many ideas Kneale’s keenly intelligent script takes in over its six parts, from poltergeist activity and genetic engineering to race memories and ethnic purging. Every episode brings fresh revelations that take the story in new and often surprising directions. Sixty years on from its first transmission, it remains utterly gripping.
Extras A 1991 interview with effects men Jack Kine and Bernard Wilkie is charming, but it’s short (seven minutes) and was on the old DVD. You also get the credits from a 1960 omnibus repeat, a stills gallery, CD ROM content (including scripts) and a booklet.
The real meat comes in the commentary tracks. Hosted by Quatermass expert Toby Hadoke, and taking a different tack for each episode, they combine commentary from Hadoke, Kneale’s biographer, and one of the restoration team with contributions from five surviving cast and crew, as well as archive interviews with four more who’ve passed away (mostly taken from Hadoke’s personal collection). Ian Berriman
The climactic explosion involved a pound of flash powder. Actor Cec Linder had pads put on his eyes so he wasn’t blinded!
They weren’t sure this flat was really worth £1000 pcm.