Thursday, 24 January 2019

Quatermass And The Pit (TV Serial Version)

Hob’s Your Uncle

Quatermass And The Pit
UK 1958/59
Directed by Rudolph Cartier
BBC Blu Ray Zone B

Warning: Spoilers here if you really don’t know the story by now.

Note: If you’re looking for my review of the Hammer Films remake of Quatermass And The Pit, it’s right here...

Well, what can you say about Quatermass And The Pit that hasn’t been said already? Not much I suspect but I can at least give you my impression of my recent rewatch of the original TV serial, as it’s just been ‘restored’ on Blu Ray by the BBC. Although, to be honest, since it was recorded off a screen televising the live performance, there’s not an awful lot that could have been done to clean up the visual quality, I suspect. It’s nice to revisit it here though.

Quatermass And The Pit is the third of four Quatermass TV serials written by Nigel Kneale and the last of the three performed as a live broadcast by the BBC (the fourth TV serial didn’t surface until 20 years later on rival TV station ITV). Now I never saw the serials as a kid but always loved the Hammer remake movies, especially the first and third ones. I didn’t catch up to the original serials until the VHS and DVD days. Only the first two live broadcast episodes of the original version of The Quatermass Experiment still exist but both Quatermass II and Quatermass And The Pit have survived and this Blu Ray is a welcome addition to any science fiction film and TV watcher’s home... although I would have preferred the BBC would have ‘cut to the chase’ and Blu Rayed up their former Quatermaas Collection DVD box set, rather than release this as a stand alone and then, presumably, expecting us to double dip on it a few years down the line.

This is going to be a fairly short review because I’ve probably covered most of the story beats in my previous review of the movie remake (right here) but I will say that I can never really make up my mind if I prefer the original serialised version of Quatermass And The Pit or the Hammer adaptation of it. I think it’s a case of... I like whichever one I’m watching at the time but of all the Quatermass serials which made the transition into the movies, this one has the least changes to the story, I think. The first two Quatermass serials had great chunks of story shorn from them in their movie transitions but for this one, the condensation from the three hours of the serial to the one hour and thirty seven minute movie is quite an achievement and you don’t really miss any important story beats in the latter.

So I think the most useful thing do here is highlight the differences between the two and then, if you want more extended input as to the flavour of the story, visit my review of the Hammer adaptation of this.

Professor Quatermass is played by Andre Morel in this ‘incarnation’ of the main character. He plays him in the most authorative way I’ve seen and, for my money, is probably the best of the many actors to play the role over the years. He was no stranger to Hammer films, of course, and was later asked to come back and reprise the role for their movie version but I believe he didn’t really feel like repeating himself. The movie Quatermass for this one was played by Andrew Keir, who was writer Nigel Kneale’s personal favourite of the Quatermass actors if my memory circuits are firing on all cylinders (Keir was the only actor to ever play Quatermass twice, in the film version of this plus in Kneale’s radio show The Quatermass Memoirs). Brilliant as Kier is in the role, he still seems a little too passive for my liking whereas Morel immediately commands a sort of gravitas in the role and makes it his own.

He is ably supported by some truly great thespians with Dr. Rowney played in this version by Cec Linder (who James Bond fans may remember from his turn as Felix Leiter in Goldfinger), Anthony Bushell playing a somehow even more terrifyingly stupid version of Colonel Breen than the great Julian Glover managed in the movie version and Christine Finn, the voice of Tin Tin in Thunderbirds, as Barbara Judd. Although he was a Hammer regular, we also have Michael Ripper playing the Sergeant in this (he had appeared as a different character in the movie version of Quatermass II). You’ve also got John Stratton as Captain Potter and Richard Shaw as the all important drill operator Sladden. Now, I love the movie version of this and think the actors in it are exemplary but, I have to say, the cast in this original version are even more brilliant and you couldn’t want for a better bunch. I think the only actor who was actually in both the serial and the film was Noel Howlett, who plays the vicar in this and the Abbey librarian in the movie.

Like I said, the action and story are all pretty much the same between the two versions, with the serial obviously taking more time to grip onto the audience (the events in the movie version do seem unnaturally accelerated if you watch this one in close proximity before it, to be sure). However, they both have things which they do better than each other. The special effects on the serial for the great martian purge, plucked from the mind of Barbara Judd as she wears a headpiece which turns her hallucination race memories into something which can be recorded on a primitive video tape (or film, by the looks of it), are much more interesting and credible than the movie version. That’s because a) you can see various martian insects being singled out and killed and b) because the Hammer version of this scene contains truly atrocious special effects work, to be sure.

That being said the Hammer version of the story is much more visual in other ways. For instance, instead of Rowney sacrificing himself by earthing the, mostly unseen on camera, martian manifestation which has emerged from the disintegrated hull of the five million year old space capsule... by running into it and throwing the iron conductor to earth it before being obliterated... the movie version has him riding the top of a crane into it, which is much more interesting to look at. Similarly, the manifestation of the martian with all the colour bleached out of it and almost over-illuminated in the movie suggests exactly why primitive man saw it as Hob, or the Devil in that it’s much more of a horned demon looking thing (and one of the few horror films to give this 6 or 7 year old a complete lack of a good night’s sleep the first time I saw it). So in that way the movie version definitely wins out over this one.

Another big difference is that the movie version has diggers adding an extension to a tube tunnel at Hobb’s Lane first coming across the archeological finds and, eventually the space capsule, as part of the tube works. In this original version it’s already an archeological dig from a find on a building site at Hobb’s Lane... so it really is a big pit that this thing is mostly set around here... I guess Quatermass And The Tube Extension didn’t have the desired ring to it for the movie version.

Another major difference is the ending. The Hammer one stops on a characteristically bleak shot (typical for that period of Hammer film) of Quatermass and Barbara trying to get their heads together after Rowney’s sacrifice. Here, the sequence is followed by a, somewhat clunky, little press conference held by Quatermass to warn humanity that there are probably many more of these capsules spread around the Earth and we should be on the look out for them. It’s kind of the Quatermass version of the “Watch The Skies” monologue at the end of The Thing From Another World and, it gives things a less than exciting or haunting conclusion than the Hammer movie, it has to be said.

However, although it probably looks fairly dated to the youth of today, the TV serial has a lot to offer and the leisurely pacing in which it unfolds all the various incidents and drip feeds it to the audience is very well done. Yes, there are the occasional small mistakes which were part and parcel of live broadcast television, such as a camera operator moving to the other side of the room before his cue, panning back to the original speaker as he’s finishing his line and then having to quickly pan back to where he was going on the first place. This is all part of the fun though and I wouldn’t want it any other way. Some of this third serial, especially the outside locations, was pre-filmed to be slotted in between scenes, such was the ambition of Kneale’s script. Also, the music is quite effective and some of those electronic effects and scoring sections in the original serial mark this out as being the first sci-fi TV show to use electronic music (apparently, I need to check that out and see if that claim is correct). Whatever the case, it’s certainly damned atmospheric and is well used by the serial.

And that’s that for this one. This, like most of the Quatermass serials, was a ground breaking and important event show of its day (you wouldn’t get shows like Doctor Who without the presence of Quatermass changing what was acceptable on television) and the central premise that our world was invaded by martians millions of years ago and the majority of our species is actually descended from genetic experiments created by the martians was pretty much a first at the time. The martians are already here and they’re us... was quite a bit of a scary proposition. Like both the central character and writer Nigel Kneale, Quatermass And The Pit was hugely influential and the legacy has never stopped being plundered... I can’t quite work out why it’s not been remade again for modern audiences. If you’re a fan of science fiction and you’ve never seen the Quatermass serials then... you really should add these to your list. Quatermass And The Pit, no matter which version you watch it in, is sheer genius and an important part of British science fiction. I’m glad the BBC have finally put this out on Blu Ray and, hopefully, the surviving episodes of the first serial and the full second serial won’t be too far behind this one, fingers crossed. Truly stunning.

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