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Posts Tagged ‘Nigel Kneale’

Every time I think the internet has lost its capacity to startle me, something comes along to – well, startle me. The nature of the world’s most popular video sharing website being what it is, I’m never especially surprised to find obscure old movies posted there in its quiet corners – were this not the case, I might never have seen The Deadly Mantis or Night of the Lepus. Even the least distinguished films have a habit of turning up on budget DVD, such is the nature of the medium, but when it comes to old TV shows… well, even today I would imagine there are hundreds of thousands of hours of material which has never been licensed for commercial release; there are whole series which have slipped out of the collective memory. For example, I’d never heard of an ITV play strand entitled Against the Crowd, which apparently ran for one series in 1975 – until I came across a complete episode available for viewing. How did this even happen?!

Of course, it turns out that my initial surprise may have been a bit premature, for the episode in question has the unique distinction: unlike the rest of the run, it has enjoyed a DVD release, having been included as a special feature on the box set of Beasts when that came out. This, I suspect, is the source of the copy which is available to watch. The reason Murrain got added to Beasts is that it was written by Nigel Kneale, effectively acting as an unofficial pilot for the later series, and I suppose part of my surprise at discovering this play is that I thought I was familiar with virtually everything Kneale wrote for TV, certainly in the 1960s and 1970s.

Certainly Murrain resembles an episode of Beasts, clearly being made on a low budget – shot on videotape and on location. The play is set somewhere in the north of England. David Simeon (one of those actors who isn’t famous by any stretch of the imagination, but is still one of those faces you kind of recognise if you’re anything like me) plays Alan Crich, an idealistic young veterinary officer with the local council, who as the story begins arrives at the pig farm of a man named Beeley (Bernard Lee, best known for appearing in the first dozen or so Bond films). Beeley’s pigs are suffering from an unidentified sickness which Crich’s ministrations have so far been unable to cure; Beeley is not impressed, to put it mildly, and the atmosphere between the two men is soon tense.

Then Beeley announces he’s going to show Crich a few other points of interest, and marches him off to where the pipeline drawing from the local spring has completely dried up, for no apparent reason. Finally, Crich is taken to the local shop, where the owner’s child is also ill, again with an unidentified sickness. Crich can’t make out what Beeley and his men are driving at until they make it absolutely clear to him: it is their sincere belief that the old woman who lives up the hill is a witch, and has placed what they refer to as a murrain (in other words, a curse) on the pigs and other things.

So far in the play, Kneale has been working diligently to draw the contrasts between Crich and Beeley (who do most of the talking between them) – Crich is young, well-spoken, college-educated, polite, while Beeley is older, rough around the edges, practical. What follows at this point is a decent enough articulation of differing views when it comes to witchcraft and the supernatural, with Beeley rehearsing the argument that what may seem weird and miraculous now could easily be explained by science at some point in the future, and that Crich has no right to dismiss their concerns out of hand. But Crich just dismisses their concerns out of hand, thus – you would think – setting him up for a touch of nemesis before the end of the play.

The locals want Crich to visit the supposed witch (played by Una Brandon-Hill – the woman is supposedly ‘very old’ but Brandon-Hill was under sixty at the time) and perform a ritual that will break her power over them. He makes the visit, but refuses to play exorcist, and instead finds what he expects to find – an old, lonely, slightly pathetic woman, who is apparently being bullied by her neighbours. He resolves to make amends…

There’s very little wrong with the narrative carpentry in Murrain, except for the fact that it becomes very obvious early on just how the thing is going to play out: Crich is so openly contemptuous of the superstitions of Beeley and the others that the only way this can possibly end is for there to be just a suggestion that the villagers have been right all along, and he has been unwittingly assisting the forces of darkness. And so it proves, but if anything Kneale plays it too safe, as the ending is just a bit flat. The only point of ambiguity is that of whether the old woman genuinely does have access to some kind of Power with a capital P, or whether she and the other locals share the same delusion (the special effects budget of Murrain is approximately no-money-whatsoever, so everything is left very ambiguous).

Of course, this being a Nigel Kneale script, Murrain is also notable for its thorough-going, indiscriminate misanthropy. As I may well have said in the past, Nigel Kneale doesn’t have prejudices – he treats everyone with equal disdain and contempt, whether that’s for being idealistic and naïve, or ignorant and crude. This is a fairly bleak play in every respect, but it’s also a very solidly written one, let down slightly by its predictability and also by the low production values involved. There’s obviously a sort of family resemblance to Beasts, but one suspects that series came about more due to Kneale’s reputation than because of the quality of this particular play.

Watching Murrain now, it isn’t an outstanding piece of work in any respect, but it still represents something that we have lost in modern TV – who does low-budget single dramas any more? No-one at all in the UK, not on free to air TV at least. There is no place for this kind of drama any more, and I can’t help thinking that’s a shame.

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In the Earth Year 1979, one thing that everyone involved in commissioning films and TV series was absolutely certain of was that science fiction and fantasy had suddenly become very, very popular over the previous couple of years. As producing popular movies and shows is basically part of the job description for these people, the inevitable result was the late-seventies boom in SF and fantasy, which resulted in a vast number of frankly variable new projects hitting screens both large and small. Some of these were very good, many of them were extremely poor, and a few of them are clearly the work of people with only the vaguest ideas about what science fiction is.

Which brings us to the 1979 version of Quatermass, written (of course) by Nigel Kneale and directed by Piers Haggard (who had previously been in charge of the cult folk horror movie Blood on Satan’s Claw, which has a few very vague similarities to this). Also known as Quatermass IV and The Quatermass Conclusion, this had started life as a project for the BBC some years earlier, which progressed as far as some initial special effects filming before the corporation had second thoughts about the tone and expense of the undertaking. It is understandable why the commercial network ITV would want to take over a prestigious project by a celebrated screenwriter, especially given the fact that it was the late 70s and this is ostensibly an SF show, but watching the end result you can’t help but wonder if the BBC weren’t right in the first place.

 

The proper big movie star John Mills plays Professor Q. The story has a near-future setting which, nearly 40 years on, inevitably feels rather quaint: there are various not-very-subtle references to King Charles being on the throne, but the USSR is still a going concern. Things have not changed for the better, however – ‘in the last quarter of the twentieth century, the whole world seemed to sicken,’ intones the opening monologue of the story. Things seem pre-apocalyptic, if not actually apocalyptic, from the word go, with law and order breaking down in the UK, dead bodies in the streets, armed gangs on the rampage, and regular power cuts. (Some of which must have seemed very familiar to a country which had recently experienced the rise of punk rock and the Winter of Discontent.)

With the British Rocket Group apparently disbanded (there are vague allusions to the events of the previous three Quatermass serials), Quatermass has been living in seclusion in Scotland, and is shocked when he returns to London, ostensibly to appear on a live broadcast covering a joint Russian-American space mission. Practically the first thing that happens to him is an attempted mugging, from which he is rescued by Joe Kapp (Simon MacCorkindale), a radio astronomer booked for the same show. Uncompromising as ever, Quatermass goes on live TV and dismisses the mission as an empty display from two diseased superpowers that is bound to end in disaster, before revealing why he’s really decided to appear: his teenaged granddaughter has disappeared and he is desperate to find her. Naturally, he is yanked off the air, but moments later something mysteriously causes the spacecraft to disintegrate in orbit, killing all the crew…

Finding his suspiciously-accurate prophecy of doom has made him a person of interest to the authorities, Quatermass takes refuge with Kapp and his wife (Barbara Kellermann) at their bodged-together radio telescope installation in the countryside. On the way he and Kapp encounter members of a mystical youth cult, the Planet People, who speak of being transported to another world by mysterious forces. Kapp is scornful of this anti-intellectualism, but Quatermass is not entirely unsympathetic and decides to visit the local stone circle which the Planet People are congregating at.

While he and the Kapps are there, however, something rather unexpected happens: a blinding column of light descends from the sky, striking the circle and the hundreds of cult members assembled there, and when it withdraws only an ashy detritus remains of them. Other Planet People believe that the worthy have been transported to another world – but Quatermass and Kapp draw a different conclusion, that the young people have been obliterated. It emerges that similar visitations have been happening around the world, the first of which coincided with the destruction of the space mission.

Quatermass slowly draws the threads together and realises what is happening: an implacable alien force which first visited Earth five thousand years previously has returned and is harvesting the youth of the human race, drawing them to assembly points (many of them marked by stone circles and the like) and then vaporising them. Quatermass speculates that this is just some kind of machine, not an actual sentience, and that it is functioning on behalf of ‘unimaginable beings’ who have a taste for human protein, and nothing on screen contradicts him, naturally. But can anything be done to stop the slaughter of the human race?

I imagine that for many modern viewers, the first thing that will strike them about Quatermass is the extent to which it clearly appears to have inspired the Torchwood mini-series Children of Earth, because both programmes have basically the same plot – alien forces return to Earth intent on devouring, one way or another, the youth of the planet. In both cases the response of the authorities leaves much to be desired, and it falls to the outspoken outsider to see what needs to be done and make the necessary terrible sacrifice. That said, while Children of Earth is a pretty bleak element of the larger franchise of which it is a part, it is still in many ways a musical comedy version of the story, compared to Quatermass – many years ago I met someone who had it on VHS, and his opinion was that it was ‘the most depressing thing you will ever see’.

He kind of had a point. Most late-seventies SF, both on TV and in the cinema, followed very much in the wake of George Lucas’ first stellar conflict movie, which after all inaugurated the SF and fantasy boom to begin with – swashbuckling action, cute robots, and ray gun battles were very nearly de rigeur. Quatermass has no truck with this, being firmly ensconced in the ‘bloody miserable’ tradition of British SF. And it’s a very particular kind of miserabilism, too: on some level the story is about a clash between science and anti-intellectualism (Kneale seems to have had an almost superstitious dread of the latter – there are several scenes in which previously-sensible characters encounter the Planet People and somehow become ‘infected’ with their New Age beliefs, abandoning their former friends and responsibilities), but it’s also about the conflict between youth and age.

Quatermass seems to be in his seventies in this story (Mills was 71 at the time), but Kneale was only in his late fifties when it was broadcast, and considerably younger when the project was originally conceived. So it is a little disconcerting that this should feel so much like an old man’s wail of rage and despair against a changing world. This is very Daily Mail SF: everything is getting worse and worse, society is heading for collapse, football hooliganism is a blight on society, young people don’t respect their elders and have all kinds of ridiculous ideas, the telly is filled with sex and violence. We tend to think of SF as an inherently youthful and progressive genre: but this is SF in reactionary mode, the generation gap viewed from the senior side – the central metaphor being that young people seem alien to their elders because they are indeed subject to some extraterrestrial influence that older and wiser heads are immune to.

Naturally, it falls to Quatermass and a picked team of elderly boffins to resolve the crisis (young people can’t be trusted, due to their susceptibility to the alien ‘fluence) – making tea and sandwiches for everyone is Ethel from EastEnders (there are quite a few familiar faces in supporting roles here – Toyah Willcox pops up as a Planet Person, Brenda Fricker plays one of Kapp’s team, Brian Croucher appears as a cop). Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong or necessarily stupid about this as a piece of storytelling, it’s just so very peculiar and at odds with how TV SF usually operates that you almost can’t help reacting negatively to it – the doomy bleakness of the whole thing doesn’t help much, either.

This is not to say the storytelling is perfect – the manner in which Kneale kills off both the leading female characters can’t help but feel rather arbitrary, while he can’t help letting his interest in Judaism (a feature of many later scripts) show, to no very obvious purpose. But on the whole this is a solid story, lavishly realised for the most part – although the model work on the spacecraft sequences is really quite poor. The writer, typically generous to his collaborators, apparently felt that Mills lacked the authority to play Quatermass, and that MacCorkindale was ‘very good at playing an idiot’, but all the performances in this series seem perfectly acceptable to me.

It’s not the acting that sticks with you after watching Quatermass, anyway, nor even much of the story: what stays are a few images and a general sense of the all-consuming mood of despair and hopelessness which suffuses the story from start to (very nearly) finish. This is well-achieved and sustained, but not particularly easy or relaxing to watch. This is SF, but not escapism; not a cautionary tale about how things could be worse in the future, but a jeremiad about how bad they are now. It’s competently made, but inevitably depressing: that’s really the point of it. It’s watchable, and occasionally impressive, but really difficult to warm to or genuinely like.

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As 2013 draws to a close I find myself inadvertantly tying up a couple of loose ends from earlier in the year: or at least making a late addition to both the series of pieces celebrating the centenary of Peter Cushing’s birth (from June this year) and that looking at the work of Nigel Kneale (from September). That it’s also a Hammer movie is a bonus too; though it predates – just! – the studio’s reinvention of itself as the world’s greatest producer of genre and horror movies.

The film in question is Val Guest’s The Abominable Snowman from 1957, a rather lurid and hokey title which the film itself either fails to live up to or doesn’t deserve, depending on what your expectations are. Like the Quatermass movies, this started life as a TV play and was then reconstituted as a feature release. It’s not terribly similar to Quatermass in terms of its subject matter, but there are some familiar Kneale themes visible if you look closely for them.

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Proceedings get underway with some appropriately ominous and slightly exotic music, as the credits appear over stock footage of mountain ranges. Being well versed in the ways of Hammer and their, er, limited budgets, I was expecting this to be the precursor to a film shot entirely on sound-stages, but this turned out to be not entirely the case.

Anyway, regardless of where it was filmed, the movie is set in Tibet – or possibly Nepal – where top boffin John Rollason (Peter Cushing) is engaged in a study of the local plantlife, aided by his wife and a junior boffin who’s vaguely comic-reliefy. We learn very quickly that Rollason has promised his wife he’s packed in his hobby of going on dangerous expeditions up mountains, and this lets us know that the movie is obviously going to be about him going on a dangerous expedition up a mountain. So it proves: the head lama of the monastery where Rollason is based makes various ominous comments about his motives and the place of Man in the world, and then some Americans turn up.

Chief American is Tom Friend (Forrest Tucker). Although Cushing is inarguably the star of the film and plays the lead role, the imported American star Tucker gets top billing in both the credits and on the poster: the demands of trying to sell your film in the States, I suppose. Anyway, as has been blatantly obvious since the title of the film came up, Rollason and Friend are both determined to track down – and, possibly, capture – a Yeti, and Friend has kitted out an expedition with that very end in mind.

However, the locals are not keen on this idea, and Cushing starts to have second thoughts too when he learns more of the kind of man he’s teamed up with – a chancer, an adventurer, a con man, and a mercenary, quite willing to take terrible risks or commit questionable acts if it means improving his chances of turning a profit. Things get even worse when they get up in the high valleys, where it becomes apparent the Yeti are more than simple ape-like hominids, and bring their peculiar powers to bear against the expedition…

There’s no denying that even if you discount the black-and-white photography and plummy accents of all the British characters, The Abominable Snowman is still a very mid-50s sort of movie. Looking for the Yeti was topical, back then, for one thing, with British newspapers funding expeditions to track down the beast (following Hillary’s conquest of Everest in 1952 there was almost a sense that the entire region was now British territory). And for all that it has a remote setting and looks on paper like a pulp B-movie creature feature, it has much wider themes. There’s a vein of A-bomb concern and general pessimism about the state of civilisation not very deeply buried and central to the main idea of the film.

General pessimism is more or less what you expect from an original Nigel Kneale screenplay, of course. This film was based on his play The Creature (the title is less pulpy, more ambiguous, and thus much more appropriate), and he rewrote the script himself – and then, apparently, found himself rewritten again by Val Guest, who wasn’t keen on Kneale’s tendency towards speechification. As it is, the film gets its points across fairly concisely, but a sense of a clash of sensibilities persists. For much of the movie it looks like the Yeti themselves are going to remain an elusive, off-camera presence, which would probably help the film’s credentials as a serious piece of work: there’s nothing like a man on lifts in a gorilla suit to make your serious statement look risible, after all. Slightly surprisingly, this decision was apparently Guest’s rather than Kneale’s – Kneale wanted to communicate the true nature of the Yeti through their appearance on-camera during the climax. Well, perhaps this was a nice idea, but for all that the appearance of ‘live’ Yeti is fleeting, it’s still a very qualified success at best.

This is a bit of a shame as in most other departments the film stands up well, given its age and budget. The movie has pretty decent production values, and includes a fair bit of second unit footage actually shot on location up a mountain (though in the Pyrenees rather than the Himalayas). There are occasional issues where second unit stuff filmed during the day is inserted into sequences set at night, but on the whole this is well-integrated and gives the film more of a sense of scale. Any film starring Peter Cushing is never going to have very serious problems in the acting department (though Tucker, to be honest, isn’t very good), and the script holds up quite well too.

The atom-age nihilism and existential angst feel a little dated now, but the structure of the piece is textbook stuff – this may even be another case of Kneale writing the textbook, I’m not sure. Certainly many creature feature tropes are present and correct here – the hostile locals, the capture of a creature-that-isn’t-a-creature, the minor party member who falls under the spell of the quarry, and so on. The integration of more mundane perils into the storyline is neatly done too. It’s just a shame that the actual conclusion of the film feels a little rushed and ambiguous: Rollason returns to the monastery and announces he is now certain that the Yeti do not exist – but is this because he now understands the desperate importance of letting them survive in peace, and is lying to protect them? Or does he genuinely believe it, having been mentally interfered with by the Yeti themselves? As I say, it’s ambiguous, and the script doesn’t flag this up in a way that indicates it’s intentional.

But this is just about the only significant stone I can throw at an otherwise very solid little film. Like I say, it is very dated by modern standards, and the general pessimism and thoughtfulness of the script aren’t things you’re likely to find in a genre movie nowadays. If nothing else it shows that, even before they discovered luridness and Kensington Gore, Hammer were still highly accomplished when it came to making genre movies. The Abominable Snowman is well worth a look if you like brainy 50s B-movies.

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That the past is another country is proved beyond any doubt by simply considering the nature of Nigel Kneale’s ITV series Beasts, from 1976. Yes, ITV, these days the home of The X Factor, Britain’s Got Talent, various soap operas and Downton Abbey (which to me looks very much like a soap that’s had a truckload of cash flung at it). Apart from soaps and pseudo-soaps set in hospitals and schools, the dramatic output of both ITV and BBC1 is almost exclusively genre shows, and the same few genres at that: cop shows and detective shows, mostly, although the BBC has hit upon a productive wheeze knocking out various fantasy series in the wake of the success of 21st century Doctor Who. No-one does single plays any more, no-one seems willing to touch real horror with a bargepole, and all the big name writers (with the exception of Steven Moffat) appear to work exclusively in the social-realist or aspirational-lifestyle idioms.

But to watch Beasts is to visit a TV world in which the same writer was able to script six standalone plays, quite different in tone and style, with no continuing elements beyond a vague thematic link: the relationship between human and animal, and the occasionally blurred lines between them. All the stories in Beasts are fundamentally horror, and all of them are interesting: some are psychological, others head more into the realm of full-on supernatural horror. This variety makes watching an episode of Beasts for the first time an especially engrossing experience, simply because you’re never completely sure what kind of ball Kneale is going to deliver to you.

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Beasts isn’t a prestige production, with little location filming, and all of that on VT (along with the interior scenes). Most of the stories only take place on a handful of sets. But the casts include a lot of well-known faces who were on the way up at the time, along with a handful of big names. The pacing of some of the episodes is a bit languid, and one of the striking things is that each one only has a single commercial break despite a running time of an hour – unthinkable on any of the modern ITV networks.

Not all the Beasts are equal, but it seems that everyone has their own opinion as to what the pick of the bunch is. I would say they were all worth watching, though not necessarily all for the same reasons.

For me, probably the weakest is Special Offer, the blackly comic tale of an ambitious young supermarket manager (Geoffrey Bateman) whose store is disrupted by the emergent telekinetic powers of one of his checkout girls (Pauline Quirke) – the phenomenon manifests in the form of the company’s animal mascot. To some extent this is basically Carrie set in a branch of Tesco, and Kneale milks the set-up for much of its comedic value. I couldn’t help but find the whole thing slightly misogynistic – Kneale seems to be sneering at the Quirke character as much as anyone else, and despite her power she’s never presented as anything other than pathetic. In common with a couple of other episodes, one gets a sense of the author struggling to find a way of stretching the concept to an hour. At least the special effects team appear to have had a lot of fun trashing the supermarket set at various points in the episode.

The Dummy features Bernard Horsfall (much-loved by Doctor Who fans for various guest spots) as a suit actor on the edge of a nervous breakdown: he plays the Dummy, a monster featuring in a series of clearly low-budget horror movies, but his beloved wife has run off with one of his co-stars and he’s struggling to cope. Eventually he loses his mind entirely and the Dummy takes over… The story is fairly straightforward, if a bit improbable (apparently Horsfall is the only person who can possibly wear the Dummy suit – this would be more plausible if the actual costume wasn’t so primitive), but it’s irresistible to see this as Kneale taking a few swipes at his sometime associates at Hammer Films (Thorley Walters from the Hammer rep company appears): the Dummy films are clearly modelled on the Hammer horror template.

A young Michael Kitchen and an old Patrick Magee are the main players in What Big Eyes, a story about a zealous young RSPCA officer whose investigations of exotic animal imports lead him to an unassuming pet shop. The owner of the shop is either a crank or a genius, who is intent upon using modern science to replicate the phenomenon of lycanthropy and turn himself into a wolf. This is the episode which more than any other plays with the series’ lack of a set format – is it going to turn out to be a psychological horror story or a proper werewolf tale? To say any more about the plot would be to spoil it. It’s a bit talky, but tense for most of its duration. There is a problem with a supposedly dead character visibly breathing throughout the climax, but that’s just 70s TV for you I’m afraid.

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During Barty’s Party is a formal little piece, such as might be written if Harold Pinter and James Herbert had ever collaborated. A middle-aged couple (Anthony Bale and Elizabeth Sellars) have a fairly strained relationship now their children have all left home, but they are soldiering on – until news reports start to trickle in of mass rat migrations in their area. Soon enough they are under siege from the rodent hordes. Again, Kneale seems to struggle to find things to do with the basic idea, and there are some implausible moments, but as an exercise in both escalation and suggestion (you never actually see the rats) the play is exemplary, and the ending is memorably done.

Another tired old story gets revisited in Buddyboy, the tale of an up-and-coming pornographer who finds himself at odds with the ghost of a super-intelligent dolphin in a haunted aquarium. Martin Shaw plays the merchant of filth in question, very much in serious actor mode (does he have any other?). The premise, as you may gather, is utterly bizarre, and it’s actually quite difficult to tell what the story is actually supposed to be about on a thematic level. The ghost is very much an implied presence, operating through the behaviour of other people. It’s a very odd play – one character opts to drown themself in a bathtub while wrapped in a blanket, presumably because the performer hadn’t signed up to do a nude scene, while at another point there’s an utterly gratuitous moment of T&A from someone who clearly had. In subject matter, style, and obliqueness, nothing remotely like this would be made by any British TV company today.

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Most effective as pure horror, though, is Baby. Simon MacCorkindale and Jane Wymark play a vet and his pregnant wife who move to the countryside, and you could probably have a good go at writing the rest of the plot for yourself. Renovations at their house uncover a grotesque mummified thing bricked up in the wall, and in the days that follow the wife becomes aware of a vague, baleful presence closing in. Explanations as to what’s going on are kept to an absolute minimum, and MacCorkindale and TP McKenna possibly overplay their roles as the arrogant men who ignore Wymark’s misgivings, but as a piece of broody, creeping folk-horror this is extremely effective. Despite all the production limitations, the build-up to the climax is incredibly tense, as almost-subliminal glimpses of something getting closer and closer accumulate. The associated sound effect – half-grunt, half-growl – frequently repeated, becomes genuinely frightening in its own right. There’s a sense in which this plays rather like an episode of Hammer House of Horror – it’s the only episode of Beasts which really does – but the climax is more terrifying (and disgusting) than anything in the later, bigger-budget show.

Even from a scripting point of view, not every episode of Beasts is perfect, but as a whole this is a strong set of plays that says and does interesting things. I’m sure there are sound reasons why this kind of programme isn’t made any more – but I’m equally sure this narrowing of ambition is a great loss to TV.

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So, we’ve been romping through the collected works of Nigel Kneale over the last week, more or less in chronological order. This came about more by chance than design, with the fortuitous near-conjunction of TV showings of The Quatermass Xperiment and First Men in the Moon and my discovery of a few other bits and pieces on a popular video-sharing website. This partly goes to explain the absence of any of the TV versions of Quatermass from this current run, partly because I hadn’t uncovered them when I began and also because I haven’t had ten hours to watch them in their entirety. This will be amended at some future point, not least because I want to see how the TV version of Quatermass and the Pit matches up to the big-screen adaptation (surely Kneale’s most memorable film script, in the horror arena at least).

Quatermass and the Pit has a reputation as the receptacle of the classic Kneale themes: his bleak view of the human race, his interest in rationalising supernatural horror in a way that – somehow – does nothing to reduce its power to disturb. The latter of these was something that Kneale returned to and developed even further in 1972, in another of the landmarks in his career – the play The Stone Tape, an extraordinary fusion of gothic ghost story and contemporary SF drama.

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Jane Asher plays Jill, a brilliant computer programmer who is part of the R&D team for an electronics company. The team is just moving into a new research facility in a refurbished old house, their mission to come up with a new recording medium. Jill’s boss and lover Brock (Michael Bryant) – an ambitious, driven man – is furious to find that the building work has not been completed. The reason given by the estate manager (Iain Cuthbertson) is that one room in the house is haunted.

Brock is initially scornful, but Jill sees the apparition – a young woman screaming and falling to her death – and research uncovers a long history of disturbances on the site. A traditional exorcism in the 1890s apparently having failed, Brock opts to take a radically different approach and bring the full range of modern instrumentation to bear against the spectre. Initially it seems as though this scientific approach is bearing fruit, with a working model to explain the haunting not proving too difficult. But Brock sees the ‘recording’ of the ghost as a clue to a process he can potentially exploit, and under pressure to deliver, he chooses to tamper with a phenomenon he does not yet fully understand…

The Stone Tape is a multi-camera production shot entirely on videotape, meaning that it has the kind of visual quality and atmosphere nowadays found only on soap operas and sitcoms. Having said that, one can only imagine the kind of impact it would have had if it were shot on film, as even on VT it retains a tremendous power to grip and chill.

This is mainly due to the masterful precision of Kneale’s script, which painstakingly sets up the history of the haunting (leaving the seeds of a terrifying twist ending lying in plain sight, for the most part) in the style of a ‘classic’ ghost story, even if we do see the spook itself quite early on in proceedings. Then the play takes an abrupt left turn into what’s basically relatively hard SF, exploring Tom Lethbridge’s theory of hauntings as residual sense-impressions somehow associated with certain locations and replaying in the perceptual centres of witnesses.

It’s an intriguing theory, and one which makes a certain amount of sense to me (I feel obliged to mention that my tutor in Conceptual Parapsychology at university was wont to dismiss it as ‘a wild metaphysical flight of fancy’). The danger with explaining a mystery like a ghost, of course, is that by making it comprehensible and knowable, you rob it of the very qualities which make it frightening. But Kneale manages to avoid this, hinting throughout that Brock is not seeing the bigger picture, and constantly drawing on that classic SF trope: that of scientists interfering with forces best left alone.

Brock is a compelling character, and the driving force of the plot, but not necessarily a sympathetic one. That role is given to Jill – as the only woman in the centre, the boy’s club-ish atmosphere of which is convincingly evoked, she is in her own way every bit as isolated as the ghost of the woman. It’s only Jill who wonders if the recording of the ghost retains any remnants of consciousness, and Jill who first comes to understand the true nature of the ‘stone tape’ itself…

This is another example of a play punching well above its apparent weight in terms of legacy and cultural impact. If you’re going to do a ghost story in the British media, certainly on TV, then it’s very hard to escape the long shadow of The Stone Tape. Troubled, psychically-sensitive young women abound, as do overconfident investigators who fatally misjudge the nature of the forces they are dealing with. They’re there in Ghostwatch (one of The Stone Tape‘s very few serious rivals in this genre), and also in The Woman in Black (a story with its own associations with Nigel Kneale). Even the Doctor Who episode Hide (a series, by the way, which Kneale openly derided, it pains me to say) openly references The Stone Tape in its opening if not its resolution.

On the other hand, this is a brilliantly written, performed, and directed play with virtually no flaws to speak of, beyond the basic technical limitations of its medium. It is one of those things that, once seen, stays with you. Given the theme of the story, it seems entirely appropriate that The Stone Tape has infiltrated the fabric of the modern ghost story, lingering on, occasionally manifesting itself. However, unlike the monstrous apparitions in the story’s climax, it shows no sign of losing its own clarity or focus.

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A family agree to participate in a new TV series, in which they get the kind of lifestyle they have always dreamed of, on condition that their every moment is broadcast in real time to  a vast and eager audience. However, what they do not realise is that the producers of the programme, believing that ‘something’s got to happen’ have secretly introduced a violent psychopath into the proceedings. The consequences are horrific, but the viewing figures go through the roof.

By modern standards this is not a terribly original scenario for a film or TV series: it’s not a million miles away from the premise of Halloween: Resurrection, for one thing. Reality TV with added horror and death has gone beyond a trope to become an actual cliche – and it’s not even as if reality TV itself is a particularly worthwhile subject for satire. Millions still watch programmes like The X Factor and Big Brother, but surely no-one actually takes them seriously any more. The most extravagant examples of the form do a good job of satirising themselves, anyway.

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Of course – I say of course – the plot outline at the top of the page is that of The Year of the Sex Olympics, one of the two or three pieces of writing that are the cornerstones of Nigel Kneale’s reputation. As a satire of modern TV it is effective enough, but what makes it such an extraordinary piece of work for the modern viewer is that it was written 45 years ago.

All culture dates, just at different speeds. Once a few years have passed it’s almost impossible to recapture the original impact that a film or a TV show had when they first appeared: special effects progress, innovative plots become formulaic cliches, standards of audience credulity shift. All of these are true of The Year of the Sex Olympics, but what makes it especially difficult to judge this drama effectively is the sheer impact it seems to have had at the time – it has penetrated deep into the culture, to the point where it was one of the touchstones used by any serious commentator talking about the advent of actual reality TV around the turn of the century. You could seriously argue that this is one of the foundation texts of modern TV culture.

There’s always been debate as to whether serious SF genuinely attempts to predict the future, or simply comments on the present. Most of the predictions it does make turn out to be technological, and most of those turn out to be wrong. The Year of the Sex Olympics, on the other hand, has proven to be a startlingly accurate cultural prediction of the way TV has gone – the question is, was it intended as such by Kneale? Was he simply making a satire, based on his own experiences as a TV scriptwriter?

I find it hard to say. What is striking, and little commented upon compared to the play’s success as a piece of prophecy, is how closely it ties in to Kneale’s own past body of work. He rose to prominence, after all, for adapting Orwell’s 1984 for the BBC in the early 50s, and Sex Olympics owes a huge debt to Orwell’s vision. From Orwell’s telescreen to Kneale’s telly screen is not a great distance, while the play explicitly refers to Orwellian ideas of language simplification and the intellectual limitations resulting from it. In both works there is the idea of the tiny elite ruling a vast, inert population – the Party in Orwell, the TV executives in Kneale.

Of course, it would be a mistake to suggest that The Year of the Sex Olympics is purely an updating of 1984 for the TV era. It also draws significantly upon Huxley’s Brave New World, with its pacifying drugs freely available to all and its emphasis on stability achieved through sensory gratification. Huxley’s ‘feelies’ also, perhaps, contributed to the idea of a society where the bulk of the population only experience life vicariously.

Certainly the play looks and feels more like Huxley than Orwell – another way in which the original sense of this play has been lost to us is in the fact that the original colour recordings have been erased, leaving only a black and white copy. The few colour stills which have survived suggest the world of sensory overload in which the hi-drive caste live.

Inevitably, the paisley togas and peculiar hairstyles of most of the hi-drives are one of the things which superficially date Sex Olympics very badly, and it’s not as if the realisation of the script is absolutely flawless, either. Tony Vogel as the protagonist is a bit too boggle-eyed and manic to be entirely sympathetic, while anyone who routinely criticises Dick van Dyke’s attempt at an English accent should listen to Brian Cox’s go at an American one here (obviously he has improved since). On the other hand, Suzanne Neve is just right as Vogel’s partner, and Leonard Rossiter is particularly good in a difficult part as the man who authorises the ‘Live-Life’ show without realising the consequences of his actions.

But most of the things you would instinctively criticise Sex Olympics for – the way the plot feels slightly hackneyed, the manner in which the satire feels slightly obvious – are simply the result of the way this play has been assimilated, consciously or not, into the wider culture. It’s not trading in cliches but originating them, and if the satire feels obvious, that’s because it’s satirising things that weren’t to come into being for another 30 years. And even by today’s standards, the closing scenes of the play still have considerable power to move, disturb, and shock. By any standards it remains a remarkable piece of work.

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Nigel Kneale’s reputation these days is basically as the great wordsmith, a bit of a prophet of doom (and, occasionally, one who was bang on the money). When it comes to British television he is mentioned in the same breath as people like Dennis Potter and Alan Bleasdale, a creator of the first rank. But when you look at Kneale’s film work his resume is somewhat less impressive: one undeniably brilliant script for Quatermass and the Pit, based – of course – on his own screenplay, and a large number of adaptations of things by other people, from various genres. I remember sitting down to watch Laurence Olivier in The Entertainer a few years ago and being startled to see Kneale credited as the screenwriter, so strongly did I associate him with the horror and SF genres.

Kneale seems to have been very much working as a gun for hire when it came to another movie for Hammer, 1966’s The Witches, directed by Cyril Frankel. This is a very atypical Hammer horror in all sorts of ways, not least in that it was brought to the company as a personal project by its star, Joan Fontaine. An Oscar-winner in her youth, by the mid 60s Fontaine had hit the sticky patch encountered by many actresses of a certain age (how times have, er, not changed) and saw this as a good vehicle for her talents.

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Fontaine plays Gwen, a schoolmistress recovering after the trauma of being on the wrong end of a native uprising somewhere in Africa (quite what happened is left to the imagination of the viewer). Trying to rebuild her life, she accepts a job as the head teacher of the local school in Heddaway, an idyllic village in the English countryside. Everyone is very welcoming, but it isn’t too long before she starts to sense that some very odd things are afoot. The man purporting to be the local priest (Alec McCowan) is not ordained, but a fantasist in a dog collar – there isn’t even a village church. And there are signs that someone in the area is up to a sneaky spot of black magic…

In an age when every major film is precision-made to have the widest possible audience – I give you, for example, A Good Day to Die Hard and nu-Hammer film The Woman in Black, both of which were re-edited in the UK to get a 12 rather than a 15 certification – The Witches is a reminder of a vanished, peculiar world. The initial script was given an A rating – the equivalent of a 15 today, I suppose – and Hammer, appropriately, reacted with horror. Back in the 60s horror movies didn’t make money unless they were X-rated, and so The Witches was amended to achieve a more restrictive certification. It’s all quite bemusing from a modern viewpoint as – other than the subject matter and a dab of Kensington Gore – there’s not much here to shock or disturb, and indeed the DVD release is rated 12.

Then again, as the director put it, The Witches is ‘a more sensitive and serious film than [Hammer’s] usual horror, blood, and thunder‘ and it doesn’t really look or feel like a genuine Hammer horror. There are none of the usual suspects amongst the main cast – no Lee, Cushing, Keir, Shelley, Morell, and so on – although perennial Hammer supporting artist Duncan Lamont does make an appearance. It’s not directed by one of the big Hammer names, though Frankel is competent enough, and the score isn’t by James Bernard (Richard Rodney Bennett’s percussive music is rather good, though, and shows up as part of the linking material on the Ultimate Hammer box set). Perhaps it’s best not to judge The Witches by the standards of other Hammer horrors at all.

Even then, as a film in its own right, The Witches feels curiously well-mannered and underpowered. In some ways the basic plot inevitably recalls that of The Wicker Man, in that it concerns a well-meaning outsider thrust into a close-knit community and stumbling upon a terrible plot, but it lacks that film’s intellectual steel and lethal conviction. This isn’t to say that Joan Fontaine gives a poor performance – far from it – but everything’s just a bit too obvious and straightforward. This could have been a rather effective exercise in paranoia – is Gwen really seeing witchcraft at work, or have her experiences in Africa left her unbalanced and prone to flights of fantasy? – but this aspect of the story isn’t really explored.

Perhaps the problems with The Witches partly stem from the script and the realisation pulling in opposite directions. Nigel Kneale (showing his usual reverence for someone else’s source material) apparently decided that the idea of present-day witchcraft was ‘risible’ and wrote the screenplay as a black comedy, with the coven themselves as delusional cranks, their ‘magic’ only working through the credulity of the villagers around them. It’s telling that in the finished film, the question of whether black magic is objectively real, or only exists in the minds of its practitioners and victims, is left completely open.

However, for whatever reason, the actual film is mostly played completely straight, with only the faintest signs of Kneale’s humour making it onto the screen (mostly through the performance of Kay Walsh as the leader of the coven). The movie is trying to be subtle and atmospheric, the script is trying to be funny, and nobody is trying to give the film any kind of fire in its belly or simple raw energy. There’s the odd unsettling moment, but it never comes anywhere close being genuinely shocking or scary. The result is a polite and restrained film with some good performances, but with nothing like the colour or charisma of any other Hammer film from this period.

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