‘A timeless masterpiece or an ancient relic of days gone by?’ Andrew Moore revisits ‘Quatermass and the Pit’
This isn’t a review as such but more a wandering retrospective. Being just under the age of 25, it should come to no surprise – or perhaps it should – to learn that I’ve never experienced the infamous 1958 BBC serial, Quatermass and the Pit until attending this year’s Belfast Film Festival and coming to write this article.
My father would recall his first experiences of the show when it first aired on television, as one of the scariest things he watched as a child. Looking much broader it’s even considered a key influence to such Masters-of-horror as Stephen King and John Carpenter. The BBC themselves even declared on their own goliath of a website once, it was ‘simply the first finest thing the BBC ever made. It justifies licence fees to this day’
So growing up in a generation where CGI is commonplace and 3D could set the agenda for sci-fi spectacles in the coming years, I want to see how important works such as Quatermass and the Pit have been on science-fiction in cinema and television over the last 50 years.
Though some of the acting is a little ham-fisted compared to what we’re use to in modern times, the works of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass serials were intelligent and stocked with an immense amount of suspense – almost like the TV series Alfred Hitchcock never made.
The mysterious elements of the show still hold up brilliantly, developing at a measured pace over the six episodes and climaxing in complete and utter chaos. Furthermore the way it brings so many different elements and perspectives into being, is quite remarkable. There’s the scientific and archaeological wonder, which would make Indiana Jones giggle in delight. There are elements of black magic and mumbo jumbo, which are ever present in Denis Wheatley novels, such as the excellent The Devil Rides Out – less said the better about its actual film adaptation.
There’s even ethical questioning for military involvement in space exploration and scientific progress, as well as a vindication of newspaper journalists being the ‘watchdogs of the public’.
A lot of the science fiction seen in Quatermass and the Pit arguably owes a lot to HG Wells’ masterpiece, War of the Worlds. The slumbering Martians, the secret invasion, it all translate to immense effect.
The only other time I had seen André Morell on screen before this, was accompanying Peter Cushing’s Sherlock Holmes in my favourite adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles. As Bernard Quatermass, he fits into these familiar characteristics seen in the aforementioned film, just as much as speculative detective as he is a brilliant scientist. The Times described him, after he died in 1978, as ‘possessing a commanding presence with a rich and responsive voice.’ And I think upon watching Quatermass and the Pit, that description rings very true.
It’s also been made abundantly clear over the years, of its influence on the BBC’s premiere sci-fi series, Doctor Who. Derrick Sherwin, the producer of Doctor Who in 1969, acknowledged Quatermass and the Pit as an influence on changing the format of the programme. He said: ‘What the producers had been trying to do—and what ultimately they achieved in Quatermass and the Pit—was to get some reality into it. So I said that this was the solution: that what we had to do with Doctor Who was to forget wobbly jellies in outer space and create some reason for bringing the stories down to Earth.’
As mentioned, not all of it holds up well to modern eyes. As well as the overly dramatic acting, the ‘realism’ implored has since moved on. Nevertheless putting the show’s importance into the context of history and evolution of science fiction as well as simply being a distinguished example of truly gripping story-telling should never, ever, be in doubt.
So from Stephen King and John Carpenter, to Doctor Who and BBC creative presence, Mark Gatiss, the effect Quatermass and the Pit has had on champions of horror and science fiction knows few bounds.
Seeing it on the big screen was simply a joy to behold and an experience I’ll remember for some time after. It was of course remade, nearly 10 years after its original broadcast, into a film, by the legendary Hammer film producitons, starring Andrew Keir in the title role. Whether or not it holds up to the unravelling mystery over the epic near-three-hour running time of the original is a discussion for another time. In the meantime, all I can do is sit back, open my eyes and bask in just how influential the BBC’s production of Quatermass and the Pit.
The possibilities could go on for five million years. Or a few decades at least…
Quatermass and the Pit was shown, in conjunction with BBC Northern Ireland, as part of the 2011 Belfast Film Festival.