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Kneale, Nigel (1922-2006)


Main image of Kneale, Nigel (1922-2006)

Thomas Nigel Kneale was born in Barrow-in-Furness on 28 April 1922. The same year saw the formation of the BBC, with which he would be closely linked throughout his early career. In 1928 Kneale moved with his parents back to their native Isle of Man, where he spent the rest of his formative years. After briefly considering a legal career, in 1946 he moved to London to study acting at RADA. But after winning the prestigious Somerset Maugham prize for 'Tomato Cain', his 1949 collection of macabre stories, he turned to writing full-time.

Kneale's first original script was 'The Long Stairs' (tx. 1/3/1950), a radio play based on a true-life mining disaster on the Isle of Man. The following year he joined the emerging BBC Television service, initially working as an all-purpose staff writer.

Soon dissatisfied with the overly theatrical style demanded for most of his assignments, Kneale found an ideal collaborator in the ambitious wunderkind producer Rudolph Cartier, beginning a partnership that would continue throughout the 1950s. Their breakthrough success, produced quickly to fill an unexpected gap in the schedules, was The Quatermass Experiment (BBC, tx. 1953), the first of four densely layered, vividly imagined tales about the eponymous rocket scientist that remain among Kneale's best-known work. A groundbreaking serial combining intellectual science fiction and visceral horror in a (more or less) contemporary setting, it proved enormously influential. It also gave the first real indication of Kneale's great acuity in depicting alienated and lonely people, displaced in place or time. Such characters recur in works as different as The Creature (BBC, tx. 30/1/1955), in which the Yeti turns out to be a telepathic, separately evolved form of humanity awaiting its time to inherit the earth; The Stone Tape (BBC, tx. 25/12/1972), in which the abandoned heroine dies after being psychically drawn to an ancient past; and even in Kneale's final script, 'Ancient History' (ITV, Kavanagh QC, tx. 17/1/1997), in which the apparently smiling face of a concentration survivor proves to be the frozen rictus of a lonely and terrified woman who was murdered and brought back to life over and over again in the name of Nazi science.

The peaks of Cartier and Kneale's partnership include a brooding Wuthering Heights (BBC, tx. 6/12/1953) and their extraordinarily ambitious Nineteen Eighty-Four (BBC, tx. 12/12/1954), from George Orwell's celebrated dystopian, anti-totalitarian novel. The controversial broadcast, with its powerful rendition of Winston Smith's torture in Room 101, was an even greater success than Quatermass, which was by then being turned into the low-budget feature The Quatermass Xperiment (d. Val Guest, 1955) by Hammer Studios. It was a box office hit, though Kneale disliked the changes writer-director Guest made to the serial. As a result, when Hammer optioned the rights to the sequel, Quatermass II (BBC, tx. 22/10-26/11/1955), Kneale himself provided the screenplay, which neatly streamlined the original's topical mixture of anxiety over 'New Town' developments and nuclear testing into a story about a secret alien invasion of Earth.

Quatermass and the Pit (BBC, tx 1958-59), the most ambitious and probably the finest of Kneale's science fiction serials, was a fitting end to his work with Cartier. This time the alien invasion has occurred some five million years in the past, allowing Kneale to explore, with dazzling imaginative force, his favourite territory - the intersection of science, superstition and human frailty.

Increasingly dissatisfied with his BBC contract, Kneale left to pursue a career writing screenplays for the cinema, starting with Tony Richardson's Look Back in Anger (1959) and The Entertainer (1960), both intelligently 'opened out' adaptations of John Osborne's plays. He then worked on the more conventional if well upholstered costume epic H.M.S. Defiant (d. Lewis Gilbert, 1962), starring Alec Guinness and Dirk Bogarde and First Men in the Moon (d. Nathan Juran, 1964), a lightweight but enjoyable adaptation of H.G. Wells' novel that served mainly as a showcase for Ray Harryhausen's marvellous optical effects. Kneale returned to Hammer for The Witches (d. Cyril Frankel, 1966), a straightforward horror story about a contemporary coven of devil worshippers, and the belated Quatermass and the Pit (d. Roy Ward Baker, 1967), easily the best film adaptation of his television work thanks to his own script and a decent budget. During this time the BBC produced Kneale's 'The Road' (First Night, BBC, tx. 29/9/1963), an ingenious story about 18th century villagers haunted by a future nuclear holocaust; sadly no recording of it is known to survive.

Kneale returned to the BBC with 'The Year of the Sex Olympics' (Theatre 625, BBC, 29/7/1968), a prophetic and trenchant satire on the increasing power of mass media that anticipated such television phenomena as Big Brother (Channel 4, 2000- ) and Celebrity Love Island (ITV, 2005- ). Although this was Kneale's first television work in colour, only a black and white copy survives. The Stone Tape, a brilliantly executed scientific ghost story, ranks amongst his very finest achievements, but was almost his final work for the BBC. After the last-minute cancellation of a new Quatermass serial and The Big, Big Giggle, about a teenage suicide cult, Kneale left the Corporation for good. Under the auspices of production executive Ted Childs, he would pen all his remaining television scripts for ITV.

Kneale's work for ITV shows an increasing shift towards a more character-based and less conceptual approach, as evidenced by the somewhat variable six-part anthology Beasts (ITV, 1976), best known for the chilling 'During Barty's Party' (tx. 23/10/1976), and 'Ladies Night', (Unnatural Causes, ITV, tx. 6/12/1986), a satire on misogyny. Its director, Herbert Wise, later worked with Kneale on the excellent period ghost story The Woman in Black (ITV, tx. 24/12/1989), taken from Susan Hill's novel. Childs finally produced the long-delayed Quatermass serial at Euston Films, not only as a four-part serial but also in a movie version (retitled The Quatermass Conclusion); Kneale also used the story as the basis for 'Quatermass', his only novel. Although lavishly produced, Quatermass (ITV, 1979) met with a somewhat muted response, perhaps because its gloomy tale of a future society in disarray was perceived as being unduly misanthropic, an accusation also levelled at Kinvig (ITV, 1981), Kneale's only sitcom, and seemingly his greatest departure.

After a disappointing Hollywood sojourn that only generated Halloween III: Season of the Witch (US, 1983), from which he had his name removed, Kneale returned to work with Ted Childs on a variety of assignments including a feature-length episode of the Napoleonic Wars swashbuckler Sharpe (ITV, 1993-97; 2006) and a four-part adaptation of Kingsley Amis's difficult late novel Stanley and the Women (ITV, 1991) that was largely successful in toning down the original's pronounced anti-feminism.

In 2005 the broadcast of a new adaptation of The Quatermass Experiment (BBC, tx. 6/4/2005) performed as a rare experiment in live TV drama served as an effective reminder of Kneale's fertility of invention and his seminal role in the development of British television.

Marcus Hearn, 'Rocket Man: The Nigel Kneale Interview', Hammer Horror (Issue 7, September 1995)
Nigel Kneale, 'Not Quite so Intimate', Sight & Sound (Volume 28, Issue 2, Spring, 1959)
Andy Murray, Into the Unknown: The Fantastic Life of Nigel Kneale (London: Headpress, 2006)
Julian Petley and Kim Newman, 'The Manxman', Monthly Film Bulletin (Issue 662, March, 1989)
Julian Petley and Kim Newman, 'Quatermass and the Pen', Video Watchdog (Issue 47, September/October 1998)
Andrew Pixley, 'Grave Situation', TVZone (Issue 106, September 1998)
Andrew Pixley, 'Something is out there, TVZone (Issue 109, December 1998)
Andrew Pixley, 'We are the Martians', TVZone (Issue 110, January 1999)
Jonathan Rigby, 'Ancient Fears: The Film and TV Nightmares of Nigel Kneale', Starburst (Issue 265, September 2000)
Paul Wells, 'Apocalypse Then' in I.Q. Hunter (editor), British Science Fiction Cinema (London: Routledge, 1999)

Sergio Angelini

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Selected credits

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The first big-screen spin-off from Nigel Kneale's legendary TV series

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Hammer horror about witchcraft in an English village

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Long lost remake of Orwell's classic dystopian nightmare

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Chilling tales on an animal theme, from the imagination of Nigel Kneale

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Post-Morse vehicle for John Thaw as an affable barrister

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England's young are at the mercy of a mysterious extraterrestrial force

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Groundbreaking sci-fi thriller about an alien invasion

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The Professor faces an alien invasion of Earth following a meteor shower

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The scientist hero confronts an ancient alien evil

Thumbnail image of Stone Tape, The (1972)Stone Tape, The (1972)

Chilling sci-fi ghost story written by Nigel Kneale

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Susan Hill ghost story about a lawyer witnessing strange apparitions

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Impressively passionate version of the Bronte classic

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Prescient drama painting a bleak portrait of future television

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