Wednesday 16 August 2017

Into The Unknown - The Fantastic Life of Nigel Kneale

Knealistic Tendencies

Into The Unknown -
The Fantastic Life of Nigel Kneale

by Andy Murray Headpress
ISBN: No ISBN on this hardback edition.

I wasn’t aware that there was already in existence a print biography of the creator of one of my favourite childhood heroes, Nigel Kneale, until this newly revised/expanded edition was just published by Headpress. Kneale was a creator who kinda popped into my life in terms of delivering striking television (and sometimes film) of the specific kind that leaves a mark on your soul as you watch and a proper celebration of his life in book form was something I’d always wanted to delve into. And now I have, courtesy of the research by author Andy Murray and his quite breezy and ‘matter of fact’ writing style which makes the journey of this book a pleasurable read.

I can’t remember which of Kneale’s works I saw first but it would have been around the age of 6 or 7 when I was first introduced to his writing via television. It might have been the time in the early 1970s when the BBC repeated the adaptation Kneale wrote of George Orwell’s 1984 (and I can find no evidence that they did repeat it in that decade but I know it for a fact they did because I remember it and I’m not old enough to have seen the original broadcast). It's truly the greatest version of 1984 put on screen to date. I remember it starred Peter Cushing as Winston Smith, who was an actor I already knew of when I was even at this young age... and the jingle using the words to a song... ‘“underneath the spreading chestnut tree’ somehow filled me with dread or, at the very least, a strong sense of foreboding, for many years to come.

I don’t remember if this was my very first exposure to his work or whether it was my parents letting me stay up for the Hammer Films remake of his first Quatermass serial, The Quatermass Experiment, which Hammer had retitled to capitalise on it being one of the first X certificated movies as... The Quatermass Xperiment (and which I reviewed here). The very first of the Hammer film versions of the character  didn’t actually use Kneale for the script adaption and he was bitter and demonstrative about it for years but, whichever way you look at it, The Quatermass Xperiment is still very much an interpretation of Kneale and a pretty well made one too, as far as I’m concerned. Either way, whether I saw this before the Orwell adapation or not, I do know that this movie scared me silly and I spent the entire night sweating out the fear... and, of course, my appreciation of it grew from there. Pretty much the same thing happened to me with the Hammer remake of the third serial, Quatermass And The Pit (which you can read my review of here, if you are so inclined).

The reason I’d wanted to see the movie was because my parents had loved the first three Qutermass serials when they were broadcast in the 1950s and often talked about people racing in from the street and stopping what they were doing so they could watch it on somebody’s television set. They even had a large, overgrown potted plant which they called Victor, after the character Victor Caroon in The Quatermass Experiment... who does himself turn into some kind of plant-like creature over the course of that first story.

Andy Murray’s newly revised tome takes you behind the scenes of the late writer’s life, to a certain extent but deals with his professional life much more than it does with his day to day existence, although I did find out a little more about that and it was news to me that his wife, Judith Kerr, is also a talented writer, best known in this country as the writer of such children’s books as The Tiger Who Came To Tea and the Mog The Cat books... although she is far more famous in her native Germany for her memoirs of her family escaping the Nazis a day before they came for them. Kneale also has two extremely talented offspring, too, who I knew nothing about until this book.

Despite having got the feeling that I’d heard an awful lot about Kneale’s professional life from various DVD documentaries and tributes over the years, Murray manages to fill in the little blanks and puts it all in order for the reader and I was delighted to find that there were lots of little things about Kneale that I didn’t know. Such as his admiration for the work of H. G. Wells from which, I think, he got the sense of using ordinary people in recognisable locations for his stories, to give plausibility to the fantastic situations they found themselves in. And, although I didn’t know it for sure, it came as no real surprise to find that he was also a big admirer of the ghostly fiction of M. R. James too.

What’s good about this book is it doesn’t tone down Kneale’s contributions to the art of television and fully explores the way he, along with director Rudolph Cartier, completely changed the face of the medium by pushing the boundaries with serials like the Quatermass stories and various other things they collaborated on. They transformed the medium in this country from something very trite and harmless into something which was a bit more pacey and would challenge the boundaries of what to expect from that small box in the corner of the room. It also goes on to explain that Nigel Kneale’s love of film from an early age lead him to try and think about his writing in a more visual manner and I think this certainly comes across in his work.

Yes, all the familiar stories are in here which fans of Kneale will, like me, lap up. The outcry against 1984 until Prince Charles mentioned that The Queen had really liked it, the writer’s distaste for hiring Brian Donlevy to star as the titular professor in the first two Hammer remakes of the serials - The Quatermass Xperiment and Quatermass II (surely one of the first sequels to ever use a number to denote its status in the running order), the author’s bad experience working with John Carpenter on the early script of Halloween III - Season Of The Witch... and so on and so forth, it’s all in here. However, we also get stories which are, perhaps, a little less in the public consciousness and as the writer worked through various collaborations, we can get an idea of the man behind the mask of Thomas Nigel Kneale and it’s very, very interesting.

Murray uses a lot of Kneale’s words themselves in the text and also the testimonies and praise of various collaborators and also influential fans of his work, such as Mark Gattis and Ramsey Campbell. It also mentions the surprising public friction Kneale had with Verity Lambert over the show Doctor Who, which he hated and refused to write for, even though it’s pretty much a show (one of many) that would never have seen the light of day if Kneale’s Quatermass serials had not paved the way for this kind of TV science fiction. The two seemed to get on well enough decades later, though, when they worked together to get the fourth and final Quatermass serial onto television (it still frightens me to this day... Huffity, Puffity Ringstone Round... can’t think of that made up nursery rhyme used in the serial still without feeling chills down my spine). It’s a shame that Kneale hated Doctor Who so much because there have been quite a few Quatermass references in the show itself, over the decades.

The book includes synopses woven into the text, of scripts and shows that Kneale worked on, including some stuff sadly lost to time (missing presumed wiped, as the saying goes... the BBC still have a lot to answer for) and it’s fascinating to read about some of the ideas he came up with. I would love to see a revival of his TV play The Road at some point. It sounds like it must have been pretty special. The book also talks about some of his writing for short story collections and the like over the years and talks about the work he collaborated on with his famous wife too. It also gives you a very good idea as to his reactions and impressions of people over the years, which is a bit of an eye opener. However, I was interested to find that the most recent, ‘live broadcast’ remake of The Quatermass Experiment, aired in 2005, received a similar reaction from Kneale that I had when it was shown (although it didn’t annoy me half as much as the subsequent DVD release of this, where the BBC stupidly omitted the flubbed lines and accidents that happened on the night of that original broadcast...  I remember them fondly and believe that’s what makes live TV so charming, so they should have definitely left those in, I reckon).

All in all, barring a fair few typos (how does that still happen?), Andy Murray’s Into The Unknown - The Fantastic Life of Nigel Kneale is a pretty useful and entertaining tome and definitely belongs on the bookshelf of any self respecting fan of science fiction. It’s great as a reference work you can dip into for a quick fact or verification but it's also hugely interesting and written in a manner which makes it very easy to consume. Snap this one up before Headpress run out of copies.

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