Ghosts Of Mars

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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.

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