Indira Varma, Jason Flemyng, Mark Gatiss and David Tennant
Ten years ago, on the 2nd of April 2005, an interesting experiment took place on BBC 4. That night, one of the seminal works of British science fiction was re-staged and broadcast live across the UK. The production in question was The Quatermass Experiment, once again brought to life more than fifty years after it had been originally broadcast by the BBC.
For those unfamiliar with The Quatermass Experiment, some background as to the importance of this particular production and indeed its original incarnation might well be necessary. Originally commissioned to fill a six week hole in what was then the UK's sole television channel, Nigel Kneale's six episode serial introduced viewers to the pioneering leader of the British Experimental Rocket Group (BERG) Bernard Quatermass, played by Reginald Tate. The serial followed him and his team as Britain's first manned space flight at first disappeared before returning to Earth with two of its crew missing and its sole survivor, Victor Carroon, in what seemed initially to be a state of shock. That state of shock though is just the first stage of an infection that, having killed the other two members of the crew and amalgamated them with Carroon, eventually transform him into a plant like alien organism that, when it spawns, could destroy all life on Earth. After a search for Caroon following a kidnap attempt by a Russian agent, the final confrontation with the creature he's become takes place in Westminster Abbey, with Quatermass himself begging what remains of his three astronauts to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the world.
Broadcast across consecutive Saturdays during July and August 1953, the serial brought any anywhere from 4-5 million viewers an episode at a time when the BBC averaged 2.25 million people watching each evening. Kneale would write two more Quatermass serials (Quatermass II and Quatermass And The Pit) for the BBC during the 1950s with a fourth (simply titled Quatermass) following on ITV in 1979. All three BBC serials would eventually be remade as films by Hammer with the original bringing them their first big success. The Quatermass serials would eventually become hugely influential with echoes appearing in everything from Doctor Who to The X-Files and with figures such as Mark Gatiss crediting them and Kneale with inventing popular television.
Looking back on it though has proven rather difficult. Having been broadcast live, the only way for copies to be made at the time was in the most primitive fashion: effectively pointing a film camera at a TV screen as it was being broadcast. The first two episodes were recorded but the quality of them was judged to be poor (the second episode for example has an insect landing on the screen and sitting there for several minutes) and the remaining four episodes appear to have simply never been recorded. The only record of the complete serial then is a handful of stills taken of the production while the script was printed first by Penguin Books in 1959 and then reprinted by Arrow two decades later.
While the Hammer remake, retitled The Quatermass Xperiment to emphasize its X rating in the UK, presented at least a complete version of the story, it took considerable liberties in doing so. As a result of having to cut its screen time by half with whole scenes, subplots and characters being lost. Perhaps the biggest changes though were in the portrayal of Quatermass, played in the film in a no-nonsense fashion by Brain Donlevy, and in changing the ending to the creature instead being killed by electrocution on Quatermass' orders. Kneale was himself quite unhappy with the film, being quoted by biographer Andy Murray as saying “I hated the film. It was terrible.” While critics and the public were kinder to the film, and with it being cited as influential by people ranging from John Carpenter to Stephen King, it seemed that the original would seem by and large to be lost to posterity.
That changed in early 2005. With BBC 4 preparing a season of repeats and special programs as part of an assessment of British television across the decades called TV On Trial, the channel's controller Janice Hadlow commissioned a new version based on the original production. Perhaps more intriguing was the decision to broadcast it live, just as the original had been in 1953. The BBC hadn't done a live drama broadcast in well over twenty years, making this revival production all the more unique. The production was announced on the 5th of March with the ninety odd minute show itself being broadcast live from a disused military base in Surrey less than a month later.
How did the production turn out though, both in its own right and as a re-staging of the original?
The performances are certainly interesting. Jason Flemyng's Professor Quatermass seems quite close to Kneale's original conception of the British Experimental Rocket Group's leader: a determined scientist yet also a thoughtful man who looks on in both horror and even wonder at what the mission he launched has unleashed upon the Earth. Flemyng brings all of those elements across well and his performance in the closing minutes of the production, where he brings to life two vital but lost scenes from the original production makes the entire viewing experience worthwhile. Other times though, Flemyng's performance feels rather rushed as he throws lines out in a hurry (one scene partway in where Quatermass is arguing with Ministry Of Defence investigator Lomax and Home Secretary Blaker is a good example) and he's lumbered with a costume that doesn't quite seem to fit the character. Overall though Flemyng does a good job and his Quatermass is certainly memorable.
There's a decent supporting cast as well. A pre-Doctor Who David Tennant does particularly well in the role of BERG's physician Doctor Gordon Briscoe (Tennant was cast as the Doctor around the time of the production, leading Flemyng to change the line “Good to have you back Gordon," to "Good to have you back Doctor," as a result). Mark Gatiss plays the increasingly disillusioned scientist Paterson with a strong sense of the character own sense of right and wrong and makes that quality believable, despite the character's role being largely truncated from the original. Adrian Dunbar's Ministry Of Defence investigator Lomax and Isla Blair as Home Secretary Margaret Blaker comes across well as officials caught up in events beyond their control and trying to deal with it to the best of their abilities. Perhaps a bit less successful are Indira Varma as Judith Carroon and Andrew Tiernan as her husband Victor with both being more melodramatic than anything else, though Tiernan does well in the second half where his appearances are more limited. Perhaps the weakest of the main cast though is Adrian Bower as inquisitive newspaper reporter James Fullalove who, partly because of the script and partly because of his performance, comes across as a parody of the very 1950s reporter type that the character originally had been. The results then are interesting and good but far from perfect.
The script effectively condenses the six episode, approximately three hour original TV version into a little more than half of its running time. Despite that, it's far more faithful to the original than the Hammer film was. The opening and closing minutes of this version in particular neatly and concisely condense the respective episodes of the original version with a few modifications (such as moving the location the creature is eventually found to the Tate Gallery rather than Westminster Abbey). As a result, some of the best moments of the original version that have been lost, such as the very conclusion to the story, are presented on screen at last. Of particular note are the scenes where Quatermass addresses a TV audience to accept responsibility for the missing crew members and the horror he has potentially unleashed upon the world, as well as the final scene with Quatermass' speech to whatever is left of the three astronauts.
That isn't to say that the condensing job is perfect however. One particular side effect is that characters, subplots and some scenes seem to randomly drop in and out of the film (such as Gatiss' Paterson for example). In other cases, the original 1950s dialogue seems out of place (such as some of the dialogue from the scene with the Matthews' couple who are near where the capsule crashes) which isn't in turn helped by the fact that the sets and costumes are a really odd mixing of the 1950s with the 2000s, as if the production team couldn't decide which way to go. In other places, issues touched upon in 1953 that were prophetic (such as the observation of countries from space and the potential use of space as a delivery platform for nuclear weapons) are retained in the script here and help to date the production rather than emphasis the timelessness of Kneale's writing. Overall though, the script does an admirable job of condensing and presenting Kneale's original vision, if with some noticeable hiccups.
Perhaps the biggest problem of the production lies in how it was made. While the idea of broadcasting it live was both novel and a nice touch considering that was how the original went out, in retrospect it served to do little more than hamper the production. Performances can seem rather hurried, a couple of lines were fluffed whilst some others were drowned out. That isn't the big problem though.
By doing it live, the whole production feels largely static. For much of its length, the film seems confined to a couple of rooms and even then the number of shots seems limited. When the camera does finally become mobile from time to time, the results are often shaky with a feeling more akin to amateur video than a polished production. Nowhere are the faults perhaps more apparent than in the final scene when, after all the buildup and the expectations of finally seeing the creature, instead the production leaves the viewer with a dark and empty room instead. The lack of a creature means that the whole scene and Quatermass' final dramatic speech is effectively just Flemyng acting in a pool of light to an empty room. While doing it live certainly captures the almost theater like feel of the original's era, it does make the production lag and frankly does it no favors in the end.
Despite its flaws though, the live broadcast was a considerable success for BBC 4. It averaged 482,000 viewers making it the channel's highest rated program in a year, as well as the fourth highest rated one in the history of BBC 4. A region two DVD release followed in October and the film itself was eventually made available online at various points on both Youtube and Hulu Plus. Kneale, despite having been a consultant on the project and kept apprised of development, was apparently rather unimpressed with the production, with biographer Andy Murray having him saying “It was a stunt wasn't it? And not a good stunt,” as well as being unimpressed with the condensing of the script. Kneale would pass away the following year, making this the last Quatermass production in his lifetime.
Ultimately then, this 2005 remake of The Quatermass Experiment is an interesting experiment in its own right with some good performances and some strong moments. While it has it flaws, such as being hampered by its live format and sometimes uneven mixing of past and present in both script and design, the pros would seem to outweigh the cons for the most part. The Quatermass Experiment was an admirable attempt to re-stage one of the lost classics of British television.
Matthew Kresal lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine amongst other places.