Quatermass on Network’s blu-ray

Twenty years after Quatermass and the Pit thrilled British television audiences, Nigel Kneale created a brand new science fiction adventure for a very different era. Instead of the cramped studios of Lime Grove and 405 line TV cameras, Quatermass was made in colour, on film and made on mostly on location. The result was was an epic piece of science fiction television that divided critics and audiences at the time but has gradually risen in appreciation and is now considered very much a part of the Quatermass saga, as well as a fondly remembered ITV drama.

The near future. Seemingly thanks to a worldwide economic crisis, Britain has descended into a state of anarchy. Professor Bernard Quatermass, now an elderly man, his British Rocket Group a distant memory, has come to London to take part in a live television broadcast celebrating a pointless US/USSR space mission. But really he is trying to find his missing granddaughter Hettie. Then to everyone’s shock the spacecraft is inexplicably destroyed. Escaping the furore with a young scientist called Joseph Kapp, Quatermass discovers that masses of young people are being drawn towards ancient sites. Intrigued he and the Kapps go to the nearby stone circle Ringstone Round, only to witness the horrific sight of the whole crowd being wiped out by a huge energy beam from space. With only limited resources and growing danger from fanatical Planet People, a shaky government and violent gangs, Quatermass tries to uncover the nature of a terrifying wholly alien threat.

Nigel Kneale originally approached the BBC with the idea of a fourth Quatermass story, then titled “Quatermass 79”. Star Wars had brought science fiction back into fashion and the corporation was enjoying success with both Doctor Who and Blake’s 7. However the BBC executive most closely involved left for Thames Television and took the project with him. Thames and its cinema division Euston Films were keen to branch out from the gritty two-fisted action fare like The Sweeny which had made their name and correctly predicted that science fiction was going to be the next big trend. In order to raise the budget the project was planned to be made simultaneously as a four part mini-series and a feature film for the USA market. Kneale later said he regretted the strategy, feeling it harmed the structure his script, producing a television series that was too padded and a film that was too short for the story to be properly developed. I beg to disagree.

This set contains both the television series and The Quatermass Conclusion movie version and it is fascinating to compare them. In order for the story to work as a film, an exclusive scene was filmed to cover certain plot points. The biggest story difference between them is a sub-plot about Quatermass becoming lost after a London gang ambush and joining a community of elderly people living in hiding under a scrapyard. In the movie he simply arrives safely at the hospital and witnesses that bizarre transformation of a young girl hit by the alien ray, something that happens without him in the television version. Another major casualty is Quatermass’ friend Joe Kapp, whose family life and later mental disintegration is largely excised. Generally I much prefer the television version, which has room for its characters to develop and generally become even more sympathetic, which in turn makes the violence and the destruction more horrific. There’s also more room for humour too, such as the fuming of a camp director of a soft-core porn television show, whose studio is taken over to transmit a message.

It is wonderful to see Nigel Kneale’s literate, often downbeat, thoughtful script be realised with such an impressive production. Director Piers Haggard had previously helmed the 1971 cult British horror movie “Blood on Satan’s Claw” and many well regarded television dramas. He gives the series a great sense of scale, creating a convincing urban apocalypse and bringing energy and pace to a fairly conversational script. Compared to other British television SF of the time, such as Blake’s 7 and Tom Baker’s Doctor Who, it looks amazingly glossy, shot mostly on location, featuring night filming, and some impressively large scale sets such as Ringstone Round. Only the space shuttle interior lets the side down, looking distinctly like painted wood and lacking the accurate details. Special mention should also go to Marc Wilkinson and Nic Rowley’s melancholy and imaginative music, blending electronic and conventional musical instruments.

A common criticism of the series was that its main human danger, crowds of mesmerised hippies, was an out of date concept for 1979, a time when punk rock was the major youth movement. I’ve always found this a rather shallow argument. Its’ sense of urban decay seems relevant in any age, whilst the way that Planet People and other influenced humans reject science in favour of New Age beliefs is quite prophetic of the mood of anti-intellectulism that appeared in the nineties and continues to a lesser extent today. “Stop trying to know things!” shouts an angry protester at one point. Kneale himself said he felt the onscreen Planet People were too flower-power when he had intended them to be more manic and aggressive.

Quatermass marked John Mills’ third major British television role. As a well-known film star on both sides of the Atlantic, his participation guaranteed the production’s huge (for the time) £1.2 million budget. Playing the famous scientist at a very different time of his life, Mills brings out the professor’s humanity and decency, a man who regrets the way his obsession with manned spaceflight has damaged his family. Writer Nigel Kneale felt the avuncular Mills was miscast and lacked the authority needed for the character. Yet the Quatermass Kneale has written is initially a beaten, lonely old man who gradually rebuilds himself as the story continues and Mills is fine at playing this. Playing Joseph Kapp, Simon McCorkindale, a few years before his international fame in Dynasty, Falcon Crest and ahem Jaws 3D, in many ways represents the man Quatermass used to be, passionate, principled and driven by his work to the point where he puts his family in second place. Kneale was critical of him too in later interviews, saying he was better at playing foolish lightweight men and wasn’t good at playing an intellectual. Barbara Kellerman is excellent as Clare Kapp, his sensitive wife who begins to show signs of alien influence. Veteran actress Margaret Tyzack makes a good companion for the Quatermass as a government District Commissioner called Annie Morgan. The series is filled with familiar TV character faces like Brian Croucher, Brenda Fricker, Ralph Arliss, David Yip, Kevin Stoney and Bruce Purchase. Sharp eyed viewers will also see a pre-fame pop star Toyah Wilcox as one of the hippie travellers.

The serial has been released on VHS and DVD before but Network have once again worked wonders with the HD restoration of the 35mm film footage. The picture quality is quite incredible, filled with detail I’ve never noticed before and making the most of outdoor set pieces such as the riot at Ringstone Round or devastated London. I was worried that HD would be unkind to the special effects of the day. I shouldn’t have worried because the optical effects look better and more detailed than ever before, whilst the modelwork in the space scenes whilst obviously filmed models, looks perfectly acceptable and does not break the serious mood. The brand new 5.1 surround sound mix is equally impressive. However purists will be glad to know there is also the option of the original mono soundtrack.

Extras

With many of the principle people no longer with us, it’s perhaps inevitable that the extras on this release are fairly minimal. No commentaries or new documentary on the production. However this area is more than satisfactorily filled by the enclosed booklet by well-regarded archive TV historian Andrew Pixley. Pixley’s style of writing is exhaustively researched but very accessible. He is already something of a legend amongst cult TV fans for his work documenting series like Doctor Who, Mystery and Imagination, Out of the Unknown and many other Network and BBC DVD releases. Suffice to say that everything you need to know about the making of this series is in this slim volume. He also puts into the context of Nigel Kneale’s whole career.

There is the option for music-only soundtracks for all four episodes, and also whether the view the episodes with the original ITV episode recaps. A silent version of the cinema trailer is there. It’s a shame the soundtrack couldn’t be recreated for it. Probably the least essential extra is a silent, textless version of the movie credits, which is pretty similar to the first scene that opens the TV version. Finally there is an Image Gallery with many rare photos.

As an extra bonus (or gimmick depending on what you think), Network have released the first thousand copies of the blu-ray edition with one of four exclusive covers featuring artwork based on the original four TV title cards. The standard edition features a photo montage which is also used on the DVD release.

This new edition of Quatermass is definitely worth an upgrade if you have a blu-ray player. There is also a restored DVD edition being released simultaneously but with the blu-ray you’ll get a significantly upgraded presentation. It is a thoughtful, excellently made SF event series that deserves to be rediscovered by a whole new audience, as welcome as welcomed back by its admirers.