Amazing Stories

RETRO REVIEW: QUATERMASS AND THE PIT

Figure 1 – Prof. Quatermass ©BBC

You may not recognize the face on the left, unless you’re a big fan of old British TV. This actor, Reginald Tate, was the first actor to play Professor Bernard Quatermass, a role written by Nigel Neale, and later to be played by several others I’ll detail later in this column. Tate/Quatermass is the star of a 1953 BBC television serial called The Quatermass Experiment. Oddly enough, although I was only six years old, I was living in Aldeburgh, Suffolk, in England at the time. It’s doubtful I saw this live, however, as I’m not sure we had a television at the time. Sadly, the BBC only recorded two episodes—the first one is linked here—of the six that were performed. It was apparently such a hit that a second serial was planned and, indeed, performed in 1955… but Tate, sadly, died of a heart attack before he could reprise his role as Quatermass. His place was taken by an actor, John Robinson, who’d had minor roles in a number of films since 1936. (Of interest to mystery fans, two of which were in movies about well-known detectives: one was a now-lost S.S. Van Dine Philo Vance movie, The Scarab Murder Case; the other in a John Creasy-derived film, Hammer The Toff.)

Figure 2 – The Quatermass Experiment Title from BBC serial (1953)

The first serial was about an experimental manned rocket sent into space by Professor Quatermass’s Rocket Group—a group he created and headed for the British Government, to research the scientific benefits of rocketry—which returned to Earth with all crew members but one dead of an unknown cause—something that eventually infected the remaining live crewman and turned him into a monstrous giant beast that eventually had to be destroyed in Westminster Abbey (a cultural icon in Britain; Stephen Hawking has just recently been buried there).

The second serial, Quatermass II, involved meteorite strikes and an attempted alien takeover of Earth (episode 1 is linked to, above). At about the same time that Quatermass II was being filmed, the Hammer movie company (mostly restricted to low-budget movies filmed in country houses) had moved in 1953 into science fiction, starting with William F. Temple’s book The Four-Sided Triangle (and, in my opinion, making a hash of what I remember as a pretty good book), as well as Spaceways, a tepid, low-budget SF movie co-written by Paul Tabori from a radio play by Charles Eric Maine (and starring Howard Duff!). But they did well enough from these to cast around for more SF to do, settling on Quatermass for their next epic in 1955.

Figure 3 – Nigel Neale

That movie was titled The Quatermass Xperiment, to tie into the new British film board’s “X” certificate for horror movies—something we Americans didn’t know about. The British “X” meant that nobody under 16 was allowed in the cinema—and this was supposedly enforced by all city councils. (The American X-rating from the MPAA didn’t begin until 1968, and that had mostly to do with sex.) Directed by Val Guest, it starred American actor Brian Donlevy as Quatermass, which greatly displeased Kneale, the writer (who by the time of the second serial was enjoying enhanced stature at the BBC. In fact, the Quatermass serials were giving the BBC a ratings lift at the expense of the newly-arrived ITV network). Kneale thought that Donlevy—who was hired as the result of a contract dispute—did a disservice to the role, although both my wife and I have a sneaking fondness for the two movies in which we had first become aware of Prof. Quatermass!

Figure 4 – Quatermass II Title (1955)

Quatermass II (also released in the U.S. as Enemy From Space) gave both the BBC and Hammer films a boost. In fact, the budget for Hammer’s 1957 film was reportedly double that of the first one—it became Hammer’s highest-grossing film up to that point. It is said that the success of both the Quatermass movies and an interstitial one called X The Unknown was what started Hammer on its horror craze. (Kneale reportedly nixed X The Unknown as a Quatermass movie, so it was a standalone imitation.) And the BBC was, as we say, kicking butt against ITV for the duration of the serials. The stage is set for the third serial, Quatermass and the Pit.

Figure 5 – Quatermass & The Pit titles

(Since it was an animated title (sand cascading down after the first image to reveal the second and third ones) I had to cut them together for Figure 5.) There are a few striking differences between the TV version and the film version; I’ll try to notate them. Here, I’ll talk about the TV version because that’s the one I’ve most recently seen. The TV version starred André Morell, who had a fairly prolific career in film up to that point (and later supplied the voice of Elrond in the 1978 Ralph Bakshi adaptation of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings). I found him quite convincing—more so than Brian Donlevy had been—as a scientist, and enjoyed his performance. (Sadly, he didn’t get to be in the Hammer film of this in 1967. That part was taken by Andrew Kier.)

The storyline is this: Professor Quatermass is called into a meeting with the Minister of War (his boss), and informed that his rocket group is going to be taken over by the military. Space—specifically the Moon and Mars, will be owned by the British so that they can control things on Earth by dropping missiles on recalcitrant countries. He will henceforth be working with Colonel Breen (played to the hilt by Anthony Bushell like Graham Chapman’s idiotic military officer in various Monty Python skits). Though Quatermass argues that we should leave our petty human feuds and hatreds on Earth, the Minister is unmoved.

Meanwhile, a crew of workmen, with steam shovels and dredges, is digging a pit for a new building in an area of West London called Knightsbridge, and more specifically, in a cul-de-sac called “Hobb’s End.” They uncover some possibly human, possibly fossil skulls and archaeologist Matthew Roney, a Canadian (played by Cec Linder, also a Canadian) and his assistant, Barbara Judd (Christine Finn), are called in to assess whether this is a genuine archaelogical site. Roney excitedly declares these skulls to be pre-men from approximately five million years in the past and work is stopped on the building so the site can be explored.

But not before one of the workmen uncovers something that changes everything: something non-fossilized—what appears to be part of a missile—that is taken to be an unexploded bomb from World War II; the police are called in and they, in turn, call in the bomb squad. It may sound funny to us here on the Continent, but in the ‘50s there were many unexploded bombs—both explosive and incendiary—from Nazi Germany—found in and under London streets and houses. (In fact, large parts of London were bombed and burned in what was called “The Blitz”… it’s possible that some footage seen in this serial, of London burning, was actual Blitz footage.)

With the military comes Col. Breen (Julian Glover in the film version), and with Col. Breen comes Quatermass. (In the movie version, the skulls and object are found while workman are digging a new Tube [London’s subway] extension.) Roney and Barbara are hustled out in case the “bomb” explodes, but when another skull is excavated as the soldiers uncover the “bomb,” Roney comes back. This skull is found partially inside a hatch on the side of the object, which proves to be much bigger than any bomb ever dropped or sent via rocket from Germany. Which must mean that the skulls—five million years old—and the “bomb” are contemporary!

Inside, once it’s excavated enough to allow access, they discover a sealed-off area that appears to be impervious to blowtorches or anything they can muster up to try to open it. They send for a man with a “borazine” drill—supposedly it went through six inches of solid steel “just like that,” the workman says. On the sealed-off area (a hatch in the serial) are inscribed five interlocking circles that, according to Roney, form a “pentacle,” a cabalistic symbol used in witchcraft. (This becomes important later, as Hobb’s End has had an unsavoury reputation for many years; indeed, one of the buildings has lain empty for over 30 years because residents claim that imps and demons have been seen, and unearthly sounds.)

While the drill is being employed, things begin to vibrate, and an eerie, high-pitched sound is heard not only by those inside the object, but some people also nearby. Eventually the whole object is uncovered by the army; although Breen insists that it’s a German rocket—probably experimental from 1944, when the war was almost lost—both professors, Quatermass and Roney, are convinced it is a spaceship from Mars.

How’s that for a cliffhanger? I don’t intend to tell every bit of the story here, as I know some people don’t like spoilers even for sixty-year-old movies (by the way, this movie version is usually available on YouTube, though I won’t link to it now as I’m not sure whether the version(s) posted are copyright violators. I’ll let you search for it yourself). I also won’t tell you how the witchcraft stuff ties in; it’s part of Professor Roney’s theories.

Because the TV and movie versions were made well before CGI, all the effects are either optical (matted in) or practical (done with wires, and so on, on the set). And for that reason, although some might look a bit cheesy, they are altogether quite convincing. In fact, there is a section that looks a lot better to me in the TV version than in the movie version. In the TV version it’s called “The Wild Hunt.” You’ll know it when you see it; compare the two and see what you think.

The movie is, in part, Kneale’s not very-well-veiled complaint against not only militarization of space, but also the against the refusal of people in power to listen to experts; and against their preference to listen to their own kind—the military—if they don’t understand what’s being said. And his points are still (I think) at least partly valid today. Politicians and military tend to discount civilian input when it would be to their advantage to listen. He also touches on theories about human evolution, although I think that’s just for story purposes.

And besides, it’s a rousing good story! You can find the TV version linked to above; if you enjoy it, do search out the movie version (also called Five Million Years to Earth in the U.S.) and watch that one too. I first saw this film well over 30 years ago and, to my delight, it holds up very well. I’d give it four-plus flibbets! (Seriously!)¤¤¤¤+

**Interesting notes**Here are a few bits of trivia you might find interesting: If you’ve seen the 1964 Ray Harryhausen movie First Men In The Moon, the screenplay was co-written by Nigel Kneale from the H.G. Wells story. It’s a fun little jaunt with Martha Hyer and Lionel Jeffries—the only sour note being Edward Judd as Bedford. Jeffries is a delight!
The name Quatermass (pronounced Kway-ter-mass) came about because Kneale was from the Isle of Man, where names beginning with “Qu” are somewhat common. He wanted an unusual name for his scientist, and picked Quatermass—which is an ancient term for a parcel of land—from the London telephone directory!
Besides the three serials and three films, there is a good deal more information on the internet about Quatermass—and there’s a good possibility that Hammer is reviving him for a new film! (There’s also a radio play and more television about him—including a modern TV adaptation of The Quatermass Experiment, so please, go Google or Bing or whatever search engine you favour!)

Please comment on my column, either here, or on Facebook (I link to this in several Facebook groups.) Your comments are welcome whether you agree with me or not! My opinion is, as always, my own, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of Amazing Stories or its owner, editor, publisher or other columnists. See you next week!

2 thoughts on "RETRO REVIEW: QUATERMASS AND THE PIT"

  1. Thanks, Graham; I was informed of that yesterday. I have yet to see that, or hear the audio/radio version. And thinking about it, I guess I prefer the TV version of Q & The Pit to the film version; the opticalencephalograph pictures are much, much better, in my opinion.

  2. darlinggj says:

    There was also Quatermass IV / The Quatermass Conclusion (1979), which had some parallels to Arthur C. Clarke’s “Childhood’s End” (1953).

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